When I was little my dad was a rageaholic and an alcoholic. And I learned to run and hide. Sometimes as an adult this is still my reaction to conflict. I’m a chronic avoider and it’s hurting me and my relationships. The coping mechanism that served me when I was 5 no longer works, it actually makes things worse. And sometimes, even when I know I’m doing it I can’t stop myself. Later I can look back and see the foolishness of my non-action, and if I really examine the behavior I can begin the process of undoing my childhood trauma and become a better adult. That’s my theory, anyway, and I’m ready to explore it.
Avoidance can show up in my life in the simplest of ways. Like sometimes I don’t open my mail for a week. If it’s from the IRS or my insurance provider, I might go longer. But it’s not working for me, it’s actually doing self-harm as I worry about what the IRS wants. Turns out it was a letter letting me know my tax refund was once again being delivered to my ex-wife for child support. Oh joy. Not bad considering I was sure it was an audit. A simple act of opening the letter would’ve spared me a week of pointless worry. That’s how it starts. That’s a little sign of my dysfunction.
At work, this type of behavior has actually caused a lot of chaos and worry. It’s not really procrastination as much as it’s fear of hurting someone’s feelings, asking them to stay late, holding them accountable for delivering on a project. It’s called conflict avoidance. And while I am a people pleaser at heart, this is more about my fear, my worry, and my avoidance. It never helps and always makes my job harder. I try to toughen up, I try to get more organized and still I find myself avoiding unpleasant conversations, unpleasant tasks, and the unpleasant task of managing other people. You can see how this might be a problem.
In relationships the stakes are even higher. Love is the emotion I crave, perhaps to an unhealthy extent, but I’m willing to roll with that. The avoidance that comes along with always trying to keep your partner happy, now that’s another story. And a big problem for me. If I can blow off the conflict by not responding, sure I don’t get in a fight, but really I’m giving up my part of the argument before it begins. I’m lessening myself worth in some way so the other person gets their way and remains happy with me. This is a formula for disaster.
What other ways to I avoid things? Setting up dental appointments is always a struggle. Paying bills never comes first, heck I used to leave letters in the mailbox for days. And then I met someone who was exactly the opposite. She attacked the mailbox, the bills, the chores, the unpleasant discussions. I was in awe. I was also pretty shut down by her direct action. I admired her, I was amazed at her energy and resolve to just “do what needed to be done.” Whether she wanted to or not. She was never lazy. And she was rarely avoidant.
So I’m looking at my avoidance with a more clear perspective. It’s not a flaw in me or my personality. It’s something that I learned at a very early age that I also need to unlearn. I need to be a bit more like my friend and just do things. Like take out the trash when the bin is full. And here’s the kicker: without being asked. Filling up the water filter in the fridge. Changing the air filters. It’s not that I mind doing the tasks, I just tend to not do them when I see they need doing. I tend to think, “Oh I’ll do that in the morning.” Not my friend. Not ever. She just does the dishes at 10 pm even when she’s tired and would rather get in bed. She just does stuff. I just avoid doing stuff.
Now I have a saying I use when I feel myself doing this. “Just do the right thing. And do it now.” It works well with chores and minor tasks. It’s a bit more complicated with relationship discussions or opening the IRS envelope. It’s a trait that I’m learning how to unlearn. Avoidance never makes things better, in fact, it causes me to worry and ruminate over all the possible awful outcomes. Those worries are better confronted in the moment. Open the bill, open the letter, tell someone they are hurting your feelings. I’m getting there. But it’s not a linear process. While I know this information well, I’m still avoidant.
I could be mad at myself for this behavior. I could beat myself up, and do, when I finally open the letter and realize all that worry was just wasted precious time. A lot of time not being fully present. Sometimes it gets so bad I freeze up and stop communicating at all. And that’s when things get really bad. But I do recover. I am conscious of when I’m avoiding. I still do it, but I’m doing it less. And I’m learning to take the uncomfortable feelings or worry by the horns and looking the damn bull in the eye and saying, “To hell with you, fear, I’m going in!”
What kinds of things do you avoid?
More from The Whole Parent
- Displacement: A Single-Parenting Love Story
- Little Ghosts Still Flutter My Heart: a Depression Story
- Grief is Underneath: A Divorce Fable
- Followed by the Black Dog (of depression)
- When I Stopped Believing – And Started Growing Up
- There’s Something Missing
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