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How to Exit the Roundabout of Experiential Avoidance

Most everyone avoids discomfort but sometimes avoiding makes things worse.

Key points

  • When engaged in experiential avoidance, you go around and around in a circle only to ultimately arrive nowhere.
  • We need to think less, wait less, and act more.
  • It is empowering and freeing to choose pain as opposed to it being chosen for you.

There’s a folder on my desktop called “stuff to file someday.” I created it when I was overwhelmed by unfiled documents. I thought if I put them in a folder, I wouldn’t have to feel stressed every time I open my computer. There’s only one problem: I keep adding to it. Instead of feeling relief that I now have a clean desktop, I now feel dread that I have created a folder with “stuff to file someday” that I will need to open (but not today!).

I imagine you can relate because most everyone avoids discomfort. But sometimes avoiding makes things worse. Experiential avoidance is when we try to control difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and in doing so we suffer more.

Here are some common experiential avoidance strategies. Which ones are your go-to’s? I “starred” mine.

*Striving: Staying busy, over-achieving, perfectionism

*Numbing: Using substances, eating, restricting food, drinking, over-exercising

*Bracing: Tensing your body, holding your breath, tightening your belly, clenching your teeth

*Distracting: Fantasizing, trying not to think, overusing technology, multitasking

*Giving-up: opting out, leaving early, not signing up, isolating, sleeping too much

*Rushing Through: speeding-up, overdoing, talking fast, striving

*Overthinking: over-analyzing, problem-solving, intellectualizing

*Procrastinating: Making folders within folders on your desktop

Experiential avoidance is a frustrating roundabout. Just like Chevy Chase in the movie European Vacation, you go around and around in a circle only to ultimately arrive nowhere. Why?

  1. Experiential avoidance is a short-term solution. Until you resolve the issue, whatever you’re avoiding tends to come back
  2. Turning away from discomfort can also involve turning away from important aspects of your life

Avoiding a file on my desktop is just a minor example. Here are some others that can result in bigger problems:

  • Not engaging in meaningful conversations to avoid feelings of intimacy
  • Procrastinating an important life goal to avoid feelings of inadequacy
  • Overusing substances to avoid feelings of loss or grief
  • Not setting boundaries with a family member to avoid feelings of guilt

So what can we do when we notice we are caught in an emotional avoidance roundabout?

  1. Name your roundabout. Naming your experiential avoidance roundabout helps you non-judgmentally spot your pattern when it shows up. I learned this tip from ACT Matrix expert Benji Schoendorff when he asked me to name mine. For example, when I get caught in overachieving to avoid feelings of “not good enoughness," I say, “Here I am, caught in my striving cycle.” If no one is around, it helps to say it out loud.
  2. Identify Your Reason to Exit. Like any roundabout, it’s easier to stay on then get off. But there is a reason why you exit: so you can get to other streets and reach your destination. Going around and around may be easier, but it prevents you from living life fully. Take time to consider why you would want to exit your roundabout of avoidance. What would exiting offer you? What roads would you want to travel but don’t because you are stuck in this cycle?
  3. Choose the Avoided Exit Ramp. There are many paradoxes in psychology. One is that when you choose discomfort, you are less likely to suffer. Choosing to exit the roundabout of avoidance will likely involve facing some discomfort and pain. It is empowering and freeing to choose pain as opposed to it being chosen for you. Paul Bloom, Yale professor and author of The Sweet Spot, writes that there is value in chosen pain. Choosing pain can help us transcend ourselves, reach our goals, and find mastery and meaning. What pain are you willing to accept in order to exit your roundabout of suffering?
  4. Make the Move. Motivation comes in waves and we can’t rely on our easily-depleted willpower to make meaningful change. Instead, we need to think less, wait less, and act more. What is one small behavior change you can make today that points you in the direction of acceptance, courage, and willingness? Let your heart guide your hands and feet, and savor the feeling of building a rich and meaningful life.

To learn more about unhooking from experiential avoidance, click here.

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