Many of us are familiar with the painful pattern of engaging in certain behaviors while simultaneously recognizing that those behaviors are not to our benefit.
We experience ourselves as innocent bystanders, helplessly watching the train that is our self-sabotage rip by us, immune and indifferent to our muffled pleas for it to stop.
The solution that we are given – “just don’t do it anymore!” – is, to our despair, more difficult than it sounds. Furthermore, our futile efforts to avoid the behavior only serve to add fuel to the fire that is our self-aggression.
Clearly, we are in need of a new perspective:
I suggest we investigate the possibility that we are maintaining the behaviors as ritualized avoidance strategies.
In other words, we continue to “find ourselves” participating in the unhelpful, harmful behaviors because they serve the function of protecting against deeper vulnerabilities.
- When I smother my girlfriend even though she has requested space, I am engaging in behavior that is likely to push her away, but I am (temporarily) avoiding the painful vulnerability of abandonment
- When I pick up another cigarette, even though I promised myself that I wouldn’t, I am avoiding the disturbing vulnerability of my own loneliness
- When I continue to binge watch TV shows after declaring that I would work on my homework, I am avoiding my own anxiety and fear of failure
- When I repeatedly let my kids off the hook for breaking rules that I claim to be important, I am avoiding my own guilt and feelings of being a bad parent
In each example, I engage in behaviors that I have “sworn off”. And I do so in order to avoid the deeper, more painful vulnerability underneath. This is what is meant by an “avoidance strategy”.
The solution to this dilemma is found in the willingness to experience our vulnerabilities and to consciously participate in our worst fears. Until we do that, we have to find ways to avoid them. Perhaps we overcome one painful pattern of behavior only to replace it with another.
As we do the work of participating in our vulnerability, we gradually gain the confidence of “so what?”
So what if I feel abandoned or lonely or anxious or guilty? So what if I feel like a failure or inadequate or unworthy of love?
These are just feelings. And feelings are not reliable interpretations of reality. I can feel something with incredibly intensity and that doesn’t make it true. As we let feelings move through us, we may find no evidence that they are harming or damaging us. No evidence that they are destroying our reputation or rendering us incapacitated.
It is this willingness to sit through the intensity of our deepest vulnerabilities that allows us to become free from the painful patterns of our past.
We feel the feelings again and again and we learn that they are not going to kill us. Over time, this practice frees us from the compulsion of the avoidance strategy.