Avoidance Behavior:
“I’ve been dreading telling her about our financial problems.”

"Mr. Hole-in-One" Kevin Sorbo by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

Most people are not excited about confronting difficult situations, such as telling their partner they’ve spent too much money. Of course, the sooner they face up to it, the better. For some people, this is particularly difficult. They are ceased by fear and develop avoidance behavior, which contributes further to putting off the unpleasant task. Such avoidance behavior includes distraction, escape behavior, procrastination, and safety behavior.

Types of Avoidance Behavior

1. Distraction involves busying yourself and your mind with activities or thoughts to avoid confronting a problem — making phone calls, eating, shopping, and facebooking — basically twittering away your time.

2. Escape behavior consists of contriving a way to physically avoid an anxiety-provoking situation, such as faking an illness.

3. Procrastination means postponing action in an attempt to avoid the stress involved with taking that action — “I’ll do it tomorrow.” “I’ll do it after the holidays.”

4. Safety behavior includes self-soothing actions such as fidgeting, biting your nails, twirling your hair, or engaging in other repetitive nervous habits (or behaviors.) While safety behavior allows a person to stay physically present rather than escaping, the behavior often turns into a nervous habit preventing adequate focus to confront the situation.

Avoidance Intensifies Anxiety

Avoidance behavior can usually be traced back to a child’s adaptive response to avoid anxiety caused by his or her environment. Such responses may eventually become automatic responses, which are often self-defeating and worsen the dreaded situation.

Specifically, if you don’t talk about what’s going on with your finances, the situation will get worse the longer you wait. This will make having the conversation even more difficult.

Paradoxically, when you avoid what you fear, your fear grows. If you’re afraid of your partner’s reactions, you intensify your own fear by avoiding facing it. If you avoid difficult conversations because you’re afraid of someone’s reaction, your fear will become worse than the potential reaction.

Avoidance behavior may seem to reduce your fear, but it actually causes you to intensify your avoidance behavior, compounding the problem. Any kind of avoidance behavior activates the amygdala, which intensifies your anxiety, and causes you to focus on that dreaded conversation even more. This in turn gets you into a cycle of obsessive worry. Worry and the associated anticipation of danger cause you to experience fear about experiencing fear, compounding anxiety with unnecessary anxiety.

Changing Avoidance Behavior

In order to truly diminish anxiety over the long-term, you need to get acclimated to that which is causing you anxiety. You have to start by having that conversation immediately. You’ll feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, and you’ll have much less agitation and worry.

With repeated “exposure” to what you’re afraid of — having those difficult conversations as soon as they come up — you curb those ineffective avoidance habits, which compound your anxiety. Repeatedly handling dreaded situations promptly will cause the amygdala to dissociate the dreaded situation from fear. Dread will transform into calm and responsible self-determination.

Difficult Conversations

When approaching a difficult conversation, rehearse what you will say without exuding aggressiveness or meekness. It’s best to use a neutral tone of voice, to briefly express your feelings and desires, and to stick to the facts.

Examples:

“I’ve been afraid to talk to you because I’m embarrassed about some mistakes I’ve made. I spent too much money last month, and now don’t have enough to pay for the mortgage. I hope you can help me figure this out.”

“I wish we didn’t have to curtail our spending. I would love it if we could have these things. But I’ve been losing sleep worrying about cutting things too close. Unfortunately, during these tough times, we need to save as much as possible.”

Figure out what you need to do and focus single-mindedly on moving forward without distraction and without delay. Repeatedly handling these necessary anxiety-provoking situations will tame your amygdala, with the result that your anxiety over difficult discussions should diminish with each experience.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Reference: Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life by John B. Arden

Read “Fears and Phobias: ‘I avoid going out in public because I don’t like talking to strangers.’”

Read “When friends ask me to go out to eat, I’m embarrassed that I can’t afford to right now.”

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10 thoughts on “Avoidance Behavior:
“I’ve been dreading telling her about our financial problems.”

  1. Leona

    Thank you for explaining the types of avoidant behaviour. I thought I was procrastinating but see now it is procrastination that comes from avoidance. Very helpful to see that avoidance makes it worse! You are right about the calm that comes from just dealing with issues. This was very helpful!

    Reply
  2. Lisa

    My husband is a checked out, avoidant procrastinator. I believe that this is a learned behavior started in early childhood. He grew up with little expectation being placed on him. He learned that playing helpless or incompetent was a quick remedy to get out of something. Sadly, it followed him into adulthood. He has learned that the reward to inaction, despite the frustration he causes others, the pay off of looking bad is less than the reward to getting out of something. This is also a deep seed of his low self esteem and frequent struggles with everyday things. He knows his own children do not respect him. And while this makes him feel bad, the reward of controlling being able to avoid things is of greater value to him. He knows he is emotionally sick and he does not care. I have learned to value life apart from him in many ways—its too toxic for me. I accept he is a warped person and adapt accordingly. If I need it done, I do it. I have learned to lower my expectations of him. He still struggles and I have the satisfaction of getting things accomplished, my children look up to and respect me, life runs smoothly. He has to look in the mirror and deal with the law of reciprocity. My children have witnessed first hand the power of this human dance…doing what is needed over what you want to do. As a caveat to this drama, his mother takes things from my home when she visits and he is aware of it. She loves my little kitchen gadgets…I simply replace them with his money! LOL! People can be so perplexing and ridiculous! LOL!

    Reply
    1. Alison Post author

      Hi, That is a very sad situation. I’m glad your children respect you and have one parent who gets things done. I am not advocating separation or divorce, but I wonder why you stay with him. It must be very lonely and discouraging to live with your husband. What are you getting out of it? Is it worth it?

      Reply
      1. Anita

        I am in a similar situation and very low. I found out husband was overspending, taking money from our pot and making high risk investments without my knowledge. As a result he has lost thousands in less than a year. He actually gets mad at me or avoids discussing moving forward on this. He runs away from problems even when he is the reason behind the problem. He ignores me. Changes the subject or bullies me. His family don’t want to know. He is very charismatic and supporting to others just not me. I’m living on eggshells. In fear of his bullying I have also become an avoider as I don’t want him shouting at me for no reason. I have 2 kids and worry for them due to his less than helpful behaviour. He is such a bad role model yet can you believe, educated at top universities and smart. I feel he is actually very crafty and knows exactly what he is doing. It’s disturbing. Can people like this ever grow/ change? Or am I better off divorcing? Very sad, confused and demoralised.

        Reply
        1. Alison Post author

          I am terribly sorry to hear about the situation you are in, particularly given that you have two children. You know that as his wife you are liable for his debts. People do make mistakes. But this does not sound like a mistake he is willing to admit to and rectify. Since he is not apologetic, respectful and willing to deal with his gambling problem, which is basically what this is, and moreover, he is frightening and bullying you, you must act very wisely to protect yourself and your children to get out of this situation.

          His top university education will not make his a decent and loving father and husband. Given that he is crafty, bullying, and charismatic, yet does not admit to fault, he seems to have some narcissistic traits, in which case you want to avoid attacking him. You might read my article on dealing with a narcisssist: https://www.sowhatireallymeant.com/2011/05/27/narcissism-part-5-of-5-%e2%80%9cthink-about-how-i-feel-%e2%80%9d-7-points-to-dealing-with-a-narcissist/ or read all five parts of it. Given the little that you’ve said, he is unlikely to change.

          You might see if he’s willing to see a counselor. If not, get some good legal advice, and take action to protect yourself. Good luck. Life will become much better once you are not living in fear.

          Alison

          Reply
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