Understanding Emotional Avoidance Behavior – Step 5 (slide set 1)

**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. Any uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

Author: Peter Miller

When you don’t understand, or can’t tolerate, some (or much) of your emotional experience then chances are high that you will develop “emotional avoidance behaviors” – things that you do to avoid people and situations that tend influence the way you think and feel. You will find several examples of these emotional avoidance behaviors here in step 5, including how they may be commonly used to escape emotional challenges. You will also notice that I make a connection between emotional avoidance behaviors and self-defeating beliefs (SDB’s). In my understanding of psychology and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), I recognize that the beliefs we hold about ourselves, others, and the world, can very much dictate how we tend to automatically think and feel, and act. Recall that self-defeating beliefs are established as ways of helping us feel safe and secure when we don’t have any other ways yet developed to maintain a sense of inner security/stability (see Step 4).

I would say it is entirely possible to design an entire life (and lifestyle) around avoiding feeling states that are not tolerable, even if those feeling states hold important purposes for how humans can work together and connect. In other words, if all a person knows is his or her self-defeating beliefs and does not have an ability developed “to notice feeling” and likewise ” to work through feeling”, then every action taken will in some shape or form be about avoiding feeling. Avoiding feeling even gets automatically prioritized over (for instance) open communication or effective listening. People cling so strongly to their established SDB’s, and yet, still expect to experience satisfaction in their relationships and have all their needs met.

When the SDB’s don’t produce the results a person desires and he naturally then experiences disappointment, frustration or confusion, then ways to avoid these emotions will quite likely also be employed. Patterns of ineffective avoidance behavior eventually results in all sorts of undesirable life consequences, but without learning how to manage emotions skillfully the avoidance will continue – perhaps even taking on more and more destructive forms. On the other hand when SDB’s seem to work for a person (at least temporarily), for instance in life situations where other people are willing to put up with these kinds of patterns, then the SDB’s and accompanying emotional avoidance urges may, unfortunately, get reinforced.

The reason I use the word “maladaptive” when describing emotional avoidance behaviors is that because, in some situations, it may make sense to avoid something, while in other situations facing/working through challenging emotions would be a better approach. For instance, if a situation contains a real threat that could potentially result in being harmed instead of just being emotionally challenged because of ongoing exposure, then it would make sense to find an escape route. An example of this might be working with someone who is abusive (emotionally, psychologically, or physically) and then deciding to leave the situation if the abusive actions do not stop. On the other hand if working with someone who had no intention to abuse, but still had some quirks in personality or behaviors that were annoying and could be misinterpreted, then facing the emotional challenge might be more functional (i.e., you would keep the job you might need).

The main type of avoidance behaviors we are concerned with when it comes to mental health conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder are the “maladaptive” type. And please keep in mind that whenever a maladaptive avoidance behavior is used, there is almost always an emotional consequence related to certain need areas not being met. So in other words, whenever we avoid something challenging we may simultaneously be sacrificing something important. The remaining slides in step 5 are intended to portray these different types of maladaptive avoidance bahaviors, and what the possible consequences of using them may be.

One of the most common forms of maladaptive avoidance behaviors is to retreat from life situations or isolate oneself from others. People often do this when they are concerned about how they might experience interactions with others, or how certain environments will influence how they feel. While avoiding interactions and environments may permit a temporary escape of emotional experience and any associated anxiety, it will most likely also rob a person of satisfaction and fulfillment that can’t be obtained any other way.

Another very common form of maladaptive avoidance behaviour is to become angry, irritable, defensive, or raging. So in other words, instead of honestly working through challenging emotions that would be relevant to a particular situation, a person instead becomes “angry at” whatever he perceives is “the source” of the emotions he can’t tolerate. For instance, if while discussing politics with others and there are varying opinions, debates, or disagreements, it may just happen that a person feels “defeated” or “attacked” or “stupid”. When there is no way yet developed to notice, tolerate, and process these types of emotions, becoming angry and using fighting words might be used to “fight off” the emotions.

As you can probably imagine, or maybe have experienced for yourself, many unfortunate and harmful things can be said (and done) in moments when this type of avoidance behavior gets used. These are often the times when a person may be consumed with feelings of “guilt” or “shame” because he hurt someone he loves, or otherwise acted in ways that are not in accordance with the values and morals he holds. Another common emotion that gets experienced in the aftermath of this type of avoidance behaviour is “regret”, since in many cases these types of behaviors can result in losing relationships or other opportunities, and being punished in some way by authorities.

While going about daily life, it is a very regular occurrence for people to be “wearing a mask” or “acting socially appropriate”. In other words, it is common to be “playing a role” or “just saying whatever it seems people want to hear” instead of being open and transparent about real feelings happening inside. And yes, it may be necessary in some situations to not discuss or express challenging emotions, otherwise the energy and attention needed to accomplish important tasks might not be available.

This pattern of avoidance becomes more of a problem when it gets “overused”, or when it is used to avoid “bothering others” when emotions are being experienced – for instance in an abusive relationship and the abusive partner reacts with anger to any open/honest expression of emotion. Sometimes a person may “just not like” working through real feelings, and so instead of honestly expressing how he feels, he chooses to change the subject or simply lie. The benefit of using this strategy is short-term relief from unwanted emotions and the experience of being vulnerable.

A consequence of rarely (or never) taking the time “to be real” about what emotions are being experienced is loneliness. Another consequence of not being open and honest about real thoughts and feelings is to NOT discover rational ways of thinking and feeling about many life situations, and therefore to hold on to many thoughts and feelings that induce suffering. Sometimes people choose to remain closed off because whenever they have attempted to be open with those in their life, it has been met with unhelpful responses (e.g., invalidating). Nonetheless, in the absense of being open and honest about emotions, the satisfaction that could have been experienced through sharing and human connectedness gets lost.