Understanding Emotional Avoidance Behavior – Step 5 (slide set 2)

**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

In conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) there are many different ways that the condition can manifest itself behaviorally. Recall that much of the purpose of emotional avoidance behavior is to DO SOMETHING that works, even if only temporarily, to avoid emotions that are not yet tolerable. Also recall that whenever an emotional avoidance behavior is used, there is usually some sort of experienced emotional consequence afterwards, so in reality an emotional challenge still remains. The slides in this set include other possible avenues of emotional avoidance a person might attempt to use prior to becoming more self-aware.

In the world that we live in, with so many products and activities available that can be used to experience thrills and pleasure, impulsively using these products and activities can be extremely common. The short-term benefit of activating these types of pleasure feelings may be to experience “a break” from other difficult emotions, but the long-term consequences can be harsh and costly (e.g., guilt, shame, relationship problems, financial problems). And because consumption of pleasure-inducing products and seeking out thrills can be so common to many people, it can be difficult to determine when these things are being used primarily to avoid taking emotional responsibility. In other words, it is quite possible to hide the real reasons behind your behavior, sometimes even until it kills you.

Indeed, one of the saddest realities about trying to learn emotional mastery in a world that continually tries to get you “hooked” on their products, is that any progress you make can easily be undermined/sabotaged through your participation as a consumer. It can be so easy to give up on honestly facing difficult emotions when you are constantly bombarded by marketing strategies and products designed specifically to “make your life more enjoyable and easier”. In other words, it would seem that “the companies” (so many of them) are trying to convince you to “keep getting high” off their products, and so you don’t need to do anything else to be OK except continue being a consumer. Hopefully you are starting to see how “insanity-inducing” this actually can be!

Another more subtle avenue of emotional avoidance behavior, although still very common, is to unrealistically attempt to anticipate anything that might become a problem in the future. The lived experience of attempting to do this is to have what people describe as “scattered/racing thoughts”… many concerns apparently going through a person’s mind in rapid succession, but most of them rarely (if ever) getting resolved. It feels overwhelming and exhausting to the human who tries to pull this off, and usually also results in making more task errors and forgetting things.

I quite often see this pattern in people who are very sensitive to guilt and shame feelings, and who I would suspect were frequently critiqued by perfectionistic parents (or partners) for many years. The associated self-defeating belief may be that “it is not ok to make mistakes”, or that “people will leave me if I let them down”. In cases of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) it is common to experience fears of abandonment, and so it makes sense that trying to control this kind of feared outcome through these types of behavior might happen.

The popular idea of being “a multi-tasker” also has some relation to falling into this scattered/racing mind pattern. Modern societies often unrealistically promote the idea that a humans can complete multiple tasks at once, that it is possible to do so using modern technology, and that it is admirable to aspire to. The reality is that humans can only ever do one thing at a time, although we can make it appear to ourselves and others that we are in fact “multi-tasking”. Again, the goal here is probably related to attempting to avoid frustrated/irritated responses from people (and guilt/shame feelings), and likewise to pretend there is complete safety from abandonment.

When there is a sensitivity to rejection feelings or fears of abandonment, it is common for people to engage in people pleasing behaviours. The idea here is to keep others from reacting in unwanted ways through ongoing attempts at appeasing them and sacrificing for them to make their life easier. If the unwanted reactions happen, it might become hard for a person with BPD to not misinterpret the reaction as meaning “rejection” or “abandonment”, for instance. Taking this route involves giving up your personal power and staying away from acting or speaking assertively.

The problem with people pleasing is that it is tiring work and has a tendency to produce feelings of resentment when the “pleasing behaviour” doesn’t seem to go both ways in a relationship. Nonetheless, it can be a hard habit to break when the benefit of doing it seems to reduce the chances of experiencing rejection or abandonment from others. In conditions like BPD, some emotions are harder to deal with than other emotions, and this difference in difficulty may dictate which emotional avoidance behaviours are chosen for use.

Desiring (or demanding) an unrealistic amount of control over environments and people is yet another avenue of behaviour used to avoid experiencing emotions that are hard to tolerate. This type of behaviour can range from more or less passive attempts to exert control to extreme micromanaging how objects are arranged and how people speak or move. Trying to be in relationships and share living space can be very difficult when there is limited flexibility or unreasonable demands for control. However, when a person has not yet developed a way to tolerate and process difficult emotions, it may seem like there is no other way of remaining secure.

The sad reality about all of these emotional avoidance behaviours is that they are often used regardless of the consequences that they might produce. The consequences, for instance, could include losing significant relationships and being unable to function in many types of life situations (e.g., work environments, home environments, family gatherings, community settings, etc.). As a result, life might get more complicated or stressful, or alternatively a person’s “world might get smaller and smaller” as relationships can’t be sustained and problems can’t get solved. In conditions like Borderline Personality Disorder, it therefore becomes understandable that a person could become more and more desperate to feel safe and secure, or even experience the urge to give up on life, since actually feeling safe and secure seems to be so impossible.