Understanding Experiential Avoidance

Experiential avoidance is so common to everyone experiencing career paralysis and yet so unheard of that it needs some closer attention.  Here’s the formal definition:

Attempts to avoid thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences even when doing so creates harm in the long-run“.  Hayes, Strosahl, Wilson, 1999.

Why would humans do that?  The desire to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions is a byproduct of the symbolic properties of language.  Language teaches us to substitute a ‘real’ event for a mental event, and in so doing to treat the mental event as real.  Just as we learned to avoid lions on the Savanna plain, so we learned to avoid the fear of lions.  Fear gave us the message – time to move.  This makes sense when fearing for our lives, but today few of us are running from lions.  At least where I live.

That’s the problem with language.  It has a tendency to generalise to other contexts and this means we start to avoid not just fear in some contexts but ‘negative’ thoughts and emotions in many different contexts.  This is a problem because negative thoughts and emotions apply particularly in areas we care most about. Therefore, if we try to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions we risk having to avoid the things we care most about.  Ironically, the harder we try to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions, the more powerful they become.  So avoiding anxiety tends to make anxiety more important, not less.  This leads to a paradoxical effect, where language has the capacity to reduce physical threats but to increase our psychological pain.

As Wilson et al. (2001) say:

The paradox is…that a species that has the fewest contacts with direct sources of pain…through language is able to suffer with a degree of intensity, constancy and pervasiveness that is literally unimaginable in the nonhuman world.  We can judge ourselves and find ourselves to be wanting; we can imagine ideals and find the present unacceptable by comparison; we can worry about imagined futures; we can suffer with the knowledge that we will die.

This is where experiential avoidance comes in.  Humans are tempted to try and avoid negative thoughts and emotions wherever they occur.  And this is a strategy which can work extremely  well in some contexts. For example, having a drink at a party is a common way of feeling less nervous  – that’s experiential avoidance.  But it can also interfere with more important aspects of life.  For example:

  • Putting off an important task because of the discomfort it evokes.
  • Not taking advantage of an important opportunity to avoid feelings of failure.
  • Not engaging in exercise due to the effort it demands.
  • Avoiding social gatherings because of the anxiety it leads to.
  • Inability to sustain close relationships to avoid feelings of vulnerability.
  • Staying in a bad relationship to avoid potential feelings of loneliness from breaking up.
  • Staying in a career you hate to avoid the feelings of doubt which come from looking at alternatives.

So what can we do to beat experiential avoidance?  Well, that’s for another post.  But for now, it might be best to think about a different goal.  Instead of wanting to ‘feel better’, perhaps we could be willing to feel better?  The thoughts and emotions we are avoiding tell us they are the same thing as a bear.  Language has taught us to act as if that were so.

But language is no more than a tool, and it is time to put the tool back in its box.

Career Change, Career Development, Developing Coaches - ACT Training, Getting Unstuck coaching

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