In 2019 — honestly, where does the time go? — I wrote a story about a letter that I had been avoiding for the previous decade.
No, the letter was not the remnant of a forlorn love affair. It wasn’t a relic of the past that I was afraid to open, or whose contents haunted me daily. It was, however, a piece of important medical advice that I had been given (simply to be tested for a congenital condition) and had neglected to follow for quite a while thereafter.
When I finally decided to follow the letter’s advice, I sat down to reflect on that drawn-out experience.
Why, exactly, did I avoid following the advice in the letter, for so long?
You may wonder why this question was of such interest to me.
Across my 15ish-year journey—from politico to aspiring author to writer and yoga teacher to coach and speaker, and now to podcaster and future mental health counselor—my life’s work has revolved around intricately examining the invisible “story forces” that have shaped the world around us, and the worldviews that we carry within us.
You could say that I’ve been living a lifelong love affair getting to know the many subtle and unseen ideas, beliefs, and conceptions that create the vast, diverse internal landscape that we call our lives.
And back in 2019, the idea that fascinated me the most was this: avoidance.
Those years ago, my work was subsumed by all things avoidance.
I had been working with a literary agent on a book proposal about writers’ relationships to their craft through the lens of avoidance. I had this working theory (it still holds up) that what writers avoid the most reveals a very pathway for transformative learning and lasting growth in their creative and expressive journeys.
My coaching work with writers also helped clients transcend their struggles and find newfound refuge in their writing and creative work by understanding the core, emotional discomfort at the root of their anguish with writing; how deeply human experiences like guilt, fear, shame, and grief emerge through our deepest dreams and aspirations.
And finally, as a student of my own personal development for years, I had firsthand experience with how powerful it could be to “face” what I was avoiding, rather than continuing to avoid it. Deep and lasting lessons and meaningful growth would almost always result.
Given that, on most days, I was asking questions like, “Why do we avoid what we avoid? What do we have to learn from what we’re avoiding, at any given moment?”, you can see why I was so intrigued to understand why I was guilty of avoiding that letter for nearly a decade back in 2019.
Fast-forward to 2023.
As I now enter into my final academic year of graduate school—I’ve been full-time since the fall of 2021—and as I start an internship in the counseling services center at a top liberal arts college this week, I have had the part-wonderful, part-daunting experience of relitigating many of the personal development subjects and psychology ideas that I have written about, practiced, explored, and even coached people around, across the last 15 or so years.
Along the way, I’ve been asking myself questions like, “How much did I really know about that subject or topic?”
I’ve also been wondering, “How much does the advice I had been giving to others hold up today?”
In the weeks and months ahead, I will be looking back at a variety of topics, ideas, and stories that I’ve written about across the years. My goal is to scrutinize my own past advice, amend what I may have gotten wrong, disclose where I now see my own biases and projections, and, most importantly, offer you some worthwhile insights, lessons, and stories that I hope can help you thrive, starting now.
Today, the question I’m tackling is, “How much about avoidance did I really understand?”
I used to think of avoidance as simply the act or experience of… avoiding something. Simple enough, right?
The fact that we avoid things is pretty clear and straightforward. But when it came down to why we avoided what we avoided, I found the answer was always a bit more challenging to understand.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), avoidance is “the practice or an instance of keeping away from particular situations, environments, individuals, or things” because of “anticipated negative consequence” or “anxious or painful feelings” associated with whatever it is that we’re avoiding.
The APA suggests there are two key reasons why we may avoid what we’re avoiding:
- The idea of the thing that we’re avoiding makes us feel enough anxiety, discomfort, or pain for us to avoid encountering it or dealing with it
- Part of us feels that the consequences, outcomes, or results from actually encountering or dealing with the thing that we’re avoiding makes us afraid, anxious, uncertain, or uncomfortable, so we’d rather just keep avoiding it
In other words, we avoid because of the direct experience of discomfort, and we avoid because of the potential negative consequences that we sense, fear, or perceive may result from the thing that we’re avoiding.
Let’s now recall the letter that I was avoiding all those years ago.
Me, I think that I was guilty of avoiding the advice of that letter for both of these APA-defined reasons.
First, I was uncomfortable with the idea that I may have inherited a congenital medical condition. I didn’t want to believe it was true—I didn’t want to believe it could be true.
One of the greatest deceptions of youth is feeling as if we’re invincible: impervious to injury, fallibility, or loss. And when we’re young, very lucky (genetically) and exceptionally privileged (financially, environmentally, socially, and so on), the idea that something may be inherently “wrong” with your health blows apart all of the fragile illusions regarding your lawlessness.
(I’d rather pretend I could live in perfect health forever, thank you very much!)
And second, I think I was also uncomfortable and uncertain regarding the consequences of what I could learn if I heeded the advice of the letter.
What could the results say? What might it mean for me? For my daily life, moving forward? For my future?
Oftentimes, the unknown can be one of the greatest sources of anxiety in our lives. And, having no semblance of an understanding of what this medical condition could mean to me or my sense of “normalcy” was itself another great source of anxiety for me as a 20-something. I can imagine myself naively saying,
“Don’t I deserve to live my full and best life for as long as possible?’
As human beings, we are all going to experience avoidance.
But what we avoid, and the particular reasons why we avoid it, are not one-size-fits-all.
Who we are, what cultural and identity experiences have shaped us, at what stage of life we are in, and more, all have an influence in shaping who we are, what we may be avoiding, and why avoiding it feels like a better, safer, or more sure option than facing what makes us so uncomfortable, afraid, or anxious.
In life, our subjective, individual experiences will vary from person to person.
For you, opening a letter or following a piece of medical advice may be the very last thing that would stir up your avoidance.
But for me, across a decade, I felt safer and more comfortable hiding behind a naive and youthful illusion—that I was impervious to a condition that I simply preferred to not be true.
I learned through this experience about my privilege as a lucky and healthy person who had access to the highest quality of healthcare throughout my life—so much so, that I took health and wellness for granted, as if I was entitled to always feeling perfect, all the time.
There are still times, to this day, when I think back to things, people, places, or ideas that I spent years and years avoiding.
But the letter was just one of many examples.
Oftentimes, I feel frustrated or resentful or regretful at my “past self” for not confronting what he was avoiding sooner. But is that really the right way to be?
One way that I reframe these feelings is by asking myself, “If I heard a client say this in coaching or in therapy, what would I feel? What would I say to them?”
I might use some empathic challenging to say, “Hey, you were doing the best you could at the time! Just like we all are. You can’t know what you don’t know until you realize that you don’t know it. Maybe you should be a bit more compassionate to your younger self?”
I’d prefer to look back at my younger self with that compassion and understanding, too.
Today, I try to remind myself that the younger version of me was doing the best he could with the resources and experience that he had available to me.
Sure, I wish he could have known more or done more or been “better,” especially if today’s me could reap the rewards.
Do you ever do the same?
If so, here’s a thought to really make your head spin.
We are, today, also “younger versions” of ourselves from the vantage point of our future selves.
We are, today, the younger person whom we will someday look back upon—and maybe judge, and hopefully hold in compassion and understanding for all that we have yet to know, understand, or experience.
With the support available to you (I hope there are many), we all deserve the opportunity to learn and grow through the things in life that we are avoiding.
(*Saying that with this caveat: you should never feel any pressure to face what you’re avoiding if you’re not ready to confront it, learn from it, or deal with it. Because, it’s true, when we face what we’re avoiding, the consequences can be real. We may drum up old, repressed memories; we may feel a true spike of stress and anxiety; we may beat ourselves up for “rocking the boat” or “making it worse” when we were trying to do right by ourselves.)
What stands on the other side of temporary but real anxiety and discomfort may be a gift for continued learning and growth; more freedom, more truth, more of a genuine and authentic relationship with yourself, and life, and others around you.
Today, I try to remind myself that my life today is, in some ways, an investment in who I am tomorrow. I try to summon the courage to face what it is that I might rather avoid, if my future self—even the “me” of tomorrow, or just an hour from now!—is a benefactor.
Sure, I might rather avoid it because it makes me uncomfortable, uncertain, or anxious.
Sure, I might rather avoid it because I am afraid of the consequences (even if the consequences are almost never as bad or scary as we make them out to be).
I still will avoid plenty in my life. I’ll only ever be human, after all.
And yet, my avoidance remains a fascinating and engaging lens to view myself and learn about the truth of my experience.
For that, I remain thoroughly grateful.
Today, just as I did years ago, I see avoidance as one of many potential inlets into the ocean of our innermost selves. I still believe that avoidance can really be a helpful shortcut to knowing some invisible aspects of our behaviors, our emotional world, or our past conditioning.
By examining even a single expression of our own avoidance — like me with my letter — we may find an opportunity to discover far more about ourselves and our inner world.
What, I wonder, has your avoidance taught you?