When Does Avoidance Become Self-Care?

Nobody wants to be avoidant. It’s not something that you list in
your CV as a remarkable quality or personality trait because it signals
that you are not dealing with the issues you should be dealing with.
You are not addressing the unpleasant or even painful aspects of your
life – and probably life in general!

However, avoidance is not something a bunch of avoidant people came
up with to legalise avoidance. It’s a human condition to assure
survival and the integrity of one’s body and mind.  That’s why we don’t
walk on hot coals every day – unless we want to demonstrate to our self
and others that we are capable of great courage and can overcome our
fears.

When working with traumatised clients (either through child abuse,
sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect) that is exactly what we needs
to be understood. Traumatised clients who come to their therapy session
are exposing themselves each time to the possibility of having to walk
over hot coals. By coming they are showing great courage that deserves
everyone’s respect.

It comes not as a surprise then that avoidance is a constant visitor
in therapy sessions. It is part of the nature of the beast that people
want to get away from the trauma, its memories, and its legacies. Let’s
get over it – let’s move on – let’s get a life! Avoidance is in a way
saying “Aren’t we there yet?” The journey is becoming too hard or too
long.

How about using avoidance as a sign for urgently needed Self Care?
Let’s give the client a break and let her or him come up for air. The
client is signalling to the therapist that s/he is not ready yet to go
any further on that bed of hot coals. It’s time for sustenance and
recharging batteries. It may be time for resourcing clients and do some
happiness-work.  Oh, how much I wished for therapists in general to be
as diligent about happiness-work as they are about ‘processing trauma’.
I am sure we would have fewer clients in crisis.

John Briere uses the concept of the ‘Therapeutic Window’ for
describing client’s ability to deal with traumatic content for managing
client’s ability to deal with traumatic content. Too little exposure to
painful memories is not effective and clients remain ‘underwhelmed’
while too much exposure is non-therapeutic and the client is
overwhelmed. The skill is to remain within the window of effectiveness.
This is not a new thing it’s been around for over 15 years.

The short answer is: Avoidance is Self Care. When I am avoiding I am
protecting myself against something that FEELS too hard to do. I might
need your help, your reassurance, your trust in my capabilities, or
some extra tools to go the next step. Please, don’t label me
non-compliant! If you do, you missed the whole point!

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10 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    Yes, avoidance really shouldn’t been listed as a mental illness, it is a valid expression of self care. Dogs who have been hit recoil from a friendly touch, it doesn’t mean they are mental, they rightfully associate a human hand with something painful and dangerous. It takes time for them to trust again, and it is the same with us abused humans! I avoid getting too close to people too quickly, because I associate intimacy with abuse, because that’s where abuse occurred. That is normal in relation to my experiences, it is not mental illness, in fact, it proves I am mentally cognisant and aware. Slowly kindness will bring me back to trusting again, and avoidance is in the meantime, protecting me from potential further abuse by trusting too quickly. Thankyou!

  2. I agree with Paul’s point of view on avoidance. I work, work, work on my issues and then reach a point of saturation where I can’t absorb anything else. Then I take a break from working on my issues for awhile until I am strong enough to go at the issues again. Usually I spend quiet time by myself, taking care of my needs and listening to that inner voice that says it is ok to start working on my issues again. During that time, it looks like I am sitting still doing nothing. I am doing plenty but it is on the inside where it doesn’t show. That is how I process things. Thanks for sharing this article.

  3. JT

    Howzit,
    I like the short answer: Avoidance is self-care. It gives the word AVOIDANCE a different spin on it when the last two words to the sentence are added, a more comforting and positive out look. I know that sometimes in my sessions with my therapist I avoid stuff, she is quick to pick it up tho, but sometimes I feel bad that I do it. Sometimes I dont understand why, sometimes I do, but I still revert to avoiding. My therapist is gentle with me tho and knows how far to take me into my stuff and then gentle brings me out. Eventually I get there, but I would agree in saying that avoidance is a constant visitor in therapy, this I have experienced and occasionally still do. Avoidance is self-care, I like that thats a kool way to look at it.
    JT

  4. yea we found it – do you like our butterfly

  5. Huzzah!

  6. Hehe!! it worked. Awesome!!! That looks more like uz!!!

  7. thanks for that Ivory – lets see if it works

  8. uznco

    Hi Lochren, how did you change your image? I want to change mine.

  9. uz

    how do you change these images, I want to put a blue butterfly in mine. I don’t like this image it looks unfinished.

  10. Hi Gudrun.
    Just wanted to thank you for posting this. Our latest therapy session, sparked in part by this, we spent quite some time discussing my avoidance, and how I know that avoidance is one of my ‘talents’. And that I think I’m ready for the proverbial kick up the backside… I don’t want to be persistently avoidant, but I need some hand-holding while I learn how to face up to things.
    Thing is, I got there on my own. My therapist has always respected it when I’ve said “Don’t go there.” Turns out, she knew I’d eventually rock up one day and say “um… there’s some stuff we haven’t been talking about…” And I think it was important for me to come to it in my own time. If I’d felt blamed, or pressured, I don’t know that I would have felt able to say “It’s time…”
    🙂
    Awesome blog, btw.
    Lochren of Ivory

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