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
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
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
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!