Are You Avoidant Coping Your Way Through Life? Here’s Why You Need To Stop.
I used to despise drama so much. Often, smiling my way through it sounded like a better option than confronting others about it. Even imagining the emotions and amount of energy I have to spend trying to explain how someone has hurt me or why they are not right is already exhausting to me. One fine day, it felt like the Universe just got tired of me not seeing the signs of my maladaptive coping mechanism. It decided to grab me by my shoulders and shook me in an attempt to shake some sense into me. Then, I finally realized it—I was avoidant coping.
Elizabeth Scott, MS, a wellness coach, author and health educator describes avoidant coping as ‘a maladaptive form of coping in which a person changes their behaviour to avoid thinking about, feeling, or doing difficult things’ in her article. This strategy may sound like the perfect solution for less stress in life. However, it is always better to figure out the source of stress and deal with it directly. Here are a few reasons why avoidant coping is harmful:
1. It hurts your relationships with others.
Following my life-changing discovery of my own avoidant coping, I realized how all the major fallouts I have had with the people I dearly loved was connected to my inability to just do the difficult; confront them and be honest about how I truly felt. I misunderstood that not going out of my way to have confrontations and hard conversations was me trying to gracefully accept my life circumstances and save my energy. Besides, it helped me ‘keep the peace’ with my loved ones. However, a maladaptive way of coping is even worse as it prevents the opportunity to have fruitful discussions and conflict resolution in the first place. You cannot keep avoiding your feelings. The more you avoid them, the higher the probability of your emotions blowing up some other time. This may also cause more damage to your relationship with others too.
2. It initiates more negative thoughts.
While avoidant coping may give an immediate reduction in stress at the moment, it is temporary. As stated previously, without dealing with the source of the problem, the problem always returns. Along with it comes the stress and the negative thoughts related to them. It leaves things unsettled without closure and causes the wound to get infected instead of healing.
For instance, there will come a time when someone hurts your feelings by attacking your insecurity with a sarcastic joke. Your avoidant coping behaviour might lead you to just laugh at it and pretend like it didn’t hurt you. But the truth is, the feelings of embarrassment and insecurity it brought up does not just end there. It will persist by taking up space in your mind for the rest of the day or even a few days after that. It will dig up all previous instances when someone has made a similar remark about your insecurity or the hurt it carries. All this because it was hard for us to confront them and say, “Hey, I don’t appreciate that joke about me. I hope you won’t repeat it because it hurts my feelings.”
3. You’ll turn into a people-pleaser.
When avoidant coping kicks in, you will go to whatever extent possible to avoid dealing with difficult things and stressful tasks. Slowly, it develops into an inability to say ‘no’ due to the fear of confrontation and disappointing others. We see this a lot in our Asian culture where the environments we have been brought up in does not encourage speaking up as it is considered to be disrespectful. It is always easy to just say ‘yes’, even if you’re internally screaming ‘no’.
Now that we know why avoidant coping is harmful, here are a few practical ways on how you can overcome it:
1. Understand the roots of your avoidant coping.
Avoidant coping can also be a trauma response. According to K. Jessica Van Vliet from the University of Alberta, avoidance is one of the main defences against shame and trauma as it helps in reducing the excessive rise of emotions activated by distressing events.
I trace back the emergence of my avoidant coping back to a traumatic event that I endured previously. When I constantly tried to talk about it or confront people regarding the pain they were causing me, I was shut off completely. I had my feelings and struggles ignored and dismissed even when I tried to voice them out. This led me to avoid confrontations at all costs as they felt like efforts to no avail.
Additionally, avoidant coping can also be developed from social learning. This means that we learn how to deal with our problems or stress based on what we observe from the people around us. If you grew up seeing your parents intentionally avoiding difficult things, you may have picked up the strategy from them. There are also myriads of factors and experiences that might have led to your avoidant coping behaviour besides trauma and social learning. Identifying how your avoidant coping behaviour emerged helps you better understand your maladaptive coping mechanism.
2. Ask your loved ones if you communicate with them enough.
If you are exhibiting avoidant coping, chances are that it has already unknowingly hurt your relationship with your loved ones. By asking them directly, you may realize if you are avoiding difficult conversations with them and it is causing trouble and misunderstanding in your relationship with them. Remember that their feedback must be taken with an open mind for improvement and not treated as a personal attack. It is also important that you don’t beat yourself up upon knowing their feedback. Instead, try to learn from them. This helps you develop better communication skills that build your confidence when communicating about your feelings or when resolving a conflict.
3. Prioritize yourself.
Since I learnt about my avoidance coping, I am actively trying to honour my feelings and emotions by being truthful about them. The truth is, you can still ‘keep the peace’ with your loved ones if you talk about your conflicts in a respectful and empathetic manner. It definitely will be hard but there are always baby steps that you can take. Always ask yourself “Are you being truthful about your feelings?”.
Besides, avoiding avoidant coping (see what I did there) helps you stand up for yourself. The next time you opt-out of a tough conversation, figure out if that is the best alternative and if it serves your feelings and thoughts any justice. Or is it just another one of the traps you’re falling into that makes you say ‘yes’ to please others?
4. Find better ways to release your stress.
This may be different for everyone. If you still prefer to stick to avoidant coping, stress-relieving techniques might help you to cope with stress from conflicts better. It also may lead you to find a better emotional coping strategy such as meditation or mindfulness. Such practices encourage acceptance of what is already there before you and helps you face your sources of stress instead of retreating from it.
We must acknowledge the times that avoidant coping can be helpful to us. While it may not actively solve a problem, it may help us react better to problems in life. Instead of frustration towards what cannot be changed, it helps us accept and react more calmly to these life circumstances. But this, of course, does not apply to all of our life circumstances where some problems can actually be solved if it weren’t for avoidant coping. Be reminded that using avoidant coping all the time is basically running away from your problems. However, it is also important to pick your battles wisely.