Hide or seek?

  • Cynthia Johnson

In the Challenge of Change Profile we have a scale called avoidance coping, which is described as the ostrich principle for dealing with issues – stick your head in the sand and ignore them.  If you're the sort of person who puts off making phone calls because you're afraid of the response you might get, who postpones tackling a project because you don't know where or how to start, or who focuses endlessly on the trivial tasks at work because the big, really important one pushes you out of your comfort zone, you might be what we call an 'avoidance coper': you've learned to respond to the pressures in your life by trying to avoid thinking or doing anything about them.  This might work in the short term, but all you're doing is compounding the problem and making yourself miserable.

You may be putting things off because you imagine a much worse outcome than is probably going to happen.  Alternatively, you may worry about how you will respond – being too afraid to ask for feedback because you don't know how you'll react to any criticism.  You may freeze when you have to do something that makes you feel stressed – stonewalling your mother when she offers advice you don't want to hear, or just getting up and leaving if you're having a difficult discussion.

Recently published findings by our Research Associate, Lehan Stemmet, has shown that avoidance can take many different forms, but what drives all of it is fear.  If you recognise any of these patterns in yourself, here are some things that you could do to start changing the way you react:
  1. Check how realistic your concerns are.
    Avoidance copers tend to anticipate far worse outcomes than those who aren't: 'When people see what I have written they will think its rubbish', 'it will all blow up in my face', ' She will be furious!',  "They're going to kick me off the course!"  
    Try running how you feel past someone else in the same predicament: what do they think is a likely outcome, and what advice have they got for you?  We tend to think we're the only ones having these feelings, but when you check it out you usually find everyone's in the same boat!
  2.  Educate yourself about the difference between a growth mindset and a  fixed mindset.
    People with fixed mindsets believe that who they are right now is as good as they're going to get.  They don't like to take risks in case they fail, so best not try in case they look incompetent. They think of themselves in black and white ways, which limits their options – for example, I can't learn languages.  Perfecting something requires work and effort and may involve some mistakes along the way; avoiders see their mistakes as proof they're not naturals at that sort of stuff and it isn't worth making the effort.
    By contrast, people with a growth mindset believe they're an evolving project! There's always more to learn and mistakes aren't a big deal, they're part of the learning process.  They can also separate their sense of themselves from the feedback they get about what they've done – they don't take it personally, and they know from their experience that if they put in the effort they will get there in the end.
    For more about these midsets, check out YouTube and Ted Talks for the work of Carol Dweck.  It could be a fixed mindset that's causing you to avoid things you're afraid of, and you can change your mindset.
  3. As the Nike logo says: just do it!  Also known as another popular saying: Eat the elephant one bite at a time.
    If you are putting off something because it seems too daunting or you're not sure where to start, just start. Don't think about the full scope of what lies ahead, just do one piece. Start in the middle, at the end, or the beginning. Start writing the methodology section of the paper, or the references, but just start. You don't have to do everything at once. Break it down into bite-sized chunks. If your finances are a mess, begin by maybe reviewing what you spend on insurances, then move on to the next part.
  4. Have a plan for if you don't cope.
    Note what you're afraid might happen and have a plan, or find an alternative approach.  What if you do cry when you are given negative feedback, how bad would that really be?  What if you asked a friend to sit with you when you made a dreaded phone call, or if you asked someone to accompany you to the doctor's appointment?  If you have dug into your finances and realised that you're financially over-extended, what could you do in the short term, and where could you go for advice.
  5. Learn to sit with unpleasant emotions.
    Being nervous, getting flustered, having disagreements, are all part of most people's experience. Sometimes things are difficult. Try to find a way of accepting rather than fighting this.  Some of our tension comes from thinking life shouldn't be this way, telling ourselves how unfair it is that we've been put in a situation.  That just defines you as a victim.  Acknowledge to yourself that a particular phone call you have to make will be difficult, or that saying no to someone will probably make me feel guilty.  It will only be for a bit.  These emotions will pass, especially if you can control your attention and get into the loft.
  6. Notice the difference.
    If you tackled what you have been putting off, even a small part of it, notice how you feel.  De-cluttering even a bit of the mess in the garage is likely to make you feel a lot better.  Now that you have made the decision to quit a course you weren't really enjoying, you'll probably feel relieved. Remember how you feel for the next time you find yourself falling into the avoidance coping trap

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