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Caution: Avoidance Behaviors May Be Hazardous to Your Health

A trauma survivor and life coach shares a simple mental health tool for coping with avoidance and improving your wellbeing.

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I recall my college professor discussing the scientific theory of evolution, as if it were yesterday. Actually, it was almost fifty years ago. He said that, sometimes, if a scientist discovers a beetle that doesn’t “fit” the theory, he simply sweeps it under the rug! Ah, all of us have a tendency to push away unpleasant thoughts — feelings of not being enough, traumatic experiences, fears, worries about the future, laments about the past, and more. But, generally speaking, mental health professionals consider avoidance to be a maladaptive behavioral response to excessive fear and anxiety.

Facing our fears and anxieties can be daunting. But, embarking on that journey, either alone or with the help of a mental health professional, can ultimately be exhilarating. If we continue to sweep things under the rug, we wind up carrying around a lot of guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety. That’s a heavy burden. It weighs us down and gets in the way of us being our best selves. If we continue to avoid, eventually, we can’t breathe. Generally speaking, avoidance coping causes anxiety to snowball. The more we avoid, the more anxious we feel.

Before proceeding to continue digging into the benefits of overcoming avoidance behaviors, I must advise my readers that there are certain circumstances in which avoidance can and should be used as an effective coping strategy. If the idea of overcoming certain avoidances gives you pause, I recommend that you contact a medical doctor or mental health professional for further guidance. Sometimes, avoidance is a form of self-protection. Avoiding certain thoughts, environments, people, and/or things may, indeed, be beneficial.

Fortunately, when it’s in our best interests to overcome anxiety-producing avoidance behaviors, we can choose to push through and feel better. But, it’s not easy. Prepare yourself for hard work ahead. Personally, I found the Hoffman Process provided me with audio tools, practices, and visualizations to help me do just that (see hoffmaninstitute.org). Also, a very creative and dear friend of mine, David Hyman, gifted me a cool tool that he created for coping with the tendency to avoid unpleasantries. Keeping it displayed on my shelf serves as a constant reminder of my need to overcome the very human tendency to avoid confrontation. I’ve used it successfully. It’s fun and it works. He calls his prototype Sweep It Under The RugSM. It helps us to face the “stuff” that we want to bury. It’s not on the market yet, but if you’d like to be informed when it is. you can shoot an email to [email protected]. To acquaint you with how this tool works, I thought it would be helpful to include the Sweep It Under The RugSM Instruction Manual.

Congratulations, you are now in possession of a wonderful tool to help with life situations. We are so happy you decided to help yourself.
1. Find a comfortable and quiet place to “SWEEP.”
2. Empty the contents of toolbox and lay out all the items in front of you.
3. Check that the contents include a sweeping broom, rug, pencil, and paper.
4. Using only one piece of paper (you can use both sides), and pencil, describe in detail the personal situation you want to confront.
5. Upon completion, read, reread, and reread again what you wrote. Take some time tomorrow to think about it and absorb it. Take your time.
6. When you are all done, rip the paper up into as many pieces as possible.
7. Then look at the ripped pieces of paper and take the time to process what you’ve just discarded. Understand what you just decided to discard.
8. Now consider replacing those thoughts with new and positive thoughts. Be prepared to revisit these new thoughts.
9. Now take the rug and lay it out in front of you.
10. Take the broom in one hand and lift the rug with the other hand. Then, sweep it under the rug.

The key to successful personal transformation begins with getting to knowing your authentic self. Then, learning to take actions that serve you best. When you face the things you’ve avoided, discard them, and replace them with positive actions, you’re engaging in a different process than just sweeping things under a rug. Here’s an example. Let’s say that you have a tendency to permit a co-worker, who is too touchy-feely, to make you feel uncomfortable. You’re not alone. Surveys show that 58% of women are sexually harassed at work. And, women aren’t the only ones who are harassed. Sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination that flourishes in workplaces worldwide. According to the EEOC, sexual harassment is defined as: “1) unwelcome sexual advances; or 2) requests for sexual favors; or 3) any other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can occur through looks, touches, jokes, innuendoes, gestures, or direct propositions.” It’s not about sex, it’s a powerplay. And, you don’t need to put up with it. Don’t wait for your employer to do something about it. The required cultural shift can start with you. Are you ready to do something about it? Take out your pencil and paper. Write down what it feels like to be pawed or otherwise sexually harassed. Recognize how permitting yourself to be the object of harassing behavior makes you feel. Recognize how not addressing the issue makes you feel. Write it down. Consider how your acceptance of unwanted flirtations affects your self-esteem. Write it down. Do you feel victimized? Does your silence make you feel complicit or responsible? Write it down. Now, consider how you would feel if you were able to set personal boundaries. Write it down. Consider how you can say, or otherwise clearly communicate, “no.” Once you have, if the harassment doesn’t stop, you can investigate your employer’s harassment reporting protocols. If you need help, seek it.

Don’t be surprised if, initially, choosing to confront stuff that you’ve previously avoided makes you feel uncomfortable. But, after you’ve successfully unburdened yourself, by completing the sweeping process of identifying what you had previously avoided, discarding it, and replacing it with something that better serves you, you should feel lighter. I know, I did.

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