This post is part of a four-part series breaking down the defensive coping mechanisms that sexual abuse survivors most often struggle with. If you’d like to catch up, check out part one, “Know How You Cope.”
What Avoidance Looks Like
Avoidance festers in our actions or lack thereof.
It can be helpful for a time to learn way to focus your thoughts and feelings away from your trauma. When first healing, distraction is a useful skill to help survivors go to school, buy groceries, or just interact with life.
Sexual abuse survivors might feel desperate to avoid anything that triggers the memory, even loosely associated situations. Someone assaulted in a basement might avoid all basements or even any house with one.
While coping with avoidance starts with simply wanting to avoid feeling afraid, withdrawing from triggers only gives momentary relief.
Avoiding may even cause you to fear what could threaten those things that make you feel safe, adding to the increasing number of things you fear.
That’s why it never works – and can quickly turn into a slippery slope, causing sexual abuse survivors to dodge real-life experience in order to never experience distressing emotions.
Why Avoidance is Harmful
Avoidance usually increases the hurt it is meant to eliminate. That’s because our brains work through forming connections and associations.
What an example? Try this:
Pick two unrelated objects that happen to be near you. Next answer this question: How are they alike? For instance, if the objects are a book and a shoe, you might say they’re alike because they both helped you get a job (by being educated and dressing well).
Ta-da! Your book, your shoe, and your job are linked by a new neural connection in your brain. Now you’re more likely to think of all these things when you think of any given one.
This also means that every time you avoid an event or activity because it’s painful, you automatically connect the discomfort with whatever you do instead.
Suppose you’re having a terrible hair day, and to not feel that shame, you cancel a meeting with a client. Just thinking about that client brings on a pang of shame. This happens with every form of psychological suffering we try to outrun. When we run from our feelings, they follow us. Everywhere.
It works with the opposite, too: If you don’t allow yourself to feel difficult emotions, whatever those might be, you naturally keep yourself from being able to fully feel positive emotions as well. This can even lead to becoming overly invested in other’s happiness or patterns of enabling.
That’s why using avoidance to cope can create a life that has grown smaller and more disappointing, rather than the healthy, interesting life possible after healing.
How To Kick Coping With Avoidance
In the most basic sense, to stop coping with avoidance, you have to accept that unpleasant feelings will come. That also means validating your experience and the pain that it brought you.
Start by observing where and how you spend your time. Consider the activities you turn to when you are stressed or uncomfortable. Ask yourself if the way you engage in these activities has an addictive or habitual pattern to it and if you are letting destructive behavior control your life.
Feelings aren’t good or bad in an of themselves, it’s how we allow them to affect us that denotes their value or impact. You don’t have to like the feelings acknowledging your trauma will bring, but they should no longer dictate your choices.
Once we’re willing to confront our emotional suffering, we begin making choices based on attraction instead of aversion, love instead of fear. Where we used to think about what was “safe,” we now become interested in doing what seems right or fun or meaningful or ripe with possibilities.