Avoidance vs. Self-care
You're at home watching your favourite TV show, when Netflix asks you the judgmental question: "Are you still watching?" (Yes, Netflix, This is Us brings me to tears every time and I need to know what happens next.) You realize that one episode turned into several, and more than a few hours have gone by. But, hey, what's wrong with a little relaxation and enjoyment during your time off?
The answer is "nothing" if what you're doing is practicing self-care. However, what we categorize as personal care can actually be its cleverly disguised twin - avoidance. Both can involve enjoyable activities and time spent on oneself, but they are actually quite different.
The Purpose of Avoidance and Self-care
Avoidance and self-care serve distinct purposes, but because the means of expression are similar, we can easily fool ourselves into believing one is the other. Here are the primary differences between the two:
The purpose of avoidance: To numb out, ignore, or escape from a task, problem, or difficult emotion.
The purpose of self-care: To respond to your physical, mental, and emotional needs in order to care for your overall well-being.
How to Tell the Difference
Both of these strategies are forms of coping; however, only one of them provides a long-term solution. (I'll explain that more in the section "Why it matters.")
First, ask yourself what the intention is behind the behaviour or activity. For example, let's say you cancel an outing with a friend. If you cancelled because you had a long day and need to rest, then that's self-care. However, if you cancelled because you feel anxious about meeting new people, then that's avoidance.
Next, check in with your ability to manage whatever you are trying to avoid. This is known as your distress tolerance. Part of healthy emotional management is knowing when you cannot deal with something in the present moment. For example, if you are dealing with a family crisis but also have to be at an important business meeting, it makes sense to intentionally put your personal matters aside during the work day. However, what differentiates this from avoidance is the awareness and the follow-up. With healthy coping skills, you will be able to revisit and address the issue when you have the time and space to do so.
It can be hard to distinguish between self-care and avoidance, but being aware of your emotional state can help you better identify your needs and act intentionally on them. It also requires some honesty with yourself. Is it that you can't deal with a particular emotion or situation, or is it that you don't want to?
Using our earlier example, perhaps you realize that meeting new people makes you anxious, but realize that you have developed some tools to help you manage those feelings and you could challenge yourself to keep the commitment.
However, sometimes the answer to "Can I manage this?" is "No, not today." Great! Knowing your limits and meeting your needs falls under self-care. If the idea of meeting new people is overwhelming today, perhaps you reschedule for another evening and prepare accordingly.
Why it Matters
Avoidance feels like it protects us from the things that scare or overwhelm us, but in reality it just sustains them. In other words, we feel better in the moment, but are worse off in the long run. For example, imagine that you have an assignment to complete but that you feel too overwhelmed to deal with it, so you end up on Buzzfeed instead. You now have to pull an all-nighter and are not sure if you will make the deadline in time. While procrastination (aka avoidance) decreased the stress temporarily, it ultimately created more anxiety and panic. This, in turn, can lead to further avoidance of those difficult emotions, with the subsequent sensation of "spiralling out."
Instead of ignoring those overwhelming feelings, let's imagine instead that you dealt with them directly and in the moment. Perhaps you don't even start the task immediately because you think a 10 minute meditation might be helpful to ground you. Even though this is delaying the activity, it isn't avoidance. If you look back to the purpose of self-care, you can see that you're addressing an emotional need instead of ignoring the emotion altogether. By doing so, you manage the anxiety and proceed with the assignment.
Acknowledging your emotions and taking care of your needs allows you to get through a difficult situation, which brings me to my next point.
Whether it's drinking to forget a traumatic memory, exercising to quell the feelings of loss, or scrolling through Instagram to drown out negative thoughts, these strategies prevent us from ever truly addressing the underlying causes of our pain. Try as we might, there is no way to cut out the bad without simultaneously cutting out the good. Therefore, these avoidant strategies deny us the opportunity to find joy, contentment, release, and forgiveness.
If we put aside the avoidance and acknowledge the hurts, then we have a real chance at living the lives for which we long.