Do you feel empty despite the fact that you do and have all the things you’re supposed to to not feel this way? Do you feel like there’s no reason for you to feel as lonely and lost as you do? Or that everything in your life is just superficial?
Psychologists have long since emphasized the importance of having close positive relationships in our life, as well as engaging in fulfilling work activities or hobbies we’re passionate about. But if you have people in your life, a meaningful career, and more — but you still don’t feel happy? It might be because you’re covertly avoiding your own life.
What is Covert Avoidance?
In her mental health blog, “The Crappy Childhood Fairy,” wellness coach and CPTSD resource person Anna Runkle defines covert avoidance as an elusive and deep-seated form of avoidance, common for people with adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, abandonment, and emotional neglect. Covert avoidance isn’t obvious to other people, and sometimes it might not even be obvious to you if you have it. That’s why those who have it can feel like they’re doing everything right, but still, nothing can give them the sense of happiness or meaning they’re looking for.
This is because, in childhood, they most likely learned to become avoidant to protect themselves emotionally and psychologically. But doing so, Anna Runkle explains, stunts our psycho-emotional development and keeps us frozen as fragile children, forever terrified of rejection, judgment, and abandonment. So we grow up and we learn to build our lives around these fears, avoiding anything that might trigger it. And that means not forming deep emotional attachments with people, or going after our dream jobs, or taking that risk we always wanted to. In other words, it means living our lives from the outside looking in, and pretending that we’re fine with it.
Examples of Covert Avoidance
According to licensed psychotherapists Matthew S. Boone and Dr. Jennifer A. Gregg, covert avoidance behaviors give us temporary relief from anxiety, shame, and other uncomfortable feelings we’ve carried with us since our childhood trauma. But it’s an unhealthy form of coping that can have detrimental and unintended consequences.
Examples of covert avoidance include:
- Feeling like you’re too tired all the time to make healthier choices, like going to bed early, exercising regularly
- Saying you’re too busy to spend time with people and attend to your relationships when really, you’re just shutting everyone out
- Needing to socially withdraw for long periods of time after making an emotional connection with someone
- Finding an unhealthy escape from uncomfortable feelings such as substance use, drinking, excessive partying, and other reckless behaviors
- Chronic procrastination even with things you know you’ll enjoy like social gatherings with friends
- Always setting long-term goals for yourself without ever celebrating your progress, thinking that “Once I have this or do that, then I’ll be happy”
How to Overcome Covert Avoidance
Covert avoidance is really about control, explains Boone and Dr. Gregg. We want to control as much of our lives as possible to avoid any uncomfortable feelings that may arise from emotional attachments because our childhood trauma has left us fragile. But the more we try to avoid, the smaller and smaller our lives become.
The good news is that once we find healthier ways of satisfying our need for control, the easier it will be to overcome our struggles with avoidance. So how do we accomplish this? Well, according to experts like Boone and Dr. Gregg, a good place to start is getting to know your patterns of avoidance first and then doing something different, making a conscious choice to live life more courageously.
There’s also a better alternative that Dr. Elizabeth Scott, licensed psychologist, calls active coping. This type of coping adress a problem directly as a means to alleviate stress, unlike avoidant coping which only temporarily relieves it until it eventually worsens. This can be done through your behaviors (actually doing something about the problem) or your thoughts (reframing your perspective and processing your emotions about it). So the next time you experience something stressful, don’t just run away from it. Take control. Ask yoursel first, is this actually a problem? If so, what can I do about it?
Changing your behavior won’t come quickly or easily, but it will be worth it. Because you can’t keep avoiding your life forever. Avoidance is a temporary and ineffective solution that will only leave you feeling more vulnerable and alone, says psychologist Dr. Janice Webb. And the longer you stay stuck in it, the more power it will hold over you and your life. So now is the time to take back control and stop doing things out of fear. Instead, start building a more meaningful life for yourself one small step at a time.
So, what are your thoughts on this video? Do you relate to any of the things we’ve talked about here? Let us know in the comments down below if you struggle with covert avoidance and what you want to do about it moving forward. Till next time, Psych2Goers! And remember: you matter.
- Boone, M. S., Gregg, J. A., & Coyne, L. W. (2021). “Understanding Your Avoidance.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/stop-avoiding-stuff/202110/understanding-your-avoidance
- Runkle, A. (2020). “Is COVERT AVOIDANCE Making Your Life Empty?” The Crappy Childhood Fairy. Retrieved from https://crappychildhoodfairy.com/2020/12/08/is-covert-avoidance-making-your-life-empty/
- Saxena, S. (2022). “Avoidance Behavior: Examples, Impacts, & How to Overcome.” Choosing Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.choosingtherapy.com/avoidance-behavior/
- Scott, E. (2022). “Avoidance Coping and Why It Creates Additional Stress.” VeryWell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/avoidance-coping-and-stress-4137836
- Webb, J. (2022). “Understanding Avoidance: Why We Do It and How to Stop.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/childhood-emotional-neglect/202207/understanding-avoidance-why-we-do-it-and-how-stop