Originally written for a coaching anthology book published through Radiant Coaches Academy.
Growing up as an only child to a set of successful, loving, interracial parents in a congested and diverse New Jersey city, I often felt like I had to prove my worth through the tedium of hard earned work. With two available parents with dual degrees, careers, a home I could depend on, I was fortunate. I’d been traveling internationally from the age of four months, walked around the Sistine Chapel by the time I studied in school, ate at great restaurants often, popped into Manhattan multiple times during winters for Broadway shows, and was regaled with gifts each Christmas.
At some early teenage point, I internalized that I wasn’t worthy or deserving of all this good fortune when I had friends that were getting food stamps. Slowly, I began taking on the responsibility of being the designated driver for friends without cars, I was the friend that always had a gift, I offered my house as a meeting spot, friends were at my house for dinner most weeknights, I invited friends on trips to places they’d never been, and so on. Unconsciously, I decided I was leveling the playing field through martyrdom, over giving, people pleasing, and apologizing for a world I didn’t create.
After graduating university early (because I wanted my parents to be able to save as much as possible, since I’d expensively traveled abroad as a sophomore and was apologizing by moving as fast as possible), I ended up back home post recession where my BA held no meaning. My parents welcomed me of course, didn’t ask for rent or much help; they were thrilled I was back.
My mom would tell me that as a child, I'd often be found sitting facing the wall giving myself punishment for something unbeknownst to them. They thought it an odd idiosyncrasy, not necessarily something to dig into. I’m sure that if I go back far enough, I can dust off some additional ways I’d self flagellate because somewhere within me, I fueled the thought that I was inadequate on my own.
Over the course of years, I would substitute teach in the school system I went to and then backpack around the world for the next several months. Inevitably, I earned the moniker of adventuresOfV and was simply, never anywhere really but everywhere all the time. School was cool, but I was earning my keep (I thought) by traveling frugally, work exchanging, getting ptsd from multiple bouts of bed bugs, hitchhiking through most of Central America.
I was sabotaging myself through absolute situational, cognitive and emotional avoidance. It took years of looking at myself + therapy + somatic work to discern just how long I’d chosen to be an escape artist instead of facing myself. The whole view is still forming as I begin to shuffle up memories and stories like old snow globes. Seeing myself as someone who avoids goes directly against who I believed myself to be and seeing that honest picture was completely sickening. I actually became sick when I paused long enough to see a glimpse of how I’d been showing up, fraudulently and fearfully, in the world. Because I didn’t believe I deserved any good things without “paying back for” the privileged upbringing that was bestowed onto me.
Part of my journey in healing is recognizing that even in seemingly idyllic situations, like my upbringing and childhood environment, big saboteurs can and will show up. Possibly even more subtly and insidiously. I believe that if we’re here on this planet, that means that we have some aspects of ourselves to learn and we get to go further inward. With that view, I’d like to share a chapter all about avoidance. What it is, how it often shows up, my personal avoidant flavors, as well as what can be done about it.
Let’s Start at the Start
Avoidance at its foundation, are any behaviors or thought patterns that allow people to be intentionally distracted from challenging thoughts, feelings, situations, and people. Avoidance isn’t uniform across the board. Each person has their own concoction of flavors that create their unique avoidance smorgasbord. With this in mind, avoidance is the biggest subtly because of its variable nature; your avoidance doesn’t look like mine so I can’t quite say whether you’re avoiding or not. For example, your best friend may be on the job hunt and following the toxic cultures at her previous companies, she chooses to avoid an entire industry with available roles. As her bestie, you check in often to see how the hunt is going and you remain under the impression that she’s rocking it because she tells you how focused she is and how much she’s upgraded her resume. Unbeknownst to you, you’re being appeased so that you don’t ask deeper questions and unravel the fact that she hasn’t applied to any jobs in three weeks and has instead been filling her time in any other way. Subtle to you as the friend, overt and immense for the job hunter in their self sabotage.
Consistent, defaulted avoidance over the course of time can open a pathway of difficulty. Ignorance isn’t always bliss when, bit by bit, the world begins to chip at the avoidance armor. This can happen in a multitude of ways but often through loved ones catching on and questioning, increased anxiety, OCD behavior, expansion of mental dis ease, isolation, deepened trauma, and so on. Avoidance is a maladaptive coping mechanism that does more harm than good in the long term view. I question, how many of us are medicated not because of a true underlying illness, but rather because we refuse to view ourselves fully in the mirror?
A sign of psychological health is when one can observe the avoidance brimming up at the surface and choose to use it as propulsion toward summiting that mountain (that mountain of, it's hard to be human sometimes).
If you consider yourself a coach that wants to compassionately challenge your clients, bear witness to their breakthroughs, and watch them soar after partnering with you, then it’s vital to keep your senses open for signs of avoidance. Getting comfortable or complacent with our clients can provide a glorious opening for their avoidant defaults to subtly seep in and derail the work we’ve been doing. As a coach, I believe it’s our duty to hold up the mirror of our clients as often as possible. It is this that makes the partnership sacred, honest, noble, and held with integrity. Find a few of the most common (commoners) avoidant defaults I see in my day to day, as well as within myself, and what their more adaptive sister could look like.
Extremism: when viewing emotions as a spectrum or wheel, it’s easier to imagine that people tend most often toward a dominant emotion. For a long time, it was frustration and annoyance because I always thought that having full out anger was too much. With the dominant emotion, it’s easy to walk right around the true root emotion (like anger for me) because it’s too scary to deal with. As Mary O’Malley says, what’s in the way is the way. In feeling our feelings for real, we get the chance to name it, tame it, and dissolve it. We actually get to create the muscle of resilience and perseverance.
Martyrdom, endless support, and generosity to others: why are one’s own needs not being met? What is one avoiding when posed with the idea of, fill your own cup first then give? What’s possible with a partner, a manager, one’s relationship with children when one has taken the time and energy to truly feed one’s own thirsty soil with tender loving care?
Productivity and busyness: because if I sit with myself, I may not know what to do with what comes up? And if I don’t know, I am right again in that I am inadequate and insufficient without all my output. In aiming to come to terms with alternating states of output and rest, life can take on new pillars of creativity, innovation, and inspiration. Dare I say, fulfillment.
Procrastination: because what if I get it wrong? Then I am just as I thought, dumb. A smidgen of ad hoc procrastination is life and it happens; it’s what one can make a habit of eating that frog, the sequential feelings of accomplishment, capability, and self worth rise slowly and steadily like sourdough.
Social media and nostalgia: just like water, when consumed in excess, its potential benefits can flip and cause detriment. Consuming the lives of others or even one's own life from the rear view mirror can cause compare and despair, fomo, anxiety, and so on. These two are insidious in that we tend to fall deeper and deeper into the abyss of despair/fomo/anxiety/complacency unconsciously. In my opinion, these two are the most subtle, particularly during the C19 pandemic when many people lived alone or lived with their doors closed and locked. Without accountability, self or partnered, this one can cause long term body mind spirit dis ease. Learning and engaging in the skill of moderation is another sign of psychological health and having control over one’s life.
Blame: is the convenient and easy way out of avoiding how hurt one may feel. Not having to take responsibility for one’s own actions, words, state of being is a bandaid that’s bound to consistently come undone. Accountability and responsibility can quickly bring feelings of empowerment, integrity and self worth.
Constant stimulation via podcasts, music, etc: gives us the opportunity to skip critical thinking, creativity, joy through feeling the need to get our fix by others’ creations. Without incessant stimulation (one of my favorite flavors), our brains get to rest, which allows the opportunity for unique ideas, critical thinking skills to rise, resilience through a habitually calmed mind, and more.
Communication tools like deflection, gaslighting, performance, humor or sarcasm: are all forms of deep, oftentimes unconscious avoidance. The communicator believes they are righteous in their perception of the situation; and that’s the fatal flaw of truth, there are always 3+ views (mine, theirs, The Truth) and we rarely get to see The Truth at the time in which it matters. Being conscious of when we sit at any of the above communicatory tables allows us the opportunity to humble ourselves into reaching instead for harmony, understanding, empathy, and essentially relationship building.
Here are some honorable mentions:
Not using ones voice in order to be liked or feel a sense of belonging
Isolation / little to no eye contact
Making consistent excuses
To name it (feel the feeling/recognize the avoidant flavor) is to tame it (that elusive feeling of control) then claim it (empowerment). With increased self empowerment comes increased confidence, emotional regulation, as well as not getting swept into the emotions of others. If people are as interested in self development as they extol, especially those that seek out coaching, then confronting avoidance is an immensely forwarding step.
Do you resonate with any of these? Which, why, and can you dig a layer deeper to the story you’re attaching to the default?
My Favorite Flavors
In coming up with a few of my favorite flavors, my aim is to share something tangible behind all these words, as well as to further my own empowerment. This chapter is a clarion call to whoever chooses into the challenge of looking at yourself and instead of apologizing, saying yep here’s some of what I’m made of, I’m learning and doing the best I can as often as I can. Thank you for being human with me.
ADHD, anxiety, avoidant attachment; a true power trio. The easy way out has always been, well that’s just my anxiety or thinking they don’t want to hear what I have to say about this anyway so may as well cut my losses. These saboteurs have had me skimp on opportunities primarily due to seeking perfection, needing to do it right the first time, and fearing getting too attached (lest I be truly seen).
Protective and situational avoidance have increased as I’ve gotten older and lived in cities. This can look like abruptly getting out of bed to ensure the doors are indeed locked, random need to clean or tidy as a form of being productive, placing charms all over the house, checking and rechecking doors and window locks at night.
Escapism: is the most defaulted for me as I expressed earlier in this chapter. Through my current four year relationship, I can’t recall one time where we got into an (unavoidable) conflict, where I still struggled to raise my voice, and spent the following few hours creating lists of where I’d go, how I’d leave, and how I could make it as simultaneously seamless and non conflictual as possible. Typically, my first thought is how do I get tf out of here, instead of taking accountability for some facts like, what have I been withholding from him up to now that this is such a surprising outburst.
Hyper independence + busyness = no time to allow the harder questions to seep in and request deep thought.
Education, particularly in its extremism version of bopping from one course to the next degree to the next credential to the next certification. By staying in the zone of perpetual student, I don’t get to see what I’m made of because I am terrified of making a mistake and thus not being perfect. By remaining in the consistently educated state, I also get to use the excuse that oh I’m still studying therefore delaying the execution. Subtle sabotage in action.
People pleasing and withholding my voice for fear of taking up too much space and/or being a burden. Both things I’ve never had told to my face, but I have internalized years of perceived micro responses to my volume, word choices, accent, hair, height, and so on that over time my voice simply lessened its size in a room and the (toxic) feminine agreeableness increased ten fold.
These are my flavors. I own them because I know they’ll never dissolve completely, but I do have the power of choice. Now that I’m aware of them, I can’t feign ignorance. I can be emboldened through choice; I can continue with my avoidant story which I now know leads to extended and possibly exponential pain. Or I can choose to (vulnerably) place my flavor on a shelf for today and make a new choice, maybe toward the uncertainty and fear of awkward honesty, clumsy reconciliation, humility.
Dissolving the Sauce
The truth is, everything doesn’t work all the time. It’s been vital for me to view my adaptive coping mechanisms and shifts as part of my toolkit. My kit has a variety of options I can choose from each day depending on where I am, my mood, the environment, and so on. The unique toolkits that we all have is a foundation of my own coaching program because I do believe that what we’re really doing is dusting off the amnesia of what we know works within us. Sometimes the puzzle pieces just seemed to fit, but we weren’t conscious of observing it. Well, get conscious and write them down!
Here are some of my go tos as a reference:
Journaling or verbal processing
Why am I avoiding this?
How long do I plan to avoid?
When was the last time I completed the behavior instead of avoiding it?
How does my avoidance make me feel?
How does my avoidance impact others?
Whose idea is it for me to avoid this
Somatic work (breath, dance, tapping)
Microdosing with an intentional regimen
Changing internal vernacular (no more should)
Being in community
Focus out (how can I be in service to someone else?)
Mind mapping / diagramming
Throughout this chapter, my hope is that the cost of avoidance has been clarified through a plethora of examples. But the spark notes are, with avoidance we can never truly feel free, empowered, or worthy. By hiding, coasting, delaying, sidelining, and procrastinating, we live half lives. Lives that are reliant on the acceptance of others, on the perceptions of society, and on false truths we tell ourselves and half stories we concocted to avoid pain. In embracing the gray, blurry, discomfort of digging deeper every now and then, we get to become more whole. Bit by bit, we build back up. We get to feel what it’s like to live in integrity because we are it, not because we simply say it flippantly, echoing the trendy self improvement word of the year.
We become how we view ourselves. As coaches, it’s my view that working on our avoidant proclivities will be a lifelong yet necessary journey. It can become a self checking system, to ensure we’re seeing ourselves as wholly capable of holding space and coaching humans in their humanness. Give yourself grace and coach on.