I recently got the opportunity to speak with the fascinating Dr. Alice Boyes, an emotions expert, speaker and author of the new book The Anxiety Toolkit: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points . In the book, Dr. Boyes tackles a number of relatable issues stemming from anxiety, including perfectionism, fear of criticism, hesitancy and more–and who doesn’t suffer from any of these!
As I read the book, I recognized many characteristics in myself and others, and found the chapter on avoidance particularly eye-opening. Dr. Boyes explains that avoidance is a typical reaction to anxiety. How it manifests, however, depends on what she calls your “dominant response type.” According to Dr. Boyes, response types fall under three major patterns—the freezer, the flyer and the fighter.
Freezers stop in their tracks when confronted with something they don’t want to do—often refusing to talk about difficult subjects, or not answering when asked to do something. Flyers, on the other hand, flee the scene when facing something unpleasant. For example, a flyer might physically leave the house to avoid an argument. Fighters take the opposite approach, working harder to combat their anxiety. Although this may not sound like avoidance, fighters often work hard on all aspects except the crux of the problem.
Do you recognize any of these patterns? As Dr. Boyce points out, anxiety is behind some of our most common interpersonal problems. I think I’ve embodied each one of these patterns during my life, and can identify a few freezers, flyers, and fighters within my family and friends. Once we identify ourselves as a freezer, flyer or fighter, we can begin to use this information to our advantage, modify our thoughts and ultimately rewire our behavior. Check out this excerpt below from The Anxiety Toolkit for specific tips that can help you get over avoidance once and for all.
Use a Values Conflict to Overcome Avoidance
By Alice Boyes
People usually think of guilt as a negative emotion. However, research has shown that feeling guilt tends to be associated with taking others’ perspectives and positive behaviors, such as genuine apologies and making amends. If you can recognize how avoidance coping contradicts your values, you can use the ensuing healthy guilt to your advantage.
For example, your value may be “Do unto others.” Yet you’ve been avoiding telling someone that you’re going to deny a request she’s made. Imagine the shoe on the other foot: If you were waiting on a response from someone, wouldn’t you rather be told as soon as possible so you could make other plans? By recognizing the gap between your values and your behavior, you can find the motivation to overcome your avoidance.
Note: Guilt is psychologically healthy. Shame is not. The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is about feeling bad about a behavior; shame is about feeling bad about who you are. Self-criticism usually involves inducing shame.
Experiment: Identify a situation where your avoidance contradicts your values. How could you resolve your values-behavior conflict?
Use a Growth Mindset to Overcome Avoidance
Let’s look at how having a fixed mindset can drive avoidance coping, and how a growth mindset can overcome it. Consider a commonly avoided behavior: investing. What might someone who has a fixed mindset about investing think? That person might think something like “I don’t understand investing. It’s all over my head. It’s just not something I can grasp. I’m doomed to make mistakes with my investing choices.”
What would a person with a growth mindset think? It would be more like “I can probably find some information that’s designed to help people like me. With a bit of practice and perseverance, I’ll learn to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information and make good decisions.”
Experiment: Identify the area of your life where avoidance is creating the most serious problems. Write out fixed and growth mindset perspectives like the examples just given.
Recognize That Knowing Is Better than Not Knowing
[…] People tend to avoidance-cope when they fear getting negative information and they’re not confident they could cope with that effectively. They’d rather keep their head in the sand. If you up your belief in your ability to cope with facing an upsetting reality, you’ll experience less desire to avoid.
Let’s say you’re avoiding retirement planning because you fear learning that the amount you’d need to save to have a comfortable retirement is unachievable. If this happened, how would you cope? Would you take to your bed and never get up? No, you wouldn’t. You’d likely do a mix of behavioral coping (changing your spending and investing patterns) and emotional coping, such as giving yourself self-compassion for mistakes you’ve made in the past.
Experiment: Identify an example of your avoidance coping that’s driven by fear you’d be unable to cope with facing facts. Imagine vividly and specifically what you’d do. You can do this as a three-minute writing experiment or just think it through. What’s a possible new thought that recognizes your ability to cope? For example, “If I start addressing my debt, I might feel overwhelmed with anxiety for a period, but then I’ll figure out a way forward, and my financial anxiety will become easier to cope with.”
Catch the Thought Distortions Underlying Procrastination
Procrastination is something we all do, but anxiety and a pattern of avoidance coping can cause procrastination to get out of hand. The good and bad news is that the same old thinking errors that have come up in previous chapters are also the thinking patterns that underlie procrastination. Even though the concepts are simple in theory, thinking errors are sneaky and can be hard to spot. They’re like shapeshifters who show up in different manifestations. To go beyond a surface level of understanding, people usually need to hear examples related specifically to the situations they’re facing. Therefore, even though we’ve covered these already, you can never have too many examples. When you identify the thinking error you’re making, it will help you identify a behavioral way forward that feels achievable.
Excerpted with permission from THE ANXIETY TOOLKIT: Strategies for Fine-Tuning Your Mind and Moving Past Your Stuck Points by Alice Boyes, Ph.D. © 2015 by Alice Boyes. A Perigee Book, Penguin Group USA, a Penguin Random House Company.