Monday, May 31, 2010

Avoidance as Addiction

I know, I know – they call everything an addiction these days. Sometimes it seems like a convenient excuse for people like Tiger Woods or that guy who married Sandra Bullock. But sometimes the question isn’t so much “Is this a true addiction?” as “Does it help to apply the addiction model to this problem?”

One case in point is avoidance of professional tasks – in my work at the Massachusetts lawyer assistance program, I’ve noticed that almost every lawyer (maybe every person) reports at least occasional episodes. In some cases, it fits under the oft-discussed category of procrastination, in the sense that we all often feel like doing something other than work. In other cases, it is more clearly associated with particular feelings and relationships. The feelings may include anger, regret, etc., but most often there is a high degree of anxiety or fear, which can be compounded, as time goes on, by shame.

Like the use of an addictive substance, avoidance behavior is instantly and powerfully reinforcing. Imagine a situation where you have to tell your friend Fred that you cannot actually loan him the money you had said you would. This will be a terribly awkward, uncomfortable, conversation. You anticipate his anger, disappointment, dismay, and yourself feeling like the cause of it (in an immediate sense, though of course you had nothing to do with the reasons he needed the loan). As you pick up the phone to call him, your pulse increases and you find yourself holding your breath. Imagine, now, that you reach his voice mail and hear “Because of a family member’s funeral in another state, I will be away until next Monday.” You now have a very good excuse for putting off this unpleasant chore. The relief! Your breathing and muscles relax, and a sense of wellbeing returns.

In avoidance, you get the same immediate benefit – the difference is that the excuse is not provided by Fred’s absence, but by internally generated rationalizations – “I’m too tired to do it tonight;” “This can always be done later;” “Maybe if I shelve it now, somehow the need to do it will go away;” “I’ve avoided things like this before, and nothing awful happened.” It’s not hard to see how rewarding avoidance can be – it can dramatically lower anxiety and other negative emotions.

As one who lingers over the newspaper a few minutes longer every morning than makes sense, momentarily pushing away the commute and the day’s tasks, I certainly understand the appeal of avoidance in general. In addition, particular types of work present their own seductive opportunities for delay, evasion, momentary escape. Cues for lawyers, for example, include the following:

Having to tell a client something s/he won’t want to hear; e.g., your lawsuit no longer looks promising.

Facing an unfamiliar task, e.g., I’ve never filed this kind of petition before.

Dealing with ornery or otherwise unpleasant clients.

Of course, the particular situations that tend to elicit avoidant behavior will vary from individual to individual. Each alcohol or drug addict, similarly, will have his or her own set of “triggers” that elicit urges to engage in the addictive activity.

If the addiction model is at all useful to apply to avoidance, what measures would it suggest employing in order to “prevent relapse”? Here are some:

• Admit the problem. If history has shown that you have repeatedly avoided important duties in a way that is ultimately likely to lead to meaningful regrets, face the fact that there is a subset of your behavior that is not subject to your ability to think rationally.

• Don’t keep it to yourself; talk to someone else about it; make it real and accept that if you could fix it via internal dialog only you probably would already have done so.

• Identify the situations (external, emotional, etc.) that, for you in particular, are most likely to trigger counterproductive avoidance. This is done primarily by reviewing past examples.

• Though it’s just the sort of thing that we all tend to put out of our minds, practice thinking beyond the decision to avoid, and allow yourself to see the potential or likely consequences. For example, the client will be even angrier to find out about this at a later date, while if you get through the task now you will no longer have to dread it.

• If you are deceiving, hiding, or denying, recognize that these maneuvers perpetuate the avoidance and add to your burden.

With any addictive behavior (and I am only suggesting that avoidance can emulate an addiction*), few individuals will be motivated to take action until some kind of problem results from the behavior, but the hope is always that one need not “hit bottom” in an extreme (or career-heopardizing) way in order to accept reality and embrace healthy change. This is where a therapist may come in handy.

*It is worth noting, however, that there actually is a 12-step group called Procrastinators Anonymous: