It took forever, but I finally got around to writing this piece about avoidance (insert rim shot sound effect here).
We can all laugh a little (or not) at our universal human tendency to avoid doing today what we can put off until tomorrow. But there are times when a compulsion to avoid can seriously derail us from our purposes. We avoid not just what we need to do, but what we need to say and what we need to feel.
I worked with Paul for about five years. Paul turned 30 in the second year of our work together. He was rising up in an investment banking career, and when we first met, he was agonizing over whether or not to marry his girlfriend Joyce. Joyce had waited two years thinking Paul would come around, because he did love her—but he dragged his feet at every point in the relationship whenever taking it up a level was indicated. He stated repeatedly that he wasn’t ready, he didn’t know, he wasn’t sure. Joyce, her clock running out, apparently thought that meant there would eventually be a yes while she could still have children. Heartbroken, Joyce finally moved on, and Paul went through the exact same dance with two other girlfriends he stayed with for more than a year each. I’m not sure who was more frustrated, Paul or me. It was hard for Paul to see the selfishness and the cruelty of his choices. He saw himself as a victim of an incomprehensible paralysis that could not be understood or cured, and he was adamant about not seeing it any other way. Finally, Wall Street crashed, and Paul had to stop seeing me. I’d like to think that Paul finally figured himself out—and if not, maybe his ex girlfriends have created a cautionary website about him :“Beware of Eligible Bachelors Who Won’t Break Up With You But Won’t Marry You Either Dot Com”
Then there’s Ellen, who is a very attractive artist, just turned 30, who is emotionally scarred by serial long term relationships that have ended very badly. Observing Ellen as she goes through her dating process, I notice that she gets interested in someone and allows the relationship to proceed, but she sees a bunch of red flags, and knows that he’s probably not the guy she would want to end up with. She turns out to be right, but unfortunately, she doesn’t end the relationship early on; acting as though she’s more into him than she really is, she thinks it’s better having him around than having no one. Recently, she was seeing Mark, whom she liked sort of, but didn’t see as marriage material. Mark was clear that he was looking for a mate, and after spending a few weeks together, Mark broke up with her. Even though Ellen wasn’t all that into him, she was more hurt than she had expected to be.
Ellen avoids ending relationships that aren’t right, because she is convinced that having someone around short-term is a better bet, and easier than holding out for someone who could be long-term. Yet the failure of each short-term relationship leaves her sad, lonely and despairing. Paul avoids marrying women he loves because he imagines there might be someone else whom he would love more, who would be so perfect that he would have no doubts and no fears. And when the girlfriend finally gives up on him, he feels guilty, lonely ashamed and stuck.
The kind of avoidance I speak of here is deeply rooted, in childhood experiences of disappointment and the sense of powerlessness. Deep down, as ambitious as they both are, there’s a pernicious part of Paul and Ellen that doesn’t really expect anything to do with them to turn out well. Sadly, without being at all aware, they set up their lives in ways that ultimately confirm their unconscious low expectations.
The moral is: Do avoid: self-pity, not know-ing what you really want and how you really feel, not listening to your gut instincts, never resolving your ambivalence about whether or not you’re worthy and capable. And, as a corollary, do Not avoid: overcoming fear.
Daniel Shaw, LCSW, practices psychotherapy in Nyack and in New York City. He can be reached at (845) 548-2561 in Nyack and in NY City at (212) 581-6658, email@example.com or online at www.danielshawlcsw.com