Avoidance is not inherently bad. When we avoid unhealthy temptations in the bakery, or when we avoid reacting too immediately or harshly to others at work, both may be virtuous examples of avoidance. But when we consistently avoid certain kinds of challenges or issues that cause us discomfort, avoidance can not only be unhealthy, it can lead to stagnation, block our development, further reinforcing the fears that underlie our avoidant reactions. In that case, avoidance serves to strengthen a “flight” reflex.
What we may not as readily appreciate, however, is that such unhealthy avoidance tendencies can be the product of our willing. We usually think of willing (volition) as a conscious, determined, assertive act, often in the face of resistance, adversity, and perceived risks. As such, an approach orientation arises from a conscious act of will. On the other hand, the avoidance orientation, may also be willed, but we may be less inclined to own our authorship of this act. We may prefer to see it as natural necessity.
John was launching his own professional practice as an IT consultant. He had developed some niche skills that he believed could be better rewarded outside of the large consultancy in which he had been employed. He dreamed of greater independence. With support from his wife and encouragement from a few friends, he made the leap, and the first few months were exhilarating. He prepared his website, created a compelling bio that conveyed the power of his experience and abilities. Prep went well.
Where things slowed down was in attracting and developing clients and business. Some of the work he had done with the larger firm was embedded in larger projects, work that clients were not as inclined to break out. They liked the ease of dealing with a one firm. Still, he was convinced that he could serve some smaller clients, but it required proactive marketing and selling of his services. He prepared to do so, he struggled with taking action – he avoided the feared situation.
His wife recognized that John was not ready to call it quits; he really wanted to spread his wings and make a go of it. However, she also noticed that he struggled with approaching prospective clients and with asking for their time, and for their business. She suggested he see someone who could help him understand what was getting in his way. It was like he was stopping himself. John knew in his heart that she was right, that she loved him and was telling him what he needed to hear.
John saw a psychologist. They took time in the first two meetings to get a clear an accurate picture of him and his situation, the strengths he brought to his work and the challenges associated with his new role as entrepreneurial professional. They then examined the situations and activities he feared and avoided. They did this in more detail than he had ever thought possible: When he pictured himself in the situation, what did he feel, think, do, struggle with? What happened, what did it mean, and then what?
They discussed which of these feelings and thoughts were longstanding, a part of who he believed himself to be. They examined the notion that adult identity development is ongoing, perpetual, and largely stimulated by the roles we take on and the challenges we face. John came to see that he could choose to approach or avoid taking roles and facing challenges. It was really up to him. He also came to see that he would benefit from testing his desire to take these roles, but that meant approaching them.
From these conversations, John achieved a fresh perspective, greater confidence in himself, and in what he might be able accomplish through his coaching relationship. He needed to set stretch goals, create action plans, experiment with graduated levels of challenge, and process his experience and problem solve issues with someone who at this point really knew who he was, could readily empathize with his struggle, and could offer support and a bit of “tough love” to keep him honest in his attempts.
John had illuminated his less conscious and fearful tendencies that resulted in willing avoidance. He found relationships (his wife and his coach) in which he could confess his fears, discover that they are normal emotional reactions that need to be understood, honored, and then overcome with intelligent action. He recognized that he, like all human beings, will face adaptive challenges, and must further evolve his self-identity when he chooses to take on new and challenging roles.
It did not for John, and it does not for any of us, happen overnight. Nor did it happen all at once; it was a step-wise process of reflection and discovery, insight and decision-making, and risk-taking and learning. All of this would have been difficult if not impossible to pull off by himself, in the privacy of his own mind. You might think of the small cadre (John, his wife, and his coach) as the nucleus of a network; not simply a social network, but a developmental network.