Many survivors of childhood abuse often develop avoidance as a way to protect themselves.
We all had moments where we did whatever we could to avoid feeling, thinking, doing, or dealing with something.
I did. And I still do.
I used to engage in emotional distancing, excessive daydreaming, and other forms of escape to avoid living in reality.
While I no longer do those specific avoidant behaviors, I still struggle with avoidance sometimes. I procrastinate or avoid trying or doing new things for fear of failing or humiliating myself.
Unfortunately, avoidance is an easy coping mechanism to slip into. But we have to remember that it’s not healthy.
This post will explore what avoidance is, how it might’ve developed, its effects on us, and how we can overcome it.
What is Avoidance?
Avoidance is defined as the tendency to stay away from or avoid certain situations, activities, thoughts, or emotions.
When someone changes their behavior to avoid thinking, feeling, or doing something, specifically something difficult – that’s avoidance.
Avoidance is a coping mechanism that may arise as a response to traumatic events, stressful circumstances, or situations that have previously caused distress.
It can be driven by fear, anxiety, or a desire to minimize potential harm or negative outcomes.
It can manifest in various forms, including avoiding specific places, people, conversations, or even internal thoughts and feelings.
How Avoidance May Have Developed
Recognizing how your avoidant behaviors may have developed based on the abuse you experienced can help you understand that behavior and take steps toward healing.
First, it’s important to recognize that avoidance is a natural response to the abuse you experienced.
If you have abusive parents, you likely developed avoidance as a survival and coping mechanism to protect yourself.
How this behavior manifested is not your fault. Your mind and body did what they needed to survive.
Avoidance allowed you to create distance and minimize potential threats or triggers that could lead to further abuse.
Growing up, you may have had to avoid confrontations, expressing your feelings, or any situations or behaviors that may trigger your parents’ abusive behavior.
And now as an adult, you may avoid certain situations, people, topics, thoughts, or feelings to shield yourself from possible harm or to maintain a sense of safety.
It’s also a way for you to minimize triggers and reduce the risk of re-traumatization.
Types of Avoidance
Please note that experiencing any of these doesn’t necessarily indicate avoidance since they can be attributed to other factors.
But if these behaviors are persistent and significantly affect your daily life, relationships, or well-being, then they’re likely avoidance.
These types of avoidance can also overlap. Individuals can also exhibit avoidant behaviors in multiple areas.
Emotional avoidance, as the name suggests, is the tendency to suppress or avoid experiencing certain emotions, especially those that are considered negative or uncomfortable.
As a child, you may have learned to avoid expressing your feelings as a way to prevent angering or upsetting your parents.
Now as an adult, that means of self-protection might’ve continued as you continue to avoid confronting certain unpleasant emotions like sadness, anger, fear, or shame.
You may often engage in escape behaviors like excessive gaming, binge-watching TV, or compulsive internet browsing to avoid feeling your feelings.
You may also tend to self-medicate by using substances like alcohol and drugs or by overeating as a way to numb your emotions.
Physical avoidance means avoiding or steering clear of specific physical situations, activities, places, or objects.
Growing up, you may have physically avoided your parents by spending more time outside the home, doing extracurricular activities, or hanging out with friends.
As an adult, you may physically avoid things that remind you of the abuse you experienced.
Related to, but different from physical avoidance, social avoidance focuses specifically on avoiding social interactions, gatherings, or situations involving other people.
You may withdraw from social interactions or isolate yourself from others.
Unsurprisingly, it is often a coping strategy for individuals with social anxiety.
The fear of judgment, trust issues, low self-esteem, and emotional withdrawal that might’ve resulted from the abuse you faced may have developed into social avoidant behaviors.
Task & Responsibility Avoidance
The avoidance of tasks and responsibilities is often driven by anxiety, perfectionism, learned helplessness, a lack of confidence, a lack of motivation, or a fear of failure – all of which are possible effects of childhood abuse.
Your abusive parents likely criticized, humiliated, and undermined your abilities, accomplishments, and performances.
As a result, you may doubt your ability to complete tasks successfully. Or you might believe it’s pointless because it would never be good enough anyway.
Signs of task avoidance are procrastination, setting unrealistic or impossible standards and goals, and making excuses, justifications, or rationalizations on why you don’t need to do the task.
Cognitive avoidance involves avoiding certain thoughts, memories, or topics that are distressing or uncomfortable.
To avoid feeling your emotions, you may overwork or keep yourself excessively busy, engage in excessive rumination, constantly seek distraction, or use substances as a way to avoid confronting difficult thoughts and memories.
Avoidance of Change
Some people may avoid change and resist new experiences, routines, or transitions – good or bad.
You may resist or avoid trying new things, taking risks, or stepping outside of your comfort zone in fear of the unknown or potential failure.
Even if the change is positive, you may be reluctant to experience it because of your desire for stability and feeling comfortable with the familiar.
Avoidance of Intimacy & Trust
Abusive parents can significantly impact their children’s ability to form healthy, trusting relationships.
You may avoid intimacy, emotional vulnerability, or deep connection with others for fear of rejection, abandonment, or getting hurt.
As a result, you may appear emotionally distant in relationships and unknowingly isolate yourself by pushing others away or shutting them out.
Avoidance of Conflict
Due to the fear of retaliation or further abuse, you may have developed a strong aversion to conflict, disagreements, or confrontations.
You may avoid expressing your opinions, needs, or concerns to prevent potential arguments, tensions, or negative outcomes.
You may also deny or minimize the importance of an issue to avoid dealing with any possible conflict.
Avoidance of Trauma & Triggers
Avoiding people, places, objects, or situations that serve as reminders of past trauma is a self-protective measure to keep you from experiencing emotional pain and trauma again.
You may also deny, downplay, or dismiss the importance of your trauma, negative experiences, or the emotional impact they had on you as a way to avoid confronting or addressing them.
Effects of Avoidance
It’s important for people who’ve experienced childhood abuse to recognize the impact avoidance has on them.
Because although avoidance served as a survival mechanism for the abuse you faced early on, it starts hurting you once it no longer serves its purpose.
Once you’re no longer a helpless child stuck in a toxic environment, avoidance becomes an issue because issues are no longer being addressed or resolved. They’re only being postponed.
In other words, all your issues will eventually catch up to you, thus creating extra stress, anxiety, and other problems.
So while avoidance can provide temporary relief or a sense of control, it perpetuates anxiety and stress in the long run as unresolved issues and emotions persist.
Recognizing the effects of avoidance can help you address and overcome it.
Avoidance can significantly impact your ability to form and maintain healthy relationships.
Your fear of potential hurt may cause you to avoid close emotional connections, intimacy, or trust.
You may also struggle to open up and establish secure attachments.
This can lead to misunderstandings, distance, resentment, and a breakdown in trust.
It can strain your existing relationships and keep you from forming new ones.
Mental Health Issues
Prolonged avoidance can have detrimental effects on your mental health.
It may contribute to the development or exacerbation of conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
Avoidance can also reinforce negative thought patterns and limit your access to a support network.
Avoidance can whittle away at your self-esteem and confidence.
When you consistently avoid challenges or situations that you think are difficult, you start to develop a negative image of yourself.
This can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and a diminished sense of self-worth.
Lack of Personal Growth
By avoiding challenges, new experiences, and difficult emotions, you miss out on opportunities for growth, self-reflection, self-discovery, building resilience, and learning.
You also likely miss out on valuable experiences and possible achievements or advancements in various areas of your life.
Avoidance can hinder the healing process once it no longer serves as a protective mechanism.
By avoiding feeling or experiencing certain things, you end up preventing yourself from actively addressing and resolving issues that require healing.
All the other negative effects of avoidance, such as its negative effects on mental health and relationships, also play a role in hindering the healing process.
Reinforcement of Avoidance Patterns
The more you engage in avoidance, the more reinforced the behavior becomes.
Over time, avoidant behaviors can become ingrained and automatic, making it increasingly difficult to break free and engage in healthier coping strategies.
So it’s important for you to start learning how to overcome avoidance so you can begin moving forward.
How to Overcome Avoidance
What you learned as a child to protect yourself was not your fault. You needed your avoidant behaviors to survive.
But now, you need to learn how to overcome that behavior you’ve grown to rely on so that you can start healing.
However, it’s also important to note that avoidance is a natural and understandable response to certain situations.
Like when you were a child, there are moments when avoidance is actually protective and helpful.
However, if avoidant behavior becomes excessive, starts interfering with your daily functioning, or prevents you from engaging in meaningful activities and relationships, then it’s probably time to address it.
Recognize your avoidant behaviors and what triggers it
Explore the underlying reasons behind your avoidant behaviors.
Reflect on past experiences, traumas, or beliefs that may have contributed to its development.
Then, try to recognize the situations, emotions, or thoughts that seem to trigger them.
Finally, try to understand and acknowledge the effects and consequences your avoidant behaviors have on you and your life.
Start doing things you tend to or want to avoid
The only way to truly break out of the avoidance habit is to, well, just stop avoiding things. Duh, right?
Of course, it’s much easier said than done.
It took years for you to learn these avoidant behaviors, so it’ll take a while to unlearn it.
So please be patient and try to do this slowly.
Consider a gradual exposure approach to facing avoided tasks, situations, feelings, or thoughts.
Start with less challenging tasks, situations, emotions, or thoughts and gradually progress towards more difficult ones as you build confidence and resilience.
Learn healthy coping skills
Learn and practice healthy coping skills to manage anxiety, stress, and other emotions that may come up when facing avoidance triggers.
Also, learn how to healthily and appropriately identify, express, and manage uncomfortable emotions.
Challenge negative thoughts and self-talk
Negative thoughts and self-talk like “You’re going to fail” or “You can’t do this” reinforce avoidant behaviors.
So try to replace your negative self-talk with more realistic and positive self-talk that can motivate you to take action and face challenges instead.
Learn more in How to Stop Negative Self-Talk
Be kind to yourself throughout this process.
Overcoming avoidance takes time and effort.
Acknowledge that setbacks will likely occur and treat yourself with understanding and patience.
And celebrate your efforts and progress along the way, no matter how small they may seem.
Related: Self-Compassion and Why It’s Important for Healing
Avoidance keeps you stuck.
When you constantly avoid feeling, doing, or thinking about certain things, you can’t grow and you can’t move forward.
Overcoming avoidance requires perseverance.
So as long as you continue taking steps forward, even when faced with setbacks or discomfort, you ARE healing and overcoming.
And remember, everyone’s journey regarding avoidance is unique. So please be gentle with yourself and go at your own pace.
And when you ever feel like you slipped back into avoidant behaviors, remind yourself that it’s okay as long as you don’t stay stuck there.
Hi there, I’m Estee.
Having been raised by an abusive mother, I developed an interest in mental health to better learn, understand, and manage the effects the abuse had on me. My experiences inspired me to create Hopeful Panda.
In my free time, you’ll find me cooking, organizing, playing video games, writing, or spending time with my family. You can read more about me and my blog here.
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