Why do You Avoid Difficult Thoughts?

Everyone’s mental landscape is different. The way I have internalized the world and how it functions is different from how others see it. When two people look at the same scene, they will have a completely different interpretation. But there are things that a lot of us have in common.

I’ll outline a few ways we mentally evade our problems and fears and offer some solutions that have helped me. Most of these are based on the writings of Leo Babauta over at Zenhabits. Of course, there are many other writers that focus on the same subject, but he does it with a cleverness and simplicity that I find easy to add to my life.

Avoidance

We have a tendency to avoid thoughts that make us uncomfortable or afraid. It can be scary thoughts and memories like the death of a loved one, a breakup, a financial disaster, failure etc. But it can be the most mundane things as well, like replying to a long email or changing a light bulb that’s been out for a month.

In the past, I avoided looking at my bank account, because it would stress me out. I also avoided thinking about exams that I wasn’t studying for, or arguments I had with a family member, and a host of other things.

Avoidance, as a coping mechanism, is manifested in many ways. To dodge things we don’t want to do, remember or think about, we check messages, notifications, news, feeds etc. We don’t exercise because it’s uncomfortable. When faced with a problem, we go do something else.

Consider the following sentence:

“I can’t deal with this now.”

Imagine it’s a problem you are having or a chore you need to do. I’d like to explore different reasons for avoidance by emphasizing different parts of this sentence.

I can’t deal with this now.

The problem is mentally sidestepped because I, in particular, can’t deal with it now. It has to be done by someone else, so I put it out of my mind.

I can’t deal with this now.

I am literally unable to handle the issue right now. This could mean physically, it’s something I don’t have the tools to solve, or psychologically because I’m too tired/stressed to do. So it goes to a compartment in my mind and I’m off to do something else.

I can’t deal with this now.

I can do a lot of things, but this shit is beyond me right now. It’s just too much. Lalalala I’m pretending it doesn’t exist.

I can’t deal with this now.

I am totally doing this later. I spent two months in Spain one summer and this reminds me vividly of how the Spanish use the word “mañana”. Depending on the context, it could mean tomorrow, in the morning, or simply later. And when they mean “later” it’s unclear whether that’s 10 minutes later or 6 months later.

Of course, there can be a legitimate practical reason why a situation can’t be solved. In those cases, it helps to get it out of your head and come back to it when circumstances change. Our ability to compartmentalize serves us in a lot of ways.

It becomes harmful when it starts to turn into a habit. Every decision or action we take trains our brain. It either strengthens connections or weakens them. This happens in very small increments, but it has a compound effect over time.

The more you avoid thinking about something, the better your brain gets at avoiding it. Your mental resilience drops. If you imagine your mind as a political map of the world, there could be whole countries where you don’t want to go. Maybe even whole continents.

Similarly, when you start intentionally looking at things you are used to shunning, you train your neural network to get better at facing uncomfortable issues. It’s hard at first, but as I’ve said, it has compounding benefits as you do it more often. It will be easier and the feeling of dread will lessen or evaporate.

Leo uses his Face Everything Technique. It involves 4 steps:

1. Create awareness by asking, “What am I doing right now?”

Here you’re simply noticing what you are doing, like checking Facebook, reading an article, spacing out etc.

2. Next, ask yourself, “What am I avoiding?”

This one should be obvious. What are you supposed to be doing right now?

3. Now face it.

Stay in the present moment with the feeling of discomfort. Not the story you’re telling yourself about why you’re avoiding the problem, but the actual physical feeling. Realize the feeling is not a big deal.

4. Take appropriate action.

Now that you have faced the uncomfortable feeling, decide what the best action is right now and go do it.

Read the full article for more depth.

Observation vs. Prediction

A corollary to avoidance is imagining the way reality should work, or the way we want it to work, and then treating that image as the ground truth. This happens because we don’t want to consider a harsh or scary alternative. Steve Pavlina wrote a great article about it, called How to Be Free of Frustration.

People look at a part of reality (their finances, career, relationship, the political situation in their country etc.) and resist it. That causes frustration. But where does that perception happen? In our brains. We don’t actually see the external world directly. Our senses don’t work like that. We only detect a part of the raw information available, and then our brains simulate their best guess.

So when we point a finger to any part of our reality, we really only observe our mind’s  simulation of external reality. The map, not the territory. We predict (or decide) what should happen and then get mad when our observation doesn’t match our prediction.

If your observations and your predictions disagree, does it really make sense to have them do battle inside your mind?

What’s the solution? Steve suggests that prediction should always surrender to observation. What you perceive is what is, and the fault is yours for expecting otherwise. We should tame our predictions and not let our narrative too far ahead of our observations.

Whenever prediction wants to shout, “Let’s celebrate in advance. This is totally a done deal!” I don’t grant it the authority to declare itself an accurate authority on the future. I allow it to suggest, and I listen to its suggestions, but I retain an attitude of “perhaps, but perhaps not” when listening. I know from experience that prediction can wield tremendous confidence even when it’s dreadfully wrong.

In practice, it’s very liberating to think in this manner. I might get that promotion, and I might not. I’m going on that trip I just booked, but I may not. Who knows? I observe that it currently seems that things might happen that way, but I can’t really be 100% certain.

This does not mean that you have to be passive and make peace with an unfavorable situation. But you have to accept the reality of the current situation before starting to work on a solution. To become aware of the narrative you tell yourself to evade your observations, check out Leo’s awesome little article on Mental Badassery.

Legibility

Something similar happens when facing a very complex situation. Rather than trying to understand all the complexities, our minds give up on trying to understand all the subtleties and offer a simpler solution or heuristic. This feature is very useful to humans in many situations. It saves resources and speeds up processing when a complex problem requires a quick, simple solution.

But when a complex problem merits a complex solution, avoidance is detrimental. Venkat Rao over at Ribbonfarm wrote a very eye-opening piece on the problem of legibility.

There’s a pattern of failure when we look at a problem and fail to comprehend all its subtleties. We then project our subjective lack of comprehension onto the complex object and label it as “irrational”. The pattern, according to Venkat, plays out in society like this:

  • Look at a complex and confusing reality
  • Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
  • Rather than your own limitations, attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at
  • Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
  • Argue that the relative simplicity and orderliness of the vision represents rationality
  • Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
  • Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly

We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility.

Next time you face a complex problem, try to detect your confusion and the moment you give up from trying to understand. Resist the urge to paste a simple answer over the issue.

Others Avoid Difficult Thoughts Too

The Internet is infested with people who know what reality should look like, and they love to discuss endlessly about it (but not really do anything that could create meaningful change). Ryan Holiday calls it voting on reality. Once I became aware of it, I saw it everywhere. Politics is a prime example. From Ryan:

Enough. Admit to yourself that this is hollow. It is self-absorbed helplessness. And promise that you’ll try to waste less time arguing about reality, pointing out what the weather was supposed to be like today, and take the world as is, for what it is.

It is infuriating to deal with people who imagine a certain way reality should work and then get attached to it. Especially if they freak out when reality does not conform to their expectations. As Ryan said:

Our energy would be so much better spent accepting it and finding a way to change it. Looking for cracks to apply leverage and force, not rhetoric. But it feels better to voice your disapproval like some papal proclamation. Ryan does not agree, the facts are on notice!

When our loved ones avoid facing reality and their own difficult thoughts, it can have a huge impact on our lives. Unfortunately, if reasonable discussion does not work, there might not be more we can do. Other people sometimes have to learn their lessons in their own time. Regardless of how angry or sad we feel about it. Another sprinkle of Leo’s wisdom:

Trying to change others, wanting them to be the way we want them to be, just doesn’t work. The alternative, though, is unthinkable to most of us: to just let others be however they want to be. Even when that annoys you.

This, of course, does not mean that we shouldn’t try to educate people. But other people are essentially out of our control and it’s fruitless to try to change them against them will. Read more on dealing with difficult people here.

* * *

I hope this helps to shed some light on the shadowy parts of your mind. Visit those shadows often and they won’t be so scary anymore. You’ll be a lot stronger and ready to face bigger challenges than you thought capable. 🙂

 

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