Because we need to avoid the things in life that will kill us, the role of rapidly learned avoidance in human survival is critical. Early on we are conditioned (taught) about what to avoid. As life goes on the trick is to understand when avoidance makes good sense and when it prevents us from developing the capability of doing good things and growing ourselves in the process.
In psychology we’ve identified a special type of avoidance learning called “aversive conditioning” in which an undesirable behavior is eliminated through the use of punishment. People first learn to escape the punishment by not exhibiting the undesirable behavior and then learn to subsequently avoid this bad behavior in the future. When dealing with very harmful actions (e.g. addictions) this behavior therapy method is very useful. But in everyday life most of us aren’t constantly coping with lethal or harmful situations. We’re just trying to figure out what to do and what not to do so as to live long and prosper.
We need to understand that there are two sides to this conditioning process. After all, when you find yourself trying to avoid something, you don’t simply cease all activity. You must be doing something else instead that is less aversive and perhaps even a bit pleasurable. In Skinnerian psychology we used the term “shaping behavior” to represent the process of moving towards target behaviors and away from behaviors that were off-target. In classic learning theory a similar process was referred to as the “approach-avoidance phenomenon”. In the workplace, for example, someone avoids the negative consequence of appearing to slack off on Friday afternoon and approaches useful but low-value “busy work” until quitting time.
Unfortunately, life teaches some folks mostly what to avoid and doesn’t include much about the things in life that can be approached safely and realistically. Some of the likely consequences of this habitual conditioned avoidance are:
- No tolerance for risk-taking and a high desire for the safety of sameness
- Serious inability to trust and analyze your own and others’ behaviors
- Susceptibility to stress-related illnesses
- Hyper-sensitivity to real or perceived environmental discomforts
- A preference for sharing control rather than exercising direct, beneficial influence
That these “avoidance habits” get in the way of personal development is rather obvious. What to do about such habits is far more obscure. One method from cognitive behavior therapy is to use “STOP” to mentally cease the thoughts that precede the avoidance behavior. Think of “STOP” as the first step to starting, though that seems contradictory. The way things work is that “stop” gets quickly followed by a replacement of the avoidance habit with another behavior that is incompatible with avoidance. You can read more about this method by researching the topic, “counter-conditioning”. Please realize that if this process were easy, there would be many more talented workers, well-behaved humans and remarkably clever animals in the world.
There are no quick and easy fixes for conditioned avoidance. As a habit, avoidance is as hard to break as it is to start the good habit of consciously deciding what to approach in life. Some habits change by self-help while others must have coaching and external support. Your habits are bigger than your behaviors. They are the confluence of your thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs and life experiences. If you need help finding a place to start to change the habit of conditioned avoidance, look first at the attitudes and beliefs you’ve built over your lifetime.