The Willingness Factor: Learn to Avoid Avoidance

Airplane PropellerMelanie’s life was shrinking like a cheap blouse in an overheated dryer. At 30 she’d developed a fear of flying that ended her dream of world travel. Within a year, her phobia had grown to include—or rather, exclude—driving. After the World Trade Center attacks, Melanie became terrified to enter the downtown area of any city. She quit her job as an office manager (the potential for mail-based terrorism was too big) and called me hoping I could help her devise a way of earning money from home. “Everybody tells me my fears aren’t realistic,” she said. “But I think I’m the most realistic person I know. It’s a dangerous world—I just want to be safe.”

There was only one thing for which Melanie would leave her apartment. Once a month, she walked to a rundown neighborhood to meet her drug dealer, who sold her Xanax and OxyContin of questionable purity. I insisted that Melanie see a psychiatrist before I’d work with her, and the worried shrink called me before the impression of Melanie’s posterior had faded from his visitor chair. “She’s taking enough medication to kill a moose,” he told me. “If she slipped in the shower and knocked herself out, withdrawal could kill her before she regained consciousness.”

Ironic, n’est-ce pas? Safety-obsessed Melanie was positively devil-may-care when it came to better living through chemistry. This made no sense to me—until I realized that Melanie’s objective wasn’t really to avoid danger but to prevent the feeling of fear. Melanie was using a strategy psychologist Steven Hayes, PhD, calls experiential avoidance, dodging external experiences in an effort to ward off distressing emotions. It wasn’t working. It never does. In fact, to keep her tactics from destroying her, she would have to learn the antidote for experiential avoidance—and so must the rest of us, if we want our lives to grow larger and more interesting, rather than smaller and more disappointing.

Why Experiential Avoidance Seems Like a Good Idea

Most of us do this kind of emotional side step, at least occasionally. Maybe, like Melanie, you feel skittish on airplanes, so you take the train instead. In the realm of physical objects, dodging situations associated with pain is a wonderfully effective strategy; it keeps us from pawing hot stovetops, swallowing tacks, and so on. Shouldn’t the same logic apply to psychological suffering? According to Hayes, it doesn’t. Experiential avoidance usually increases the hurt it is meant to eliminate.

Consider Melanie, who, quite understandably, wanted to steer clear of the awful sensation of being afraid. Every time she withdrew from a scary activity, she got a short-term hit of relief. But the calm didn’t last. Soon fear would invade the place to which Melanie had retreated—for example, she felt much better driving than flying for a little while, but it wasn’t long before she was as petrified in cars as airplanes. Drugs calmed her at first, but soon she became terrified of losing her supply. By the time we met, her determination to bypass anything scary had trapped her in a life completely shaped by fear.

The reason this happens, according to Hayes and other devotees of relational frame theory, is that Melanie’s brain works through forming connections and associations. So does yours. Your verbal mind is one big connection generator. Try this: Pick two unrelated objects that happen to be near you. Next answer this question: How are they alike? For instance, if the objects are a book and a shoe, you might say they’re alike because they both helped you get a job (by being educated and dressing well). Ta-da! Your book, your shoe, and your job are linked by a new neural connection in your brain. Now you’re more likely to think of all these things when you think of any given one.

This means that every time you avoid an event or activity because it’s painful, you automatically connect the discomfort with whatever you do instead. Suppose I’m having a terrible hair day, and to not feel that shame, I cancel a meeting with a client. Just thinking about that client brings on a pang of shame. If I watch a movie to distract myself, I may be hit with an unpleasant twinge just hearing the name of that movie. This happens with every form of psychological suffering we try to outrun. When we run from our feelings, they follow us. Everywhere. 

The Willingness Factor

In Hayes’s book Get Out of Your Mind & into Your Life, he suggests that we picture our minds as electronic gadgets with dials, like old-fashioned radios. One dial is labeled Emotional Suffering (Hayes actually calls it Discomfort). Naturally, we do everything we can to turn that dial to zero. Some people do this all their lives, without ever noticing that it never works. The hard truth is that we have no ultimate control over our own heartaches.

There’s another dial on the unit, but it doesn’t look very enticing. This one Hayes calls Willingness, though I think of it as Willingness to Suffer. It’s safe to assume that we start life with that dial set at zero, and we rarely see any reason to change it. Increasing our availability to pain, we think, is just a recipe for anguish soufflé.

Well, yes…except life, as Melanie so astutely commented, is dangerous. It’ll upset you every few minutes or so, sometimes mildly, sometimes apocalyptically. Since desperately twisting down the Emotional Suffering dial only makes things worse, Hayes suggests that we try something radical: Leave that dial alone—abandon all attempts to skirt unpleasant emotions—and focus completely on turning up our Willingness to Suffer.

What this means, in real-world terms, is that we stop avoiding experiences because we’re afraid of the unpleasant feelings that might come with them. We don’t seek suffering or take pride in it; we just stop letting it dictate any of our choices. People who’ve been through hell are often forced to learn this, which is why activist, cancer patient, and poet Audre Lorde wrote, “When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Once we’re willing to confront our emotional suffering, we begin making choices based on attraction instead of aversion, love instead of fear. Where we used to think about what was “safe,” we now become interested in doing what seems right or fun or meaningful or ripe with possibilities. Ask yourself this: What would I do if I stopped trying to avoid emotional pain? Think of at least three answers (though 30 would be great and 300 even better).

Stick with this exercise until you get a glimmer of what life without avoidance would be like. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, Oh, the places you’d go! Oh, the people you’d meet, the food you’d eat, the jokes you’d tell, the clothes you’d wear, the changes you’d spark in the world!

The Consequences of Willingness

What happens when we’re willing to feel bad is that, sure enough, we often feel bad—but without the stress of futile avoidance. Emotional discomfort, when accepted, rises, crests, and falls in a series of waves. Each wave washes parts of us away and deposits treasures we never imagined. No one would call it easy, but the rhythm of emotional pain that we learn to tolerate is natural, constructive, and expansive. It’s different from unwilling suffering the way the sting of disinfectant is different from the sting of decay; the pain leaves you healthier than it found you.

It took Melanie a huge leap of faith to accept this. She finally decided to turn up her Willingness to Suffer dial, simply because her Emotional Suffering levels were manifestly out of her control. She started by joining a yoga class, though the thought of it scared her witless. She found that her anxiety spiked, fluctuated, and gradually declined. Over the ensuing months, she entered therapy, traded her street-drug habit for prescribed medication, and found a new job. Melanie’s worry isn’t completely gone; it probably never will be. But that doesn’t matter much. She is willing to accept discomfort in the pursuit of happiness, and that means she’ll never be a slave to fear again.

To the extent that we reject anything we love solely because of what we fear, we’re all like Melanie. Find a place in your life where you’re practicing experiential avoidance, an absence where you wish there were something wonderful. Then commit to the process of getting it, including any inherent anxiety or sadness. Get on an airplane not because you’re convinced it won’t crash, but because meeting your baby niece is worth a few hours of terror. Sit on the beach with your mocha latte, humming the song you shared with your ex, and let grief wash through you until your memories are more sweet than bitter. Pursue your dreams not because you’re immune to heartbreak but because your real life, your whole life, is worth getting your heart broken a few thousand times.

When fear makes your choices for you, no security measures on earth will keep the things you dread from finding you. But if you can avoid avoidance—if you can choose to embrace experiences out of passion, enthusiasm, and a readiness to feel whatever arises—then nothing, nothing in all this dangerous world, can keep you from being safe. 

Comments

  1. says

    Wow, Martha, really good stuff in this! It’s so easy to box yourself in, little by little, over the years. Thanks for such a beautiful reminder about diving in and really living life!

  2. Jennifer says

    Martha,
    Have I told you lately that I love you? Because I do. You have this perfect way of saying things that manages to educate, entertain and enlighten all in one breath. I have a running Word document titled “Words of Wisdom” that I add little snippets to from time to time, and I practically pasted this entire article into it. Thank you for helping me to be a better person. And for never failing to make me laugh.

    • Linda says

      That is so interesting. I do the same thing in a document entitled Spirit. Quite a few of my snippets are Beckisms.

      • says

        I have a similar “pool of wisdom” file, and like Linda and Jennifer — Martha is a Super Star repeat-performer in my file! I’ve come to adore your wit and wisdom Martha. You are one of my revised “Everybody Committee” I hang out with daily. Thank you for being completely and totally you, giving the rest of us permission and guidance to do the same!

  3. star says

    About 3 years ago I started having small anxiety symptoms out of the blue at work which peaked with a full blown panic attack, naseau, dizziness to the point where I had to leave my desk in the middle of a phone call and never went back. Over the next few days I was suddenly a different person, unable to drive, I couldnt even go into a drugstore without my hands clamming up and getting shaky and had a knot in my stomach and throat for a week straight. I developed agoraphobic symptoms literally overnight and its been the worst thing thats happened to me. Its better now than it was that initial week, but there have been lasting effects that I think the avoidance has made much worse.To this day, I avoid certain anxiety provoking things and places and definitely feel like my world has gotten smaller. But when I read stories like this, I get a little hopeful that one day I will become my old self again. I pray for that day.

  4. Vera says

    Just what I needed today – thank you so much! Today I was pondering why there are certain things in my life I mean to do and even seem to want to do, yet keep procrastinating. It all makes sense now!

    • Julie says

      this happens more than people think. I am fighting this battle; and what I have learned is not willingness to avoid is not good for youself, and can make you
      literally hide from life. Small steps. The first rule… small steps. Walk out of your home. Breathe. Start with hydrating, fulling your kitchen with good food.
      tell your family and close friends. WALK. WALK. WALK. Routine. Every day.
      I am 1/3 one of the way there. remember; you can fight off the drugs. They become ” you” detox slowly. But you must be willing to re enter the world.
      Stop thnking of yourself as a ” bad person” rather think of yourself as a person
      who has overcome many odds. Stop self blame. My heart goes out to you,
      !7 % of Americans suffer from this. Reach out slowly. Prayers for you.

  5. Bee says

    WOW ! Another little golden gem of wisdom Martha, thank you so much ! This blog entry prompted me to log into a forum I belong to and face an issue that I have been skirting around for months now.
    Issue now sorted, task now done and brought with it the realisation that the action resulted in much less pain and mental anxiety than the avoiding had been causing.

    So I am turning the dial right up and looking around for the next avoidance issue in my life. I know I have a fair numnber to tackle. Get ready world !

    It’s these little gifts of pure insight that keep me refering to you in conversations with friends and encouraging them to read your books too.

    Blessings to you and everyone else turning those dials !
    bee
    x

  6. Jo says

    This was a wonderful article which reached me in a time of need. Thank you Martha! You are wonderful!

    Love,
    Jo

  7. Lyn says

    Thank you. Stumbled upon this from a friend’s link to another of Martha’s pages. I have always enjoyed reading your column in O mag. For me it’s been worth the price tag and more. Today I took a step and did something I’ve been avoiding. Just a particular appointment; time and appointment made. Heading off this afternoon to go and do what I need to do. Anxious, worried, yes, but I know that the avoidance energy was so demanding; it can’t be anywhere near worth it. It will be better for me to do what I have to do. Thank you.

  8. Sabrina says

    I just finished reading your wonderful book ‘Finding Your Way in a Wild New World’ and I resonated with it…I loved it. I love what you are all about…keep up the with the greAt work!

  9. says

    Martha, I just put this on my personal Facebook page, and my Finding Your Life Purpose Facebook page. As I said, “You have been one of my greatest inspirations for many years (I’ve read your books since you began publishing them) and you’re the 1st thing I read in ‘Oprah’…You share profoundly simple steps to a joyous life.” Thank you for your love and wisdom. Carole

  10. Rachel says

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’m on the verge of filing for a divorce that every bone in my body tells me is right, but the fear of emotional pain has kept me there. In all reality, the emotional pain of this moment is greater that what will be on the other side. This article made it perfectly clear. Thank you again.

  11. says

    Martha – I am one of ‘your’ coaches. I adore you – always have, long before I ever became a Martha Beck Coach. There is a children’s book by NW Artist and Writer, Paul Owen Lewis, called GRASPER. It is about a crab and it is AMAZING. It deals with experiential avoidance and I think you would love it. I think children’s books have an amazing way of capturing important lessons and messages in uncomplicated and fun ways. Would love to use them even more as a coaching tool with my clients. Thanks, Hannah

  12. Dene' says

    I have committed to chasity for the last four years and find it the most blessed release. I am wonderfully happy on my own, and being a single mom to a 14 yr.old son I feel sure that it best to leave dating alone until he has navigated the waters of his own blossoming self. We are so programed to think we must have romantic love in order to be truely happy, this simply is untrue. Funny that many people think I should be yammering for love outside of what I already have. Bravo to women who are willing to stand on their own. And strangly enough when I do have a encounter the men find it very interesting that I turn them away, and hold me in very high regard for my choice!

  13. Sandy says

    I have read so many of your articles, this one hit home run for me. I lost my mother suddenly 3 months ago & have been doing alot of searching since. TY for helping me.

  14. says

    Thanks for sharing all your hard-won insight with me! I have lived with fear all my life–fear of not being enough, to have to earn my way into life.

  15. Noelle says

    It’s unfortunate that the story ends with Melanie on “prescribed medication.” Psychotropic medications can turn just as dangerous as street drugs after a few years … promoting their continued use is not responsible, given the recent research about all the problems they can create.

    It’s just another crutch, albeit a legally sanctioned one.

    And no, I’m not a Scientologist or a fan of Tom Cruise. And yes, I’ve ALL of them myself and all those legal drugs nearly killed me.

    • Diane H says

      As a psychiatric nurse, I can tell you that when someone is so biologically depressed that they cannot even get out of a chair, eat or engage in other routine functions, it is unlikely that they will be able to mobilize the psychological energy to engage in psychotherapy or explore how to improve their life. Medication can be very helpful in addressing this phase of depressive illness. If someone needs this assistance for a time, it is not particularly supportive to label this aid as a “crutch” or to discourage people from using something that might be a great help to them. Just because someone isn’t on your path doesn’t mean that they are lost. And just because these medications were not helpful to you doesn’t mean that they might not be lifesaving for someone else.

      • Martie Thomalla says

        This is so well said. It is what I would have replied if I had the skill.
        I started reading Martha in Oprah and now get her daily messages. My yoga teacher trained as a coach under Martha, and gives us many words of wisdom. Thank you, Diane, for your very wise and articulate response.

  16. says

    How beautifully you write Martha. So happy I discovered your work recently. Overcoming fear and helping others to do the same is a big part of my life purpose. Very inspirational case study – thanks for sharing.

  17. Britton Minor says

    Martha, you are an inspiration to me. I am rocking my whole world right now in pursuit of truths and passions long buried. I consider your work to be one of the great motivators toward this path. Thank you for sharing your gifts, for seeking your own true paths, and for just being you.

  18. says

    I can’t remember Martha, how many years ago I read the first article written by you. Since then I have read every book and I always look first for your article in Oprah. Thank you so much for all that you do and for who’ve you become. You are outstanding!

  19. Luciana says

    That’s the inspiration I needed right now!
    It touched me very deep… It hurts. But I know for sure that there is no life without suffering at some point.

  20. Barbara says

    Gosh I needed to read this. It is always amazing to me that the gifts we need come to us at the moment we need them. I have lived for 10 years on a caffeine high and when I took away the crutch I discovered I finally have to deal with the wave of emotions I have been burying… It’s been the hardest to deal with fear… fear of moods, fear of mortality, fear of the “new normal”… but each day another piece of armor is attacked, weakens and falls. Please keep writing…

  21. says

    OMG, every divorced person whould read this. It will take everyone a different amount of time but eventually you notice that this is all TRUE and worth pursuing, in particular when you have children. Face the FEAR! FOr me it was facing Him, but I started doing it and believe it or not, I did not burn or die at the moment he looked me in the eye as if I were nothing more than a person on the street. Does it hurt? Yes, but I can face the fear for the sake and happiness of my children. They deserve a father and a mother who does not impede deserved love from either.

  22. Carol says

    Wow! Martha, on January 1st when I walked the labyrinth, our leader said to ask Spirit for a word and the word I got was Allow. There were things I did not want to allow, things I was trying to accept but certainly not allow, and this article has put a whole new slant on it. I will read it again and again, whenever I get into emotional pain over this situation I am working with. Already I see the gifts in the allowing since January when I started working with it. Amazing!

  23. Rebecca says

    This is so timely. Just what I would expect as a “wayfinder”…
    I just wrote this poem yesterday before reading this….

    A cork
    Floating with the ebb
    And flow
    Of the tides
    Sometimes
    Floundering
    Without direction
    Trying to follow
    The stars
    No compass
    No charts or maps
    Missing a rudder
    How do I
    Expect
    To find my way?

  24. maryann thompson says

    I AM READING THIS AGAIN TODAY. ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT!

    I KNOW YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE NOCEBO/PLACEBO EFFECT (OUR
    DEAR FRIEND LISSA RANKIN COVERS IT WELL). ONE COULD WRITE AN
    ENTIRE BOOK ABOUT THAT – IN FACT, LISSA DID!

    GETTING OFF ALL PHARMACEUTICALS WAS ONE OF THE BEST THINGS I
    HAVE EVER DONE FOR MYSELF. STILL, TO EACH HIS/HER OWN; THE
    BODY-MIND CONNECTION IS SO INTIMATE AND SOMETIMES BEYOND
    OUR LIMITED UNDERSTANDING. EACH INDIVIDUAL/SITUATION IS
    PROFOUNDLY UNIQUE. HAVING EXPERIENCED SEVERE DEPRESSION AND
    THE INSANITY OF MANIA, I HAVE INDEED LEARNED TO RIDE THE WAVES
    AND MY SPIRIT/SOUL FEELS MORE LIBERATED AND “HEALTHY” WITHOUT
    THOSE PILLS.

    FOR A VARIETY OF REASONS, I AM NO LONGER WILDLY MANIC, AND MY
    DEPRESSIVE EPISODES DO NOT PARALYZE ME, AS IN THE PAST. SUFFICE
    IT TO SAY THAT I HAVE DONE MUCH WORK ON MYSELF.

    ONE THING WHICH HAS HELPED ME ENORMOUSLY IS SIMPLY SEEING LIFE
    FROM A PRIMARILY CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE – MY OWN PERSONAL FORM
    OF CHRISTIANITY WITHOUT ALL THE INSANE DOGMA AND PROSELYTIZING,
    WHICH TO ME IS INSANE. I SAID “SIMPLE” BUT IT IS COMPLICATED IN A
    WAY, BECAUSE I AM, AFTER ALL, A UNIQUE INDIVIDUAL.

    GIVING UP ANGER, AS WELL AS GUILT, IS A BIG DEAL AND VERY IMPORTANT
    TO ME PERSONALLY. HOW OTHER PEOPLE DEAL WITH THEIR ANGER ISSUES
    IS NOT MY FOCUS; I ONLY KNOW THAT NOT BEING REACTIVE TO WHAT
    SEEMS TO BE INSENSITIVITY/THOUGHTLESSNESS HAS FREED ME AND GIVEN
    ME GREATER PEACE IN MY OWN LIFE.

    SOMETHING MAGIC AND WONDERFUL HAPPENS WHEN WE STOP JUDGING
    AND CONDEMNING OTHERS AND SIMPLY STRIVE TO UNDERSTAND THAT
    ANGRY PEOPLE ARE COMING FROM A PLACE OF FEAR, AND SIMPLE COM-
    PASSION GOES A LONG WAY; STILL, IF COMPASSION DOES NOTHING FOR
    THEM, IT CERTAINLY DOES SOMETHING FOR WHAT I VIEW AS MY OWN
    SOUL.

    WE BOTH KNOW IT TAKES GREAT COURAGE TO LIVE ONE’S LIFE AND DARE
    TO STRIVE TO UNDERSTAND: AN INSIDE JOB FOR SURE! AND A LIFELONG
    ONE!

    I APRECIATE YOUR WISDOM AND HONESTY: YOU ARE TRULY A GOD-SEND!

    THIS PARTICULAR MESSAGE IS MY OWN PERSONAL FAVORITE, AND I HAVE
    FORWARDED IT TO SEVERAL PEOPLE.

    THANK YOU AGAIN FOR SHARING WITH US! YOU ARE A WONDER AND A
    JOY!

    LOVE AND BLESSINGS,
    MARY ANN

    I

  25. maryann thompson says

    P.S.: I ALSO APPRECIATE YOUR BRILLIANT, UNIQUE SENSE OF HUMOR -
    EVIDENT IN YOUR OTHER MESSAGES, BUT STILL EVER-PRESENT!

    MANY THANKS FOR CONSISTENTLY INSPIRING AND UPLIFTING…..

    MARY ANN

  26. Kathy Obear says

    I just recognized that “dread” and dream” are separated by a single letter….I have chosen dread and fear so much of my life….maybe out of the illusion that by choosing fear I would be safer. I slowly built and reinforced a cage around myself each time I chose fear. Today I choose to dismantle this cage; and choose faith and courage…one step, one choice at a time.
    I am reading Martha Beck’s blogs and book, Finding Your North Star. I highly recommend you find an inspirational source!

  27. Brian says

    I suffer from PTSD and I avoid anything negative such as movies with sad or violent scenes. This article has given me the motivation to change. Baby steps ( What About Bob) lol Thanks

  28. says

    Thanks so much for logically explaining the processes by which we find ourselves avoiding so many things…dropping out of life to avoid discomfort. Your article is just what I needed today!
    Taking a couple of deep breaths now and plunging into some things I’ve been avoiding due to concern about failure. One thing I know for sure is if I don’t try – the result is guarenteed to be failure! Your insights are appreciated.

  29. Faye says

    Thank you so much Matha. This really hit home — I have a lot of fear. Thanks for bring this topic “to the surface”. Just finished “Finding your way in a wild new world”. I loved it — marked it up and bookmarked it — it is on my nightstand. My heart broke for the baby giraffe — but I love the lessons. Be well.

  30. says

    You actually make it appear really easy together with your presentation however I in finding
    this topic to be really one thing that I believe
    I would by no means understand. It seems too
    complicated and extremely extensive for me.
    I am having a look ahead to your subsequent put up, I will try to get the hang of it!

  31. Dawn says

    Very insightful and relateable words, for me. It has always been comforting reading your perceptions. Thank you for sharing them.

  32. says

    I got an excerpt from this in my Daily Inspiration email and even though I received it yesterday, I am appreciating it again today. That’s some good stuff, Martha, thank you for your love and generosity.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Martha Beck’s essay landed in my inbox late last night and it resonated forcefully. Martha’s writing, strong and steady as a heartbeat, made instant and absolute sense. If you’ve found yourself allowing fear to lead you into uncomfortable avoidance patterns, I urge you to have a read of The Willingness Factor: Learn to Avoid Advoidance. [...]

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