Updated: May 17, 2022
A wise man said something to me a month ago that really hit me in the mind and heart - in the way that really deep truths do.
"Avoidance lies at the root of most human suffering".
If there was ever a universe in which Anxiety was a God, its sacred text might well be called The Doctrine of Avoidance.
I been thinking upon the many times that I have (and still do) listened to the convincingly authoritative voice of the Anxiety-God... always coming at me with so many reasons 'why not'. Always with lists of things I needed to worry about, keep an eye on. So many potential threats or possible negative futures. Reasons for why things might be too hard or too uncomfortable.
The end result of all of this was generally my own unnecessary and fearful contraction, rather than that of life-affirming soul and life expansion; that thing which should be my (and your) natural birthright.
Now - before I go further; let's not get too down on Anxiety. Here's a short note in support of the Anxiety-God in my own life:
"Never, ever leave me! Truly, I never want to be without you. Sometimes you are worth listening to! But when your Doctrine and Dogma prevent me from entering into the river of life, I lose trust in you and ultimately in myself"
So - how to resist the Doctrine of Avoidance?
I want to share two graphics with you below. Both are simple, but in essence they represent what I have found to be the best and most helpful ways to create desired movement and change in the places of difficulty I face in my own life ie: not avoid shit. Or, get better at engaging, and avoid shit less.
Whenever I make better choices around the actions I take in my life, this will inevitably lead to greater contentment.
Just to be clear, when he talks about "getting better at feeling bad" author Mark Manson is speaking about taking positive life-actions that could well feel uncomfortable or outside our comfort zones. He is definitely NOT talking about taking (or not taking) actions that might lead to harmful outcomes in our lives: such as self-harm, addictions, avoidance etc.
Here's another for you to consider:
Some changes I'd make to the graphic above:
1 - I'd adjust the tag on the guy to read "You and Your Stoic Practice".
2 - I'd put a speech bubble on Anxiety to read something like "Hey! Jeez what are you doing? Don't look at her! I know what's best for you and believe me when I tell you that we need to try control everything!"
Yeah right, Anxiety. So. What can we control? Actually, don't ask Anxiety. Instead, let's ask Reality.
Oh. It's Ourselves.
And there is lots to say there. Here's a few of the things within my realm of control:
The way I think / thoughts I choose to believe
The filters / lenses I choose to use (or not use) to try to interpret what's happening.
Whether I react or respond.
The actual choices I make - what I actually DO
Feel free to replace the word Stoicism in that above graphic with whatever ideas or practises might work for you around resisting the agenda of Anxiety. In my finer moments, I can actually see it. How much more energy I'd have for life & living by signing up as a member of the Resistance (cue t-shirt design ideas for the Anxiety Liberation Front). How much more of life I would get to experience. Yup. Worth thinking about.
For me, the central message of these two graphics can be summed up here:
Your greatest (and possibly only) enemy is your own mind. A few lines from The Doctrine of Avoidance:
Stayest in thy small Life-Cave where nothing will hurt thee.
Thy mind has all the answers / understands what's going on.
All hail to the Anxiety-God who has the right to use thy mind against thyself (all for thouest own good, remember!)
Ah... Anxiety-God (sigh). I know you have good intentions (protection) however, all too often I lose sight of the fact that you morph into what ends up being a giant over-protective friend in my life. So little of what you say is going to happen, actually does. Mostly because you are just wrong, but also you make me feel scared and so I fail to go and see what's actually real :-(
Learning to "feel bad" is going to necessarily include my resisting going along with habitual reactivity (important reminder: avoidance is a form of reactivity) and learning over time to respond (another word for choose).
Reactivity IS hard to contain but the good news is this: it lives firmly within the circle of things you and I can control.
What to do?
Healthy Self Regulation - the actual Secret
1 - Get better at feeling bad / uncomfortable by choosing it more often
2 - Focus on what you can control (yourself), and try as best you can to let go of the rest
But it does get easier. It's self love in action. These two provide real help to help get you out of the cave and into the the flow of the river of your life (yes, it's YOUR life!). And, here is what you most need in order to do #1 and #2:
Develop healthy self-regulation.
(self regulation needs to include co-regulation - which, simply put, is connecting in a variety of ways with kind and safe other humans).
At it's essence, both self and co-regulation is all about Befriending the Nervous System, which is our very best resource when it comes to reclaiming life from Anxiety. How to move from the cave to the river. A short word of caution: some people can develop an addiction-to-feeling-bad (that is, the 'bad or unhelpful' kinds of bad - like shame, depression or anxiety). This is just as unhelpful for our ongoing well-being as an addiction-to-feeling-good (that is, 'bad or unhelpful' kinds of good - such a reliance on pain-killing forms of pleasure-seeking aka addictions).
Extremisms of any kind will often tend to disconnect you from being able to experience life - you end up cutting off from all the many shades of what it is to be human. Here's a few manifestations of inner-extremisms that I'm familiar with
Common Manifestations of Inner-Extremism
Black & White Thinking (losing the wider context - of both self & other)
Tendency toward absolute statements
Rigidity / Lack of Flexibility
Increase in Negative Assumptions / Judgements
Need to Control
(If the Anxiety-God was ever to release a studio album, these could be a good starting place for song titles!)
Go well on your journey wherever it is leading you. Do your best to stay aligned to your own true north.
May you feel ever-increasing freedom from the unhelpful ways in which your mind may be leading you astray, and use it instead to move you in a direction of greater contentment.
May you put down your version of the Doctrine of Avoidance and instead start to create a manifesto of your own heartfelt desires for life.
Come Talk... Hilary
Further Thoughts for Keen Readers...
17 May 2022:
Since writing this I have had a load of thoughts about "what else helps?".
And, the thing that is really standing out is a really important word - CURIOSITY.
I've been building up some notes over the past few months with a view to writing a piece about the importance of Questions. It's just suddenly struck me now: seeking to develop a Heart-centred Question Practise (more on that later!) is so relevant to this piece.
All of the manifestations of Inner-Extremism I mention above (and of course there are more) massively interrupt the possibility for healthy, relationship-supporting Questions. Just to be clear - I am including here the relationship with oneself, and those we have with others.
When we lose our curiosity - we shut down. The walls go up, and the blinkers go on. When we stop questioning ourselves, we are deep in the Doctrine of Avoidance. Self-questioning and honest-answering can be a very uncomfortable process - where we open ourselves up to an inner world of things we may not wish to feel or shine a light on.
When we cease to ask Open-Hearted questions of the others around us, we maroon ourselves upon on an island of our own making. Agendaless and Open-Hearted Questions open us up to a world of things about others that we do not know and cannot control, requiring us to suspend our beliefs about another and to embrace "not knowing".
So! Emerging thinking for me is that Embracing Curiosity may well hold some of the answers when it comes to "what helps?" in the journey to reclaiming our lives back from Anxiety. Questions can lead to discomfort, and as such they can form a useful part of "getting better at feeling bad".
I will post a link here when I have written my piece on 'Questions as Relationship Bridges'... which I am coming to think is part of the sacred work of relationship (with self, and with other).