“But I just don’t like to do that.”
That is what she told me — the young woman who said she didn’t want to go to a restaurant alone. “Why should I do that? I’d much rather eat with someone and be able to talk at dinner. Eating alone wouldn’t be any fun.”
True. Most of us would prefer a dinner companion. It probably would be more enjoyable to dine with a friend. But there is an important distinction here. It is between being able to do something that you might prefer not to do, and being unable to do the thing because it is uncomfortable for you; maybe even frightening. And, it is between deluding yourself into thinking that the activity might be boring or stupid when the truth is that you are afraid to do it.
Deluding and denying. We do it all the time. “I don’t like to do that. Why would I want to do that? Why do I have to do that?” And so we persuade ourselves that we can live without certain experiences, side-stepping the things we don’t know about or haven’t done — the small and large challenges of life.
But what are we really doing here?
For the young woman in question, her repeated need to be accompanied to places — her fear to act alone — caused her to be dependent upon people, especially boyfriends. As a result, she found it difficult to be without a male companion for very long and, when she did find one, discovered that she wanted (and needed) to be with her lover more than he wanted and needed to be with her. Thus, her insecurity about being alone and her avoidance of doing things alone made her dependent upon others.
Eventually, the “clinging” drove her boyfriends away. Then she really was alone. Finding herself abandoned and rejected, she turned her reliance on family or friends; if she had those friends, that is, because she had spent so much time with her boyfriends that she’d neglected making platonic friends, along with the work required to keep them.
Some people who are avoidant don’t realize how anxious they are — how much fear dominates their lives. After all, if you turn down invitations to parties because of underlying social anxiety, you manage to avoid getting nervous as you think about the party, dress for the party, drive to the party, walk in the door, and then try to fit in.
The fact that you don’t feel anxious doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have anxiety problems. In fact, sometimes a better way to determine whether you have a life-compromising form of anxiety is to make a list of the things you will not do unless forced to at gun point.
- Things like giving a public speech, raising your hand in class, traveling to the downtown area of a big city, driving on the expressway, making a phone call, going to a party where you know few people, and eating at a fancy restaurant or any place where you are not familiar with the cuisine.
- Things like going to a movie, play, lecture, or concert alone; flying, sending a poorly prepared dish back to a restaurant’s kitchen, saying “no,” returning an item at the store, etc.
- Things like trying some new activity on your own or voicing a strong opinion that just might be criticized by someone else; and not looking for a new job for fear of the interviewing process.
Please notice that I’m not talking about some of the very commonly experienced fears such as spiders, high places, and confined places: the phobias we call arachnophobia, acrophobia, or claustrophobia and the like. Rather, my focus is on the anxieties that make for daily difficulties — that make a life so narrow that it begins to look a little bit like this:
To the avoidant, anxious person, the narrowly confined life seems safer. It is fraught with fewer frustrations and failures. It demands less. It feels less foreboding.
If you are heavily invested in social media, you can even persuade yourself that your electronic social life of texting, instant messages, blogging, tweeting, role-playing games, and hundreds of Facebook friends is better than the real thing. And what might the real thing be? Dedicated time unmediated and uninterrupted by technology spent with a person who is right in front of you and within the reach of an outstretched hand.
Can you approach social situations without a preliminary drink or joint? Are you certain that the alcohol or marijuana you use to unwind is recreational rather than an effort to self-medicate your anxiety? Yes, we are pretty good at talking ourselves into just about anything rather than seeing ourselves as we really are.
But if we are avoidant, there is a price:
- The same things done over and over and that can be done only in the same places and in the same way; and sometimes only in the realm of electronically achieved distance and safety.
- The need to rely on others who provide an emotional security blanket, or substance use upon which one is also reliant.
- The self-doubt and the worry that accompanies thoughts of leaving our “comfort zone.”
- Too much time spent looking at a television or a Smart Phone or a computer screen.
Avoidance offers no growth and no “life,” only the illusion of safety and the temporary relief that we all know from our school days when the teacher was sick and the test was postponed. I suppose that you can try to postpone the “tests” that life offers until the end of your days. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. I’m talking about a life of challenges unmet, mastery unachieved — the narrow life that Thoreau described when he said:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.
And, in a companion quote often misattributed to Thoreau:
Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.
But he also wrote:
Great God, I ask for no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself,
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye.
We live in “The Age of Anxiety” according to W.H. Auden. In any life there is a first time — a clumsy, unsure time — for everyone and every thing. We fear the judgment of others, the embarrassment, and the mortification of taking a chance and stumbling in public. We compare how we feel inside to the apparent (but not always real) serenity, calm, and self-confidence of others as we look at them from the outside. We condemn ourselves for lost time and opportunity, say to ourselves that we are “too late” or “too old” to take on a new challenge, and thereby guarantee that even more time will be lost; perhaps all the time we will ever have.
We tell ourselves that we can’t try a thing until we first feel better, calmer, and more confident; not realizing that “trying” is just what we need to do in order to feel better about the thing; failing to grasp that anxiety is not the biggest part of the problem, but that a failure to act in spite of the anxiety is.
If you are anxious enough or avoidant enough you might well avoid counseling, too. That is a shame, because there are very good treatments available in the realm of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). For a discussion of therapy for Social Anxiety Disorder, for example, you can look at this: Social Anxiety Disorder and Its Treatment.
Only if you fully realize that your avoidant coping strategies are costing you something of value will you call a therapist. Are you afraid to call? Is it less distressing to email? Did I hear you say, “Maybe tomorrow?” You may not detect the sound, but the clock is ticking.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
The top image is described as Fear of a blank planet, cover by Lasse Hoile Porcupine Tree Band 2005: http://www.porcupinetree.com/ “OTRS Ticket 2006082110002647.” The Illustration of a Shocked or Frightened Woman has been altered by AdamBMorgan from the original that appeared in Wierd Tales (September 1941, Volume 36, Number 1). The next image is One of the narrow streets in the old part of Toledo, Spain by Allessio Damato. Finally, An old style alarm clock captured by Jorge Barrios. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.