I struggle with avoidance. Whether it’s making phone calls, paying bills, or taking care of things around the house, I procrastinate until it just becomes a bigger problem. I know it's not healthy, but I'm not sure how to fix it. What can I do to become more proactive?
Trying to Avoid Avoidance
Dear Trying to Avoid Avoidance,
Avoidance is an extremely common problem. The first defense many people take in facing tasks is to simply avoid them. This makes perfect sense because this reduces stress in the moment. Unfortunately, as you’ve referenced, avoidance tends to cause problems if left unchecked.
The first step is to try to identify what is causing the avoidance. One culprit might be anxiety. For example, if you experience social anxiety when talking on the phone because you don’t know what to say, you may avoid making phone calls. Likewise, novel tasks or things that involve disruption to routines can cause anxiety. Larger, more involved tasks also can be anxiety-provoking because they seem overwhelming.
Many people with autism have difficulty with executive functioning, which includes things like organizing tasks, estimating the time things will take, and following steps through to completion. If you are unsure of how to break something down into smaller steps, you simply may avoid getting started. Feelings of shame or failure can contribute to continued avoidance. People may think things like, “I’ve waited too long, and now it’s too embarrassing to address.”
Once you have identified the cause(s) of avoidance, you can work on finding potential solutions.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
If you need to approach an anxiety-provoking social interaction or phone call, figure out in advance what you want to say. When possible, written communication can be a good starting point. Consulting someone you trust about how to approach a situation also can be helpful.
If you are avoiding a novel task or something that disrupts routine, find out as much as you can in advance and pick the best possible time. Give yourself time to recover after.
Think about using a smart phone app, bullet journal, or planner to help you organize tasks so that you don't use as much executive function planning.
If you are struggling to get started at all, begin by setting a very small goal. For example, if your goal is to clean a room in your house, pick just one small area to clean or set a goal of cleaning for five minutes. You can stop there if that seems like too much, or you may feel like you can do more.
Enlist the help of family members, friends or other supports to work through avoidance. This can mean sitting down to address a task together or simply stating your intention to get started as a form of accountability.
When coping with shame that has built up due to avoidance, remind yourself that avoidance is a common problem. Think about breaking a cycle of avoidance as a process. You don't have to tackle every task at once. You can think of individual strategies that will help with each, and break it into a smaller, more manageable problem. Hopefully with time you will find strategies that work for you and experience the benefits of being more proactive.
Meg Benefield, MSW, LICSW