The Ins and Outs of Avoidance

by Roger Whittler, LPC
Missouri Lawyer’s Assistance Program Clinician

We have all engaged in avoidance and have all experienced someone else doing it. Overcoming destructive avoiding behavior is a positive contribution to mental health. According to Ming-hui Li, Robert Eschenauer, and Vanessa Persuad in the Journal of Counseling and Development, “when under stressful situations, individuals may apply strategies to cope with stress.” The variety of coping strategies includes humor, positive thinking, problem solving, and avoidance. Avoidance is a catch-all word for anything other than dealing with the stressful situation, such as changing the topic, acting as if the subject does not exist, or becoming preoccupied with something else as a distraction. In 2001, researchers Roesch & Weiner found that avoidance is the least effective method for dealing with most problems. Using avoidance can provide short-term reduction of stress but can become a habit so generalized that it is used even for simple decisions that have little or no stress attached. 

Avoidance in the legal profession is detrimental and has a far greater negative impact than we know. Lawyers frequently mention one of the challenges involved in their work is to get clients or others to act on something that has been requested. Sometimes the request is simple, and the situation requires minutes to resolve, though it may take days, weeks, or even months in some cases before a response. It is tough being the victim of avoidance. Avoidance has been linked to social anxiety disorder, as one who avoids has a fear of social rejection or being embarrassed. The potential to be embarrassed may not be evident to the outside observer because of the distortion involved. The person avoiding may fear that when they respond they will face negative criticism and therefore avoid even longer. It is important to clarify that avoidance is not procrastination or laziness. Procrastination involves putting off something until later; laziness is an unwillingness to put forth effort; and avoidance is an emotional response to stress.  

There are exceptions and variables where avoidance can be useful, such as distracting oneself about an impending surgery, or persistently trying to solve a problem that is unsolvable. There are times when we are better off to stop thinking about something. Here are a few tips for those observing avoidance:  

  • Evaluate the situation to exclude other causes for the delay. 
  • Consider assuring the person your intent is not to criticize. 
  • Try to establish a date and time in which you will contact them again. 
  • Consult with others on how to approach someone else’s avoidance behavior. 
  • And finally ask if you can assist them with getting help. 

For the person with avoidance behavior: 

  • Evaluate the context of avoidance and consider its ripple effect.  
  • Ask yourself: what is the worst that could happen if I respond to this inquiry or confront this matter now? 
  • Examine the evidence as to whether avoidance is a constructive approach or merely feels better. 
  • Attempt to take a problem-solving approach and fully engage in responding or confronting the subject head-on. 

If you need assistance or have questions about avoidance coping, contact the Missouri Lawyer’s Assistance Program. Services for Missouri Bar members, their families, and law students are free of charge. Contact MOLAP at 1-800-688-7859.