Do you have some activities that you just avoid? You never quite get them done and you feel bad about not getting them done?
It could be cleaning out the kitchen cupboards; sorting out your email; exercising; updating your LinkedIn profile; cleaning your car…
We know we should do it, but we kind of don’t choose to do it.
And that would be okay, but if you are like me, your mind sometimes uses this lack of action as evidence that you are lazy, disorganised, neglectful…
I drive a 5 year old car. I almost never wash it. It is usually messy on the inside too. Hats, sunglasses, shoes (including, I am embarrassed to admit, a pair of red Crocs), sundry shopping bags and wrappers from chocolate bars are scattered around the seats and floor. Discarded bits and pieces that found their way into my car but never seem to find their way out.
Why is my car like this?
The logical reason is that having a clean, tidy car is low on my list of priorities. Now and again I write ‘Clean out car’ on my job list for the day, but other, more interesting (Write blog post) or more urgent (Invoicing) tasks crowd it out.
Even though I often have ‘good reasons’ for not cleaning out my car, when someone else sees how messy my car is, my ‘I am not good enough’ story pops up. I worry that they will see me as lazy and disorganised. (Which sometimes I am, but I don’t want other people to know that!)
I could use this concern to motivate me. I could clean my car to avoid the pain of other people’s judgment. In ACT terms this is an avoidance move. An avoidance move is where a behaviour (e.g. cleaning the car) is about avoiding painful internal stuff (e.g. fear of other’s judgement). There is a lot of research to tell us that a life that is organised around avoiding unwanted emotions isn’t healthy. It is clear that repeated avoidance doesn’t lead to a rich and meaningful life. So, perhaps, for me, having a messy car might just align with my values?
This is where is gets tricky. Just because cleaning my car could be an avoidance move, it doesn’t mean that ‘not cleaning my car’ is a move towards my values.
It depends what I do instead of cleaning out my car. If, instead of cleaning my car, I engage in activities that link to my values – writing a blog post; spending time with people I love; learning something new – then, over time, those choices will likely help me to build a rich and meaningful life.
But if, instead of cleaning out my car, I obsessively watch videos of Beyonce, trying to figure out if she and JayZ are happy or not. Then it is likely that I am caught in avoidance, which is usually a bad idea.
So what do we do, when we are in the grip of avoidance? The first step is to take a breath and notice. How are you feeling in this moment? When you pause, see if you can notice, with curiosity and kindness, the whole range of thoughts and feelings that show up. And then, pause some more and see if you can notice what thoughts or feelings you might be avoiding.
For me, as I pause my YouTube video, I could notice that I don’t want to feel:
- Bored whilst I clean out my car, or,
- Anxious whilst I write a blogpost ‘What if people think it is stupid?’, or,
- Challenged and a bit stressed as I try to master a new piece of theory.
Could I make room for those thoughts and feelings? And, if I did make room for them, and chose what to do next based on what really matters to me, what would I do?
Sometimes, just now and again, that might even be to spend ten minutes cleaning out my car.