Avoiding the Unpleasant

Of course it is completely natural to want to avoid that which is unpleasant–meaning unwanted. Pain, conflict, confusion, despair, rage, or disgust. We would rather not experience those distasteful feelings, thoughts, or bodily sensations. Even amoeba move away from that which is toxic to them. It is natural to want to avoid the experiences we don’t want to have. And it is healthier to move away from that which is bad for us in some way. There is no nobility in pain without meaning.

At the same time, some avoided experiences do not dissipate and disappear. They get entrenched or buried and continue to create problems. Some feelings, thoughts or sensations are better exposed, examined, and dealt with. Sometimes engaging with the difficult leads to growth or self-knowledge or intimacy with someone for whom we care. Sometimes it is better to feel the pain and deal with it rather than disconnect and avoid it. And how do we know? How do we know which distasteful experience is expendable and which necessary? What kind of effort leads to growth and what kind of effort is ineffective?

Finally the most important point is the decision point. What are we going to do about this? And the only way to make those self-caretaking decisions is to know what we are dealing with and the only way we can do that is to reflectively consider what is going on inside of us. Those tactics of avoiding the unpleasant in effect short circuit our ability to make grown up choices about how we engage with our own minds. When we are focused on avoiding how we feel, we cannot thoughtfully choose how to respond to ourselves.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that mindfulness is currently gaining support. The mindless avoidance of our own experience is costing us in ways we do not see. At any moment a person can be fleeing into drug use, computer games, extreme exercise, drinking, distracting social encounters or wacky adventures as a way of distracting him or herself from the direct experience of life. You can tell the difference between the moments when you are deliberately engaged with the experience of the moment you are in and the moments when you are distracting yourself. Your mind experience feels different. You can recognize when you have disconnected. When you look up and did not realize an hour had passed. When you ended up sleeping to avoid dealing with an angry friend.

Of course we do not want to experience the unpleasant. The only question is whether this particular experience is one we need to deal with or one we can let go of altogether. It is healthy to want to be contented. It is just a question of how to get there in some kind of genuine way instead of continually running away from the realities of our lives.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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