Enemy or Ally? Avoidance in the Therapy Room 

In therapeutic spaces, avoidance is treated like a sneaky, silent enemy.  We are taught that it’s a toxic gas that slowly poisons our efforts.  It’s an acid that eats away at the integrity of our work. It’s a slow, incessant drip that erodes therapeutic progress. When it rears its destructive head in our sessions, we are told to circumvent it.  Overpower it.  Combat it.   But what if instead of treating avoidance as an enemy, we welcomed it as an ally?  Praised it for its ability to help people survive. Honored it for its wisdom and ingenuity.

Avoidance has a bad reputation in the therapeutic sphere.  A reputation for sabotage and destruction.  Diminished motivation and apathy. While it does create specific challenges in work with people who have experienced trauma, it also provides several benefits.   These benefits include: (1) allowing us to strategically disconnect from difficult experiences so that we can productively move forward, (2) counteracting the sense of powerlessness we experience as a result of trauma and providing us with a sense of power and control, and (3) keeping the most fragile parts of ourselves protected and safe.

Although avoidance offers specific benefits, it isn’t easy to deal with.  It can be persistent and pesky.  It can push back our therapeutic timeline.  It can interfere with the positive goals we are working with our clients to achieve. But if we approach avoidance with intentionality and care, giving it the respect and consideration that it deserves, we can still successfully intervene with traumatized clients.

Validate clients’ right to feel afraid.

Avoidant behaviors are grounded in fear.  And clients who have experienced trauma have a right to feel afraid.  Traumatic experiences are inherently scary.  They cause us to view the world as unsafe and terrifyingly unpredictable.  When we disregard clients’ avoidance, we invalidate their feelings of fear.  Yet these fears are justifiable in light of the traumas they have endured.  When we make space for avoidance, we validate and empathize with our client’s fear. And we know that validation and empathy are instrumental tools in building authentic, meaningful connection with clients.

Work with avoidance, not against it.

Avoidance isn’t inherently good or bad.  It’s a defense mechanism.  Defense mechanisms are psychological armor that protect us against internal and external wounding.  Avoidance helps clients survive trauma and adversity. When we take away our clients’ psychological armor, we leave them feeling vulnerable and exposed.  Instead of disarming clients by bulldozing through avoidance, we can teach them how to use this defense mechanism appropriately.  This requires us to work with avoidance instead of against it. 

Ask for client permission before opening a wound.

Our work with traumatized clients often involves opening up wounds.  Some of these wounds are old.  Other wounds are new.  Oftentimes as providers, we rip off psychological Band-Aids and yank out emotional stitches without our client’s consent.  This behavior demonstrates blatant disregard for clients’ need for psychological safety and internal protection.  It is important for us to break through the walls of avoidance only with our clients’ consent. 

Know when to push the boundaries of avoidance and when to leave them alone. 

Avoidance is tricky.  Sometimes the barriers it erects should remain as-is.  These barriers keep clients safe.  They help them successfully navigate life as a partner, student, employee, caregiver, and friend.  Other times, these walls interfere with growth and progress.  They prevent clients from delving into the parts of their life experiences that leave them frustrated, broken, and stuck.  It is important for us to collaboratively partner with clients to determine when it is appropriate to push the boundaries of avoidance and when we should leave them as they are.

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