By Leo Babauta
When we are procrastinating, avoiding exercise or some other habit we want to create, or avoiding taking on a difficult project … the underlying cause is rarely what we think it is.
We think that all we need to do is do the thing we’re avoiding, and stop procrastinating. Simple! But then when we fail, we wonder what’s wrong with us.
The problem is that we aren’t really addressing the real cause. We’re addressing the symptom, and while there are tactics that can help with the symptom, they rarely last for very long.
So what causes our avoidance? An underlying emotional current. Some kind of inner state.
Let me walk you through it:
- You’re feeling a certain way — because of the way your life is going, you might be feeling overwhelmed, anxious, afraid, sad, lonely, emotionally exhausted, frustrated, battered by life.
- You resist that emotional state — you don’t want to feel that way, so you resist letting yourself feel it. This resistance is usually in the form of distraction, like online distraction, busywork, messaging, etc.
- Facing difficult things is harder in this emotional state — turning toward a difficult project, or clearing clutter, or dealing with a thousand emails … these are all overwhelming in the best of times. But being in a difficult emotional state makes it even harder. No wonder we’re avoiding!
- We try to overcome our avoidance with tactics — we try to coerce ourselves to do the thing we’re avoiding, with tactics. “No distractions, only work today!” And it sometimes works, but because the underlying emotional state hasn’t been addressed, it never lasts long. We go back to avoidance.
- This makes us feel bad, and worsens the underlying emotional state — we feel bad about ourselves when we revert to avoidance. This only adds to whatever emotional state was already there. Go back to the first step above, and repeat, with some added emotional stress!
Any of this sound familiar? It’s what we’re all going through, every day, usually without knowing it. Even if we’re aware, we’re rarely actually facing it, because we’re resisting the emotional state.
So the two problems to address are:
- We’re unaware of the emotional state causing avoidance.
- We resist the emotion, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Let’s talk about how to address these issues, so we can address the real cause of avoidance.
Bringing Awareness to the Inner State
The key is to notice when you’re avoiding something. Is there a project, task, conversation, or personal habit you’re putting off?
Alternatively, you could notice that you’re caught up in distraction — messaging, social media, email, busywork, Youtube, Netflix, news sites, forums, etc. Doing a little of this is always cool, but if you are caught up doing it a lot, then this is a sign you’re probably avoiding.
Once you notice your avoiding or caught up in distraction … see if you can notice your underlying inner state. Are you feeling sad, grieving or lonely? Overwhelmed, afraid, anxious? Frustrated, angry, resentful, burdened? Hurt, unloved, unseen?
At this point, you don’t have to do anything about the emotional state. Just notice. The more you bring awareness, the more you’ll be able to address it at some point.
Not Resisting the Emotion
If you’re avoiding or caught in distraction, it’s a good bet that you’re resisting the emotion. That means that you don’t want to feel it — you feel there’s something wrong with feeling sad, angry, anxious, etc. In your head, you might think there’s nothing wrong with these feelings … but there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to feel them. Maybe you think you can’t handle it, or it’s too hard.
There’s nothing wrong with resisting the emotion. It’s human to resist! But as long as we’re resisting it, it will have a power over us, and avoidance becomes unavoidable.
If you’re up for letting go of your resistance, the practice is just to let yourself feel the emotion. Just feel sad, lonely, anxious, frustrated. Sit in stillness for a few minutes, and just let yourself feel it. The main instruction is to relax — let your body and mind relax, as the emotion comes up.
Surrender to the emotion. It’s rarely that difficult, and will usually only last for a minute or three. If it’s too intense, you can stop — do something to take your mind off it.
Whether you’re able to surrender to it or not, give yourself a few minutes of self-care after. Give yourself compassion, love, a nice warm cup of tea. Get a hug from someone, or talk to a friend or therapist. And acknowledge yourself for whatever you were able to do.
How Not to Avoid
Putting this all together, here’s how to create a shift so you aren’t avoiding as much …
Notice when you’re avoiding or stuck in distraction.
Notice the underlying inner emotional state.
Surrender to the emotional state, letting yourself feel it. Relax.
Give yourself some love and self-care.
Once you’ve done that, you should be much clearer. Now see if your heart is more open to taking on what you’re avoiding.
Just do 5 minutes of what you’re avoiding, to start with, to give yourself an emotional victory. It’ll open your heart even more.
Dance in victory!