Avoidance as An Operating System
I was reading a funky advice column a while back in which the columnist advised the question writer that he was using avoidance as an operating system and I immediately fell in love with the phrase. We all use avoidance as a psychological/emotional deterrent to emotional discomfort or pain occasionally. That’s natural and normal. However, if avoidance is a hallmark of how you negotiate life, you will have to change your modus operandi if you intend to overcome your eating problems.
Avoidance is useful when we choose to do it consciously. If you’re in a work meeting and suddenly the argument you had with your best friend pops into your mental space, you’ll certainly want to avoid thinking about it right then. Ditto if you’re spiraling down into depression, you’ll want to redirect your thoughts about the times you’ve failed in life and the losses you’ve suffered. This useful process is called suppression, which means consciously pushing aside a thought because it is inappropriate for the occasion, because it will generate feelings too intense for circumstances, or because it is downright unhealthy. Used correctly, suppression is an effective life skill. It enables you to compartmentalize and function well when you need to through conscious selection.
Repression and avoidance as an operating system, on the other hand, are barriers to psychological health. Repression means that painful thoughts or emotions automatically drop out of your awareness. This happens when you are so used to avoiding what is painful that your mind/body responds immediately, that is, assuming that you can’t bear emotional discomfort. Eventually your default setting becomes avoidance and your ability to tolerate distress whittles away until you can barely tolerate anything upsetting. In short, you develop a bad habit that serves you poorly.
Recovering from an eating disorder is all about gaining awareness. The more you’re programmed to avoid discomfort, the more difficult recovery is. Start by examining your beliefs. Do you believe, If I feel emotional pain, I won’t be able to stand it? Do you chronically ignore or minimize difficult or distressing emotions? Has the circle of what you can tolerate emotionally grown smaller and smaller because you’re used to using food (or other things) to manage stress and distress? If so, you will have to work to reset your default setting by examining and reframing irrational beliefs about pain tolerance and pushing yourself in small ways to be uncomfortable emotionally. With patience and practice, you will reprogram your operating system to engage rather than avoid discomfort—and thereby reduce emotional eating.