From 1937 to 1981, Polaroid—a leader in the film camera market—was considered one of the most innovative companies in the US. During that period, the company registered 535 patents and attained a peak annual revenue of $3 billion. 1
By the 1990s, the digital camera began capturing the photography market. Executives at Polaroid denied the threat and refused to launch a digital product.
By 2001, one in four US homes owned a digital camera. And after battling debt for 13 years, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy. 2
What’s ironic about this story is that Polaroid had been researching digital imaging since the 1960s. At the dawn of the digital camera boom in 1989, the company spent 42% of its research and development budget on digital imaging.
Most people ask why Polaroid would watch themselves die a slow death for 13 years—especially when the solution to their problem was in their lab.
The answer to that question is avoidance.
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Avoidance is tricky because it provides short-term relief from our problems. Because this relief feels good, it makes us believe we are doing the right thing. This illusion explains why most people have no idea they are avoiding their troubles.
Long-term avoidance often leads to wasted resources, missed opportunities, and bigger problems. Therefore, by learning to identify avoiding behaviors, you increase your odds of solving problems before they get out of hand.
This article is all about avoidance. I’ll explain why we avoid, show you how to identify when you’re avoiding, and teach you how to stop avoiding your problems.
We most commonly avoid unpleasant things. For example, we avoid problems because dealing with them is difficult and time-consuming. Likewise, we avoid negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions because they are painful to experience.
For example, a spouse may avoid confronting a cheating spouse because doing so means:
In this light, it’s easy to see why Polaroid avoided the threat of the digital camera. Doing so likely meant:
Ultimately, we avoid our problems because avoiding these unpleasant experiences feels good.
We tend to avoid problems in four distinct ways. Those are distraction, distancing, mind games, and self-medication.
Distraction allows you to avoid your problems by occupying your mind with something else. For example, you might avoid your fear of failure by watching a movie instead of preparing for a presentation at work. Or, you could ignore a problem with your spouse by playing video games.
Distancing allows you to avoid your problems by keeping away from them. For instance, you might avoid certain people, places, or events that make you uncomfortable. Or, an artist might not share their work because they fear judgment.
Mind games allow you to avoid your problems by defending, downplaying, or denying them.
When you defend a problem, you avoid it by pretending it’s normal. For instance, if your dog bites another dog, you might defend the problem by saying, “That’s just what dogs do.”
You can also defend your behavior. For example, you might say, “I can’t report my unethical boss because I’d get fired.”
When you downplay your problems, you reduce their importance by convincing yourself they’re less serious than they are. For example, you might say your kid’s drug problem isn’t that bad because “it’s only weed.” Or, you might say your heart condition isn’t that bad because “others have it worse.”
Finally, denying your problems is an attempt to convince yourself they don’t exist. For instance, an alcoholic might say, “I could stop if I wanted to.” Or, the manager of a failing company might say, “It’s not me. It’s my employees.”
Self-medication helps you avoid your problems by numbing or eliminating the unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or emotions they cause. For example, someone grieving the loss of a loved one might use drugs or alcohol to numb their pain. In the worst of cases, someone dealing with depression might end their misery by committing suicide.
Avoidance causes the following three problems.
One problem with avoidance is it influences you to act in harmful ways. All four types of avoidance—distraction, distancing, self-medication, and mind games—harm your life differently.
Distraction is harmful because it influences you to avoid solving your problems. For example, suppose you distract yourself from your marital issues by playing video games. In that case, you avoid fixing the marriage. As a result, your marriage suffers.
Distancing is harmful because it influences you to distance yourself from meaningful people, places, and events. As a result, you miss out on experiences that enrich your life. For instance, suppose fear prevents you from applying for a dream job. In that case, you miss the opportunity to enjoy a meaningful career. Or, assume you distance yourself from someone you are dating because you are afraid of getting hurt. In that case, you miss out on the opportunity to build a meaningful relationship.
Mind games are problematic for three reasons.
First, when you deny the existence of your problems, you eliminate your ability to solve them.
Second, when you blame your problems on others, you weaken your relationships with those people.
And third, mind games steal your attention away from life’s meaningful experiences. That’s because when you give your attention to mind games like denial, you have no attention left for what’s important.
Self-medication is harmful because excessive drug and alcohol use often leads to health, career, financial, and relationship problems. Sadly, in the worst cases, suicide leads to death.
Avoidance feels good in the moment, but it doesn’t provide long-term solutions.
For instance, assume you feel nervous about having a difficult conversation with your spouse. In this case, avoiding the conversation might calm your nerves, but it won’t improve your marriage.
Additionally, avoidance only provides temporary relief. Let me explain.
Avoiding the conversation with your spouse will calm your nerves today. But until you fix the underlying problem, the pending conversation will continue to make you nervous in the future.
Broadly speaking, avoidance makes your problems worse in two ways.
1. Some problems get worse with time. For example, Polaroid’s digital camera problem only worsened with time. Had Polaroid released a digital product at the beginning of the digital era, it could have minimized its financial losses and likely avoided bankruptcy.
2. Avoidance can strengthen negative emotions. Many mental health problems begin when normal human emotions like anxiety, fear, and stress become so strong that they interfere with daily life.
One of the problems with avoidance is that it can strengthen negative emotions. To explain this point, I’ll describe how someone might develop agoraphobia—the fear of leaving home.
The condition typically begins when something ordinary, like an increase in heart rate, leads someone to believe something catastrophic, like they are having a heart attack.
This situation might happen if someone is in an overly crowded store at the mall. The rush of people makes them feel stressed, which triggers anxiety. That anxiety causes their heart rate to increase, which leads them to believe they’re having a heart attack. That belief spikes their anxiety again, further increasing their heart rate and strengthening their belief that they’re having a heart attack.
This anxiety-fueled loop continues until they reach a full-blown panic attack.
Then, the next time they drive to the mall, they remember their previous experience. That memory alone triggers anxiety, and they feel their heart pounding in their chest. To prevent another panic attack, they decide to avoid the mall altogether.
Before long, trips to the dry cleaner, grocery store, and their parent’s home also trigger anxiety. As a result, they begin to avoid these places as well. In time, the entire world feels unsafe, and they find themselves trapped inside their own home, unable to leave.
The following five ideas will help you end avoidance and live a meaningful life.
It’s not easy, but you must admit you have a problem if you want to solve it.
So, if you’re avoiding the fact that your marriage is failing, you’re overweight, or you’ve been neglecting your kids, stop lying to yourself. Instead, accept that you’ve made a mistake and do your part to fix the problem.
As you’ve learned, problems often get worse with time. Therefore, it’s better to solve them before they get out of hand. This single piece of advice could have kept Polaroid out of bankruptcy.
It can be hard to identify when you are avoiding your problems. However, other people tend to see our avoidance loud and clear. Knowing this, ask your family, friends, and co-workers to help you identify what you are avoiding.
It’s healthy to go to the gym because you are motivated by values like health and vitality. It’s unhealthy to go to the gym to avoid feelings of self-hatred.
To prevent this problem, ask yourself why you do what you do. If you realize you’re doing things to avoid negative feelings, it’s time to rethink your behavior.
We often avoid things because we believe they’ll always be uncomfortable. But most things get easier with time. You’ll understand this concept if you’ve ever been in a long-term relationship.
The nervousness felt at the beginning of any intimate relationship can be very uncomfortable. First dates fill your mind with questions like: what should I say, do they like me, and should I kiss them.
However, in time, you feel comfortable with the person who once made you nervous. Conversations come easily, you no longer question if they like you, and kisses become routine.
The truth is, to achieve most meaningful things, you must first overcome an initial emotional hurdle. For instance, to start a business, you must overcome the fear of failure. And, to be your authentic self, you must overcome the fear of rejection.
Knowing this, don’t let an initial emotional hurdle prevent you from building the life you want.
Here’s how to prevent two common problems you might encounter when ending avoidance.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you admit your problems. That’s because issues like a failing marriage, drug-addicted child, or bankrupt business have complicated solutions.
One of the best ways to deal with overwhelm is to start small. Instead of trying to fix your problem all at once, break your solution into small steps.
Fixing your marriage starts with a single conversation. Helping your drug-addicted child begins by setting a boundary. And getting your business back on track starts with an honest look at your finances.
Your ability to solve problems is directly related to your level of engagement with those problems. So, once you admit you have a problem, you’ll want to ensure you are appropriately engaged. Let me explain.
If you are under-engaged with a problem, you are either avoiding it or unaware of it. In this state, solving a problem is nearly impossible because you aren’t giving it enough attention.
Conversely, when you are over-engaged with a problem, it consumes you. In this state, solving a problem is nearly impossible because you focus on the wrong things. Instead of concentrating on solutions, you become preoccupied with feelings like frustration, embarrassment, or anger.
However, in between under and over-engagement lies a zone of optimal engagement. In this zone, you are aware of the problem but not wholly consumed by it. As a result, you increase your odds of solving the problem.
Unsuccessful people spend too much time either under or over-engaged. By comparison, successful people know how to get themselves into the zone of optimal engagement.
You’re taking the ideas in this article too far if you start to believe that all examples of avoidant behavior are wrong. What’s important to understand is that avoidance is only problematic when it prevents you from living the life you want. Here’s an example.
It’s one thing to distance yourself from your spouse for a short time after a fight so you can cool off. It’s another thing to distance yourself from your spouse altogether.
The best way to prevent this problem is by asking yourself the following question. If I continue this behavior long-term, will it help me create the life I want?
For example, cooling off after a fight is helpful if you want to stay happily married. But distancing yourself from your spouse altogether is not.
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
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