This week alone I worked with three clients who were avoiding something important: a phone call to an angry client, a difficult discussion with an employee, and a deep-dive into financial reports. This is what mental health professionals refer to as avoidance coping and can lead to extreme stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, problems in relationships, and a number of health-threatening habits and disorders. For entrepreneurs, it can lead to failure.
We all avoid something from time-to-time, but across-the-board avoidance is a problem. If you recognize yourself in these examples, that's good, awareness is the first step to change. Be aware of your avoidance behavior. Here are some examples.
You delay difficult conversations.
A client left a message saying there's an issue she needs to discuss with you. This makes you nervous so you decide to call her back later--and later turns into days. Meanwhile, the client feels ignored and the underlying stress seeps into everything you do.
You assume the worst.
Let's say you the above client really is upset about something. You immediately jump to the conclusion that you'll lose them. As if that's not bad enough, you may lose one or two more, and if that happens your business will be crushed. You may even be forced to get a job, but you have been self-employed for years, what else are you qualified to do?
You put off projects that create uncertainty.
You have to prepare for an upcoming speaking engagement. The thought of standing up in front of a room full of strangers shouldn't intimidate you, but it does. Thoughts of preparation stir anxiety, so you push the project to the back of your mind--you'll get it done when you're in the mood.
You don't test the reality of your fears.
Major indigestion seems to be a daily thing nowadays and that's not normal. Antacids aren't working anymore, and you begin to think you may have a serious illness. If you see the doctor you may have to face the reality of a diagnosis, so you avoid making the appointment and decide the problem will go away on its own.
You fear and avoid things that may trigger negative memories.
Your parents, intentionally or not, did or said things during your childhood that you interpreted into, "I'm not good enough". Today, you avoid anything that reinforces these belief patterns. Cold calling, asking for help, and voicing your opinion are a few examples.
You avoid any possibility of making someone angry with you.
You're supposed to go to your niece's birthday party in two days from now, but you didn't expect things to get so busy at work. There's no way you're going to make it and you don't want to tell your spouse, so you don't mention it until the last minute.
You avoid putting yourself out there.
There's a juicy conversation you'd like to join on LinkedIn or a question in a meeting you'd like to answer, but you fear you may sound lame. Maybe someone else has something to contribute that's better than what you have to say. You don't want to embarrass yourself, so you say nothing.
These avoidance tactics prevent you from taking any emotional risk, and that's something you must do to achieve success. Here are a few things you can do to evolve beyond avoidance coping.
Listen to your body.
Your body will tell you when you're in avoidance mode with symptoms like tight shoulders, headaches, increased nervousness, indigestion, increased temper, and an inability to concentrate. At the first signs of these symptoms stop what you're doing and think about what you're avoiding. Then get to work on creating a shift in behavior with these tips.
The tendency to assume that a conversation will be difficult, or that someone is angry with you is what escalates avoidance. Instead, go into conversations from a viewpoint of curiosity. What can I learn about this person? What options and solutions will result from the conversation? You never know what the other person is thinking, so if you go into a conversation assuming the worse, you are more likely to get it.
Break big projects into small steps.
When you dwell on the daunting aspects of a project, you'll only doubt yourself more and more. Instead, break it into small steps and think only about your next step. Soon you'll be looking back, wondering what all the fuss was about.
Do it now.
Putting off a dreaded project or conversation will not only stress you out but may lead to just the outcome you fear. Your client probably isn't thinking about firing you, they just want to remedy the situation. Your spouse may feel temporarily upset that you're not going to your niece's birthday party, but finding out about it at the last minute could make her furious. Stop anticipating the worse and just do it.
Catch yourself before you go down the rabbit hole.
Catastrophic thinking, like your business shutting down or a dire medical diagnosis, leads to panic attacks and an inability to cope. Ask yourself how many of the catastrophes you've predicted in the past have actually happened. Probably few to none. Remain focused on this fact instead of dwelling on dismal circumstances that don't, and probably won't ever exist.
Find the evidence.
I spoke with a client yesterday who was a nervous wreck about an upcoming presentation, so I asked her what the worse possible outcome may be. She said she was afraid someone would laugh at her or think she's stupid. I had her look for historical evidence of this happening. Has she ever been accused of being stupid? Has an audience ever laughed at her? No to both. Therefore, the likelihood that these things will happen is slim, if at all.
When you make a mistake, live up to it and apologize. Most people will take your actions into account when examining their choices. Conversely, if you manufacture excuses or try to lie your way out of it, you'll feel bad about yourself and the outcome will be less desirable.
Take small steps and recognize your achievements. I'd suggest keeping a journal so you can see physical evidence of your growth.