Pain avoidance: the cattle prod of human behavior.
As humans, we instinctively avoid pain. We innately seek comfort. This is a deeply rooted characteristic that at one time served as a survival mechanism. When food and water were scarce for our ancestors, they had to conserve energy. The risk of attack from predators was high, so they banded together in tribes to hunt, rest, and collect resources.
In today’s technology and abundance-driven world, we’re relatively safe from threats of predation. We take for granted the good fortune of opening a fridge full of food and water. Despite the safety we experience in our modern society, homes, and businesses, we continue to operate as pain avoiders. What was once a mental framework designed to protect us from harm has detracted from our self-expression, love, and creation.
This essay will unpack the mechanics of pain avoidance: what triggers it, how you can identify it happening, and the benefits of embracing the struggle for the sake of personal growth. Let’s dig in…
What is pain avoidance?
The term itself is simple but the underlying mechanics are nuanced. On the surface, avoiding pain is the act of making a decision that brings us less discomfort than the alternative. As an example, choosing to sleep in for 30 minutes instead of working out is making the decision to avoid physical discomfort. In other cases, our avoidance of pain is less obvious or more complicated.
Let’s say you’re in a romantic relationship. As time has gone on, you’ve realized your partner isn’t the person you actually want to spend your life with. But it’s not as simple as breaking up with that individual. What about the house? The dog? The trip you have planned? All the time you’ve both invested in the relationship?
In this case, do you choose to avoid the pain of breaking up and unwinding the intimacy? Or do you avoid the pain of being alone and swimming in the fear that you’ll never find someone who better suits you? Either way, a decision needs to be made. You have to weigh the risks and rewards of a break-up against staying with someone you know isn’t right for you.
How you process these situations is telling of how you perceive and move away from pain. Can you see the upside in making one choice over the other or do you wallow in the “what-if’s” and become complacent?
Triggers of pain avoidance
As writer Blair Warren notes, “It has been said that everyone you meet is engaged in a great struggle.”
Everyone is born and raised under a different set of circumstances. Everyone has experienced adversity that may not be immediately apparent on the surface. The outcome is that we all have different motivations and triggers that precede our behaviors and habits. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t wrestle with some underlying fear. Perhaps it’s a fear of looking like a fool, of failing, of public speaking, or an insecurity about body image. These fears become the lens through which people behave in different situations.
For me, I’ve battled a fear of publicly sharing my opinions. This has manifested in an avoidance of social media and publishing my writing for the world to view and criticize. If I pick one layer deeper, what I’m really scared of is publicly failing or being wrong. So I’ve stuck to what I’m comfortable with: only sharing my perspective of the world with people close to me. My family, friends, and employees. It wasn’t until the past month that I began sharing my ideas more broadly.
To recognize this intrinsic fear, I had to spend a lot of time in self-reflection. Nobody except me knew I was avoiding pain. To the outsider, me not posting on Instagram or Twitter simply meant I’m taking a passive approach online. What they haven’t seen is me draft dozens of posts that never hit the newsfeed.
The self-reflection element is simple but incredibly uncomfortable. It starts with a simple question:
What am I afraid of?
That’s it. What are the limiting beliefs I tell myself to avoid getting uncomfortable? That question will unravel a series of follow-up thought branches. As with the example above, I thought it was as simple as not wanting to post on social media. But after spending more time in this meditation, I recognized the fear is a much deeper concern for publicly looking stupid. Marinade in this self-reflection. The more you pull to the surface, the more you have to work with.
How to know when you’re avoiding pain
As everyone’s life experience is unique, pain avoidance manifests differently for different people. Personally, my queue that I’m avoiding struggle is that I become complacent. My self-discipline and work ethic take a backseat to rest and laziness. When I avoid pain, I freeze in the face of the task ahead of me, wallowing in my anxiety and cranking out all 7 Harry Potter books in a month (true story, that’s 4,224 pages in 30 days!). It feels really good to distract myself but the longer I prolong doing the actual work, the more intense the anxiety becomes.
For others, pain avoidance may not show up as complacency. It’s different for everyone. Here are some common ways avoidance patterns surface. Perhaps one (or some of these) applies to you.
- Resisting vulnerability – you’re scared to get hurt by getting too close to someone, so you keep your guard up and never fully invest in the relationship.
- Loose boundaries – The discipline required to hold strong boundaries in the face of adversity is immense. People who struggle with that level of self-accountability may flex their moral and emotional boundaries to give themselves a break.
- Intellectualizing emotions – Dealing with emotions as though they’re fully logical thought processes helps a person understand why they feel how they do. However, applying logic and compartmentalizing emotions prevents them from actually feeling and grappling with the emotion. Creating these logic-based frameworks helps people avoid emotional pain.
- Perfectionism – Many people have a fear of being judged by others. Being a perfectionist is a way to procrastinate sharing a creation with the world. It also serves as a means to avoid taking on a new project.
- Negative self-talk – It’s common for people to tell themselves they’re not capable of doing something challenging. They compare themselves to other people who accomplish big goals and say, “Of course he could do a marathon, he’s in great shape,” as a way to justify their perceived inability to accomplish the same goal. Telling oneself they suck feels less disheartening than hearing it from other people.
- Lack of focus – Juggling multiple projects and distractions at once gives a person the means to avoid investing too deeply into any one thing. This is a way to cope with the fear of failure.
- Complacency – Replacing hard work with distractions that feel good is a common way to avoid the struggle of the labor. It also gives the person the opportunity to say, “I didn’t try that hard anyway.”
When you identify a trigger flaring up, make note of it and process the pain that you’re avoiding. Taking inventory of your behavior in moments of adversity is the only way to adopt a more resilient mindset. Learning to act in spite of discomfort instead of avoiding it altogether helps you outgrow your fears. Gaining confidence over fear is a critical step in the process to become a high performer.
Embrace the struggle
Rather than avoid the things that scare you, what if the premise of pushing your comfort zone excited you? High performers often seek out ideas and activities that scare them for the sake of expanding their perspective and learning something new. They’ve trained themselves to find beauty in the struggle instead of avoiding what scares them. They accept the possibility of failure and proceed in spite of it.
When I dropped out of college to start my career at Untappd, I knew the likelihood of me failing was relatively high. The learning curve was significant for the short period of time I had to acclimate. I’ve shared the story of how I started with Untappd many times and I’m often asked, “That was really risky, what if it didn’t work out?”
My response is always twofold:
- Luckily it did work out.
- The risk didn’t bother me.
From my perspective, the risk I was taking was tiny compared to the upside of joining the company. I was going to report directly to an uber successful serial entrepreneur instead of a professor who’s never built shit? Uhh, yeah, I’ll do that.
To others, the risk was high. Here’s how most people thought about my decision:
- If you don’t finish college you won’t get a good job.
“I have zero interest in ever working for a company that values a degree more than a person’s efficacy.”
- You may get fired from my first real job, which looks bad on a resume.
“I’d rather get fired from here for not being good enough than from a place that bores me to tears.”
- You might get taken advantage of by these veteran businesspeople.
“Getting burned would be a great lesson to learn before I’m 25.”
- The company will probably fail.
“Maybe. If it does, onto the next one.”
- You probably won’t want to be in Wilmington in a couple years.
“I’ll cross that bridge later.”
In this particular case, it worked out. The company performed well, I didn’t get fired, and everybody lived happily ever after. Obviously I’m pretty happy with the outcome. It’s easy to look back in reflection and preach fearlessness when it went so well.
What if I did get fired? Or the company blew up? Or I got screwed by the founders I trusted? Then I learned something new, added it to my collection of life experiences, and went on my merry way to the next adventure.
I love taking calculated risks that guarantee me a learning experience. I value the lesson more than any financial outcome or accolade. This has given me the freedom to make my own decisions without much fear. I’ve learned to embrace the struggle and all that it teaches me.
Life is hard, struggle is inevitable. When adversity strikes do you avoid the pain and melt away from it or do you accept the challenge and rise to it? How you answer the question changes your perception of the situation. Adopt a learner’s mentality. Lean into the struggle with vigor. You’ll be confident and more fulfilled because you proved you’re more powerful than your fears.
Spend time reflecting on your avoidance patterns. Bring awareness to the beliefs, people, and situations that trigger your defense mechanisms. Identifying them is the first step to dismantling them. Finding your purpose is on the other side of reconciling your fears. Dig into the scary stuff and reap the rewards.
What is Beanie & Blazer?
Beanie & Blazer is a lifestyle engineering company built to align people’s personal values and goals with their habits and behaviors. Our methodology offers our community clarity of purpose, a tribe of mentors and supporters, and reclamation of time in their busy lives. We systematically train people to become high performers.
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