Monday, November 5, 2012

The Art of Avoiding Reality

I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow. – Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind

What we repress does not simply disappear; at an unconscious level, it remains active. --Nathaniel Branden

Mature people face life head on. (That’s a double entendre, folks!) Seeing what they see and knowing what they know, they engage their hearts and heads so as to make the wisest decision possible regarding the issues at hand.
Immature people often seek to avoid what is in front of them or inside them demanding their attention, especially if it is something that makes them uncomfortable. If I do not own my actions or my emotions (past or present), I cannot learn from them and cannot grow beyond them (if this is what I need to do).
In his book The Art of Living Consciously, Nathaniel Branden highlights three avoidance mechanisms. I will summarize.

One of the more common avoidance mechanisms is to simply unplug your conscious mind and let it drift wherever it will.

As your direct supervisor, you need to know that I have not been satisfied with your performance. (Cue sound of birds chirping outside, while he silently sits there wondering what’s for dinner tonight.)

Your son is struggling in school. (Cue sound of crickets, while her mind drifts to that new dress she is hoping to wear this weekend.)

I think our relationship is in trouble. (Cue perfect imitation of zombie)

We call such non-responsive people “numb,” “asleep at the wheel,” adrift,” “checked-out,” and etc. “If it doesn’t reach my conscious mind, it doesn’t exist: therefore, I don’t have to deal with it.”
Another avoidance mechanism is to wave the white flag and surrender to your emotions. “I am so confused/anxious/hurt/angry/fearful/hopeless/lost/broken.” It is one thing to acknowledge that I am having these feelings while remaining aware of and engaged in seeking understanding of the source of these emotions. (“Head on.”) It is an entirely different matter to surrender to these emotions and, effectively, turn our minds off. “I give up, I don’t want to know, don’t want understanding.” Why wouldn’t someone want to understand? It is easier to hide in the emotions of the moment then to start facing reality because, once I do this, I will need to start making decisions and taking responsibility for the outcomes.

I am ticked-off: don’t even think about challenging me.

I am confused: I can’t be expected to understand anything right now.

I am hurt: its impossible to deal with this issue right now … and I plan on staying hurt for months or even years to come!  

The third avoidance mechanism is distraction. This is when I focus my attention on anything other than where it should be. I am distracting myself (and others!) when I am blame shifting, making excuses, intellectualizing, playing the clown, or engaging in any other activity that will push reality off into the distance.
I wonder if defensiveness could also be a form of avoidance. While Branden does not cite this as an example, elsewhere he does write,  “Defensiveness is the enemy of consciousness.” Upon being confronted by feedback (from people or circumstances) that makes us uncomfortable, if, instead of non-defensive listening, we begin pushing back, we cut off our ability to receive information that can help us adjust our behavior and attitudes in the future. Maybe defensiveness falls under the category of “distraction”? Anyway--
Each of these mechanisms has the same aim: to avoid knowing and seeing. As Branden wrote, “Psychologically, what is being avoided in all such cases is consciousness. Existentially, what is being avoided is reality.”

“If I do not allow myself to know what I really feel (or feel in some context) and if I deny and disown any feelings or emotions that disturb my equilibrium or my self-concept, I repress vital information about my beliefs and values (of which the feelings and emotions are expressions). Therefore, I cannot learn from them, cannot revise them, and I can only go on being frightened any time they threaten to surface. If I do not allow myself to recognize and own actions that now distress me to remember, if I do not take responsibility for them as mine, what will prompt me to act differently in the future? I will have learned nothing.”

Copyright, Monte E Wilson, 2012


  1. Great writing, as usual. Branden calls this kind of awareness and determination of consciousness "psychological heroism" right?

  2. Correct! It often takes such heroism to face reality!!