It’s often easier to avoid a problem than to deal with it, even when you know that avoidance isn’t sustainable in the long run. But why do you still do it? And how can you stop running from problems?
For a species willing to endure physical pain from exercise, tattoos or different beauty procedures, humans are very adverse to emotional or psychological discomfort, which is why we’re very good at avoiding the problems that cause it. Putting a stop to avoidance starts from recognizing it and realizing that it’s okay to struggle. Starting small and seeking support are also keys to success in facing your problems.
In this article, I’ll take a look at why we run from our problems and more importantly, how to stop running and face them.
This article is part of a much bigger guide on learning how to become happy that I’m sure is the biggest freely available guide on the internet right now. This article contains some great tips, but you’ll find a lot more actionable tips in the section Happiness Tips!
Why we run from our problems
While seemingly complex, human behavior is actually very simple. If something is uncomfortable, scary or anxiety-inducing, we do our best to avoid it. Even when we know that avoiding some things will bite us in the butt in the long run.
This applies to both big and small things. For example, I’m currently avoiding cleaning my bathroom, because it takes hard work, even though I know that not cleaning it now will only create more work for me in the future.
All in all, though, nothing really depends on my cleaning habits, except my own comfort. Compare this to when I procrastinated contacting my bachelor’s thesis advisor after not working on my thesis for months, with the final deadline inching ever closer. Even with my degree at stake, I chose to run from my problems to avoid the discomfort of dealing with them.
Anxiety and negative reinforcement
The reason behind this behavior is most often anxiety. A little bit of anxiety is good and can enhance performance, but mostly, it promotes avoidance through negative reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement strengthens behaviors by removing an aversive outcome. For example, as a teen you might have cleaned your room (the behavior) to avoid getting yelled at by your parents (the aversive outcome). Similarly, you might have spent the day playing video games (the behavior) to avoid doing a particularly difficult and demanding piece of homework (the aversive outcome).
Generally, anxiety is unpleasant enough to act as negative reinforcement: we will do almost anything to avoid feeling anxious (other than face and solve our problem, of course).
Why you shouldn’t run from your problems
The answer here is obvious – problems rarely go away on their own.
If you’re lucky, they’ll stay the same, but more often than not, they tend to grow the longer you ignore them.
But problem avoidance can also stop you from reaching your goals. According to a 2013 article, people avoid or reject information that would help them to assess their goal progress. For example, someone trying to save up might refrain from checking their bank account and spending statistics, and people with diabetes may avoid monitoring their blood glucose.
It’s generally easier to believe that everything is fine than to accept information that says otherwise, so avoiding it is a tempting option. The authors call this the “ostrich problem”, meaning that people have a tendency to “bury their head in the sand” instead of consciously monitoring their goal progress.
In educational psychology, math anxiety has been a hot topic in recent years. As a math-phobe who flunked high school math, I completely understand: math has always been scary and difficult, and it was so much easier to pretend there wasn’t any math homework.
However, the longer I avoided math, the harder it became. According to a 2019 article, there is a strong link between math anxiety and math avoidance that only strengthens over time.
If you want to read more on this topic, here’s an article about short-term vs long-term happiness. This article covers why it’s so important to focus on long-term goals, even though they might seem harder and more difficult.
How to stop running away from you problems
Simply put – running from your problems is self-sabotage.
Avoidance might reduce stress now, but you’re not doing yourself any favors in the long run. Facing your problems is much easier said than done, but here are 4 tips that help you stop running from your problems.
1. Recognize your avoidance behaviors
A lot of our avoidance behaviors are subconscious, even if they feel like a conscious decision. For example, you might find yourself focusing on work to avoid dealing with problems in your personal life, or rebounding quickly after a break-up to avoid the feeling of loneliness.
By recognizing your avoidance behaviors and patterns, it’s easier to put a stop to them and face your problems. Including to the ones mentioned above, keep an eye out for:
- addictions like alcohol or drugs;
- addictive behaviors like problematic social media use, gaming, watching TV;
- sleeping too much or emotional eating.
If you need help to recognize these behaviors, try to start journaling in order to increase your self-awareness.
2. Embrace the suck
Facing a problem will create some discomfort, but without discomfort, there is no development.
In other words: you will suck in the beginning.
Instead of trying to eliminate all anxiety and discomfort, give yourself permission to struggle. It’s okay if the problem is hard to solve – trying is the first step.
I have borrowed this phrase from British YouTuber and trainer Tom Merrick, who utilizes the “embrace the suck” mentality in his bodyweight training videos. You’re going to suck and struggle at first – might as well embrace it!
3. Start small
If you have several problems, start with the smallest. If there’s one big problem, break it down into bite-sized pieces.
Starting small will give you a chance to see progress faster, which will help to boost and maintain your motivation. If you start from the biggest, most terrifying problem, it will take much longer to see success and your motivation can wane.
4. Seek support
Often, it’s the feeling that we have to handle things alone that prompts us to run away. Don’t hesitate to ask for help or assistance if you need it.
If there is no one in your life you can ask, there’s a wealth of resources online, from online counseling services and forums to YouTube tutorials and articles like this one.
People are very good at avoiding dealing with or even thinking about our problems, even if it creates more problems in the long run. It’s all about trying to minimize discomfort and anxiety, so in order to stop running away and face your problems, you need to embrace the discomfort. When you embrace the suck, learn to recognize your avoidance behaviors, solve your problems one step at a time and find support, you’ll be running towards your problems, not away from them.
What’s a problem that you’ve been running away from lately? Do you feel confident that you can stop running away from these problems by using these methods? Let me know in the comments below!