Phenomenological Psychology

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Avoidance versus Engagement

May 7th, 2017 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Avoidance and engagement are types of behavior. They may be directed towards a specific unit of activity, or a whole lifestyle. Avoidance perpetuates both anxiety and depression. The reason why is because you don’t get any feedback from reality, because you’re not letting reality give you any. A lot of what we do consists of little behavioral experiments, with the interesting feature that you’re simultaneously both the investigator and the participant in the experiment. You have a hypothesis: “If I do x behavior, then it will cause y effect.” So you do x, and then see what happens in the 3D world. If y is a desirable outcome, then you’ll increase the frequency of x; if not, then you’ll decrease its frequency. You’ll also switch up your beliefs and hypotheses about future behavior, so they match.

If you’re avoidant, though, you’re behavior isn’t “consequated.” This mean that you won’t see any results from what you do, because you’re not doing anything. Reality’s not even sending you any adverse reports, much less the responses that you’d like to see. So, you get stuck. It’s like living in a little bubble. You’re no longer in the game, you’re no longer making decisions, you’re no longer activated, you’ve checked out of your life. You’re not even showing up. You’re just sitting there, feeling more and more isolated, worried and alone. As a result, you lose your sense of self-agency – seeing that what you do matters, and that you can do stuff which has real-world outcomes. You also lose a sense of cause-and-effect – seeing that there’s a relationship between what you do, and what happens next. As a result, you lose tolerance for uncertainty, which is a big factor in many psychological problems. All of these factors are crucial to one’s concept of who they are – their “concept of self.” No concept of self creates a gigantic vacuum, which then gets filled up with anxiety and depression.

Engagement is the exact opposite. When you’re engaged in living your life, you open yourself up to its possibilities. You’re not hedged in by necessity – the feeling that you have no choices, that nothing matters. We call these “affordances” or “points of seeing” – the experiences and outcomes that reality offers to you, if you’re just accessible and available to receive and accept them. A door isn’t just a piece of wood hanging on its hinges. Rather, it urges you to open it, and enter into another location in space and time. A mobile phone isn’t just a piece of electronics. Rather, it invites you to reach out, explore, connect with friends, and interact with the world. A car isn’t just a bunch of metal and plastic. Rather, it’s a magic carpet that can whisk you off to a place that has the potential to be wonderful and amazing, even if you go there every day. You can tame reality and make it whatever you want for it to be. It’s your attitude, orientation and outlook, that count. But only by engaging with reality will you ever make these discoveries.

The objective of this worksheet is to track avoidance versus engagement. Some synonyms for them appear at the bottom of the worksheet. For each day of the week, evaluate whether you more avoidant or more engaged. This can either be with reference to a specific task, or, your overall attitude as you performed activities during the course of the day. Use a scale from 0 to 10 for each column, where “0” is none and “10” is maximum – but make sure the third column adds up to 10. We want for you to try to move from avoidance to engagement. Without engagement, you won’t get better. Even worse – without engagement, you’re just reinforcing avoidance. But be careful – sometimes what looks like engagement really is a form of avoidance, especially if you’re just doing things mindlessly, so you don’t have to deal with the real problem. Let us know in the comments if this approach works for you!

Avoidance – Engagement worksheet