advice, mental health

A Practical Guide to Ethical Avoidance (AKA Boundary-Setting)

This post is one that has been brewing in my head for a long, long while.

I am a person who has been at different points in my personal history, both extremely direct and extremely avoidant. Yes, I have oscillated between these two extremes, and from living life through the lens of Both–and having suffered the wrath of others whose approach to life falls in either extreme–have decided to write this:

A Practical Guide to Ethical Avoidance.

Perhaps one day I’ll write A Practical Guide to Ethical Directness, but today is Not that day.

Avoidance as Anxiety Management

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You, avoiding your problems by running into the woods, but then after you read this guide you’re running into the light, ready to set some boundaries (har har).

How many times have you had this looming burden of interpersonal responsibility, where you know you need to talk to someone about some conflict, but the thought of doing so makes your entire being erupt with anxiety and discomfort? And so, you continue to avoid their messages (oh, didn’t see it, sorry!), you ignore their Facebook posts (weird, you’re not showing up on my newsfeed!), take different routes to work or class or in the grocery store (yeah it’s an extra 2 miles but it’s faster because there’s less traffic…probably!)?

You can probably think of more than one example. Or just one. And then for some people this is like, their default mode of existence.

Regardless of if you’re a once-in-a-blue-moon avoid-er or a serial one, the behavior boils down to one thing: anxiety management.

Conflict is Scary. The results of conflict can be disruptive. Disruption leads to change. Change is Scary. Change brings us to somewhere unknown, and what’s scarier than The Unknown? Probably not much else. I’d say death, but part of why death is scary is, well, because it’s unknowable.

At least if we avoid things, they’ll stay exactly the way they are right now. Nothing will change. No change, no conflict, no unknown, no scary stuff. No anxiety. 

So, tada! Problem solved. Avoid confrontation, things will stay just like they are. Sure they’re not ideal, but that’s life. Sometimes we just need to take one for the team and keep pressing forward. I’m happy! That’s why my palms are sweating and whenever I see you I clench my jaw!

Conflict avoidance, then, must work!

Except for two tiny (read: very big and important) problems:

  1. The conflict didn’t leave. Instead, it has been internalized: boiling inside of you, either acting as steam in a pressure cooker without any outlet*; or acting like a parasite, sucking the emotional energy out of you as you try to ignore and push away your actual feelings. So, you’re actually really hurting yourself.
  2. You’re hurting the person you’re avoiding. A lot. 

*Or maybe there is a pressure outlet (I would venture to guess this is more often the case than it is not). And that outlet is: talk to everyone else about the conflict. Except for the person at the center of it! No, no, that would be too disruptive and conflict is scary. (See the next section for my thoughts on this pressure release method. Heads up: I think it sucks.)

Avoidance as Wound Infliction to the Other

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Sometimes we avoid people and it hurts them, like how you haven’t hugged your teddy bear in 10 years and now Teddy has 3 injuries.

Problem #1, I think, is covered well enough by many other outlets. Here’s a post from the VA on how avoidance is, yes, a natural reaction, but inhibits healing. This is specifically about avoidance & PTSD, but it’s still relevant. At any rate, it’s easy to find writing that reinforces point #1: avoidance is hurting you.

But what about the person you’re avoiding?

Oftentimes en route to the self-preservation that we seek to achieve by avoiding our problems, we forget to consider how acting this way is severely detrimental to the Object of Our Avoidance.

My point here is, again, twofold.

  1. People can usually tell when they’re being ignored. Some people handle this better than others, but for people who do not (see: Me), it stirs up a whole boatload of horrifying anxiety that tries to fill in the gaps that your silence leaves. So, logically they might think “Ok, they’re ignoring me because they feel overwhelmed, not because they think I’m overreacting or mean or x or y or z….”. But emotionally, their brain may be tearing them a new one. This is especially true for folks who are neurodivergent, so please consider this before you hit the Avoid button in your brain. Consider who this person is, and how this may affect them more than it may affect others.
  2. Assuming the person you are avoiding is a close friend, you are doing them an immense disservice. You’re not telling them a mistake that they’ve been making, and thus, you’re not showing them a way that they could be growing and becoming stronger & more compassionate than they already are.Yes, conflict is arduous and painful, but if you’re close friends, it’s safe to assume you share a value of mutual support. Support does not always mean telling someone they’re 100% correct; it does not mean being an accomplice to their bad behavior. Support often means lovingly challenging someone to do better. Support means holding those you love accountable because you know that they can do better. Avoiding this conflict is keeping them small.

    This is especially detrimental if, while you’re avoiding the conflict, you’re complaining to others about the person to let off some steam, indirectly rallying the troops to get angry on your behalf as the person continues to behave in a way that you dislike. And they’re totally in the dark about the whole thing…but maybe your mutual friends are starting to dislike the person more and more. And maybe you didn’t mean to do this,  you were just trying to vent your emotions! But sometimes our actions have unintended consequences (which you probably realize, because your friends’ actions had the unintended consequence of causing you pain that you are now avoiding. Phew!)

Alright! That’s a lot. But do you see my point?

Avoidance can have serious consequences that extend beyond your own psyche. And if we want to be ethical, compassionate people, we seriously need to consider this before we make the choice to avoid someone.  

Want to explore this idea a bit further before you read on? Here’s another blog that has written about this same topic.

But Sometimes, You Really Just Don’t Have the Energy for this Conflict: and That’s OK!  

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This dog needs a rest, and so might you.

Yes.

It is ok if you don’t have the spoons for conflict. It takes a lot of emotional labor to engage in conflict. It is not fair to you if someone demands that you engage in conflict immediately, without letting you gear up.

However, it’s also not fair for you to ignore someone because you don’t have the wherewithal, and not tell them that is what is happening.

So how do you manage to keep the conflict at bay and not just straight up ignore the person?

Here’s something they didn’t teach you in high school: boundary-setting.

This is key, folks.

And it can be quite simple!*

Here’s what you can say in response to someone trying to broach a conflict with you that you just do not have the energy for:

  • Hey, thanks for your message. Let’s find a time to talk about this later, could next Tuesday over dinner work? This conversation deserves more focus & energy than I could provide right now.

Maybe they haven’t approached you directly, but you know there’s something brewing and you know THEY know something is brewing:

  • Hey, I know things have felt sort of tense between us. I’m not totally sure how to resolve everything just yet, or even what to say, but maybe we can set aside some time down the line to talk? And for now I think I just need some space for the next month until I can formulate my emotions and give you the focus & energy you deserve whenever we do talk.

What if you’ve been avoiding this person for X amount of time, they’ve tried to contact you, but you’re still not yet ready to have the Full On Scary Conversation That Might Provoke the Unknown?

  • Hey, I’m sorry that I haven’t answered your messages yet. It’s not fair to you. I’ll be honest that I still don’t think I have the energy to devote to a longer conversation about this, and I don’t quite know where my feelings are. I think I still need another few weeks to have space and get my thoughts in order. Maybe at the end of the month we can talk on the phone to check in? Would that work for you?

Wahoo! Here are some prompts for you to work with now. There are a few important notes you should hit, in whatever you end up saying:

  • Acknowledge that there is tension. You are accepting of it, and this will help them to feel more accepting of it too. Tension is OK, and by acknowledging & accepting it, it relieves it quite a bit.
  • If you have been avoiding them, acknowledge that. Take responsibility for the pain you may have caused in them by ignoring their communication.
  • Acknowledge that you don’t have the energy right now. This is really important; this is the root of the boundary setting. You don’t have the resources, and so you are allowed to say no.
    • However, also acknowledge that you recognize that they & this conversation are worth your time and energy. You aren’t putting off the conversation because you don’t want to give them your time and energy. It’s because you do not have it to give just yet.
  • To the best of your ability, set a concrete-as-possible timeline for when the Big Conversation might occur. This will make the person feel like they can close the “What if? When? What if? When?” loop in their mind, and it will also give you incentive you really work through this conflict yourself. It’s a cushion for them and a fire under your bum for you, assuming deadlines help curb your task avoidance (here’s a cool article on procrastination that is tangentially related).

*Assuming the person will respect the boundaries you’ve set. If they do not after you set them, well, that’s a whole other problem out of the scope of this post. Note: do not let the fear that the person will cross your boundaries anyway prevent you from trying to set them.

Unbelievable: You Can Shelve Conflict AND Minimize Emotional Wounds in Another Person

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You, putting the conflict on the shelf for a later day, but now everyone is in the know about it, so your world is bright & in soft focus.

Seriously though, it’s ok to shelve conflict. It’s ok if you need more space and time apart.

It’s just all about how you communicate that need to the other person.

Let me know what you think, if you think this whole post was a load of hooey, or if you have other suggestions.

Thanks for reading!

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3 thoughts on “A Practical Guide to Ethical Avoidance (AKA Boundary-Setting)”

  1. There certainly is a way to avoid hurting people and still convey what you want. I think this sort of skill takes practice and guts. I erred a lot on the side of avoidance years back. Thank you for the post Molly 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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