Often it is easier to avoid than to do something that we need to do. We’ve all played this game with ourselves of putting off those things that really need to get done and then at the last minute finally completing this task.
There are many reasons why we avoid, but the reasons for the avoidance are unique to each of us. Although I believe there are many emotional reasons why we avoid, I will separate the reasons for avoidance into three categories or archetypes: The perfectionist, The Denier and The game player.
The perfectionist avoider is one who learned at some point of their lives that being perfect or doing things correctly or “right” was of paramount importance. This avoider will debate about doing something even tho they know they need to do it, or at some times have to do it. They will say that they don’t want to start it if they can’t finish it perfectly. And, the root of their choice of avoidance is the underlying fear and shame of making a mistake and others seeing that they made a mistake or that They are the mistake.
It seems like the perfectionist is working hard to keep up an image for others, but in reality they are working hard to keep up an image for themselves. Their shadow self, or the part of themselves which carries fear about themselves is so scared of seeing any imperfections in themselves. Their shame (of imperfection) keeps them from acting and making a decision, or writing a paper, or asking someone to go on a date. This shame of not being perfect was learned at some point of their development and internalized and then often comes out as procrastination.
The perfectionist will often say they don’t want to put things off, but they are in this dance with their shadow self where they still hold this idea of not being perfect. This deep feeling that something is wrong with them could have been put on them by a parent, teacher, coach or friend. A comment or report card that was lower than they expected plugged into their sense of self , based on their own psychological make up. For instance, this concept of self could manifest in a way where a child really tried hard at meeting friends and being accepted. This child went and talked with other kids, tried to be included in games and maybe even asked others for play dates. But despite all of this the child is rejected in some way and not included. Then the egocentric child could have then said to themselves – something is wrong with me that I wasn’t accepted, so I’m the problem, so I am flawed in some way, so I have to be perfect to be accepted. We could apply this same flawed logic thought path to a situation if the child turned in a science fair project at school he/she was proud of and this project was not received well by others and not given any mention. The shame of not doing well and feeling humiliation may be enough to convince the child that they have to do something really well in order to be accepted.
This is where the over compensation comes as the perfectionist thinks they have to overdo in order to be accepted or to do something right. They are over compensating for that part of themselves that feels less than. Instead of having a balanced perspective on him/herself, the child thinks just doing their best and trying is not enough. This child internalizes that they have to be extraordinary each time - which of course is unrealistic.
So the perfectionist has set up incredible benchmarks for themselves, and from the outside we can see how this would be daunting. Why would anyone want to start a project with such lofty goals of perfect achievement? The perfectionist carries such pressure within themselves to Never make a mistake. This of course manifests as anxiety and sometimes will go deeper into an obsessive compulsive cycle.
Not only do they have the pressure of having to do something like a term paper, but now they are feeling the anxiety of writing the Best paper and doing it perfectly – or else. Some common traits of perfectionist are that they have higher intelligence; they are prone to anxiety and yearn for acceptance and love.
Most of us want to do a good job, but the perfectionist Needs to a do a better than good job. Good enough is something the perfectionist rejects and thinks is a cop-out. The perfectionist will not give themselves that out as they see it as compromising and inferior. The perfectionist is concerned with always being perfect because they know that unbearable feeling of shame inside themselves and they are dancing as fast as they can away from that feeling. They continually try to block this feeling with the over compensation and creating outward perfection so they don’t have to look at and feel their inner imperfection(shame).
What I have found is once the perfectionist understands this process they can begin to work within themselves to address the underlying shame and then begin to transform the need to perform perfectly each time if they are ready. This for many is a long road, but if the person works at this consistently they can see an easing up of this pressure for no mistakes. The message here is about being gentle and understanding as this realization unfolds. This is just another path on the egos journey of acceptance of self and the integration of all parts of the individual.
The next avoider is the denier. This is the person who has created a concept of reality for themselves that makes the perceived scary real world easier to digest. In other words, they are the magical thinkers. They are the ones who don’t open the mail when it comes, or they don’t want to pay that bill, return that phone call, or have a conversation with someone else.
The fear they carry is one where they feel the real world is very scary and they don’t always trust themselves in this reality. They create scenarios in their head which are not logical, but feed into their magical reality. “If I don’t open the bill – it’s not real”. So they will make up fantasy stories that the bill from the hospital really is a get well card, not a balance due. They will do anything rather than open up the envelope and see what they owe. As long as they don’t open it – it’s not real and they can deal with it.
At some point along the way the denier was disappointed, or got some bad news, or they were hurt in some way. They were let down by reality and this didn’t feel so good and they started creating a reality in their mind which felt better. This idealized reality is a fantasy world in their mind which is sort of their safe place. When push comes to shove and they have to pay bills or they will be evicted sort of thing, they are wrenched out of this fairy tale world and they begrudgingly write the check, or talk with someone else and deal with this real world stuff. The rest of us have to then deal with their anger and resentment of having to join us in the real world.
As quick as they can the denier returns to their magical world. When others try to reason with them, the denier tells us their fantasy version of reality which of course is not logical, and then we get frustrated, and they get frustrated that we don’t understand them. This is a huge disconnect and the denier is adrift in their non-reality, reality.
The denier needs a patient, gentle person to help guide them on a path of understanding why they needed to create a magical world to live alongside the real world. This story needs to be understood by the denier to acknowledge and validate that there were probably pretty traumatic things which may have happened in their past and the only way they could deal with them, was to not deal with them. This process is accepting and validating of the underlying causes of the need to create magical thinking. This process does not shame the person or say that they are crazy and need to snap out of it. In time if the denier is ready they will begin to slowly open up and pay those bills on time or say what they need to say to others and not avoid. But all of this needs to be on their own time.
The Game Player
The game player is the avoider who has an agenda. This is the passive aggressive or sometimes outright aggressive person who avoids doing something because they want to be the victim or they want to manipulate someone else. This avoidance technique is not always consciously known by the game player because they haven’t’ connected the dots and their emotional wounding is running this game. For them there is value in holding back on doing something. By holding back or avoiding they can leverage this incompletion to see what they can get in exchange. The value is in watching the game unfold so they can achieve a certain desired feeling which is being the victim. When they are in victim mode they can then further manipulate us to get what they want.
For instance, say there is a person and you really want them to answer if they will go with you on a trip or help out with an event. You call and ask and text etc. The game player avoider will say “let me think about it”, “I don’t know if I can”. You get frustrated and maybe you go exploring on your own, or you find someone else to help you with your event. Later the game player avoider asks why you did that? The game player feels slighted and rejected – the game player is in victim mode which feels comfortable and familiar to them.
Victim mode is the payoff for the game player in this example and he/she is secretly wanting you to beg or wait for them to make the decision to go with you or help you out. We could imagine lots of scenarios of why or how this pattern developed within the person, but at the end of the day the game player is a manipulator. Through their avoidance game playing they may string people along and then at the last minute back out or never give an answer. This leaves the rest of us having to fill in the blanks and make other plans – usually out of frustration.
The game player is all about control. When they are in control it is fine and they make plans and do what they want quickly. When they are not in control they feel threatened and delay things while they come up with their game plan of how they will regain a sense of control.
Like so many other interpersonal processes this is not a logical process – it is all emotional. That is why it doesn’t make any sense to someone on the outside. We see this as unnecessary and illogical. We also eventually start to feel the manipulation of the game player and realize what they are doing.
This is a unique situation and the game players are often so good at their game and so convincing. The game player in my example is one who would be considered a covert narcissist. They are covert in how they play out their game in a non-obvious fashion. They are also usually expert at making us feel like we are the ones with the problem and it is our fault they feel that way. Why did we go ahead and do something without them!?
Game players do not often want help as they usually get so much satisfaction and reward from being the victim. It is not until they are called on their game that they do one of two things. The game player’s narcissistic wounding may be activated and they will reject the idea (that they are game players) and what we are saying and maybe even reject us. Or, the game player may be ready to look at their own stuff and stop this game of avoidance just to go into victim mode.
When they are in victim mode their insecurity and low self-esteem feels validated. So for the game player victim they are getting something out of this drama as it reinforces their wounded sense of self-worth and lack of self-love.
Game players again need gentle but very clear direction on the game they construct and to give them the control of what they want to do about the game. As long as they feel they are in control they may go along and at first humor you in your efforts to help them. Eventually they see value and if they are tired of playing the victim they will slowly, and I mean slowly move out of this pattern.
Each of these avoiders has their wounded sense of self-worth in common. Each carries a belief that they reject a part of themselves and they don’t want to face a reality. They have constructed elaborate schemes to carry out their avoidance which protects the wounded self. All of these are emotional devices which give the avoider a sense of control over their reality. As long as they are in control of their reality they feel safe.
Our need for control is in direct proportion to how much we are not trusting of a person, place or situation.
The perfectionist, the denier and the game player are all archetypes of the wounded self which is trying to regain wholeness. They are sort of the emotional wounded warriors who have made an art form of avoidance techniques. When we look at the avoider in these terms we begin to understand the complexity and the humanity of their struggle.
The Perfectionists Handbook – Szymanski
Get Out of Your Mind, and Into Your Life – Hayes and Smith
Robert Jackman, LCPC is a counselor in private practice in St. Charles, IL. He works with adults, couples and adolescents with a special emphasis on positive psychology, encouragement of the authentic self, and healing from codependency and trauma. In addition he is a volunteer staffer with Victories for Men, a non-profit group dedicated to helping men develop deeper self-understanding, better relationships and brighter lives. He can be reached at: www.robertjackmantherapy.com