© Andrea Bentley for Auckland Therapy Blog, 10 December 2018
When the going gets tough are you fiercely independent? If you want something done right, do you have to do it yourself? When your best pig dog died, was that the only time you cried in the last 15 years, and even then only 2 tears? There’s a name for that, and it’s not “staunch”. We call it avoidant, and while the logic behind being avoidant is nearly flawless, it’s based on some deeply flawed ideas.
It’s just a fact: children need caregivers. Obviously when we’re born, we can’t take care of ourselves. We’re helpless and weak. But unlike a lot of other animals, our helplessness lasts for a pretty long time.
And we don’t just need help with our physical needs. We have emotions that need to be looked after as well. We rely on our caregivers to feed us and clothe us and keep us warm, but we also rely on them to comfort us and help us feel safe and loved.
Of course, not every caregiver recognises this or is equipped to meet their child’s emotional needs. They might dismiss those needs as weakness and shame or bully the child for expressing them. Or the caregiver might simply be too weak themselves to hold and contain the child’s emotions. Or maybe the caregiver is so involved in the child’s life that they don’t allow the child to express their needs. Whichever role the caregiver plays, the child learns the same thing: emotions are bad.
People fear bad things. What do they do when they fear something? Whatever they can to avoid it. They push it away. They decide they don’t need it. And then they build their whole lives on this flawed idea that they are better off without the emotions they need to experience intimacy.
Intimate relationships require sharing emotions with each other. But if a person learns at an early age that emotions are bad, they may not develop the language they need to do this. Not only that, but they may not understand what their partner is saying either. They don’t ask for help, and they don’t understand what others want when they ask.
They may say, “I love you”. They may say, “I want you”. But they don’t say, “I need you”. They describe themselves as individuals. They mount strong arguments against relationships. They devalue feelings and closeness and anything that might be seen as vulnerability. And if someone gets too close, they decide they don’t need them. They push them away. They avoid them – and the emotions that they bring with them.
It might seem like avoidant people are destined to be alone, but that’s not necessarily the case. They’re often kind and considerate. People really like them. They have friends and they date and they even get married. But they always keep their distance, sharing only as much as they need to to keep the peace.
Sometimes, though, it gets to be too much – especially if they’re in a relationship with a clingy co-dependent like I talked about in my previous post. When that happens, they may run if they can, or simply shutdown if they can’t. And they may repeat this cycle for their whole life.
Avoidant people do have a choice though. They can change. They act the way they do because they learned to, and they can learn to act differently as well. With the assistance of a psychodynamic psychotherapist, they can develop emotional communication to access and express a full range of emotional experiences. Most of all, they must learn to extend to themselves that same kindness and consideration that they give to others. Before anyone can truly be independent, they must be whole and free of the fears from their past. Just remember that it takes time to make these changes, in the same way that it took time to learn to act this way in the first place.