Posted by: Marie | July 28, 2010

(366) Guest Post: Avoidance as Self Care?

Post #366

Guest Post

Today, I am honored to publish a guest post written by Dr. Gudrun Frerichs of Psychological Resolutions, Ltd. Dr. Frerichs is a psychotherapist based in Auckland, New Zealand. She specializes in personal and professional development and she also publishes a website, Multiple Voices, on sexual abuse and dissociation.

One part of her focus I personally appreciate is her commitment to incorporating “happiness work” into her work with clients. What is “happiness work”? Well, according to Dr. Frerichs’ website, a large body of research has shown that both individuals and teams perform more effectively and have an overall high sense of quality of life when they regularly experience positive emotions (joy, happiness, pleasure, contentment), when they have close connections with colleagues, friends, or family, and when their life appears meaningful to them. Without ignoring the negative aspects in peoples’ lives, Dr. Frerichs believe that showing her clients pathways and strategies for experiencing happiness, joy, and satisfaction will build needed resilience for coping effectively with the “speed-bumps” life has in store for people.

When I asked Dr. Frerichs to submit a guest post, she originally set the intention to write about the amazing survivor summit that took place in late June in Auckland. (For more information, check out the SOSA NZ website. She reports it was indeed an overwhelmingly moving event!)

Unfortunately, six days after the summit, a member of her sexual abuse survivor group was murdered. That put everyone in the group into a spin and the group’s focus became about containment, support and crisis care. All the women in the group resorted to their “favorite” coping strategies, of which avoidance is a big part.

The response of the women reminded Dr. Frerichs of a post she wrote a while back about the benefits of avoiding. She became aware of how timely it might be to present it now, on my blog. I trust you will appreciate her words of wisdom!


When Does Avoidance Become Self-Care?

Nobody wants to be avoidant. It’s not something that you list in your curriculum vitae as a remarkable quality or personality trait because it signals that you are not dealing with the issues you should be dealing with. You are not addressing the unpleasant or even painful aspects of your life – and probably life in general!

The Mountain View by Martin Chen

However, avoidance is not something a bunch of avoidant people came up with to legalise avoidance. It’s a human condition to assure survival and the integrity of one’s body and mind. That’s why we don’t walk on hot coals every day – unless we want to demonstrate to our self and others that we are capable of great courage and can overcome our fears.

When working with traumatised clients (either through child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect) that is exactly what we need to understand. Traumatised clients who come to their therapy session are exposing themselves each time to the possibility of having to walk over hot coals. By coming, they are showing great courage that deserves everyone’s respect.

It comes not as a surprise then that avoidance is a constant visitor in therapy sessions. It is part of the nature of the beast that people want to get away from the trauma, its memories, and its legacies. Let’s get over it – let’s move on – let’s get a life! Avoidance is in a way saying, “Aren’t we there yet?” The journey is becoming too hard or too long.

How about using avoidance as a sign for urgently needed Self Care? Let’s give the client a break and let her or him come up for air. The client is signalling to the therapist that s/he is not ready yet to go any further on that bed of hot coals. It’s time for sustenance and recharging batteries. It may be time to resource the client for doing “happiness work”. Oh, how much I wish for therapists in general to be as diligent about “happiness work” as they are about “processing trauma”. I am sure we would have fewer clients in crisis.

John Briere uses the concept of the ‘Therapeutic Window’ for describing a client’s ability to deal with traumatic content. Too little exposure to painful memories is not effective and clients remain ‘underwhelmed’ while too much exposure is non-therapeutic and the client is overwhelmed. The skill is to remain within the window of effectiveness. This is not a new thing; it’s been around for over 15 years.

The short answer is: Avoidance is/can be Self Care. When I am avoiding I am protecting myself against something that FEELS too hard to do. As a client, I might need your help, your reassurance, your trust in my capabilities, or some extra tools to go the next step. Please, don’t label me non-compliant! If you do, you missed the whole point!


  1. This is one of the wisest and most deeply compassionate pieces of writing I have ever seen from a therapist. I have passed it on to several people whose therapists needs to hear it.

    • Thank you for saying so, David . . . I was thinking the same!

      – Marie

  2. When a therapist accuses a client of avoidance I think the client needs to accuse the therapist of insistence.

    I think it means the therapist has an agenda for the client. This could be good – but I think the therapist needs to be clear about their agenda.

    Business idea: Buttons for sale with the slogan – I’m an Avoider – I’m clever enough to keep myself safe.

    • Oh, I LOVE the idea of the buttons, Evan!!!

      You make a great point about the avoidance/insistence . . . I heard you say that before and I have found it to be typically true.

      – Marie

  3. Thanks for the lovely responses to my post. I think part of the problem is that therapists a trained to look for what’s broken. The emphasis for many therapists is on pathology. Of course, clients come with the same agenda: Help me with my problem!

    I found it helpful to believe that “Every behaviour has a positive intention”! When I look for the positive intention of my clients’ behaviours we can move ahead by embracing (for example avoiding something) rather than criticising and creating resistance.


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