For people living with the effects of childhood trauma, “avoidance” can be a strategy to control CPTSD triggers by keeping oneself alone and isolated.
“Covert avoidance” is my term for a secret kind of avoidance — living life as if you are engaged with it, but hiding from it.
If that’s you, you may have learned to look OK on the outside – being cheerful, appropriate, functioning well enough. But you might be protecting your inner state by avoiding any kind of situation that might trigger you – things like rejection, criticism, and abandonment. Is it worth it? In this video and article I talk about the price you pay for holding your life at arm’s length and everything you gain by healing that tendency now. These situations can make a person with CPTSD feel destroyed. But if you go through life protecting yourself, that destroys you too. Allowing yourself to get triggered puts you at risk for falling apart, but too much self-protection hollows you out, and robs you of the experience of real love, purpose, and the connection to other people you need.
Without connection our development gets frozen. We’re like sad children walking around.
Now I call the problem covert avoidance because it’s not like Avoidant Personality Disorder, which is an extreme kind of anxiety and social avoidance, on a level that would be fairly noticeable to other people. But covert avoidance isn’t noticeable to other people. You seem OK. You’re interacting with the world, but also holding yourself apart from it.
One big sign of covert avoidance is when you’re too busy, or too tired all the time to do normal things that a person in your position would do — keeping your living space tidy, making decent food for yourself and maybe your kids, going to bed on time, getting up on time. When you’re avoiding this level of functioning, it’s an inward-directed kind of avoidance.
Then there are outward behaviors such as being late to things — it’s normal to be late occasionally, but if you’re known for being late, or you’re late by about the same number of minutes every time? It’s avoidance.
That was the big obvious sign I had back about 16 years ago, near the end of my first marriage, when my kids were small. I was late to everything.. if a dinner party started at 6:00 I’d be there at 6:45. If a client phone call started at 9:00 am I’d join in at 9:02. If a group of friends were meeting up for a hike I’d keep everyone waiting 20 minutes. And you know– I always had my reasons. I was busy and I juggling a lot, it’s true. I was always telling people how busy I was (even though that’s one of the most boring stories we can share).
Friend: How have you been Anna?
Me then: Really BUSY. Yeah.
Being busy and putting my “busy-ness” out in front like that was a way to keep everyone’s focus off of my inner life.
And the thing is, even though I was juggling a lot at the time (I was a working, single mom), you could take everything I did in a day, to which I was showing up late, and do it in the same amount of time, by just shifting everything 20 minutes earlier. Then I’d be on time for everything, and would have been so much less stressful.
In my mind I couldn’t make that shift because I was because I was too busy. In reality I was shutting people out. I was shutting my life out. I was angry at my life and I didn’t want to be in it. And in particular, I was unhappy about my recently ended marriage, and was emotionally overwhelmed, pretty much all the time. And rather than be real about that and face it, I hung on to the marriage and then tried to keep everything else in my life at arm’s length.
Back then, my CPTSD was only partially under control. I didn’t know that’s what I had. I did have the techniques that I teach in my free course, The Daily Practice, but I still had a lot to learn about what was actually going on with me. To be honest, dealing with people and any responsibility outside of my work and my kids was just too triggering for me. If I were to actually open up to friends or leave the marriage? Well, I simpley felt I couldn’t. I was barely holding myself together as it was.
So I did what I had always known to do under pressure, and that’s to muddle through. There’s a lot to be said for just pushing through bad times — it’s a superpower for those of us who get really triggered by life. It’s a good thing to know how to do, but there comes a time when the avoidance has to stop if you’re going to be happy.
Here’s how I got to that point: I ended up in the hospital needing some major surgery. This was right when my kids’ dad and I separated and we were hardly speaking to each other. And because for years I’d formed only superficial, put-on-a-happy-face friendships, I wasn’t close to anyone anymore, and that meant I had almost no support.
I went a whole week in the hospital with just one visitor for maybe an hour. When it was time to go home, I needed somebody who could come pick me up and drive me (literally… by law, they can’t let you just take a cab), yet I had no one!
The surgery had been a disaster — I was going to end up needing many more surgeries after that. But on that particular day, I had to call ten people to find one who could pick me up (OK, and this provides I did ultimately have someone). I got home and I could barely walk or get to bathroom. I definitely couldn’t go get groceries or clean anything. And because I had to keep caring for my kids and doing work on my computer from home, I never got proper rest and couldn’t physically recover — which is another story for another video sometime. But this is a big part of why one surgery ended up becoming 14 surgeries (some of them really major) in four years.
That’s what chronic avoidance will get you. You might get through one crisis by avoiding people and life, but the next crisis will come and lay you low. You’ll face for real what’s left when you spent years thinking you had no choice but to protect yourself — protecting that fragile place inside that lives in fear of being judged and left out and alone.
In the long run, avoidance makes you alone.
So how do you turn covert avoidance around? It’s not easy but when this all changed for me, I found it was pretty common sense. I’ll tell you exactly how to do what I did.
The first thing is to get SUPER honest with yourself about your current circumstances and what is likely to happen if you don’t change. You’ve got to become more conscious of why you’re avoiding your own life.There’s a very good reason, even if it’s not actually good for you but it helps to know. And most of us have a similar reason.
For a lot of us who were abused or neglected as kids, our nervous systems got thrown off kilter by something called dysregulation. This is neurological — it’s happening in your brain and body, and it can go on and keep getting worse your whole life if you don’t learn to notice dysregulation and master RE-regulation.
If you were to do a brain scan of someone who had an intensely stressful childhood, and you talk to them NOW about something that’s triggering for them, what you’ll see on the scan is that brain waves change from a flowing and synchronized pattern, into a chaotic pattern, where parts of the brain are lighting up and firing in an unsynchronized way.. Your heart rate and breathing, which are normally working in tandem, also go out of sync. And the result is called dysregulation.
Dysregulation feels like being “discombobulated” — clumsy, a little disoriented, sensitive to touch and light and sound, emotionally over-reactive, or sometimes the opposite — checked out and emotionally flat.
Dysregulation isn’t just a feeling, it’s a disruption that affects all your body systems, with potentially serious health effects over time. So it’s SUPER important to learn to re-regulate. Until until you do, anything that causes you stress is going to run the risk of throwing you into dysregulation, and it can take hours or days to come back from that. That’s one big reason why CPTSD can be so debilitating.
Everybody gets stressed sometimes, but not everybody gets dysregulated. And since most people with CPTSD have never heard of dysregulation, they’re going through life with this vulnerability to stress that can make it disabling. Other people seem to be fine participating in groups and forming close friendships, but they’re not dysregulated! So we instinctively learn how to protect our brain and nervous system by avoiding stress.
And… let’s be real! People cause stress! Getting involved in things causes stress! Being emotionally honest can leave us open to rejection and criticism, and that causes HUGE stress, so instinctively we keep all these stressors at arm’s length.
In our minds it seems like there’s an external reason for why we fall apart inside. We find excuses not to show up on time, not to participate in the school fundraiser, not to answer the phone call or have the vulnerable conversation. But really, we’re just trying to stave off dysregulation.
And doing that day after day, year after year, starts gutting the connections and habits that keep us happy. And then we have to look for ways to numb that too.
One insightful friend of mine who said she used to go to parties with a camera around her neck, so that If she were speaking with someone for more than a couple of minutes, she could say she needed to leave the conversation to go take pictures. Or she used a clipboard in her hand, with a pen (I’ve done that). You can walk around as if you’re enjoying the party but you’re playing the role of — I don’t know — an observer, an anthropologist, someone who works there, and not just a person among equals having fun.
We end up using avoidance to hold dysregulation at bay, playing fake with the good people right in front of us, and wondering… why do I feel so alone?
So that’s how it happens. Some of us do it by looking at our phones all the time. Some of us do it by taking unfulfilling jobs and then hating that job, and postponing the day when we’ll start living our life until AFTER we leave the job (that we never should have taken in the first place). Then we’ve got a great excuse not to volunteer at the school, or take a walk with a friend.
We find ourselves collapsed on a sofa every evening. And even at home, we can do covert avoidance with people we love — just going through the motions. Or we stay with people we never loved — just buying some time for that day when we can emotionally handle making changes.
You can do avoidance through food, drugs, video games, or anything that numbs you, telling yourself that as soon as you can stop you’ll get out there and start your life again.
I totally get it. Until you have a way to calm your triggers and handle stress when it comes (cause it always comes) your CPTSD is going to dictate that YOU will be cut off from your own life.
Thankfully, there IS a way to calm your triggers and re-regulate, so you don’t have to avoid anything. I can teach you that. That’s where to start. You don’t have to fix your whole life at once! Sometimes if you just orient yourself toward healing, and you can do one small thing a day — then more changes follow naturally.
It’s not about talking MORE about what happened to you in the past. It’s about noticing the triggers you have right now, and calming them, and then using that moment of calm to make some progress — go say hello to your neighbor, answer a couple e-mails, clean the kitchen, break down some boxes for recycling from all that toilet paper you bought on Amazon :).
It feels GOOD to take care of your life, and it’s possible to challenge yourself a little bit when you KNOW that you always have a quiet place where you can return.
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