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A Tale As Old As Time: Avoidance

Joe Vs. I Stink

Imagine you have somebody walking around with the idea that they aren’t good at anything. Let’s call him Joe. I’m not saying that Joe has the thought “I stink,” I’m saying “I stink” is the lens through which he views the world. Capital ‘I’ capital ‘S.’ I Stink is a concept that hounds him constantly, barking away in Joe’s mind and settling into the backdrop of anything he does. When Joe does something ‘good’ by an objective measure and is well-praised by others, I Stink is largely still there to take some of the sheen off of the accomplishment (“they’re just being nice, anyone could’ve done that”). Heaven forbid, when Joe does something ‘bad,’ I Stink roams freely amidst his mind, parading in pyrrhic victory as the “truth” has finally been revealed and the entire existence of I Stink validated and substantiated.

Joe’s relationship with I Stink is, perhaps understandably, of the antagonistic variety. He loathes I Stink and would do anything to have it go away. Joe figures that, logically, I Stink cannot survive if he cuts off its oxygen supply of his own stinkiness. So if all personal stinkiness is eliminated, then so is I Stink. We see Joe pushing himself in all aspects of his life, striving to achieve. He works hard in school. He makes great efforts to connect with and show kindness and compassion for others. He eats right and exercises. He goes after the most prestigious jobs. All in an effort to kill I Stink. What looks to anyone else like the behavior of a driven, ambitious, and good-natured individual are, to Joe, all fierce salvos against a sworn enemy. Joe’s entire life steadily becomes a means of proving or disproving I Stink – each intentional act, each encounter, and each decision becomes a referendum on who is winning the war. “My boss didn’t respond to my email,” (I Stink rises up) see, nobody respects you, and they think you’re terrible!

Let’s flip the situation and imagine that Joe gets positive feedback from interacting with his boss. This is perhaps one of those rare moments when I Stink has no response, nothing that can be said to undermine Joe’s victory in this particular battle. Does Joe feel a sense of self-satisfaction, accomplishment, excitement, and happiness? Probably not. Remember, this is but one battle in a long-standing war. He feels a sense of relief and not much else. There is no joy but rather a sense that he has dodged a bullet. Soon after, it is time to steel himself for the next foray. All he wants to do is relax, but I Stink is quick to remind him that there is no rest for the weary.

When we talk about treating OCD and anxiety disorders, much of the conversation centers around not avoiding stuff. This is hugely important and central to our work. However, I work with many people who feel like they are doing too much. They are typically high-achieving, self-described “perfectionists” who push themselves to approach every challenge to their fullest extent.

In these cases, the avoidance is more subtle. As in the above example, sometimes folks like this behave this way to avoid the experience that they might not be doing enough and resultant feelings of self-doubt, guilt, and shame. The good news is that such experiences are common to being human, and we can learn skills and perspectives on these feelings that help us navigate them and move toward what is important to us. Further still, this can be done without needing to “lower your standards” or otherwise compromise your vision for your life.


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