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Chipping Away at Fear and Avoidance at Work: What’s Really Going on and What Can We Do About It?


TL;DR

  • Avoiding anxiety-provoking things at work is natural. Our survival instinct has programmed us to respond to fear of threats by avoiding them.


  • We all have things that bring up fear and avoidance in us—whether task-related or interpersonal in nature (or both). Issues could range from negotiating a promotion to facing an unsupportive boss. I’ll lay out my own experience of avoiding preparing for a high-stakes talk, how I reframed my thinking about it, and what I chose to do instead.


  • Non-judgmentally noticing the feelings—both physical and emotional—that come up when we name the avoided item can be difficult, but a powerful way to normalize what’s going on in us and reduce our avoidance. It can also help us take the first step down a path toward facing our fears.


  • Being able to visually see a list of things we’re avoiding can help make them tangible and reduce feeling overwhelmed by the unknown.


  • Once the fear and avoided items have been named, we can consider our reasons for avoiding; thinking traps in our perception of how the avoidance is protecting us; and what alternative approach we might like to take.


  • After facing the avoided task, it can be helpful to debrief the experience to reinforce learning, challenge your automatic thought process, and develop flexibility for the future.


  • Understanding and embracing these steps can help us face our fears and approach them in new ways.


  • Managers can support their direct reports by normalizing fear and avoidance. This can include modeling nonjudgment by sharing examples of their own fear and avoidance; and compassionately asking what’s on their direct reports’ fear and avoidance list and what support they need to chip away at it.


Avoidance is a Natural Process Designed to Protect Us. When We Don’t Notice and Challenge it, Our Automatic Brain Takes Over.


We all avoid things at times—it’s natural—but we rarely step back to notice it and assess whether it’s helping us in a given situation. Instead, our automatic brain takes over and before we know it, we feel overwhelmed and lose track of all the things we’ve avoided—only reinforcing the avoidance and potentially increasing the fear.



For example, if we’re walking in the woods, come across an old cabin, walk inside and immediately encounter a roaring bear, our fear will typically motivate us to escape (the “flight” of our “fight, flight, or freeze” response). If we escape successfully, we will likely avoid that cabin and its surroundings on our way out of the woods, and we might even avoid it or other abandoned cabins on future walks. Our brain is now programmed to associate cabins with bears and bears with threats to our lives.


This is clearly helpful for survival, but does it mean we can never go camping again? Never walk in the woods? How far should we take the association? And what happens when there was no bear in the cabin but we perceived there would be and avoided it before finding out?


The example is clear when there’s a physical threat like a bear positioned to attack, but it can be less clear to us when there’s a perceived threat, like fear of looking stupid or being unsupported in a conflict at work. The same self-protection processes can be working on us whether or not the threat is real, and whether or not we realize we’re afraid and avoiding.


Our instincts are kicking in automatically in a way that’s designed to be helpful, but we can’t always sort out the objective likelihood of a threat being credible; what would happen if it came true; and whether or how avoidance is helping us.


Reframing our thinking and choices can help.



Reframing Our Thinking on Fear and Avoidance


There is a series of processes I’ve found helpful toward elucidating my fear and challenging myself to think differently about how I handle my avoidance:


  1. Noting/noticing the fear and avoidance without judging it

  2. Visualizing the issue that’s overwhelming me by writing it down on a list

  3. Assessing my reasons for avoiding it

  4. Understanding my thinking traps to assess whether the threat is credible

  5. Assessing what I could do to step into the avoided task

  6. Taking action, retrospecting, and assessing lessons learned to increase future flexibility


Chipping Away at Fear and Avoidance: A 6-Step Model


Step 1: Noticing Our Fear and Avoidance Without Judging It


So many of us are such natural problem solvers that we have a tendency to move straight into actions, goals, and solutions without really noticing or understanding what the problem is, what’s behind it, or what it’s doing to/for us.


Before we can go deep, we have to start on the surface: noticing that we’re afraid or avoiding (and not yet moving into the why or what to do about it).


  • What physical and emotional sensations do you experience when you’re afraid or avoiding something? Tight muscles? Headaches? A racing heart? Anger? Sadness? Resignation? Other things?


  • What (not why) things are you avoiding?


Step 2: Visualizing the Issue(s) By Writing It Down on a List



To help myself move from feeling overwhelmed by an unknown quantity of feared and avoided items to something more tangible, I created a spreadsheet where I first listed out all the items I was avoiding.


The process of getting everything out on a page so we’re not invisibly carrying the stress of loss of control over everything that’s piling up can be a helpful step in itself.


Here’s how this might look:


  • List your items. If you’re willing, take a few minutes to simply write down all the things (whether tasks or interpersonal matters) you feel you’re avoiding. Your gut will tell you what those are. Rather than reach for them, see if you can be open to letting them come. When they do, simply write them down on a list without judging or problem-solving. At this stage, you’re just creating an inventory.


Example: on one of my past lists, I came up with 14 items (they had been building up a while before I thought to inventory them), one of which was developing a talk for a high-level audience in a job in which I was new.


Step 3: Assessing the Reason for Avoiding


  • In a new column, list your reason for avoiding. This is where you can get a bit introspective. If you’re willing, spend some time on each item to honestly answer the question of why you’re avoiding it. This list is only for you—no one’s judging it—so see if you can be honest with yourself.


Example: my reason for avoiding developing the talk was: “I’m going to screw something up, not have all the answers, and look stupid.”


If you only get this far, congratulations! Noting is a powerful skill and just increasing our awareness of our automatic habits can be helpful.


If this is all you can do, that is enough to start. Notice how it made you feel to write down why you were avoiding the task. What emotions or physical sensations came up? What thoughts? If you can, allow yourself to notice these and feel what they feel like. Avoidance is such an automatic process that noticing fear can be quite intense or enlightening in some cases.


Getting in the habit of noticing your fears is a great step toward later choosing what you might like to do differently.


Step 4: Assessing Stuck Thinking, Mind Traps, or Perceptions That Are Standing in the Way


  • Assessing any extremes in your perceptions that might be keeping you stuck. If you’re willing, the next step is assessing where you might have fallen into some mind traps (aka thinking traps) that keep your perceptions stuck in perpetuating your fear.


Example: for the talk I was avoiding developing, the mind trap/perception keeping me stuck was, “I need to know everything and come off as perfect or I’ll be revealed as stupid and the organization will regret hiring me.”


This can be heavy stuff. I’m comfortable sharing, as these thoughts are part of the imposter syndrome I developed from my struggle with traditional learning prior to my ADHD diagnosis and treatment, and I’ve been aware of and working on them for close to two decades.


Remember that this assessment is just for you. You don’t need to share it and no one’s judging it. It’s for your developing awareness of the many processes that are happening beneath the surface when we avoid things.


Step 5: Deciding What to Do About It


For me, once I write the thinking trap out, I can usually identify that the course of action I need is to step into the fear and face it.


For others, your next steps in challenging your thinking might be different; it might take time to develop your own incremental action steps. That’s OK—this is a challenging step that, if kept up, will become more familiar over time.


When you feel ready:


  • Assessing what to do about your reason for avoidance and thinking traps. This is where the opportunity to take action comes in: now that it’s clear why we’re avoiding the item and how our thinking got skewed, we have an opportunity to consider what we want to do about it.


Example: for my talk, I wrote, “practice once and then let go and see what happens.”


Again, it takes time and exposure to be able to decide to jump fully into your fear, so go easy on yourself if you’re not ready, and see if there’s an incremental step you would be willing to take. Change can be very effective over time when taken incrementally.


Step 6: Taking Action, Debriefing, and Reinforcing Lessons Learned


When you’re ready to take action, see if you can face your fear by jumping in and doing what you defined in Step 4. From there:


  • I find it useful to log what date I started and completed it, so I can see how long it took after I decided to face it head-on. Feel free to adopt, adapt, or skip this, as useful.


  • Retrospecting on how it went. When you’re ready, a key step to better understanding your fear and avoidance processes and alternative decision-making is to look back on the action you took and assess how it went. This can help provide data to validate or refute (or something in between) our worst-case-scenario thinking.


Example: my retrospective for developing the talk was, “Went well! It was a fear of fear. I know and can speak intelligibly to more than I thought. I just needed to review one small section in more depth. I will trim the content of the talk in slides 5-7 (especially 7).”


Notice that it went well, which was a relief, but not perfectly, which is a realistic outcome. My fear was grounded in feelings of perfectionism. Once I tested my fears, I realized my perfectionism was coming up as a way to protect myself against (avoid) the fear of people thinking I’m stupid (which is really about my fear/imposter syndrome that maybe I am stupid).


There’s no way to reassure myself that people don’t think I’m stupid, but I’ve learned I have choices: I can paralyze myself in fear and do nothing; or I can try something, see how it goes, make reasonable adjustments, and live with the reality that I have imposter syndrome and will never feel secure in the notion that people perceive me as smart. I usually surprise myself with how much I know and can articulate.


Through practice I can work out some of the reasonable, foreseeable kinks, like trimming some of the slide content. The key is to notice the difference between reasonable and limited adjustments and striving for perfection (or other thinking traps) or holding ourselves to impossible standards/staying stuck in our perceptions. Even in the actual talk, things will and do go wrong—and that’s OK.


  • Considering lessons learned. The final step I like to assess is what I learned from all this. For me, this goes a step beyond the retrospective of the task itself and into a new way of looking at my own thinking, so I can challenge it over time and assess whether it’s helpful and working for me. It helps me build flexibility and break down some of that automatic thinking.


Example: for my talk, my lesson learned was, “I'm more prepared than I think I am. It's OK to not have all the answers. Be kind to myself--I'm in a new job and learning.”


Managers Can Help Direct Reports Discover and Normalize Their Fear and Avoidance


In addition to noticing and reframing your own fear and avoidance, you can support your direct reports who are going through a similar experience.


In my meetings with direct reports, I tried to normalize that we all have a “fear and avoidance pile” and it’s natural to have tasks we avoid.


Even if they weren’t aware of what they were avoiding, this often gave us the opportunity to discuss whether there were particular trends in types of tasks that weren’t getting done and what might be causing the avoidance in those cases. If we could understand the underlying issue, we could work on it. When folks needed some structure around the discussion, I might ask whether it was a training issue, resource issue, policy issue, process issue, etc.


The goal was to surface and normalize what was going on and help them know I wasn’t judging them for the avoided tasks—I wanted to offer support of whatever might be standing in the way so they didn’t feel they needed to continue avoiding it and building up shame that might lead to further avoidance.


Some people just appreciated the accountability partnership of talking out questions like “what’s on your fear and avoidance list?,” “what do you need to chip away at it?,” or “what actions and support would be helpful?”


Others needed different approaches and solutions, which sometimes raised valid institutional needs, like bigger process improvement projects.


Not every problem could be solved, and this approach didn’t work well for everyone, but in general, one of the best things managers and leaders can do is create an environment of psychological safety where employees can feel safe discussing and troubleshooting problems without fear of punitive action.


Normalizing fear and avoidance through leadership by example and open discussion can create an environment where we can begin to discover and chip away at ways we hold ourselves back. Rather than fixing, we can be open to understanding, accepting, and developing.





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