Avoiding Avoidance Leads to Success in Post-Military Life

A U.S. Marine Corps PFC practices observation techniques using cover and concealment techniques and a homemade ghillie suit on Camp Fuji, Japan, Nov. 7, 2009.

“Success doesn’t mean happy every day.” – Omar Andrews

I don’t wanna, and I ain’t gonna. How often do we avoid unpleasant experiences so we don’t feel uncomfortable…but end up not resolving the issue, and turn pain into suffering? Avoidance is a natural reaction to unpleasant situations; we’ve been doing it since we were kids and spit out the mushed beets our mothers were trying to feed us. When it comes to veteran mental health, however, avoidance can do more harm than good.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have found a concept called Dialectical Behavior Therapy to be effective with the veterans I work with in clinical practice. Of the many skills that I have found effective, the one that applies to the concept of avoidance is the practice of opposite action; acting in a way that is in opposition to the way that we feel. This is called, rightly enough, “avoid avoiding.” Rather than back away from conflict, address it head on; stop avoiding it. This doesn’t mean flip tables because you want to, but if we have a tendency to back away from something, then that means that there’s something important going on. We should, instead, acknowledge the problem and resolve it.

Avoidance is Not Something Veterans Did in the Military

One of the things about avoidance; it’s another thing that we typically didn’t do in the military. Why should it crop up in post-military life? It didn’t often happen in the military, because it generally wasn’t allowed. We didn’t get to avoid the unpleasant feeling of standing watch in the rain, or running the obstacle course for the tenth time. In many ways, that helped us get over the hesitation that comes with avoidance; to get us used to doing things that we would normally shy away from. Heck, that’s what the greatest pavlovian conditioning experiment in the world…Airborne School…does for you. You thrown yourself to the ground, over and over again, from successively greater heights, for one single purpose: when a little green light goes on, you jump out of an airplane.

In highly dangerous situations, it’s even more pronounced. You run towards the sound of the bullets, not away from them. Firefighters run up the stairs in the World Trade Center when others are running down. Through training, and determination, we avoided avoiding danger and conflict in the military; why do we engage in avoidance after the military?

Avoidance Works in the Short Term

The challenge with avoidance is that it works. It makes life easier, just in that space of time. When we decide not to do something unpleasant that we know we need to do, we get a temporary feeling of relief. We know we have to fix up that spare room, or clean up our desk, or confront that coworker that we know is doing something wrong. We just don’t want to experience the unpleasantness. And so that can be relieving…but it doesn’t solve the problem. The spare room doesn’t get fixed, the desk is still chaotic, and our coworker is still doing what they shouldn’t be doing. In the long run, avoidance only creates more problems. It’s like emotional procrastination; why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? Because the problem is still going to be there, whether it’s today or tomorrow.

Avoidance Complicates the Long Term

Like many things, however, the initial benefit covers up the more significant long term problem, and it impacts our emotion and behavior. We know we need to take care of that unpaid bill, but we don’t even open it…just leave it lying there. We avoid dealing with it, and every time we look at it, our anxiety increases. The longer we let it go, the worse it gets. The urge to avoid keeps us from addressing something unpleasant, but it delays the consequence of what we’re trying avoid. We know that we need to get help with what’s going on in our head; we can’t sleep, we’re drinking too much, arguing with our partner. Even after we realize that there’s something  not right, we stubbornly avoid reaching out for help. After all, reaching out for help is weakness, right? And the relief that comes from the avoidance of getting help is not more beneficial than addressing the problem head on.

Avoiding Avoidance Leads To Success

Sooner or later, the problems in our lives have to be dealt with. The shut door keeps us from moving forward; and moving forward is success. The quote at the beginning of this article was shared with me and a group of my colleagues by a former Marine who was finishing college and starting to work in legislative advocacy. He recognized it in the Marine Corps, recognized it in his post-military educational pursuits, and recognizes it now as he’s advocating for veterans in higher education. Success doesn’t mean happy every day…it means sometimes doing things we don’t want to do. It means avoiding the urge to avoid those unpleasant experiences that, while unpleasant, will solve problems and get us on to the next task. The insidiousness of avoidance is that it is failure wrapped in the illusion of success; true success will not be gained until we start to avoid avoiding.

Easy? Of course not. Nothing worth doing ever is, every service member knows that. The safe and easy route is usually deceptively dangerous. We can take that too far, of course, and make life more challenging that it needs to be, but we don’t need to avoid the challenging days entirely. Avoid avoiding, and find success.

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The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!

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Duane France
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Duane K. L. France is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a mental health counselor practicing in the state of Colorado. Do you want to join the conversation regarding veteran mental health? Share, like, and comment. Read Duane's previous posts and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn. Keep the conversation about #veteranmentalhealth going.