Updated: Oct 25, 2022
Experiential avoidance is an important concept within Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is the idea that, as humans, it is natural, and normal, for us to try and escape experiences which are uncomfortable or painful. That has survival value when it comes to many things in life; for example, it makes sense to avoid the physical pain of touching a hot surface because that will protect us from harm. But, equally, avoiding pain and discomfort in another context, such when undergoing physiotherapy, may mean we are unable to make a full recovery, if we stop doing our exercises because of it. Not all experiential avoidance is wrong or unhelpful, but, depending on the context, avoiding our own experiences (thoughts, images, memories, emotions, sensations), which often gives us some measure of relief in the short term, can lead to problems in the long run.
In ACT, we attempt to understand what the function of an individual's behaviours may be in achieving their goals. As part of this, ACT has two main aims; to reduce unnecessary suffering (note this is different to elimination of pain and discomfort), and to help people do more of what matters to them, to build lives of meaning, purpose and satisfaction. Experiential avoidance, and the strategies individuals use to try and escape their unwanted experiences, tend to move people in the opposite direction, either increasing suffering, or moving them further away from the lives they want, and often both.
Functional analysis is a useful tool in helping us to decide if a behaviour is workable for an individual, in a given context. Sometimes, the unworkability of behaviour is reasonably clear - thought suppression, dissociation, daily heavy drinking, or outright avoidance of important parts of their lives - because the negative consequences of these behaviours can be directly pointed to. But, at other times experiential avoidance is subtler and may even appear to be productive or consistent with the individual's values. When that happens, these behaviours can be overlooked, leaving important behaviours that may be maintaining suffering unaddressed.
An example may be the individual who, struggling with shame following an affair, commits to putting their partner's needs first. On the surface we may identify their behaviour as consistent with their values, such as being loving, supportive, and caring. But, what we may notice, if we look closer, is that the behaviour functions to avoid feelings of shame which arise when when they experience thoughts of disagreement or conflict. If the individual creates a new rule around 'always putting my partner's needs first' it may serve to ensure they are repeatedly avoiding the experience of shame, in the short term, and so limit their ability to develop flexible responses to it. For e.g., it may mean deprioritise their own needs, or avoid necessary disagreements with their partner, in the effort to always put their partner's needs first as a strategy to escape or avoid uncomfortable feelings. The result may be, not only the maintenance of the shame, with which they continue an avoidant relationship, but also wider consequences in their relationship with their partner in the longer term, and ultimately in their ability to live life in the way they wish to do.
Alternatively, someone who, struggling with thoughts and feelings associated with low self-worth, may continually take on more projects at work. Superficially, they may seem productive and committed to values of self-development, and competence, but, more closely examined, we may notice the function is to avoid coming into contact with their thoughts and feelings of worthlessness. The behaviour of taking on more work functions to provide short term relief (experiential avoidance), but, if a rule develops around the need to be continually succeeding at work to feel worthwhile, it could prevent the development of more flexible responses to those same unwanted thoughts and feelings. The result could be the maintenance of those experiences, by limiting available responses to them. This could lead to a reliance on work as the 'solution' to unwanted thoughts and feelings, and a reduced ability to engage in other, potentially meaningful and satisfying, parts of their life.
The key point here is not that any particular behaviour is good or bad but that the function of a given behaviour may not be what it appears to be on the surface, especially when a behaviour is considered socially desirable in some way. Clearly, paying attention to your partner's needs, or being productive at work, can be positive things, but they may not be the only functions of a behaviour, in a given context. So, its useful, as practitioners, to pay close attention to what the actual function of a behaviour is, given clients' goals for our work together. Once we, with our clients, have identified the function of a behaviour, in context, our ability to help our clients develop more flexible, and ultimately more workable, responses to their unwanted experiences becomes improved, as well as our clients' ability to meet their goals, which is what we what we are working for.
Christian Hughes is a Psychotherapist, Clinical Supervisor, and Clinical Trainer, specialising in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, with expertise in Trauma, PTSD, and a special interest in Moral Injury.