Quick Tips for Therapists

“I’m Not Sure I Can Accept That”: How to Recognize Emotional Avoidance in Clients

Part two of a six-part series on ACT processes

By Steven C. Hayes, PhD

Emotions are the psychological sounds made by mixing the past and present. It is important to be able to hear them, name them, and learn from them, simply because they tell us a lot about where we are and where we’ve come from. Without them, we are less conscious of our history and the subtleties of the current environment. Without them, we lose some life intelligence.

What does it look like when a client is avoiding the music of emotion, trying to drown it out, or putting in psychological earplugs? Here are five indications.

1. When a client says: “I don’t know.” When a person is chronically unable to say what they feel or provides answers that do not make sense (“I’m not ANGRY!!”), what you are likely seeing is chronic avoidance.

2. How did we get on that topic? If you find that a topic has shifted and you are not sure why, stop. Back up. See if something was touched that is now being avoided.

3. Don’t go there. If you raise an issue and encounter a sense of blurring or of psychological fog, or of stiffening up (watch their hands; listen to the tone, tightness, and fluidity of speech) push the “possible avoidance” buzzer.

4. Limited range. One of the enormous ironies in the research on experiential avoidance is that people who avoid negative emotions end up avoiding real positive ones (after all, it hurts to fall out of happiness and joy—better not to risk it). You see avoidance in part by the absence of spontaneity and joy.

5. Boredom. When people take risks, everyone in the room wakes up. When everything is being controlled, we all tend to nap.

Avoidance is not always bad, but when you detect it, it is time to see if it is really in the client’s interests to run away instead of reaching out. 

Catching up on the series? Read part one, part three, part four, part five, or part six now.

Learning ACT cover imageSteven C. Hayes, PhD, is Nevada Foundation Professor and Director of Clinical Training at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada. An author of 38 books including Learning ACT and over 540 scientific articles, his career has focused on an analysis of the nature of human language and cognition and the application of this to the understanding and alleviation of human suffering and promotion of human prosperity. Among other associations, Dr. Hayes has been President of Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy, and the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. 

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