We often think that our lives are defined by what we do and where we belong.
What we have found through our years as mental health professionals is that our lives are also defined by what we do NOT do, especially when faced with adversities or negative life events.
In some cases, adversity re-energizes us to move forward to deal with the challenge at hand. In other cases, adversity results in patterns of avoidance. Avoidance may include disengaging with thoughts, emotions, memories or places/situations that remind us of the previous negative life event.
Research shows that attempting to cope with negative life events through avoidance is generally an unhelpful form of coping. For example:
- Someone who avoids painful memories and emotions by abusing alcohol creates more misery.
- A veteran who avoids leaving her home due to a history of combat-related trauma does herself no long-term favors.
- A trauma survivor who avoids intimate relationships loses out on a lifetime of belongingness.
- A professional who avoids returning calls or responding to requests only intensifies his anxiety about the next call or request.
- A family member who avoids a painful but necessary conversation sacrifices the authenticity of the relationship on the altar of fear.
- A person who tries and fails at something and vows to never attempt it again robs herself of opportunities for growth.
What is the solution? In a word, courage.
Courage is a virtue often portrayed in art, literature, music, movies and religious traditions. From the time we are children, our hearts are enamored with stories of characters who slayed dragons, fought battles, accomplished harrowing tasks or explored dangerous terrain.
To be brave, we must first be afraid. Slaying a dragon is always a dangerous but sometimes necessary task. Vulnerability accompanies and oftentimes precedes courage. In our lives, this might mean admitting to a colleague our fears and our attempts to re-engage with a previously failed task.
In our relationships, this might mean practicing honesty and courage in repairing old wounds. In our weight-loss plans, this might mean finding the vulnerability and courage to share our goals with one or two close friends and ask them to hold us accountable .
When we confront avoidance, we realize there are significant costs associated with disengagement. Anxiety worsens. The feared stimuli become more dreadful.
Courage invites us to identify what really matters and get busy pursuing it. We don’t want our lives to be limited by what we did NOT do. In this way, with convictions and courage in our hearts, we can busy ourselves with what truly matters.
Sometimes, courage is found through talking with someone. Lesley Weiss and Adam Dell are mental health professionals at the Notre Dame Wellness Center who help people identify values and take courageous steps forward. To schedule an appointment, call 574-634-9355.