Creative avoidance – when you get creative at blocking your own progress

12 minutes reading time

I firmly believe that everyone can be creative. If nowhere else, you can easily witness creative behavior in every single person when the time comes to make up a good excuse for not taking action or to face irrational fears.

With no exception, we can all get so creative when it’s time to prevent ourselves from getting out of the comfort zone. There’s even an expression for such behavior. It’s called creative avoidance.

You basically find every possible way to stop yourself from taking action. The subconscious goal of creative avoidance is to protect yourself from danger. But ironically, many times you are not protecting yourself, but rather stopping yourself from progress, growth and new wins.

Creative avoidance can be the tough goalkeeper preventing you from entering a bigger league. It doesn’t make sense to invest your creative potential at avoiding your progress.

Thus, let’s look at the origin of creative avoidance to understand it better and then present some hints on how to successfully deal with creative avoidance once.

The origin of avoidant behavior

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, avoiding danger was the ultimate survival goal. The better you were at avoiding beasts, predators and other killers, the greater were your chances of survival.

If you managed to avoid danger, there was no need for an unnecessary fight or flight that might also end in death. The feeling that drives avoidant behavior is fear. Fear tells you that something is dangerous and tries to convince you to avoid it.

With fear, you’re trying to protect yourself from danger, pain or harm. You’re afraid or even terrified when it’s a matter of life and death, when it’s time to protect yourself no matter the cost.

Fear taking over in the face of danger is seen very well in your body language. Your whole body strives to avoid the threat.

Slouching, hunching, avoiding eye contact, creating more space, backing off quietly, also shaking, rapid breathing, and speaking very little or very quietly are all signs that it seems good to avoid something or someone.

In many dangerous situations, fear is the greatest gift one can possess. It’s the survival instinct (and intuition) that helps you stay alive and in one piece. Thus, you shouldn’t see fear as something bad. Fear is your ally, an alarm notifying you as soon as possible that it’s time to avoid danger and protect yourself.

But we don’t live in the jungle anymore, where avoiding things was necessary on a daily basis. In the developed world and fairly safe urban places, situations where you need to be really afraid are quite rare.

You face such a situation maybe every decade or so. When you do face it (a snake in the house, a gang on the street, a hurricane in the air etc.) fear is a valuable sign to back off and call for help. In all other cases fear might be blocking you greatly.

  • Lesson 1: In very rare circumstances, fear is your greatest ally. So, always pay close attention when your intuition is trying to tell you that something creepy is happening. Don’t be naive.

Make sure fear works in your favor when it comes to stupid decisions

Before we go to situations where avoidant behavior is not protecting you, but stopping you from progress, there is one more colossal gift that fear carries and is worth mentioning.

Fear can protect you from making stupid decisions. Fear can help you avoid all the situations where great risks are involved in combination with small potential rewards.

Fear tries to prevent you from making many stupid decisions. Here are only a few examples:

Driving drunk, not wearing a safety belt, driving dangerously, engaging in a physical fight, cheating, breaking the law, travelling in dangerous countries and war zones, quitting your job before knowing your next move, stealing, and so on.

We’re all at least a little bit afraid of performing stupid behavior; at least in the beginning. With time, if you participate in malicious actions, you get used to them.

The fear disappears and dishonesty, criminal or any other dangerous or stupid behavior can easily escalate. Your comfort zone stretches and you become more courageous, but unfortunately in a very negative way.

The first time, most people are quite afraid to drive drunk. They are breaking the law, they don’t know how much of their ability is hindered, and so on. The second time, it gets much easier. The third time, it’s almost natural.

Then it becomes who you are. You drive even if you’re drunk. But the benefits are really small in comparison with calling a cab, and the risks are huge – there are chances of losing your driving license or even killing somebody.

It makes sense to have a personal ethic code to never make stupid decisions. Don’t lie, cheat, cross the law or perform any other type of illegal or immoral behavior at all. Measure yourself as a person based on your behavior when nobody is looking.

With such an approach, you will never have a problem with the temptation to escalate bad behavior or do a stupid decision you will regret for the rest of your life.

Listen to your fears very early when it comes to stupid decisions. Never drive drunk, always wear a seat belt, drive carefully and according to the rules, don’t engage in physical fights, don’t cheat, don’t break the law, don’t travel in dangerous countries and war zones, and so on. Make fear your ally in such situations, even if you could easily overcome it.

  • Lesson 2: Be the biggest pussy when it comes to stupid decisions. Avoid stupid decisions at all costs.

Creative avoidance

Irrational fear and fake emotional protection

We might not live in the jungle anymore, but we live in a world where everybody wants to be competent, successful, beautiful, rich and happy. You and I are no exception in that.

And we all like to imagine that these things are given traits. You either have it or you don’t. Luck either strikes you or it doesn’t. Some people were born lucky and others weren’t.

The assumption that success is a given thing is based on the fixed mindset. You assume that really successful people don’t have to fight for what they’ve got. The majority of people suffer from that kind of a mindset. I see it on a daily basis.

For example, people assume that since I was extremely successful as a startup ecosystem facilitator, I will automatically become successful in blogging. Without any effort.

But that’s not how success works. At least not in 99% of the cases. In the majority of cases, success comes when people are willing to do the hard things. The things that all other average people are not willing to do; the things that average people are actually too afraid to do.

No matter how good of a social status you enjoy, you always have to do the hard things if you want to get and stay on the top. Even Elon Musk was on a verge of collapse with Tesla, even though he was already known worldwide as a big visionary.

Examples of hard things most successful people must do are:

  1. Brainstorming hundreds of ideas in a daily basis
  2. Putting creative ideas forward
  3. Selling yourself, your ideas or services
  4. Taking initiative and trying to get people on your side
  5. Negotiating hard
  6. Making tough decisions
  7. Public speaking
  8. Building an outstanding relationship with customers, boss or spouse
  9. Constantly learning new skills
  10. Mastering one industry exceptional well
  11. Well, the list goes on and on

These things are hard because they carry the risk of rejection. They are hard because they carry the risk of failure. The risk of being humiliated or laughed at.

Failing, being rejected or laughed at hurts like hell on the emotional level. Nobody wants that. That’s why fear is trying to protect you from it at all costs. But these are also the situations where fear is not really protecting you, but holding you back.

People who are really successful in the long term know that success is not given. You must work hard for it. You can improve in almost everything you want, if only you are prepared to work hard. That kind of thinking is based on the growth mindset. And until you develop such a mindset, creative avoidance seems like a good escape. Because if you get rejected, it’s more than obvious that you were not born to be successful.

Creative avoidance in the contemporary age

Welcome to the contemporary jungle. In today’s jungle, trying to sell your ideas and competences is the new tiger. Testing business ideas by visiting potential customers is the new snake. Negotiating hard for your salary is the new bear.

Fear of failure or rejection is the new Baba Yaga. And getting negative comments and thumbs down on social networks is the new Boogeyman.

In all these cases, fear is not trying to protect you from physical, but emotional pain. It’s not a matter of life and death anymore, but of (more or less permanent) emotional scars. And emotional scars can often be even more painful than the physical ones.

That’s why we get extremely creative when it comes to avoiding emotional pain. We can think of many different excuses when we get an opportunity to expose ourselves and open ourselves to potential rejection, humiliation or failure.

Practical examples

Here are a few most common avoidant behaviors:

  1. You avoid the action from miles away. I just don’t do public speaking.
  2. You find a good excuse. I really can’t make it this time, but next time for sure.
  3. You find a surrogate. I don’t need to do the presentation, I’ll just post an ad on a social network.
  4. You convince yourself that it doesn’t matter. I have more important things to do.
  5. You can even delegate the task to somebody else. My assistant can do it.
  6. You back off at the last minute. I wanted to do it so bad, but now I got sick.
  7. You can also indefinitely procrastinate with the task. I’ll do it some other time when I have more time to practice.

Creative avoidance can go even so far that you perform self-sabotage. You lead yourself to illness, accidents and similar situations to avoid emotionally tough challenges.

And there are so many other types of avoidant behavior – conflict avoidance, avoidant attachment in relationships and even information avoidance when we need to lie to ourselves. We can go very far in order to protect ourselves, even if the fears are completely irrational.

The problem with creative avoidance is that it drives you to doing only low value-added activities. And that lowers your market value.

If you are only performing tasks that almost everybody else can do, your market value will always be marginal. It’s much better to strategically put yourself in a position where the demand is high and the supply in shortage.

Hard things are the ones that bring real value. Innovation, applicable research, generating ideas, performance marketing, sales, negotiation, execution, brutal focus, daily practice, competence acquisition, managing objections, persisting through rejections, constantly improving yourself, public speaking etc. are very hard things to do.

But they also carry high value. Especially in comparison to doing emails, spending time on social networks, instant messaging, attending conferences, spending time on useless meetings, gossiping, feeling sorry for yourself, writing a business plan, seeking misplaced things, reacting to every interruption, ineffectively multi-tasking, surfing the web, taking coffee breaks, daydreaming, dozing, and so on.

Read the best time management guide ever to learn how to deal with these things.

It’s easy to get creative when it’s time to avoid performing hard things that lead to real value. Not to mention all the distractions out there that can easily seduce you into downgrading your market value and blocking your potential. So, when it comes to irrational fears, do the opposite instead.

  • Lesson 3: With avoiding hard stuff, you are not emotionally protecting yourself, but blocking your own progress. But that’s not the whole story.

Make fear your growth compass

The greatest advantage you can have in life is to quickly make smart decisions when you encounter new challenging situations. New situations are also the ones that wake up the fear in you.

So, every time you sense the smallest sign of fear in your body, quickly run a short algorithm in your head that will help you make a smart decision – ask yourself the following five questions:

  1. Am I in real danger of injury, harm, physical pain or death? Don’t do it.
  2. Is it a stupid decision – is there a big risk involved and a small reward? Do you risk integrity, jail time, license termination etc.? Don’t do it.
  3. Is it something that you know is an irrational fear, and you plan to face it one day, but it’s currently completely beyond your focus? Don’t do it (you don’t want too many challenges at the same time). But the rule is that you must be already tackling one of your fears.
  4. Is the challenge that’s connected to your irrational fear that is holding you back way out of your comfort zone? Don’t do it.
  5. Is it an irrational fear holding you back from undertaking a challenge that’s just a little bit above your competence level? DO IT!

When it comes to irrational fears, make fear your compass, showing you where you need to grow. When it comes to irrational fears, your mantra should be I will do it, because I fear it. Remember that it’s impossible to live out your full potential if you hide in a box.

Don’t run away from hard things. See the hard things as the greatest gift that can accelerate your learning and growth. It’s that simple.

  • Lesson 4: Not every fear should be conquered. Carefully choose your battles.

Practice mild exposure in the learning zone

Overcoming your irrational fears is no rocket science. Science has proved, over and over again, that mild exposure in combination with progression works best. Exposure therapy is the best cure for irrational fears that are holding you back.

But you have to do it the right way. You have to start small and escalate slowly.

Comfort learning panic zonesWe know three different zones when it comes to the challenge level you can set for yourself:

  • Comfort zone: A challenge is something you’ve already mastered like a pro. No challenge, really.
  • Learning zone: A challenge is just tough enough for you to develop your skills in a safe way.
  • Panic zone: A challenge is way out of your comfort zone and above your competence level.

The idea of exposure therapy is that you engage yourself in a situation that is in the learning zone, in a situation where you have things under control, so that nothing terrible can happen and even reinforce your fear in the end.

If you are proactive enough, you can always find new situations to practice exposure in a safe way.

Practical examples

Let’s say you’re afraid of public speaking. Well, first speak in front of your dog, then in front of your friend. Find a public speaking coach and practice the talk with them several times. Then speak in front of three people behind a podium. Then in front of ten people without a podium. And then slowly escalate to bigger and bigger audiences.

You can do the same with sales, negotiation, putting your ideas forward or anything else. Practice negotiation on a flea market. Test your ideas with an anonymous landing page. Start selling things by putting them on eBay.

Don’t be creative by avoiding situations you are afraid of, instead get creative by finding new ways to mildly expose yourself to situations you’re afraid of. That’s how you build courage and self-confidence, acquire competences, and your chances of success skyrocket.

  • Lesson 5: When you are asked to do something that wakes up your irrational fear, but is still in the learning zone, train yourself to automatically say yes.

Make avoidance a trigger for creativity

As we have seen, creative avoidance can stand for finding new creative ways to avoid something that you are afraid of. But it can also mean getting creative (doing a relaxing activity) when you should do some other, harder task instead.

What am I talking about? Sometimes you just don’t have the willpower to get yourself out of the comfort zone and into the learning zone. And that’s fine. But instead of procrastinating, feeling sorry for yourself or doing low-value activities, do a high-value creative task that also relaxes you.

As a last resort that can help you turn irrational fears to your advantage, you can make avoidant behavior a trigger for a creative endeavor.

Do you remember what you usually did when you procrastinated with studying? You cleaned your desk, made yourself a healthy meal, groomed your body and performed many other less important tasks.

That’s the best way to beat procrastination. When you just can’t fight procrastination, do dozens of other small activities you have to do someday anyway. Sooner or later you will get back to the big task.

On the other hand, do you know what’s one of the greatest drivers of creativity? Rejections, isolation and the feeling that you are somehow different. Feeling that you somehow don’t fit in can lead to great creative accomplishments.

Creative endeavors can be a mature coping mechanism for needs not being met. These two behavioral phenomena can be nicely combined in “avoiding a hard task, but getting yourself into an ultra-creative mode”.

Follow the rule that you always face your irrational fears. But in some cases, when you won’t gather the courage to do it, don’t beat yourself up. Turn the situation to your advantage. Just get creative. And that’s the sixth and final lesson of this article.

Play an instrument, write a poem or a book, paint, draw, code or take pictures. Build something, cook a delicious meal or find any other way to express your emotions.

It’s not rejection, it’s just redirection. It’s not failure, make it validated learning

It’s time for some closing thoughts.

If you put yourself out there, you will get rejected from time to time, you will occasionally say the wrong things and you will meet failure sooner or later. You might not get any likes, you will hear no, and on rare occasions you will make a fool out of yourself.

But if you persist, you will also hear yes, you will deliver your best performance, reach things you were only dreaming about and, most importantly, you will show to the world all the potential and creative gifts that you possess.

It’s not rejection, it’s just redirection. It’s not failure, it’s just one way how things don’t work with hidden hints for how they could work.

You are not entitled to anything. It’s your job to beat your irrational fears. And irrational fears are the worst. They are the real enemy. So get up and get out into the real world.

Train yourself to avoid creative avoidance. But don’t do anything stupid: instead practice mild exposure and keep yourself in the learning zone with the growth mindset.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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