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The Psychology Behind Avoidance Coping

OWNx Team Lifestyle Management

The fear of bad news often prevents us from sustaining healthy lives. We cancel our dentist appointments the day before so we don’t have to hear if we’ve acquired new cavities. We avoid stepping on the scale so we don’t have to acknowledge the extra piece of birthday cake we somehow “misplaced.” And some of us ignore our bank statements so we don’t have to panic or feel overwhelmed with guilt when we go out for dinner with friends that evening.

This behavior is common, but it also can be crippling when it comes to financial health. The idea of “ignorance is bliss” might resonate with most of us and seem like a good approach when it comes to avoiding financial stress, but realistically, preparedness is security. And ignorant “bliss” isn’t really all that blissful when every time we swipe a card we wonder if we’re cutting it too close. Responsible and financially sound people should never voluntarily choose to live in ignorance.

For those of us wanting to live simpler lives and take ownership of our finances, it’s time to call out this behavior for what it is: avoidance coping.

“Avoidance coping refers to choosing your behavior based on trying to avoid or escape particular thoughts or feelings,” explains Psychology Today.

People can engage in avoidance behavior in two primary ways. First, some are riddled with excessive “doing.” This might involve checking your online bank account 10 times a day just to reassure yourself that you aren’t a victim of identify theft or to make sure “it’s all still there.” Second, others are plagued by “not doing.” This group avoids situations, conversations, relationships, or information that has the potential to confirm their fears. While avoidant behavior can turn into a clinical disorder when individuals avoid normal life behaviors (such as refusing to leave their homes for fear of germs or danger), some principles of avoidant behavior can be applied to the avoidance of our financial reality. When we delay the possibility of learning bad news, we trick ourselves into thinking we can sustain our current lifestyles without any uncomfortable updates that would force us to change our spending habits.

Nearly two-thirds of us actually engage in either active or passive avoidant behavior when it comes to preparing household budgets each month. According to a Gallup survey, only 32 percent of Americans keep track of their income and expenses through a set budget.

Another report by SunTrust (NYSE: STI) conducted online by Harris Poll reveals that nearly one third of households making $75,000 or more annually sometimes live paycheck-to-paycheck. One third also said a “lack of financial discipline at least sometimes holds them back from achieving their goals.” Out of these respondents, 44 percent said dining out and entertainment drained their incomes. For millennials, that number reaches 71 percent.

So before we go further, let us re-acknowledge that 2 out of 3 people do not live according to a budget and believe their lack of financial discipline prevents them from reaching their goals. While some might not feel the need to budget, others in that group might admit to avoiding an intentional review of their finances altogether. Whether or not the decision to forego financial planning is made out of ignorance or purposeful avoidance, its often done out of a self-protective mindset. We want to protect how we are living now from being infringed upon by outside sources telling us to change. But really, avoidance coping with finances (and anything else) has actually been described as self-destructive by expert psychologists.

“In some contexts, subtle avoidance or suppressed behavior can be viewed as a self-protective strategy to prevent seemingly disastrous consequences,” said Dr. Todd B. Kashdan, a professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center of the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, in an Elsevier article. “This struggle, in turn, gets in the way of movement toward valued goals, diminished contact with present experiences, and thus yields impairment in functioning.”

Though simply tossing your bank statements in the trash does not equate locking yourself indoors to boycott the outside world, all avoidant behaviors are rooted in fear. Mark Dombeck and Jolyn Wells-Moran who both hold Ph.Ds in psychology explain that habits of avoidance are maintained by fear of punishing stimulation. When someone experiences something painful or discomforting, the natural reaction is to avoid that same experience or things that remind you of that experience. But living in fear of financial troubles yields no positive outcome for anyone.

“Once you realize that you are avoiding anxiety, and thus self-sabotaging, the next step is to force yourself to face that fear and see the situation through,” explains another article by Psychology Today. “It helps to remember that even if the situation doesn’t work out the way you hoped, it isn’t the end of the world and mistakes can actually provide a valuable learning experiences.”

Overcoming avoidant behavior requires us to understand ourselves and our situations––fully. Embracing reality at the earliest point in time possible allows us to truly prevent, lighten or respond to our circumstances.

Dombeck and Wells-Morgan’s article on “Dealing with Avoidance-Motivated Behavior” offers several solutions for individuals who escape anxiety through avoidance.

The process of habituation encourages individuals to become exposed to the fear-inducing situation until it no longer creates feelings of anxiety. This method should not be used to de-sensitize individuals to urgent situations financial or otherwise. It is intended to help individual relax in the midst of fear and “realize nothing actually dangerous is occurring.” Applying this method could look like cognitively relaxing your muscles while budgeting, planning, and reviewing finances. Habituation could also look like methodically checking your spending on a pre-determined day of the week to review how your spending lines up with your budget.

For some, monitoring finances seems like an easy no-brainer. For others, regularly reviewing or tracking our spending seems like a chore we’d just rather pretend didn’t exist. But like all habits, a financially sound mind and life do not occur overnight––they are developed. By exposing yourself on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to your financial health, you force yourself to become aware of the consequences and benefits of your spending habits. Regular exposure to your finance also allows them to become a natural part of your your life instead of a scary event.

Another method for overcoming financial anxiety or avoidance is called flooding. This is an extreme variation of the exposure principle that forces individuals to get a big picture of the issue they face all at once.

“In flooding, you expose yourself to the feared thing not in small or medium size doses but instead all at once in fullest intensity,” said Dombeck and Wells-Moran in their article. “Flooding seeks to help people habituate to their feared experiences and allow the intense emotion surrounding them to extinguish.”

An application of flooding your financial anxiety could be to review all of your expenses for the past 1-6 months in one sitting. Read over your statements and start to develop an understanding on where you’re spending the most. Oftentimes, the unexpected purchases we don’t realize we’re making on a daily or weekly basis shock us. But instead of easing your way into financial awareness and planning, flooding helps jumpstart a proactive approach to budgeting and planning.

When you discover your true habits, you can’t “unsee” them. One article by The Simple Dollar suggests that even if you continue self-destructive spending habits, “you’ll never be the same–obliviously unaware of their consequences. Because once you’ve seen the numbers in black and white, you can no longer hide.”

After reviewing your spending as an offensive move to combat financial unawareness, the next step is preventative tracking. If you go to the dentist for a regular checkup, you might be able to avoid cavities or even worse things such as root canals or dental implants. The need for regular monitoring applies to spending.

There are a thousand ways to track your spending nowadays. Some people kick it old school and still hand-write each purchase in a spending journal they carry in their purse or pocket. The physical act of writing down each purchase–from gum to gas to a new computer–helps our minds register that we even spent money. Swiping a card or entering a card number on a digital screen makes spending feel almost surreal.

Some people designate one day a week to categorizing each of their purchases into a family budget. Others hand-write each purchase in a spending journal they carry in their purse or pocket.

There are also plenty of budgeting apps you can download to help you keep track of your spending. Mint.com offers great online tools and apps we’ve mentioned in the past. Another is the Every Dollar app. Both of these apps help track spending, track your debt repayment plans, and help you maintain awareness about finances.

No matter what stage of life you’re in or what circumstances you face, you can change a course of direction. Discipline is required to sustain a simpler and more secure lifestyle. Creating a budget, tracking your spending and sticking to it might sound like an impossible dream, but for most of us, the discipline needed to be financially healthy is developed over time. Celebrate the small victories on your journey and share your convictions with someone you trust. Whenever we face situations that induce anxiety or stress, our natural response is to cope or defend ourselves from being affected. But none of us want to be copers. We want to be overcomers.

Avoidance coping when it comes to finances can be a very real struggle for some of us. We hope that the different methods to expose yourself to your financial reality, the application of those methods, and some preventative strategies will encourage you in your journey to a brighter financial future.

What are some strategies you’ve used to maintain a healthy financial life?

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