Break Out of the Control & Avoidance Cycle

“No creature is fully itself till it is, like the dandelion, opened in the bloom of pure relationship to the sun, the entire living cosmos.” – D.H. Lawrence

It is understandable to fall into the pattern of trying to control things around us when life feels chaotic or frightening, just as it is understandable to try to avoid things that feel painful.  The problem is that quite often, the tendency to control and avoid gets in the way of living a full and meaningful life.  The control and avoidance cycle often keeps us “stuck” in old ways of behaving that are ineffective or not truly in our best interest.  It is scary to break out of that cycle (even when it causes suffering), build effective patterns of action and enter uncharted territory.

The consequences that we all experience in life are the result of our choices.  Of course, many things happen in life that are not our “choice” (e.g., accidents, death, loss, etc.), but many more events are completely chosen.  The difficulty often lies in being able and willing to honestly examine each pivotal moment along the path of your life where you had the opportunity to make a decision.  It can be hard to take true responsibility for our actions, but this is the only way to experience true freedom and maturity.

Only you can decide if you will choose:

Hayes (2005) explains: “There is a crucial fork in the road.  You must choose which path to take.  The less traveled path … is the path of acceptance, mindfulness, defusion, and valuing what you really care about.  Down that road is vulnerability and risk, but it is about something.”

Recognize that pain, problems, and vulnerability are inherent to both ways of living.  Life is painful – there is no avoiding that reality.  The difference lies in the way that you can respond to, experience, and grow from that inevitable pain in life.  Mindfulness and acceptance allow you to experience all of the nuanced layers of human relationships, experiences, and emotions.  Living in a state of mindlessness, control, and avoidance results in experiencing that same inevitable pain as suffocating, deadening, and numbing.  There is very little growth, vitality, and change involved in that kind of life.

Hayes (2005) illustrates this moment of choice between these two ways of living: “Imagine you are looking down at that fork in the road.  From above you can see that this choice before you is part of a larger system of choices.  Imagine that you start right in the center with your problems.  You hit the fork in the road and if you go left, you go into the acceptance and commitment cycle.  If you go right, you go into the control and avoidance cycle.”

Acceptance & Commitment Cycle

(1)  Mindfulness & Defusion:  Mindfully observe all of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in their entirety, without judgment or attempts to control them.  Work towards untangling yourself from your thoughts and feelings – recognize them for what they are. Thoughts and feelings do not have “power” over you.  Mindfulness allows you to observe them and make better informed choices.

(2)  Acceptance & Being Present:  Fully embrace the present moment, warts and all.  Even if you don’t like the current reality, you must be willing to face that this is where you are now.  Once you are able to fully accept the present, you can begin to make mindful choices about how you wish to move forward.

(3)  Values:  What is most important to you in life?  What do you want your life to really be about?  Identify your true values.

(4)  Commitment & Flexibility:  Choose to live life according to your most cherished values.  Adopt a way of being present in the world that allows you to be open and flexible, rather than closed and rigid.

Control & Avoidance Cycle

(1)  Words, Words, Words:  When you “live in your head” you get so caught up in thoughts about what might happen, what should happen, and fears about the past and future that you lose complete sight of what is happening in the present.  The stories that we tell ourselves often keep us “stuck” in repetitive ways of behaving that are no longer effective.

(2)  Entanglement:  When you become “ensnared” by your thoughts and feelings, you are separating yourself from being fully present in the moment.  This entanglement in thinking and feeling often results in a sense of being disconnected from yourself and those around you.  Mindfulness allows you to loosen the grip of that internal dialogue and make contact with the present moment.

(3)  Control & Avoidance:  We often believe that we have brilliant “solutions” to our problems, and then we find out that we were really just trying to control the situation or avoid the situation.  When you try to control or avoid unwanted thoughts, feelings, and sensations, you are giving them power over you that they do not have.  Welcome all parts of your experience – accept all of it as valid.

(4)  Relief & Struggle:  At this stage of the cycle, there is temporary relief from pain and struggle as the result of trying to control or avoid the problem.  The illusion that these strategies will “work” soon gives way to a sense of “this isn’t working” followed by more struggle.  The more that we fight “what is” the more that we suffer.

The curious part of the control and avoidance cycle is that it is so predictable.  You know full well how things will turn out when you exert your willpower and control over them.  Control involves attempting to dominate ourselves, another person, or an event through force.  People who try to control in this way are often quite fearful of things being “out of control.”  The sad truth is that forceful attempts to control people and events often results in chaos.  This is a rigid way of going through life.

When we try to avoid things that are unpleasant, unwanted, or frightening, we are choosing to reject the reality of the present moment.  We are saying, “I don’t want to deal with this.”  Avoidance is like putting your head in the sand and pretending like things are simply not happening.  This is no way to live… and it is practically guaranteed that your problems will be worse as soon as you take your head out of the sand.

The way that you want to experience life is largely up to you.  When you are truly tired of going through the same predictable patterns that result in the same predictable outcomes, you will begin to wake up to another way of living: a values-based and mindfulness-based life.  Things that are “new” are frightening, but the opportunities for true growth and awakening to your true potential are there.

Consider the following quote by Goethe as you choose to commit to a new way of living:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

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Hayes, S.C. (2005). Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Headache by Lel4nd / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on August 24, 2011 at 9:00 am

    The Goethe quote with which you end this post is perhaps my favorite quote of all time!

    It is a beautiful statement of faith… pure and simple faith.

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