May 29, 2024
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When Does Distraction Become Avoidance?

Waking up cranky is never fun. There are days when—regardless of the amount of sleep I get or the schedule ahead of me—I’m simply in a crummy mood. On days like this I can be found trying to talk through it with my husband: Why am I feeling this way? What are these emotions about?

He’s a fan of reminding me that I don’t need to know the answer. Sure, it might help. Using the HALT Dialectical Behavioral Therapy acronym is often a great place to start: am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? Might something be coming up or did something happen to activate feelings of stress or annoyance? Looking into the reason can be helpful, and according to my husband’s point, it’s sometimes less about why, and more about what to do with the energy.

So I usually do my best to name the feeling. Coming downstairs and audibly sighing in frustration or slamming cabinets is less productive and helpful than my stating that I’m having a cranky morning. This allows me to remember that just because I feel cranky does not mean this has to define my day, and it also communicates to my family that I might be a little out of sorts or need space. The million dollar follow-up question is, “What now?”

When I talk about similar situations with clients we often land on some type of plan. More often than not, though, folks wonder about whether these plans are just a form of distraction. And if they are, what ought to be the balance between allowing ourselves to feel our feelings and allowing ourselves to be distracted from them?

The easy answer: look for extremes. If you’re feeling sad but cannot tolerate connecting to this emotion, or if you have the awareness that deep down you’re angry but you can’t “reach” this feeling,you’re probably avoiding it. Avoidance is not the same as distraction.

What we do to cope with our emotions exists on a continuum. One end of the continuum is avoidance of the emotion; this can be intentional or unintentional and may look like keeping busy or shutting down conversations. Distraction can also include keeping busy, but to less of an extreme. I think distraction tends to get a bad reputation as people confuse this with avoidance. In reality, one can argue that much of life is a distraction from the ultimate existential woes that humankind may face. Being emotionally healthy or emotionally intelligent does not mean that one sits alone in the dark with his feelings all the time. It also does not mean that feelings are ignored; it means that the person can connect to emotions, cope with feelings, communicate, and also engage in other life activities whether in reaction to or in spite of the emotional experience.

Distraction can include finding meaning and connecting with others. There is a power in recognizing that being steeped in misery will likely not yield comfort or change. There is also bravery in noticing when being aware of one’s misery will help him or her to heal. Finding the balance or middle ground does not have to mean distracting oneself through meaningless tasks. It’s true that sometimes television or a manicure (a stereotypical example) as a distraction is exactly what is needed! But other times, distraction can also include helping others, focusing on someone besides oneself, or identifying what else—besides this current feeling—takes up space and can be invested in for this individual.

When I wake up cranky in the morning, I might need to vent. Or focus on my work. Or have time alone. I will likely try to identify what led to my feeling, and even if this does not work, I know that I can still move ahead; I am not stuck just because I lack awareness. So, instead, I might focus on packing up my kids’ bags, responding to emails, or doing laundry. These activities are not simply an empty distraction; they allow me to feel organized and grounded, to connect and to make meaning within relationships. Because the way we respond to our emotions exists on a continuum, I invite you to reflect, challenge avoidance and create meaning even in moments of distraction.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness, and a Metro-New York consultant at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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