Failure to Launch: Affect Avoidance on Steroids

I want to talk about the difficulty for young adults of launching into adult life and how it relates to affect avoidance, but first, let me focus on the topic of affect avoidance in general. (Photo:  Denise Sebastian, Flickr, CC.)

A bit of recent history: It was only in the last few years as I was working on How We Heal and Grow that I came to understand the centrality of affect avoidance. The idea was an old one, that avoidance of painful feelings could shape dysfunctional patterns in life. What was new was realizing that affect avoidance is not just the cause of some but is at the center of all the kinds of pathology we treat in psychotherapy. As I tested out this idea, it just kept on being the simplest and most useful explanation for our entrenched dysfunctional patterns.

A Brief Review of Affect Avoidance

There are reasons for affect avoidance being a good way to explain our psychological troubles. As we understand better how humans are motivated to do what they do, we have come to understand that our minds have evolved to seek out what gives us good feelings and, even more avidly, to avoid anticipated bad feelings. In contrast, the motivations that trigger our reactions are complex, ranging from physical appetites that make us feel uncomfortable all the way to the feelings of pride and shame that try to keep our behavior on the straight and narrow. In all their variety and complexity, emotions provide the drive for us to act. Similarly, the outputs or reslults of motivation are also complex. For example, hunger might drive us to make a reservation at a fine restaurant, or it might just as well lead us to reach for a snack.

The lynchpin between motivation and reaction is not complex at all. It is binary, approach or avoid. The mammalian brain is organized around positive and negative affects. We are motivated to go towards what gives us good feelings and away from what gives us bad ones. This probably has something to do with the way the nervous system is constructed. Neural networks, which embody our knowledge of the world, can influence other associated networks in only two ways, either positive or negative. They either make the associated network more likely to fire as a unit, or they inhibit firing. Of course in our behavior, we seek to have our cake and eat it too by finding clever compromises and ways to both approach and avoid at the same time. However, the underlying principle is binary. We either approach or avoid. This is why a principle as simple as avoidance of dreaded feelings can explain so much about our entrenched dysfunctional patterns. Here is a diagram to show the complexity in what triggers an avoidance response, simplicity in the binary approach or avoidance response itself, and complexity in the resulting behavior patterns.

lynchpin

For understanding human pathology, avoidance of bad feelings is far more important than seeking of good ones. The entrenched dysfunctional patterns that make up our psychological troubles are overwhelmingly oriented towards anticipating and avoiding bad feeling. Seeking out the positive is certainly part of life, but rarely underlies our stuck-ness. When it does, pleasure can usually be seen as a way to escape the negative. For this reason, I have simplified the Affect Avoidance Model to focus on the avoidance of uncomfortable feelings.

One more point for completeness. The word affect refers to feelings that are consciously experienced. Our mind/brain’s efforts at affect avoidance are aimed at preventing the conscious experience of uncomfortable affects. Whatever form they exist in outside of consciousness does not seem, in itself, to generate avoidance. However, the mind/brain is extremely good at anticipation, so it reacts, long before affects actually hit consciousness, to put preventative measures in place. For this reason, many of our avoidance mechanisms or patterns happen without our being fully aware of what it is they are aimed at avoiding. We often have to guess about this, because, as has often been stated, 90% or so, of our mental processing goes on outside our small window of consciousness.

How Affect Avoidance Works with Teens and  Young Adults

Recently I realized that a very large part of my practice had come to involve helping young adults and their families with launching. That’s why I am focusing on this topic in my other blog on Psychology Today. Here are some thoughts about how launching into adulthood and affect avoidance are intimately related.

The hardest, and perhaps main job of becoming adult is taking on responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences. The good news is that, as adults, we get to make our own choices. But the hard part is that we no longer have the luxury of holding the “grownups” responsible. The weight of responsibility carries a lot of potentially painful feelings. Accepting these and learning to face them is truly a difficult transition.

It is the pain of responsibility and consequences that makes young people so eager to escape. Here are some of the ways they use. I think of them as “power tools” for avoidance:

  • Repudiate responsibility by getting drunk and silly
  • Play “cat and mouse,” letting the parents worry about the good behavior while the young person concentrates on evading the parents and pursuing bad behavior
  • Play the “softie” parent off against the “tough love” parent to neutralize both
  • Protect the status quo by threatening suicide, a criminal lifestyle, or serious self-destructive behavior
  • Use sex or drugs to escape
  • Adopt a “laid back lifestyle” and avoid competing in an unforgiving world
  • Overuse diagnoses like depression and anxiety to avoid the stresses of moving into adulthood
  • Go back to school
  • “Yes the parents to death” or lie to escape their pressure
  • Play video games that give the illusion of acting as an adult
  • Sleep while the adult world is moving forward
  • Function in a marginal job where stress is minimal
  • Travel or eternally seek one’s “passion”

I’m sure there are as many more ways as the mind/brain is resourceful. Usually avoidance is tailored to the particular family and situation to make it maximally difficult for parents and authorities to exert pressure, yet this is exactly what the young person needs. As always, the cure for affect avoidance is facing one’s feelings.

Why it is Harder for Millennials

Today, especially in the United States, but in the rest of the world as well, this problem has become epidemic. As I see it, there are two reasons. First, Millennials, (Officially, born between 1982-2004) have been heavily shielded from stress and discomfort. The parental generation came to believe that danger and stress were bad and that our children should be shielded from both of them. Of course the children got the message, and ran with it.

The other side is that globalization has reduced the availability of “entry level” jobs. Those were jobs with a relatively low level of stress, decent wages, and a lot of support and direction from above. Instead, millennials must go into poverty level jobs at minimum wage, or compete for ones requiring a high level of skill and maturity. The prospect is not nearly as bountiful as it was for their parents’ generation. This only increases young people’s enthusiasm for avoiding the painful affects that are so prevalent in association with moving out into today’s world.

The Answer

In most cases, the answer is for the parents or responsible adults to help generate motivation by setting up conditions that incentivize moving towards adulthood and disincentivized staying put. The young person, needs, then, to find the willingness to undertake a long series of stressful but healthy steps out of their comfort zone and into more adult activities and responsibility, learning to face their feelings in the process.

Jeffery Smith MD

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