Monica Mercury holds a razor to her arm. Her depression monster whispers gently in her ear. “Just end it. Things will never get any better and you know it.”
Will this be the day that she ends it all? The thought has crossed Monica’s mind. After careful consideration she makes a precise incision. The trickling blood seems almost soothing, temporarily taking away the feelings of overwhelming depression and self-disgust. The self-disgust is always particularly active every time she looks in the mirror.
When she looks at her reflection again, the shame monster is especially ruthless. “Ugh, you’re disgusting! It’s no wonder everyone hates you. You’re fat and ugly and no one will ever love you!”
A few more strokes of the razor and the monster seems satisfied. Just to be fully sure that he doesn’t come back that day, Monica sticks her fingers in the back of her throat in a familiar fashion.
Between the vomiting and the cutting rituals she feels more in control, far less of a victim to her classmates’ bullying and her own mind’s torments. And yet even in these moments she is still struggling—feeling in control and at the same time feeling excruciatingly alone.
As Monica forces herself to vomit, the anxiety monster has officially begun its shift. “What if someone at school found out you were bulimic? They’d torture you even more than they already do. What if they lock you up in some hospital? What if you vomit in class tomorrow? What if the gym teacher sees the scars on your arms?”
Monica feels her chest tighten, her jaw squeezing shut, and her fists clenching. Feeling as if someone punched her in the stomach. Feeling alone. Empty.
Like Monica, many of us have these monsters of shame and anxiety, and although we might go through different kinds of agonizing rituals in order to appease them, we might still struggle with the overwhelming effects they have on us. This effort to try to reduce any kind of emotionally painful experience is called experiential avoidance. Monica’s cutting and vomiting in order to appease her monsters is an example of experiential avoidance, where Monica is attempting to reduce and avoid her painful thoughts and feelings.
How does experiential avoidance work? It is like a bribe we might give to a bully. In the short term, it usually makes us feel better: the bullies/monsters are likely to temporarily suspend their abuse. However, in the long term, the bully inevitably comes back and usually demands an even greater sacrifice.
We can also think of experiential avoidance as a trap or a trick set up by an evil villain trying to prevent us from succeeding in our quest. On the surface, it might seem like a good compromise—do what the villain asks and she will leave you alone. This process of giving in to the demands of our internal villains in order to reduce the internal struggle is called negative reinforcement. The word “negative” here refers to something being taken away, in this case, the monster’s torture. And the word “reinforcement” refers to us being more likely to continue this behavior in the future.
A great example of negative reinforcement is substance abuse. When people are overwhelmed by their personal suffering, they might, for example, drink alcohol in order to feel better. In this case, the alcohol will provide a temporary relief from the monster’s abuse. However, the villain is greedy and once the effects of alcohol wear off, the monster will return, stronger and louder, ensuring that the person is likely to continue using alcohol. Think of it as like trying to fight a hydra: the more we might try to behead it, the more heads it will generate.
In many ways this is what Doctor Semper is attempting to do. Semper’s job is to travel through time and space in his Hurricane Simulator and save people. He prides himself on being kind and able to rescue others. Recently, however, Doctor Semper experienced a tragic loss—he was unable to rescue a little girl, who ended up falling to her death. He still plays out the moments leading up to her death in his mind. He experiences guilt over what happened to her. He used to feel in control of his own fate and secure in his ability to help others.
That is no longer the case.
To make matters worse, last month Semper experienced something he never had before in his 4,550 years of living. When he stepped out of the Simulator, his three hearts all started pounding extremely fast in his chest. It was as if he had run around the galaxy four times without stopping (and he hadn’t done that in at least 500 years). In addition to the overwhelming heartbeats, the Doctor’s breathing became very fast and shallow. Semper began shaking uncontrollably. He was sweating, his vision became extremely blurry, his stomachs felt as if they would turn inside out, and he was sure that this time he was going to die for good.
Doctor Semper called out for his assistant, an Earth-born neuroscientist named Andrea, who helped him back into the Simulator. Strangely, when he was back inside his ship, the Doctor felt better. His heart rates returned to normal, his breathing rate slowed down, he was no longer shaking, and over time his vision returned to normal. Andrea explained to him that he had had what is called a panic attack, something a lot of Earthlings have, especially after they have an experience of not being in control of a specific situation.
Although Doctor Semper felt significantly better after returning to the Simulator, he found that because he had been overwhelmed by his panic attack, he was unable to leave the Simulator without Andrea’s assistance. If he stepped more than twenty feet away from the Simulator, he started having similar symptoms: the racing hearts, shallow breathing, shaking, and sweating.
At these times, his anxiety monster shouted at him, “You’re going to die! You can’t handle it! It’s not safe! You’re going to go crazy!”
Not wanting to experience another panic attack, the Doctor ran back into the Simulator. The only times he was able to get more than 20 feet away from his safety zone was when Andrea was with him.
This is in fact what happens to a lot of people who develop panic disorder and agoraphobia. The fear of additional attacks might prevent the person from going to places or participating in activities where panic attacks might be likely. At the same time, being too far away from a safety object (such as a time-travel spaceship or someone’s home or car) or a safety buddy (such as a companion, a family member, or a pet) might also trigger the feelings of anxiety.
And just like Monica, Doctor Semper initially felt better after avoiding his feared outcome—an environment he could not control. However, in the long term, he felt less capable of handling this situation, which only served to strengthen the belief that the outside world is dangerous.
For the majority of people, fictional or otherwise, avoidance of a feared outcome might make them more stressed out and might actually create the very consequence that they are trying to avoid. For example, Neil Scott struggles with social anxiety disorder (SAD), where he fears social humiliation and feels extremely anxious when he has to make a presentation or ask someone out on a date. His anxiety began when he was a small child and was physically and emotionally abused by his parents. As a result, Neil now puts himself down in social situations.
Since he began studying at the Wizarding College six months ago, Neil’s social anxiety has only gotten worse. Neil believes that he got into the school by mistake, or that he is somehow a “fraud” and that soon enough everyone will find out that he is “not good enough” to be there. Neil was always shy, but his “fraud syndrome” makes him especially self-conscious, causing him to have frequent anxiety and panic attacks whenever he has to demonstrate his knowledge in front of the class or talk to others.
In order to prove his worthiness, Neil spends hours studying different charms and incantations and does well on his own. However, whenever a professor asks him to demonstrate a spell in front of the classroom, Neil’s heart begins to pound loudly in his chest (in fact, he sometimes wonders if others can hear it). He sweats so much that he believes that everyone can see the perspiration covering his vividly blushing face. Even though he knows the required spells, his anxiety monster causes Neil an overwhelming amount of fear of looking foolish in front of the class. As a result, Neil simply states that he does not know the answer in order to be allowed to sit back down at his desk.
The same thing occurs whenever Neil likes someone. Last week, for instance, he saw a wizard he is attracted to, Brian, sitting across from him in the dining hall. He felt his heart warm when he saw Brian smile at him. Trying to work up the courage to ask him out on a date, Neil attempted to stand up. However, his anxiety monster cut him off.
Neil’s shoulders and fists tensed; he felt his stomach turn in knots and he sat back down in defeat. Several minutes later Brian walked past him but Neil did not dare look at him. Neil’s shame monster was already doing what he did best: putting him down.
In both of these examples, Neil’s experiential avoidance of anxiety-producing situations created the very outcome that Neil was trying to avoid. In attempts to avoid looking foolish, he refused to answer the professor’s question, only presenting himself as less capable than if he had attempted it. And by not asking Brian out on a date, Neil made certain that he ended up alone, feeling ashamed and rejected, the very feelings he was trying to avoid. In addition to ensuring the unwanted outcome, experiential avoidance also guarantees an added dose of shame for failing to take the chance in the first place.
Often, when fear prevents us from taking a chance on something we really care about, we are likely to experience regret. In fact, at the end of their lives, the majority of people do not regret their successes or failures but rather the chances they did not take. By avoiding something that is really important to us, we are more likely to experience shame and harsh self-criticism, and confirm our (often mistaken) beliefs that we are not capable of succeeding at a particular task.
For most people, experiential avoidance makes it more likely that they are going to experience more anxiety, more depression, or worse, chronic pain, making them more likely to get or maintain certain mental health disorders. In fact, many mental health disorders are maintained or made worse by avoidance, as is the case with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), specific phobia (such as the fear of spiders, snakes, heights, flying, and more), substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others.
Very frequently the attempts to control and avoid difficult emotional experiences are more likely to make us worse rather than better. This means that the real enemies are not the symptoms. The real enemy is avoidance, a trap set up by a villain to ensure that we fail before we even attempt to begin our hero’s journey.
Luckily, the avoidance trap can be overcome, and in the following chapters we are going to learn the different skills we will need to ensure success battling the avoidance villains and becoming a true superhero. Specifically, we are going to learn how to manage the four common monsters that frequently try to prevent us from living the kind of life that we might fantasize about. These monsters are anxiety, depression, shame, and anger. In addition, we are going to learn to utilize our own sidekicks, like hope, resilience, courage, and self-compassion.
To ensure your success, at the end of each chapter I will recommend Superhero Steps to practice. These will strengthen your superhero training to better help you on your heroic journey.