Experiential avoidance is an attempt to mitigate or evade contact with unwanted psychological events. Experiential avoidance becomes clinically relevant if it promotes acting in an unhealthy manner or prevents moving in valued directions and toward meaningful outcomes.
Notice that we used the tenuous word “attempt” in defining experiential avoidance. It’s important to understand that actions aimed at reducing contact with private events—such as emotions, sensations, and feelings—don’t ensure that these events will go away or won’t arise again. In fact, avoidance moves might eventually exacerbate the problematic repertoire.
Attempts to avoid psychological experience are a major obstacle to committed action. The crux of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) work builds upon clinical tools for addressing culturally influenced repertoires for avoiding private events.
Social norms often suggest that certain feelings are to be avoided. Children are given many instructions that suggest they should quash certain emotions: “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about;” “Cheer up, kid. Everyone loses a game from time to time;” “I don’t see why you just can’t be happy about this;” and so on.
These oft- used language events set up relations that can be counterproductive. Consider the relations set up when the stimulus event “stop crying” is placed in a conditional relational frame with “or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Such a threatening message might make the child even more anxious and tearful.
The way authority figures talk to children can perpetuate the cultural idea that certain emotional experiences are problematic and should be avoided—a rule-governed approach to private events that often persists into adulthood and manifests as psychological inflexibility.
Adults often say the same types of things to other adults in an attempt to make them feel differently: “Don’t worry about it; everything will work out in the end;” “You have nothing to be depressed about—your life is great;” or “Don’t get angry at me—this situation is not my fault.” Even mental health practitioners and researchers refer to certain feeling states as “negative emotions,” and many therapeutic endeavors attempt to get rid of or diminish certain feelings.
From the ACT perspective, practitioners can simply replace the word “negative” with “natural.” When so-called negative emotions are perceived as natural feelings, both therapist and client may relate to them differently, which supports the broader ACT approach. When leveraging the ACT model to help people maintain stronger, measurable commitments, therapists need to recognize the difficulty that can arise if clients have a control agenda regarding their own private events.