Why Do I Avoid People?

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFTSocial Anxiety

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

Why do we avoid people? We often avoid people out of a combination of a fear of being rejected and negatively judged, a core belief that we are in some way flawed, and a belief that we can’t handle uncomfortable emotions or situations.

These thoughts and beliefs often happen covertly, underneath our awareness. As a result, they drive us to do thing that we don’t understand and that bring us negative consequences.

The good news is, you’re not going crazy. We all do act for reasons we don’t completely understand. And we all repeat them even though we know it’s not working.

The good new is also that this is something we can change. Avoiding people is not something that defines you. It’s simply a behavior that was learned and likely brought you some benefit, and is something that can be unlearned.

In this article I will talk about common reasons why we avoid and what we can do about it.

Feelings – Thoughts – Behaviors

Before we get into the details of why we avoid others, it’s important to know a few key psychology concepts. The first, is the process of Feelings – Thoughts – Behaviors:

Our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors all influence one another. It’s a chain of events that can start from any of the three.

It’s important to understand this process because the more we are aware of it, the more we gain control.

Most of the day, we are all on autopilot. This is a good thing for walking, breathing, taking out the trash, etc. It makes things more efficient.

It also protects us. A child runs into the middle of the road and we instantly slam on the breaks.

For other things, it can make our life challenging if we don’t switch it off.

For example, someone saying something hurtful may trigger us to instantly lash out in anger or retreat in fear. As if we’re being attacked by a tiger.

In important and more complex situations, we want to parse out our thoughts, feelings, and behavioral urges so that we can have control.

The more control we have, the more likely we are to act in a way that is consistent with our values and in a way that brings us closer to our long-term goals.

Thinking Brain vs Reacting Brain

Another important concept is that of the Thinking Brain vs Reacting Brain.

Elizabeth McMahon, a leading expert in anxiety, explains in her book that the brain has two parts: The Reacting Brain and The Thinking Brain.

The Reacting Brain

Our Reacting Brains are primitive and are mainly responsible for keeping us away from danger. It is responsible for creating intense emotions like fear and anxiety.

The Reacting Brain does just that. It reacts.

It doesn’t examine the meaning or context of the information it receives. It simply categorizes it as “good” or “bad.”

If it’s “good,” it doesn’t react. If it’s “bad,” it sends our body and other parts of our brain intense signals.

For example, you’re walking down a dirt road and there is an old dirty hose coiled up. You notice it in the corner of your eye, and before you have time to think, you’re flooded with intense emotions.

Your Reacting Brain says, “This is close enough to a snake and we’re in a setting that snakes live. I’m going to send you strong emotions. If I’m wrong, that’s ok, at least I will keep us safe.”

A second or two later, your thinking mind kicks in. It notices that it’s actually not a snake.  “Just a hose. Phew.” You instantly calm down and continue walking. This is your Thinking Brain…

The Thinking Brain

Our Thinking Brains are responsible for complex thoughts and making meaning out of situations. It can examine information thoroughly and decide if it’s going to involve the Reacting Brain or not.

For example, you’re invited to a party on Saturday. And you have a series of thoughts, “What if I don’t know anyone there?” Then, “I’ll get nervous and say something stupid.” Then, “People will think there’s something wrong with me and I’ll be judged.”

This sends a message to your Reacting Brain to get involved.

Though the Thinking Brain is smarter, it’s far from perfect. 

The Thinking Brain vs Reacting Brain concept is helpful in understanding and overcome our tendency to avoid people. 

Both the Thinking Brain and Reacting Brain are responsible for creating fear and anxiety, but the process of how we reteach each part of the brain is much different.

Thoughts from the Thinking Brain

When I work with clients, a lot of our time is spent working with thoughts from the Thinking Brain. The reason being is that it drives much of our avoidant behavior. 

If you have a thought that others will negatively judge you, avoidance is a normal behavioral response.

Thoughts are random. Some are helpful, but often times thoughts are annoying, weird, and concerning. If anyone knew we had some of these thoughts they’d stop being our friends. They might even call the police.

All of this is completely normal. We aren’t responsible for the creation of the thoughts. In fact, we have zero control over the junk that pops into our minds.

For example, close your eyes for 15 seconds. Pay attention to what thoughts pop up. At the same time, try hard not to think about a pink elephant.

If you’re honest and aware, you thought of a pink elephant.

Maybe it was there in the front of your mind the entire time. It was repetitive and impossible to stop.

Or maybe it was there initially, you were able to distract yourself, but you noticed a constant background noise: “Don’t think of a pink of elephant. Don’t think of a pink elephant.” Which is thinking about a pink elephant.

We have zero control over the pink elephant; its creation or even getting rid of it. In fact, the more we try to get rid of it, the bigger it gets. And the only way to check to see if we’re not thinking about the pink elephant, is to think about the pink elephant.

Trying to get rid of the pink elephant can drive us crazy.

Thought Distortions

Thought distortions are flaws in our thinking. It’s completely normal, happening all day for all of us.

Here are some examples:

Forecasting: “If I see John, he’s going to make fun of me for what I said last night.” Forecasting is when we convince ourselves we know with 100% certainty a negative outcome is going to occur.

Mind Reading: “Mary thinks I’m a creep. I know it.” Mind reading is when our brains convince us we know what someone else is thinking and we know their intentions. None of us have the ability to see inside someone else’s brain.

Catastrophizing: “I’m going to go to the party, not know anyone, not have anything to say, be judged as strange and weird, be laughed at, not make any friends, and be alone the rest of my life.” Our brains are great at coming up with worst-case scenarios.

Personalization: “Jim didn’t even say ‘Hello’ to me this morning. He must be mad at me.” Our brains love to blame us for things that actually have nothing to do with us. It’s likely Jim is just in a bad mood for some unrelated reason.

Black and White Thinking: “I haven’t made any deep friendships yet. I was born to be a loner.” Black or white thinking doesn’t allow for middle ground. It’s all good or all bad. Rarely life is all good or bad.

Should Statements: “I shouldn’t feel anxiety when I’m meeting new people.” Should statements are ways of placing expectations on ourselves. It’s a covert way of beating ourselves up.

Negative Filter: Maybe we think, “This environment is so unfriendly” when just the other day a colleague stopped by our office and asked how our weekend was. Negative filter only allows our brain to see and hear negative information. It ignores and minimizes positive information.

Emotional Reasoning: “My heart is racing, I have butterflies in my stomach, I must be in danger.” Just because we feel there is a threat, doesn’t mean there is an actual threat. Our emotions mislead us all the time. Especially anxiety. Anxiety is the master bluffer.

Common Thoughts That Urge Us to Avoid People

  • “I’ll likely be rejected”
  • “I won’t know what to say”
  • “I’m socially inept”
  • “They think I’m weird”
  • “They can see that I’m nervous and awkward”
  • “I’m uncertain if they’ll like me and accept me”
  • “I won’t know how to handle it if they criticize me”
  • “I’ll lose control and say something inappropriate”
  • “They can see all the weird thoughts that pop into my mind”
  • “People can see that I’m nervous and will negatively judge it”
  • “People can see I’m having weird thoughts and are creeped out by me”

Reteaching the Thinking Brain

Anxiety fools us into believing our thoughts. Its intensity causes our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions to all become fused. And when they are fused, our thoughts are impossible to address.

The goal is to become aware when we are fused with our thoughts. Then to separate ourselves from the thoughts, looking AT them rather than FROM them.

Imagine a television with a drama playing. Looking FROM our thoughts would be to step inside the television and become part of the drama. You didn’t write the script to the drama, but the drama has you hooked and taking you for a ride.

Looking AT our thoughts is stepping out of the television and simply watching the drama unfold. The drama is still going on, but you’re not participating in it. You’re simply observing it.

It’s impossible to be 100% aware of every moment.

Try to sit for 2 to 5 minutes watching your thoughts. You will notice that you switch between being an observer (looking AT your thoughts) to then getting entangled in your thoughts (looking FROM your thoughts). Then you realize you’re entangled and switch back to observing. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Thought Suppression Doesn’t Work

As we become more aware our self-talk, we notice all the thoughts that are not true and unhelpful. It’s tempting to make it a goal to get rid of these thoughts.

In psychology, we call this thought suppression. Just like the pink elephant example, trying to stop our thoughts usually backfires.

Allow, But Don’t Engage

One technique is to allow, but not engage with the thoughts. We simply look at them without judgement.

We don’t debate with them, we don’t argue with them. We simply let them come and we let them go. Like a passing weather system.

And just like a weather system, sometimes it’s stormy all day. Other times it’s clear skies.

Thought Restructuring

Another technique is to challenge our thoughts. In psychology, we call our initial, unhelpful thoughts Automatic Thoughts. They occur out of our control, automatically. 

We challenge our thoughts by creating a Thought Record. We write down our Automatic Thoughts and then challenge with a more realistic thought. 

We don’t want to completely disregard our Automatic Thoughts though. That is, we don’t want to quickly say, “You are wrong.” If we completely disregard the automatic thought, it can make the thought become even louder.

Instead, we want to say something like, “Yes, automatic thought, that could happen. You’re not completely wrong. There is a chance, but is it likely? And even if it is likely, is the outcome really as bad as you’re making it out to be?” 

By validating our automatic thought, we’re more likely to disarm its intensity and urgency.

Here are a couple of examples:

Automatic Thought Realistic Thought
“They’ll see that I’m nervous and think something is wrong with me” Maybe they will see you nervous, but most people think they appear more nervous then they actually do. And even if people do see you nervous, most people understand and will have compassion.
“I’ll get nervous, lose control, and say something inappropriate” It’s possible that you’ll lose control, but have you ever done that? Most of the time you do maintain control and don’t say anything inappropriate. Sometimes you don’t say things perfectly, but nobody does.

The Power of Neuroplasticity 

Luckily, our Thinking Brains are not static. They have the ability to grow, learn, and adapt. Neuropsychologists call this neuroplasticity.

Our thoughts travel down pathways in our brains. The more we use a certain pathway, the deeper it gets, and the more likely our brain will use that pathway in the future.

The more we think “I’m going to be rejected,” the more automatic it becomes. And the harder it is to break the habit.

We can create new pathways though.

So, the more often we catch ourselves traveling down an unhelpful, habitual pathway, the more likely we can direct it in a new direction. Away from, “I’m going to be rejected,” (Forecasting), and toward something more realistic like, “I may get rejected, but it’s unlikely. And if it does happen, I will be able to handle it and it is more of a reflection of that person than it is of me.”

Core Beliefs

Core beliefs are thoughts, but at a deeper level. Core beliefs are like a pair of glasses we wear and that influence how we perceive the world and ourselves. When we were born the lenses were completely clear. Over the years, especially during our developmental years, the lenses changed depending on our experiences, upbringing, and our temperaments.

Core beliefs drive our Thinking Brains.

Here are some examples of Core Beliefs:

  • I’m awkward
  • I’m flawed
  • I’m less than others
  • I’m unable to handle uncomfortable feelings and situations
  • I’m socially incompetent
  • I don’t bring any value to others
  • I’m unlovable
  • I’m a failure

Our Core Beliefs were slowly learned. and they can slowly be unlearned. Just like our thinking, we first want to become aware when they happen. 

The tricky thing about Core Beliefs is that they don’t easily show themselves.

For example, you may have a thought that says, “They think I’m weird.” Though this is a surface level thought, it’s a product of our Core Belief.

To get to our Core Belief, we need to continually ask ourselves, “If that is true, then what would that mean about me?”

They think I’m weird –> People won’t accept me –> I’m flawed and unlovable

Our Automatic Thoughts are a symptom of our Core Belief. They take a little more digging to get to. 

And we deal with Core Beliefs using Thought Records. Once we identify the Core Belief we challenge it. “You’re flawed and unlovable? What about all those things you have accomplished. What about your family? They love you. What about John? He looks up to you actually. Is it that you’re unlovable or maybe you’re nervous that you won’t be accepted?”

The more we confront the assumptions that our Core Beliefs make, the more we chip away at them, the less automatic the thoughts become, and the less we will avoid others. 

Let’s move to the Reacting Brain now. 

Reteaching the Reacting Brain

We know our Reacting Brain needs to be retrained when we notice instantaneous, intense emotions, that are out of proportion to the actual threat level.   

For example, we see a group of people, and before our Thinking Brain kicks in, our heart starts racing.

The bad news is, we can’t reason with the Reacting Brain. If we say, “Reacting Brain, there is nothing dangerous about this group of people. You’re sending me a wrong message,” it does nothing. The Reacting Brain still keeps your heart racing.

For the Reacting Brain, using logic is speaking a different language. 

We can’t control the Reacting Brain. It’s going to do what it’s going to do. Sometimes it does its job well, most of the time it misfires sending us completely wrong information.

The Reacting Brain operates on the premise of: It’s better to overreact, be wrong, but keep you safe, than it is to underreact and you get hurt. 

The good news is, we can reteach our Reacting Brain. Decreasing the frequency and intensity of the misfiring.

Before we address reteaching it, it’s important to know how we inadvertently tell the Reacting Brain it’s doing a good job, when it fact it’s misfiring. 

Inadvertently Reinforcing the Reacting Brain

Fear and anxiety tells us to avoid. If we do avoid, we get a reward: comfort. This is a trap. 

The more we avoid, the louder our fear and anxiety will get when we think about confronting our trigger again the next time. The fear, anxiety, and avoidance all reinforce one another. We dig ourselves deeper.

It’s not the Reacting Brain’s message to us that’s important. 99% of the time the Reacting Brain is wrong.

What’s more important is how we respond to the Reacting Brain. That is, our behavior.

If we avoid, we inadvertently tell the Reacting Brain: “Good job. Thanks for keeping me safe. That was a dangerous situation.”

Instead, if we continue on with the situation, we intentionally tell our Reacting Brain: “I’m glad you’re still working, but this is actually not a dangerous situation. You can keep screaming at me to stop, but you’re wrong.”

Exposure and Experiences to Reteach the Reacting Brain

We address the Reacting Brain’s misfire by doing the opposite of what it tells us. 

If it tells us to walk away from a situation that FEELS dangerous, but actually isn’t dangerous, we need to defy the Reacting Brain. 

The more often we defy the Reacting Brain when it misfires, the less intense the reaction will be the next time. 

In psychology, we call this Exposure.

If you’re Reacting Brain starts to misfire every time you pick up the phone to call your crush, instead of avoiding making the phone call, you might make an effort to call your crush more often. Defy the Reacting Brain.

If your Reacting Brain misfires telling you not to say “Hello” to a classmate who is a perfect candidate for a friend, you might give yourself homework to talk to the person for at least 5 minutes every class. Defy the Reacting Brain. 

Conclusion 

When we avoid people, we’re trading short-term comfort for long-term gain. We get to be relaxed now, but we don’t build the long-term, meaningful relationships that we really want. 

Sometimes we are aware of what we’re doing. We realize we want to make meaningful relationships, but we’re too afraid. 

It’s not rare though, that it’s more covert. We say things like, “I’m not a people person.” Or, “I’m introverted, I prefer to be alone.” We are so used to our fear and anxiety that we don’t see it anymore. And we mistake it for being part of our core. Part of our personality. 

Whether we are aware or not, it’s important to take a step back and think about how we want our life to look in near and long-term future. Do we want to continue going it alone? If the answer is no, then maybe it’s time to start doing something about it. Confronting the Thinking Brain and going against the Reacting Brain. 

If the answer is yes, you might think of a time when you had close relationships. What was it like? Did you value those relationships? Do you wish you had those types of relationships again? Is it more the thought of having to engage in small talk and go through the long process of getting to know someone that’s limiting you? If so, maybe you do want relationships, but fear and anxiety are just a little more convert. And maybe it’s time to make that change. 

If you resonated with this article, you might find the Self-Help section to be helpful. 

 

 

About the Author

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

Brian O'Sullivan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist dedicated to helping people overcome their social anxiety. Brian uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help clients better understand the role our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions play in either maintaining and calming anxiety.

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.