Good grief. Avoidant behavior has been comprehensively treated as maladaptive behavior that is in response to stresses, threats, and past experiences that were awful in nature. Panic disorders are seen as a primary causative factor in avoidance behavior, with agoraphobia as the ultimate and debilitating outcome. Abuse is seen as a causative factor in those who develop avoidant personalities. In general, it is agreed that the fullness of life, processing through our fears and getting back to being able to experience more of life, and the joy of having a more engaged social life is the positive outcome of treating avoidant behavior.
But some avoidant personality styles are actually for the good of the individual. When a dangerously stressful job is not going to get better, and a panic disorder results, then getting out of that job and transitioning to a calmer situation for pay can save a person’s life, not to mention physical and mental health. While a developing personality that is aversive and avoidant when dealing with conflict will have poor skills and strategies for dealing with the inevitable conflicts that happen in life, some of today’s conflicts are simply too deadly for children to encounter.
Even something as widely valued as a need to avoid celebrity and a wide social network is seen as a false value, and thus, a vice by Karen Horney (1945). Well, given the insanity of celebrity in today’s era of privacy invasion, out of control paparazzi, and stalkers, the average citizen is happy to avoid celebrity and to have a close circle of well known friends and family. While the average person would bask for a while in a positive sequence of celebrated events, the problems that exist today are causing a retreat to places and people who are known.
In 1945, the world was an enticing place and the fantasies of unlimited travel and social interaction has turned out to be far less glamorous than was anticipated. In 1945, most of the women did not work outside of the home, were not able to travel widely, and could only afford to socialize with their close family, friends and community. They weren’t that aberrant. They were normal.
The art of relating closely to a smaller circle of friends, community and family, with some wider interactions is far more natural for the human animal. We began as tribal peoples, where disputes, relationships, and problems had to be worked out with the people who worked together in order to survive. Since Karen Horney’s time, we have actually developed far too wide and far too much social interaction, which in itself allows personal avoidance mechanisms through the shallow, limited, over organized and frenetic activity that we engage in.
It is no more satisfying or developmentally beneficial to have a few words with a lot of people than it is to have more intensive and sound conversations with fewer people, where feedback and disagreement and resolution are allowed to happen. Having the phone ringing every five minutes is not social interaction, it is a display of enticing too many people to intrude into the home via the phone. It can be expected that, when there is a crisis in that home, that phone will stop ringing so much, and the people who will show up to help are a far smaller crowd. Where, then, is the value in such shallow relationships?
It is all in the degree to which a person is avoidant, the form of threat that the person is avoiding, the physical and financial ability of the person to travel and be exposed to interaction, and the rationality of reason for the avoidant personality. A person who cheerfully goes through life avoiding any and all conflict is not truly healthy and seriously lacks the ability to deal with conflict. But a person who chooses to avoid certain conflicts is being realistic, since engaging in some conflicts just for the sake of conflict engagement is increasingly deadly and unsound.
When the threats, lifestyles and challenges that exist now are compared to what existed in 1945, then it is entirely positive to sacrifice some of the glittering excess of social interaction that was always an unrealistic goal. Limiting social interactions to those which help to meet desirable and positive goals, rather than as obligations to encounter difficulty and conflict for their own sake is healthy.