Harvard psychology expert shares the No. 1 thing she sees holding people back from success


SEPTEMBER 14, 2023

Anxiety, discomfort and change are all part of life, but they are not enemies. The No. 1 silent saboteur of success is how we react to them.

As a Harvard psychologist, I’ve observed this struggle firsthand. I coined a concept about it, “psychological avoidance,” based on my 20 years of research and clinical work.

Psychological avoidance is any response to a perceived threat that brings immediate emotional relief, but comes with long-term consequences.

To live a fulfilling life, we must learn to face our challenges and fears head-on. Here are three common signs of psychological avoidance, and how to handle them:

1. Retreating

If you’ve come face-to-face with a lion, your first instinct might be to run. But in our daily lives, retreating is more subtle.

You might attempt to retreat from anxiety by having a glass of wine to tune out, calling out of work sick when a major project or presentation is due, or passing up a job opportunity that involves public speaking.

What to do instead: Many times we rationalize our retreating behavior. We might say, “I’m not afraid of heights, I just don’t like roller coasters,” or, “No one will notice whether I attend.”

To shift your thinking, identify one thought or fear, then ask yourself, “What data do I have to back this up?” or, “What would my best friend say in this situation?” The empirical evidence you come up with can help pull you out of that harmful mindset.

2. Reacting

This could be sending a flurry of text messages to get the last word in, getting a tenth opinion until you get one that aligns with your point of view, or yelling to get your point across.

What to do instead: The first step is to pause, then approach your discomfort rather than try to eliminate it.

If you receive a concerning prognosis from your doctor, for example, and you have a habit of spending hours searching for alternative explanations on the internet, try spending a minute or two sitting with your discomfort.

Take a few deep breaths and try to name the sensations in your body. The problem might still be there, but you will have a clearer head to deal with it.

3. Remaining

Remaining is a “deer in the headlights” type of avoidance. It’s the inclination to stay put in uncomfortable situations, like an unhealthy relationship or a job that is mentally and physically draining.

We tell ourselves that the current situation isn’t “that bad” or that “it will all work out.” Typically, we remain when we are avoiding the uncertainty of change.

What to do instead: Identify what truly matters to you and take one small step every day to move in that direction.

If you value family, schedule time to connect with your loved ones each day. If you have a creative dream, carve out a small piece of your schedule to devote to it.

Even five minutes before heading into work can make all the difference and be a catalyst for long-term growth and success.

Luana Marques, PhD, is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, founder and director of Community Psychiatry Pride at Massachusetts General Hospital, and a former president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. She is the author of “Almost Anxious: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Worry or Distress a Problem?and Bold Move: A 3-Step Plan to Transform Anxiety into Power.” Connect with her @DrLuanaMarques.

Courtesy/Source: CNBC