Avoidance: it’s the unknown unkowns

It’s been a while. Not because I don’t have ideas – ADHD means I am practically exploding with ideas in my every waking minute – but because of the phenomenon called demand avoidance.

Whilst everyone experiences this on occasion, by resisting or putting off doing what needs to be done, procrastinating or avoiding activities that might be less than pleasant, demand avoidance of the neurodiverse variety seems to run a deeper and more pervasive course through every aspect of daily life.

Perhaps the term ‘demand’ is a misnomer, as this implies that the thing you are avoiding is mandatory, that you have no choice but to do it, and yet the avoidance frequently occurs around stuff that is actually enjoyable or beneficial, and optional. Ironically, most of the time, the ‘demands’ that I avoid do not even come overtly from other people; nobody has told me I must write this blog or that I must publish a certain number of posts per week, or that I must arrange an appointment to have my hair coloured or any other example from my mental to-do list.

The word ‘expectation’ seems more accurate, applying to both the things I have decided for myself that I should do and the things that society, authority, family, the world at large (might) expect me to do. The brackets are there because, so often, other people’s expectations are unspoken and simply assumed. Therein lies a very big problem.

If I have no concrete evidence of what is expected of me, then how do I know who I should be or what I should be doing?

What happens when I don’t know precisely, down to the nth degree, what is expected of me? I become anxious. I might make educated guesses about what I need to do, or how I need to behave, or maybe I’ll do my own research or try asking someone (unlikely, unless I know them very well), but regardless, my brain has already decided that the information I receive is not going to inform me accurately enough to quell that anxiety, and could well end up increasing my anxiety, as more variables, tangents and potential errors are introduced. My mind becomes full with the swirling thoughts, possible scenarios and plan Bs, Cs and Ds, all increasing my already-anxious state and taking me further away from the end goal. This intolerance of uncertainty is believed by some to be at the root of demand avoidance in neurodiversity.

As an adult, and a parent, I have had to become reasonably proficient at managing the practical aspects of entering a new situation – say, taking the wrong turn en route to an unfamiliar place, my children’s first parent-teaching meetings or registering with a new dentist – but the expectations that I am still unable to cope with are the silent, unexpressed opinions: other people’s judgement of who I am as a person.

Me and other people’s expectations go a long way back: we have a lot of history. Being unknowingly neurodivergent has meant several decades of being judged against unspoken social rules and norms that I was never even aware of. I would never be able to pass the subtle tests that would face me every day, in every possible situation.

The anxiety resulting from these daily micro-failures probably created the need for my ‘expectation avoidance’ as a protective tool and the battle between avoidance and determination to get on with living life rages on with every encounter, presided over by my brain’s own Secretary of Defense:

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. 

Rumsfeld, quoted in Graham, 2014

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