What causes us to want to flee when things get too difficult, or too painful? What makes us seek out unhelpful distractions as a way to relieve tension, but not actually face what is going on? Rather then deal with the reality of the difficult issues in our lives, we sometimes attempt to escape them.
Escapism can be defined as ‘the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.’
This could take the form of alcohol, drugs, thoughts of running away, the desire to be someone else, be with someone else, facebook addiction, TV, computer games and the list could on (pick your favourite vice!) Although it is important to say here, I’m not referring to the various forms of relaxing or switching off. Sometimes it is very beneficial to just forget for a while and watch a movie, listen to your favourite song, run, dance etc, but things start to get less healthy when we intentionally seek out forms of escapism, especially if they are hindering your ability to be emotionally present in the tough times. This way of coping stops you from facing the difficult feelings surrounding your reason for wanting to escape.
Escapism stops us being able to improve the circumstances of our real lives. When we are living through high pressure, boring or unfulfilling times in our lives, this can cause us to look elsewhere for satisfaction or just to help us to forget how hard it all is. I have personally found when things are really hard at home with my children (usually on an afternoon, when all I want is to just be left alone for 5 minutes) my mind would go to a life in another country, starting afresh. No children in sight. Just wine and books and maybe, sometimes my husband.
So why are some of us more prone to escapism then others?
People who are more prone to escapism tend to use ‘avoidance oriented coping’ mechanisms, which can look like ignoring the problem and distracting themselves away from it. In my case, when things get tough at home, I am prone to switch off from what is going on and go into my thoughts or onto my phone. People who tend to avoid or escape the hard feelings, are also more likely to experience depression, anxiety, low self esteem and low confidence, though it is unsure whether one causes the other. People who have a more positive disposition will show more ability to practice ‘approach oriented coping’ which is when a person is proactive in either changing the unpleasant elements of their circumstances, or managing the emotions they feel in relation to it.
These two ways of coping could have come from a person’s upbringing or could be a part of their temperament and personality that they were born with, but a person can change from being ‘avoidant oriented’ to being more ‘approach oriented’ and can begin to change how they deal with difficult situations and pressure in more of a proactive way.
So how might we start to change the difficult situations, or manage the emotions we feel in relation to those situations?
One afternoon, my lovely but sometimes challenging daughter is bored and misbehaving and I am on our 34th activity of the day and I’m about ready to fall into a heap of facebook.
I’m feeling out of control of the situation. I’m feeling exhausted. I’m feeling like I’m not doing enough. I’m feeling like a bad mum as I cant seem to keep my child happy or well behaved.
What can I do about this situation? Go to my happy place in my head with the wine and the books, and stop engaging with my children. This doesn’t work as it causes me to become distant towards them and I haven’t solved our problem, in fact it has made things worse. It is a fleeting comfort to go to that place in my head, an instant numbing, and it feels good for about 5 seconds. But actually the reality is that I feel less able to manage the real situation, although I have escaped from the emotion of it briefly.
So I take another deep breath.
I stop the thoughts in their track and I look at my situation. Why do I take it on myself to keep my children happy and entertained? Why am I so uncomfortable with their boredom?
And the truth hit me. I’m worried I’m not enough.
And so when the reality of that fear feels too close for me to deal with, I go to the place where I don’t have to be enough for anyone.
So in this situation and with this new insight, I can start to understand my thoughts and feelings. I can start to accept that sometimes although I feel like this, that doesn’t make it true. And rather then allow myself to get lost in my thought world I can choose to approach the problem, be emotionally present but not be overwhelmed by the ‘not good enough’ feelings. I can choose to problem solve but with clear boundaries, to allow for both me and my daughter to take some responsibility over what we decide to do.
You have to emotionally engage with those close to you, and it is hard work to not give into those escape triggers, to not go to that comforting thing that you are drawn to, but it really is worth it for you and for them.
For some people, alcohol is the (very socially acceptable) form of escapism used to numb the pain of difficult feelings. These could come from a strained relationship, stress from work or family responsibilities or some kind of loss or trauma. The affect of drinking to escape these hard feelings is short term, as the problem is often magnified and made worse by the consequences of getting drunk. It can put more strain on relationships, cause more anxiety and depression and it doesn’t deal with the real underlying issue.
For others, it may be gambling or over eating, pornography or taking drugs. Whatever the form of escapism is, the affects of the ‘forgetting’ are short term but the potential damage is long term as the consequences of the actions add to the original issue.
A lot of other forms of escapism are also behaviourally addictive and so when a person wants to break out of the habit, it isn’t just about breaking the addiction its about getting to the reasons as to why they are wanting to escape. What part of their life are they feeling intense pressure or stress? Where are they feeling insecure or not good enough, unfulfilled or out of control, and then actively finding ways to improve this.
Whilst looking into this and praying through what this means for me as a Christian, I realised that escapism can not only hinder your life but it can also have a deep impact on your faith. Often the patterns that develop from escaping reality are harmful to ourselves and to our relationships, and not God’s intention at all. It really struck me that the opposite to ‘Escaping’ is ‘Staying’ and God calls us to stay on the path that he has set for us. To put him first and foremost, in the face of uncertainty and especially when it is difficult, and then when the stuff of life comes in to distract us or throw us off course, we can stand firm and stay on track.
Hebrews 12:1-2 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.