Churchill once said of Stafford Cripps, “His chest is a cage in which two squirrels are at war – his conscience and his career.” Approach-avoidance conflicts occur when there is one goal or event that has both positive and negative effects or characteristics that make the goal appealing and unappealing simultaneously.

Too many of us suffer this plight: allowing the squirrels to war, instead of simply killing one of them and getting on with life. A good example is people who suffer parasites too long, and yet feel, in spite of the fact that they are being bled dry by the freeloader, guilty when they consider breaking free. Or afraid. Churchill replied to Leo Amery, when the latter suggested that Churchill might find himself breaking away from the Conservative Party when the party moved back to tariffs and protectionism, “I shall stick to you with all the loyalty of a leech.”

Possibly it’s leaving a job or starting a business or making a purchase, or canceling an event or demanding a divorce or leaving an abusive relationship or immigrating. Hard to make that decision, and those squirrels fight ever more veraciously. Change is essential to growth and evolution, and it’s seldom a walk in the park. Making the decision is the hardest part.

Why do we allow ourselves to suffer the tortures of the damned by tolerating these conflicting and contrasting emotions? Surely we realize that they paralyze our progress and sabotage our success? That they drain our energy and creativity and drag us down into the slough of despond? “This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.” ~ John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Logically, we should just break away, move on, shake the dust from our boots… But that’s logical, and usually, approach avoidance is the child of strong emotions. Self sabotage, or the way we punish ourselves to pay for our imagined or real sins of the past may be our reason, like the hair shirt of the cilice. Sometimes, it’s the avoidance of the conflict we predict will result when we put our foot down. Or pity for the parasite, or fear of loss (from the frying pan into the fire), but deep down, we know we need to deal the death blow to one of those dastardly squirrels. And we don’t believe our own excuses.

The best way to deal with this situation is to align oneself with a strong, loving partner, a supportive team, a good counselor or mentor, a sincere and balanced religious leader, or a mature friend who cares enough to tell you the truth. It often makes it easier to justify, to understand, and to take the necessary action, and it can give one the courage and perspective required.

No squirrels were hurt during the writing of this article.

See also “Is This Why You Are Still Stuck?”

Robin Elliott LeverageAdvantage.com