“The demand avoidance means that I can neither rest nor do something that I want to do. And so I end up doing the things that I do not want to do.”

Pathological Demand Avoidance, or, as we here at the Intensives Institute prefer to call it: Persistent Demand for Autonomy. That bone-deep pressure to say ‘no’, no matter how much pressure the world and we ourselves place on our selves to be productive, to do the thing, to complete the task. Even when it’s something we want to do. Even when it is something we take satisfaction from. It’s a puzzle- this pressure to avoid the demands, which can out-push even the demand for rest.

What if we can solve that puzzle by breaking the rules; by dismantling the puzzle itself? What if we approach the puzzle with a sword, like the Gordian knot of antiquity? What then?

Let’s find out, together.

Transcript and notes:


Recorded 7 January 2024.


Hey, everyone, thanks for tuning in.

So my notes for today say, "stop, go, demand avoidance." We're trying something new. We'll see how long it lasts. But I've actually laid out some topics in advance. No guarantees that I won't get inspired. That the Muse won't come and bang on my head or bang on my door in the middle of the night and give me something else to say. But we're going to try this, too.

"Stop, go, demand avoidance." What do I mean by that?

What I mean, is: that thing that happens when the urgency to create shows up, and holding hands with that urgency, is the urgency to stop completely. The unwillingness, the inability to do anything at all.

There's deep resistance to doing and thre's deep need to do. And in fact, often this long, complex list of dreams and obligations of the needed and the wanted, all lined up. Or if you're me, my ducks are never in a row. So all chaotically milling about my feet, tripping me up when I try to do anything else, or indeed any of them. There is no tending. There is no doing and also, there is no not doing.

Because my heart beats faster, I can feel the pressure building up underneath my skin, I have to do something, something but there's too much. There's too much pressure to move.

It's like one of those little slidy puzzles, the square ones where- we used to get them in physical form. And it was about parking a car in New York. The ones where you slide all the tiles around, you get one open square. But every so often it feels like, it feels like there aren't any open squares at all. Or there's a half an open square, which is not useful if everything that moves is a full sized block.

So what do we do? How do we get moving? How do we do some of this stuff that we desperately want to do with this buildup of energy and urgency? And hope and dream? What do we do with that? With all of that? How do we handle that when we also so desperately need to rest that we cannot even lift our head off the pillow until three hours after we were supposed to lift our head off the pillow.

Until three hours after our brain started going. Until three hours after.

Or maybe your brain doesn't start in the morning at all. Maybe your brain starts at two in the afternoon. But you still feel stuck at two in the afternoon. You might be out of bed and coffeed.

But still nothing will come and nothing will come. And you have to do and you have to lie down. And you have to nap and you have to finish this thing. And you have to have an idea and- all of the different kinds of clamoring: the nitty gritty, detail-oriented expansive stuff, and the broad creative inspired intensive stuff and none of it will come through because it's all packed around that one hole.

It's all built up around the edges. It's all stuck. It's all stuck. Because there's only half a square or maybe no square at all to slide things around. And everything is too big a square- and that actually is part of the answer.

Part of the answer is: break the squares.

It's really easy to look at something and be like oh my god, clean the kitchen. But if you've been around here any length of time you know that when we have to clean the kitchen around my house, we do not clean the kitchen. When we have to clean the kitchen, we wash the spoons. Or we stack the plates. Just the plates, not the bowls. Just the plates.

We collect all the compost. Taking it outside is a separate step. But we can check off collecting the compost. We make those squares smaller. We break the tasks down. That helps. But it doesn't- It doesn't necessarily deal with that buzzy pressure-y thing inside our skin that wants us to be and do and become everything all at once.

And sometimes the earth is crying so loudly we can't hear anything else. And so we are stuck. Our heads filled with the ringing, wailing of a thousand things on fire. Of a thousand things seeming to die while we watch. And feeling all of that, of course, does not help us move forward.

But even if it's all beautiful stuff, even if it's all creative stuff, even if- even if all of your focus for the moment, for this particular breath, is on things like gardening and sewing and building and writing and acting and creating and going for walks in the woods and reveling and being in gratitude, it still sometimes stumbles over itself.

And you don't know like, needing to light a candle and also redo your ancestor altar and also take a nap and also and also and also and also and- it's too much. And even the resting that's being demanded is too much. Sometimes when I'm trying to sleep at night- and I do not necessarily stay asleep easily.

So sometimes when I wake up at two or three in the morning, and it's probably going to be a couple of hours, I spend an hour or two tossing and turning. Trying to pressure myself into sleep as though that's going to work. We know that does not work. But sometimes I recall that my whole job is just to lie there with my eyes closed in the dark and breathe. And try not to run off down any of the paths to anxiety or depression that are available to me at that hour of night. Which is a great many of them.

And so instead... the question is "what instead?" Instead: watching the breath, or instead: listening to a soothing podcast. Or instead: listening to a quiet piece of music, or instead: tapping my hands on my thighs. Or instead: noticing the texture of the sheets. Or instead: just being there. Just being there. Just being in the bed. And letting that be enough.

Even if I don't sleep, there's no guilt actually due to the world. It might make tomorrow harder, but I'm under no obligation to sleep, to make sleep happen. And when I let go of the trying to sleep, so often sleep does come. At least a little, at least for a while, at least another hour or two.

So if I manage to get four, and then I'm up for three, but then I'm down for two more, then I at least got six. Which is a functional amount of sleep for me. It's not ideal. Sometimes I even get seven. That's pretty good. Seven is good. Nine is- I'm a superhero at nine.

But one of the things that makes it so hard to sleep at night is that pressure, that built up interior pressure. So sometimes you can siphon some of it off by breaking the tasks down. By doing a little bit, by forgiving yourself for not doing it perfectly. Trying to do it better and knowing that I could always have done it better. And fretting over whether I did it well enough. Or whether I could have done it better. Whether I owed the world, the client, the person better. Or if what I did was sufficient.

Maybe what I did was okay. Maybe okay is enough. Maybe I don't have to be a rock star straight-A student. Maybe I don't have to try to be valedictorian. Maybe graduating cum laude was okay. And it didn't have to be magna cum laude, it didn't have to be summa cum laude. Maybe graduating at all was enough. And cum laude was a bonus.

Maybe getting to class was enough. Maybe getting through my sophomore year while I had mono was enough. Maybe five extracurriculars were enough. Maybe one would have been enough. Maybe just making sure that I had the opportunity to try was enough, and everything else was a bonus. Lauren Marie Fleming put out a meme that said "What if, though, you're already a success?" Just: what if you're already a success?

So part of what's going on is we have this kind of turgidity. This rigidity that comes from being over full of urgency and ideas and the world and the need for rest all at once. This push pull. This stop go.

And part of what's going on is that a lot of, us many of us I would say, even most of us, have demand avoidance of some kind or another.

So this thing called Pathological Demand Avoidance, or alternatively Persistent Drive for Autonomy, which is my favorite way of thinking about it, is this thing where, if you demand something of me, I don't want to do it anymore. And I don't want to do it at a level that's bone deep. That's so much pressure, it's an equal amount of pressure to all that pressure that you and the world are putting on me.

And so I will just say no. I will say no, no matter what the consequences are. I will say no, if it means I starve. I will say no, if it means that I lose things that are precious to me. I will say no, regardless of whether it's self destructive, because in that moment, it is more self destructive to say yes.

That impulse has saved me. It has saved me over and over and over. So of course, of course, I've kept it. Who wouldn't keep it? That thing that saved their life over and over and over. Knowing that the most urgent thing I could do was say no.

But it means that when the demand to rest and the demand to do, show up: I will do neither. And what is the neither if the demand to do is productive things and creative things and enriching things and joyful things, and necessary things? And the demand to rest is to rest deeply, letting go of everything for a day for two days.

Do you know how long it took me before I could find my weekends? And then I lost them again. And then I quit that job, and I'm still finding them. The demand avoidance means that I can neither rest nor do something that I want to do. And so I end up doing the things that I do not want to do.

Sometimes things I've resolved not to do, sometimes things that are just busy work. Busy hands that aren't any of the things I want my hands to be busy with.

I'm not knitting, and I'm not gardening. And I'm not writing, and I'm not drawing and I'm not painting. And I'm not sewing. I'm aimlessly scrolling through the internet. I'm reading things that don't fill my heart. Because I've created this atmosphere of demand around everything. And then there's this external demand around everything. And that's just too much demand in one space.

And so that deep, absolutely. incontrovertible "no" becomes the only thing that I can answer to.

So how, how do we peel that back? For me, the answer is recognizing if those things are really immediately necessary: release permission. Because if we can't make the squares smaller, in that little puzzle, sometimes we can make the openings bigger. We can actually pop those squares out of the puzzle entirely.

I used to shake my head at my friends who would dismantle the Rubik's Cube. Who would dismantled a little sliding puzzle. Who would take things apart in order to solve them rather than following the rules, testing their brains against the brains of the Puzzle Maker.

But in retrospect, that's how we solve puzzles so often, isn't it? By taking apart the puzzle by reconstructing it differently. By refusing to adhere to the rules that we've been given that are basically arbitrary. By thinking differently. We were constantly being encouraged to think differently, so why not here? To think differently.

It's the Gordian knot solution, the guy comes along with a sword and cuts it in half. What if you could just cut it in half? What if it doesn't have to be like that? And so there's this element of play. Of letting the puzzle run through my fingers without actually doing anything deliberately. Talking or reading and simultaneously twirling those cubes through my fingers.

I've never solved a Rubik's Cube but I have solved a lot of the blacksmith puzzles. A lot of the ones where it looks like it's impossible. The ball is too big to fit through the loop or whatever. And I don't know how I solved them. My fingers solved them. My brain was busy doing something else.

And that, I think, is the most important thing when we get so full, so turgid, so rigid, that we can't move. That we can't bend. That if we try to bend we'll break.

And the question is, is that really immediately necessary? Maybe it's necessary by next week, maybe it's necessary by tomorrow. Maybe it's necessary by end of day, but it's one o'clock. And you whittle down, you find that, that one thing, those two things that really are necessary.

But then they've got all this space around them, because everything else- we've popped all the other tiles out of the puzzle. And so now we can put those two squares wherever we want. In fact, we might even put a couple more squares back in so that nothing falls out.

But that's our choice. It's the opposite of the demand avoidance. It's us deciding to do something. It's us, maybe even deciding to challenge ourselves. But we took the pressure off. It's lying down and closing my eyes, because that's what I have control over. But no pressure to sleep, there's no rule that I have to sleep.

There's no rule that I have to lie down and close my eyes, either. I could get up, I could write a novel. I could decide that I'm going to experiment with writing a novel only in those two hour windows that I'm awake in the middle of the night. But I'd rather not. I don't want to.

So I'm not going to. I'm not going to try to make that productive time. What I'm going to try to do is remember how good it feels to breathe, four counts in. And four counts out. Four in and four out and four in and four out.

And the next thing I know, my mind is drifting a little and that's okay. It doesn't have to be sleep, we could just drift.

Sometimes, if you're versed in hypnosis or meditation, you can suggest to yourself that when you're done with this lying here and breathing thing, that you'll come back. And you'll be alert and alive and feel well rested regardless. And sometimes your body will take that suggestion and let you rest deeply. And so there's this thing where it's a choice, it's an option.

The resting is an option. I'm choosing to rest because I like the way it makes me feel. I'm choosing to do this project. And this one because I like the way it makes me feel, I've chosen project, I personally this week have chosen projects, that were very close to completion. I've chosen some of those 80% projects that have been in timeout for a year even.

Because now the last 20% is its own project. And I can kind of do a rush through the ending of it. And if I run through the end, then I don't have time to get stuck at 20% to the 20% to the 20%. That I'm choosing, I'm choosing things that I like to do.

I'm choosing to be in front of the microphone. I'm choosing- I'm choosing this, I'm choosing us. I'm choosing you.

Are there other things, yes. Do I have openings for clients? Yes. Do I have things I want to write for the membership? Yes. I'm so- I've got so much to say. I want to fill the membership full of all this stuff. And then I want to give us a chance to connect over it. To be together with it. To think about it, to dream with it.

I was telling my longest-term best friend, saying to her yesterday that I think we need more dreaming and more dreamers. More imagination, more positive imagination. More common conversation and cultural understanding of what could be if we did things better.

Because in so many cases, we know how to do them better. But collectively we cannot find the political will to move those things forward. And I believe that's because we do not have a felt sense of the possibilities, of the hope, of the change. In order to get that felt sense we have to dream.

And in order to dream we need a little more space. We create more space and back down that demand. Make it exploration, possibility, curiosity.


That's where the door opens.

Let's go there.

Thanks for tuning in.