When Avoidance Rules Your Life

Though we often equate compulsions and addictions, researchers are now drawing a sharp distinction between these two behaviors—one is about avoiding and the other about seeking.

Illustrations by Edmon De Haro

Bianca feels compelled to keep her three-story house so organized, tidy, and clean that certain chairs must stand in only certain precise places; bathroom towels must be arranged and folded just so; the dishwasher must be loaded according to a strict, undeviating system; and tall glasses must be stored on the right of a kitchen cabinet, medium glasses on the left.

Suzanne’s house, by contrast, has been so consumed by her decades of hoarding that city authorities threatened to condemn it.

Superficially, the two women seem to be polar opposites. Look below the surface, however, and they are not so different. And their stories highlight a mystery that has long stymied students of the mind and which recent science is shedding light on: What are the roots of compulsions, and how do they differ from behavioral addictions, which we typically associate with activities like excessive drinking, gambling, or drug abuse?

As a child, Bianca had little say over her own life. Her mother chose her clothes, her furniture, even her friends and activities, and her mother’s moods swung unpredictably from white-hot anger to warm caring to cool aloofness. Having her fate in the hands of another was disquieting enough, but it was…