by Laura D. Miller, LCSW

Photographee.eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

It seems so simple: “I know what I need to do to pursue my goals, but no matter how much I remind myself, I don’t do it! I must be lazy.”

If I had a nickel for every time a patient offered up that explanation for being stuck…But here’s the surprising thing I’ve discovered: Laziness is a myth!

“Laziness” is an overused criticism—a character judgment­­, really––that does nothing to help us understand why someone doesn’t exert the effort to do what they want to do, or are expected to do. If we take a moment to examine what’s behind the procrastination and avoidance, we find a range of more complicated issues:

  1. Fear of failure. Many people get in their own way by postponing the pursuit of goals, like getting a better job, because their estimation of themselves is pretty low. They’re afraid if they make the effort, their true inadequacy will be revealed and that would be devastating. Better instead not to try. We are all familiar with this strategy.
  2. Fear of success. This cousin of the fear of failure is very real: Many people are unconsciously worried that they’ll succeed in ways potentially threatening to others. So they avoid conflict by not moving forward. Imagine a woman who gets a promotion and starts to make a lot more money than her very traditional husband. Or a man who comes from a family of alcoholics who gets sober. While on the surface these seem like great goals, the consequent change in roles can be potentially disruptive.
  3. Desire for nurture. We all want this. But some of us don’t know how to ask for what we want directly—so we act useless as a way of getting others to do things for us. A guy might not iron a shirt for a wedding knowing his boyfriend will be appalled and do it for him, despite complaining, “You’re so lazy!” But this might be a way for the guy to feel taken care of without having to directly acknowledge that that’s what he wants. The downside is that if people rely on this tactic too much, it can frustrate others who feel coerced or who want to feel taken care of as well!
  4. Fear of expectations. People who “set the bar low” often do so as a way to prevent others from having high expectations for them. One of my patients rarely made plans and established herself as “lazy” so that other people would plan for her. She then had the freedom to show up or not based on whim. She avoided commitment while others had to take it on. They made themselves vulnerable by doing things for her, while she remained responsibility-free. 
  5. Passive-aggressive communication. Fear of conflict runs deep for many of us. We worry the direct expression of our irritation will injure and cause rupture. People who avoid conflict often bury their dissatisfied feelings. They may communicate them indirectly through “laziness,” slacking in a way that will upset another person. When one patient felt neglected by her husband, she started cooking dinner less and rarely felt up to having sex. She assumed she had just gotten “lazy.” But that explanation avoided the bigger issue of her lack of fulfillment, as well as her out-of-awareness wish to make him feel as neglected as she felt.
  6. Need for relaxation. Many people erroneously assume that they should always be going full steam, and chastise themselves for being “lazy” when their body and mind shut down in protest. Our culture puts a premium on productivity and hard work. The reality is that everyone needs time to relax and regenerate.
  7. Depression. Common symptoms of depression include lack of motivation, fatigue, and anhedonia (lack of pleasure in things previously enjoyed). In criticizing himself for “laziness,” a man may miss signs that he is depressed and needs treatment. People who are depressed usually feel stuck. The anger they may feel towards themselves for being in that state exacerbates depression. Self-loathing for “laziness” is common among people suffering from depression.

If you think of yourself as “lazy,” try to consider your behavior as the symptom of a problem, rather than the problem itself. The more you understand about your motivation, the more you will be able to get out of your own way. Is it possible to make whatever you’re avoiding more manageable? Is there someone you might ask for help?

Most of all, try to stop criticizing yourself as “lazy.” People who see themselves as lazy often feel trapped in their behavior. Addressing the underlying issues can be incredibly liberating.

Laura D. Miller, LCSW, is a graduate of the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program at the William Alanson White Institute and is currently in training in their Psychoanalytic Program. She specializes in work with immigrants, particularly Latinos, with a focus on bilingual/bicultural issues. She has published on the topics of immigration and parental infidelity. She is in private practice in Manhattan.

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