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Procrastination 101: A Self-Protective Mechanism

What stops you from moving forward with decluttering and your other goals?

Pixabay free image
Source: Pixabay free image

Fear of Failure

Building on last week’s blog post about the main cause of procrastination, the next cause we want to discuss with you is the fear of failure.

Fear of failure is really anxiety about proving oneself. When you have vulnerabilities about self-esteem, you can experience anxiety about equating the degree of perfection of what you produce with your sense of worth. When you do this, you can create a catch-22 trap for yourself because if you do your very best at something and it doesn’t succeed, then the only conclusion might be that you aren’t good enough.

Many people who procrastinate think that if they don’t rank at the top, then they have failed. This “all or nothing” thinking creates only two extremes: being beyond criticism or being mediocre and a failure.

A way out of this trap can be to put off a project and then rush to meet a last-minute deadline. If the result is lacking, you have an “out” or “safety cushion." You can tell yourself “If I only had more time, I could have done better. I wasn’t lacking; it was the circumstances. Next time, with more time, I’ll do much better.” This method, while it doesn’t feel good, protects your self-esteem.

Fear of Success

Another main cause of procrastination is fear of success, which seems contradictory, because who wouldn’t want success? Shouldn’t success make you happy?

Success can also bring challenges that create fear in some people. For example, if you're promoted to be the boss, and the buck stops with you, making decisions that others can critique becomes your responsibility. Eyes are on you, assessing you, judging you. This is a common cause of anxiety.

Another reason some people are afraid of success is that they worry they will be expected to be increasingly more successful. “I wrote that first book, what am I going to do for the second? I don't have more to give. The bar is always set higher and higher. How do I top my last project?”

Being gentle and accepting of yourself and giving yourself the right to learn from mistakes is a good start. Committing to seeing everything as a learning opportunity is also a great way to begin shifting your thinking to a growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset.

Fear of Being Controlled

The fourth cause of procrastination is a fear of being controlled. Procrastination can be one way to say, “You can't make me do it. You can’t control me.” You do things on your own timeline, in your own way.

For some people, going along with what someone else expects is an insult to their self-esteem. Guarding one’s sense of autonomy is a protective measure of their self-worth and independence. If they do something on a timeline set by others and agree to meet someone else's expectations, they often feel like they have compromised their personal integrity and autonomy. It feels like they have capitulated. Procrastinating allows them to preserve their separateness and sense of control.

Cooperation feels like selling out. Many people who express feeling this way report having grown up in highly controlled and micro-managed homes. They report being assessed and corrected to unreasonably high standards where anything less than perfect was not tolerated or validated.

As adults, they unwittingly still react to that embedded sense of being controlled and fail to recognize that they have “voiced over” the perfectionist messages of their childhood. To resist, they remain reactive rather than giving themselves the time and space to learn from experiences and create their own path to achievement.

So, how can you tell if you fear being controlled?

Dr. Jane Burka and Dr. Lenora Yuen, in their book, Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now, suggest determining what you procrastinate about. You do some things regularly, like brushing your teeth; other things are left undone. Putting things off that are required is one sign of fear of being controlled. Bureaucratic requirements like not doing your taxes on time, paying parking tickets, which are required, can be a sign you fear being controlled. Elaine finds that new clients who hoard often haven’t submitted their income taxes in at least four years.

Elaine asked Burka, “If the world doesn't feel like a safe place, how can people learn to manage it and overcome procrastination?”

Burka agreed that many people don't feel safe. This sometimes starts at birth, then expands to their family life, school, workplaces, and beyond. When people don't have a core sense of security, then everything they do is at risk of being far more highly charged. They lack confidence that they can manage. They don't have a solid foundation under their feet.

Procrastination is an anti-risk behavior. However, even though you risk experiencing the consequences of procrastination, and you risk pushback, you don't risk your own sense of worth. Elaine believes that when people don't feel safe, they find ways to protect themselves. Procrastination is a way of protecting your core self from a deep and wounding sense of personal failure—accepting that you have limits and respecting yourself anyway.


Jane B. Burka. and Lenora M. Yuen, (2008). Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do about It Now. 25th anniversary ed., Da Capo.