- Most people think of procrastination as a choice, but it's actually a coping mechanism that helps one avoid unpleasant emotions.
- Procrastination usually causes more problems than it solves and seldom works in one's favor.
- Those who have been emotionally neglected in their own childhood can be vulnerable to procrastination as adults.
What comes to mind when you think of procrastination?
Is it a sign of laziness? Just an annoying habit? Or perhaps a side symptom of ADHD?
For many, it is none of the above, and it matters. Because once you understand why you procrastinate, you might start to think about it differently. This is especially true once you realize that procrastination is an emotional response. It’s actually a form of emotional avoidance that you use when you don’t know how to deal with your emotions.
So, it’s a coping mechanism, but a poor one. Because it usually causes more problems than it solves. And it seldom works.
In your effort to avoid negative feelings, you end up encouraging more feelings of dread, stress, overwhelm, self-blame, guilt, and shame into your life. Each and every time you procrastinate, you are ignoring your feelings and your needs.
Since your emotions are the deepest, most personal, biological expression of who you are, in essence, procrastination is a way of neglecting yourself.
Childhood Emotional Neglect Makes You Vulnerable to Procrastination
Childhood emotional neglect happens when your parents teach you to live emotion-free. There are many different ways that parents can emotionally neglect their children, but most times no one realizes it’s happening. Your parents may have been emotionally neglected by their own parents and may have unknowingly passed the pattern onto you. (To determine whether you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take my free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire, linked in my bio.)
Below are three different kinds of childhood emotional neglect that make children more vulnerable to procrastination, oftentimes continuing into adulthood.
- A lack of emotional responsiveness. When parents aren’t there to teach you the value of emotions—to acknowledge, validate, and compassionately respond to how you feel—you learn that your feelings are unimportant. You avoid your feelings, especially bad ones, at all costs.
- A lack of structure and discipline. The lack of consequences and responsibilities may be experienced as a good thing by a child. But, if you don’t learn structure in your childhood home, it may be a struggle to follow structure, like deadlines and rules, as an adult.
- A lack of encouragement, rewards, or praise for your strengths. You never felt proud when you accomplished tasks because it wasn’t positively acknowledged by your parents. This sets you up to be unmotivated and disinterested, feeling unfulfilled even when you accomplish something great.
A Day in the Life of a Procrastinator
It’s Wednesday and Gayle is hosting a large party at her house on Saturday for her parents’ 35th wedding anniversary. She knows there’s a lot to do to prepare, but time has seemingly slipped away without thinking about food, decorations, or cleaning for the big day. She decides she’ll get serious about it all tomorrow after work.
Thursday evening rolls around and Gayle feels tired and full of dread. She spent her entire day at work trying to push down her nagging thoughts about the party and all the unfinished tasks she has yet to do. Even still, she curls up in a ball and falls asleep to reruns on TV feeling guilty and anxious.
It’s Friday and Gayle knows she can’t postpone any longer. She spends hours on the phone with caterers trying to find someone that’s available last minute. She runs to the store, frantic, looking for decorations and party supplies. She’s up all night cleaning her home, mad at herself for leaving piles of laundry and dishes for so long. She’s not asleep until 3 a.m.
She wakes up Saturday exhausted and angry at herself. “How could I have waited so long? How am I supposed to enjoy this party feeling so tired and burdened? What’s wrong with me?” Gayle thinks to herself.
Have you ever been in Gayle’s shoes? How often do you find procrastination intruding on your life?
The Answer to Gayle's Procrastination
When you grow up with childhood emotional neglect, you learn to ignore your emotions. But your emotions are the foundation of who you are. So, when you ignore them, you are also ignoring valuable information about yourself.
Your emotions send you messages and can guide you to positive choices. If Gayle were to listen to her feelings, she’d learn that she was feeling worried and fearful that her party wouldn’t be good enough. She wanted so badly to please her parents and make them proud. The thought of hosting the perfect party was daunting and overwhelming, feelings that Gayle wanted to push down. Rather than face these uncomfortable feelings, Gayle found it easier to avoid their cause. So she neglected her feelings, her project, and herself. She procrastinated.
Below you’ll see what Gayle could have done instead. It’s not a quick or simple fix by any means, but it’s a path toward long-lasting change.
How to Choose Yourself Over Procrastination
- Increase your emotional awareness. Start paying attention to how you feel and remind yourself that your feelings are important. You were trained to ignore your emotions, so do the opposite now. Your feelings will help you to make decisions that best suit you, steering you away from procrastination and toward what you value.
- Practice self-discipline. I have created a useful exercise to help you improve self-discipline. Every day, do three small things that you don’t want to do or stop yourself from doing three things you want to do but shouldn’t. When you do this exercise, overriding your natural tendency to avoid on an ongoing basis, it can rewire your brain to give you more control over your impulse to procrastinate.
- Reward yourself. Doing something new and different is hard work, so reward yourself and feel proud of the changes you’re making. Big or small, acknowledge that you accomplished a task and give yourself permission to feel good about it. Just imagine if Gayle followed these three steps leading up to the party. She would notice her feelings of overwhelm and fear but realize that avoiding her feelings would only make it worse. She would complete tasks she didn’t necessarily want to do each day, decreasing her stress level and increasing her confidence. And she would begin to feel proud, rather than angry at herself, for all her hard work. Maybe she’d even enjoy the party.
What do you think? Are you willing to confront your feelings rather than ignore them? Once you do, you’ll see yourself making decisions that better align with your goals and values.
Best of all, you’ll stop neglecting your feelings, your project, and ultimately, yourself.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.