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Procrastination: Feeling Overwhelmed, Helpless and Ready to Run Away

The inner landscape of successful goal pursuit

Huge ocean waveFor the size of the wave, it's surprising how it catches us by surprise. You'd think we'd see it coming. Yet, each time we sit down to begin a difficult task that we'd rather avoid, here it comes - a huge tidal wave of negative emotions that overwhelms us. We feel incompetent. We feel like an imposter. We want to run away.

There's an emotional experience that I hear about (and have personally experienced) in relation to procrastination. It is the truly overwhelming feeling of negative emotions that we can experience just as we begin a "dreaded" task. I say negative emotions in the general sense, because there is such a mixture of emotions in the turbulent wave of emotions that people describe - fear, anxiety, frustration, guilt, shame, anger. One thing is common across these emotional experiences, we want to get away from these emotions as quickly as possible.

I've written about this before from the perspective of "giving in to feel good." In the face of this wave of negative emotions, it's common for us to focus on short-term mood repair rather than longer-term goal pursuit. Certainly we know from research and clinical work that one common, but self-defeating, way to deal with these negative emotions is to get away from the stimulus that seems to be causing them. In the case of procrastination, it's putting off the task at hand, because it's obvious that the feelings are precipitated by the task.

Wait. Is it really the task that is causing these feelings? Certainly the task is a stimulus, but what is it stimulating? These tasks are stimulating our own irrational beliefs. And, because these irrational beliefs often come as a cluster in our lives, they quickly build energy. Part of the irrationality is that we often ruminate on these thoughts. The thoughts are well rehearsed, habitual and dominant.

In turn, these irrational thoughts trigger a whole lot of negative emotions. It feels like a huge wave of emotion.

It's a strong metaphor, isn't it? A wave of emotion building energy as it moves forward and overwhelms us.

If this were a true wave on the ocean, we may be well advised to move away. However, this is only a metaphor. It's a creation in our own minds. It's catastrophic thinking.

Learning to cope with these negative emotions is absolutely crucial to our successful goal pursuit. In the long term, a counseling relationship can help a great deal as we work to identify and defeat the irrational thoughts in our own lives that perpetuate habitual self-defeating action tendencies. Counseling from a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy perspective has a clear focus on the integrated relations of our thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

In the short term, given the lived experience of this wave of emotions, you can stick with the metaphor, and brace your feet to let the wave wash over you. These emotions will pass if you let them. Your successful goal pursuit depends on it.

My own personal mantra for these situations is one given to me by Parker Palmer in his excellent book The Courage to Teach. "I can have fear, but I need not be fear" (1998; p. 57). He writes,

"Each time I walk into a classroom, I can choose the place within myself from which my teaching will come, just as I can choose the place within my students toward which my teaching will be aimed. I need not teach from a fearful place: I can teach from my curiosity or hope or empathy or honesty, places that are as real within me as are my fears. I can have fear, but I need not be fear - if I am willing to stand somewhere else in my inner landscape" (p. 57; emphasis added).

I need not work from a fearful place . . . there are other places within me, within my inner psychological landscape, that are just as real as my fear.

Palmer has helped me identify other places in my inner landscape; other feelings that are every bit as real as my negative emotions. I have learned to pursue my goals from these other places in my inner landscape- places that have far fewer tidal waves and way nicer beaches!