Last night my family and I went out to celebrate a major milestone; the completion of a project that was years in the making. The nature of this so called “project” was unique. It was birthed four years ago, when I made one choice to procrastinate on a simple work-related task. As time ticked on, I made other seemingly small choices, adding to the increasing debt of future obligation. Repeated decisions to save for tomorrow the responsibilities of today dug me deeper into the soil of shame. Before long, I peered up from a dark, depressing procrastination pit. The climb out felt impossible, like I planted myself deep in my own grave.
If you haven’t experienced this kind of self-induced suffocation, the above description may sound over-exaggerated. Those of us with impossibly high standards are particularly vulnerable to falling down this rabbit hole. Throughout my life I have diligently held myself accountable for my choices. Sometimes it was integrity driven, but often it was shame-based perfectionism. As a child, this mentality led me to put myself in “time out”. Somewhere along the way I crafted the perception that turning myself in was necessary and all else was secretive. So when I found myself drifting away from perceived expectations with this recent project, my self-criticism increased, as if I assigned myself back to the adult time-out chair.
This shameful status left me immobilized. At times I would begin the long climb up the steep sides of that hole in the ground, only to hear remarks of “not good enough” ricocheting around those dismal caverns. Little did I know the echo’s origin was my own throat. Thoughts like “how could anyone get this far behind” were the chains restraining my feet from progressing forward. One time I pushed through an old report only to lose it in a computer failure. That felt like crashing back down against the cold earth. It was emotionally painful.
Was this unbearable load I created the result of laziness or something else? Like the many addicts I work with, I wonder if some of it was the result of low frustration tolerance. Addiction can be fed by this mindset when someone chooses to avoid uncomfortable feelings at all costs, escaping into a substance or experience instead. When I think back to those days when my project was undone, even the thought of looking at it was uncomfortable. It reminded me of the seemingly intolerable feeling that the circumstances were out of my control. So, procrastination became increasingly addicting. Why camp out in those agonizing feelings when I could mindlessly check Facebook or otherwise distract myself? How could I ever start moving forward unless I chose to either endure the difficult feelings or change my viewpoint on the entire effort?
Thankfully, I wasn’t destined to die in that pit. What felt impossible actually wasn’t. I’d like to share how that liberating change came about, for the benefit of those who find themselves in similar “pits” and challenges. These steps can help anyone who is battling deep shame, whether induced by procrastination, addiction, or something else. There were 6 “ladders” that made my ascent achievable. Here’s what they were:
As I look back on my situation, one of the things that paralyzed me was the unspoken fear of facing my superiors. I knew I was not meeting their expectations and that added internal pressure to my situation. This lack of accountability made the procrastination habit easier to maintain but increased the feeling of shame. What would they think if they knew the truth? As a perfectionist, I did everything to avoid risking being perceived as weak.
Finally, I decided to tell others what I was experiencing and it made all the difference. On New Year’s Eve of 2013, one of the milestones I recorded was coming “clean” about my procrastination project. Despite my fears to the contrary, when I was honest about my situation, I was not condemned but was instead supported. Steps were recommended by others. A family member even offered financial support to help me make the time and hire an accountability Coach.
Honesty also decreased my shame. Telling others and having them communicate the message of “I’ve been there too” was extremely helpful. It decreased the belief that I was uniquely broken. Shame researcher Brene Brown writes about this dynamic:
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists – it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to whither.” Brene Brown, “Daring Greatly”
Had I attempted to remain in a state of secrecy and isolation, trying to accomplish this task on my own, I imagine I would be clawing at the walls of that hole to this day. Being honest about my poor choices and the reality of my situation was humbling yet freeing. It helped me get the support I needed, which motivated me to start the “impossible” and continue until the task was accomplished.
2. Taking Responsibility
Catching myself with a victim mentality is always sobering and that was the truth of this situation as well. I was acting like a victim to my circumstances. While there were unlimited possibilities of what could be done, I chose to believe I was helpless. For example, I kept telling myself that I did not have time to do this project because my life was too busy. In reality, when I summoned the courage to move forward, time became irrelevant. I made the time! Focusing on the enormity of the situation instead of taking the next step was disabling. Accepting responsibility for where I was and where I was heading was liberating. Instead of saying “I can’t do anything”, the question became “what can I do?” But getting there was a process.
3. Counting the cost
Another reason that beginning my project was so difficult was because I had no idea how long it would take. My imagination created a terrifying enemy that left me paralyzed. The truth was much different. It turned out that my estimate of how long it would take was larger than reality. But I had no way of knowing what the reality was unless I surveyed the damage and predicted how long getting on track would take. Much like looking in the closet to see if the monster is inside, this step was scary. But once I calculated the number of hours I had ahead of me, I was relieved because I knew what to expect. Taking action meant my progress was measurable and visible. That was motivating.
With my new knowledge, I created weekly goals and documented the time I worked on my project. As I gradually subtracted those hours worked from my total estimated time, the finish line became more visible. I began more quickly climbing that ladder. The hope of finishing was materializing.
4. Recruiting Accountability
I found it helpful to hire a “coach” that would help me set realistic goals and report back about my progress. I also kept my superior updated about my progress. It was helpful for those close to me to know what I was committed to because as I made progress I had a team of people who celebrated with me. If I attempted this feat alone, I would’ve lost out on enjoying the support of my community. With their encouragement, I had a team cheering me on, which was so helpful.
5. Creating rewards
Another ladder out of the pit was setting up clear rewards. This helped me have something to look forward to beyond just finishing the project. I made sure they were rewards I would really look forward to as well as the resources to buy/accomplish them. Another form of reward I utilized was listening to music. In The Willpower Instinct, Dr Kelly McGonigal writes about pairing difficult projects with experiences that create dopamine, such as listening to enjoyable music. This technique helped the mundane tasks required for progress feel more pleasurable. Plowing through paperwork to the tune of my favorite movie soundtracks transformed the mundane into the pleasant.
One of the most powerful tools I’ve learned about for combating shame is self-compassion. I have a theory that shame is 100% self-criticism. Self-compassion is the opposite of self-criticism and also the antidote. Growing up with a critical parent likely contributed to me internalizing that critical voice. However I acquired it, it certainly increased my tendency to procrastinate.
In her amazing audio course called The Neuroscience of Change, Dr McGonigal explains how self-compassion helps people make significant changes in their life. She writes about how people who are self-compassionate are “less likely to procrastinate…because if you’re very hard on yourself and you know that if you fail or if you don’t live up to your standards, you’re going to be mean to yourself and you’re going to be stressed out, anxious, and ashamed, it can be very difficult to get started. People who are more self-compassionate don’t have to worry that if they don’t do as well as they would like or if they struggle when they try, they don’t have to worry that they are going to have that punishment experience afterwards, so it’s a lot easier to get started.”
Dr McGonigal introduces the powerful tool called a “Self-Compassion Letter”. The path of self-compassion does not come easy for me but using this letter has helped me in times when I have felt unproductive, fighting the emerging shame head-on. The letter includes self-empathy, a common humanity message, self-kindness, and self-guidance. In the two letters I did that were related to my productivity, I reminded myself of the following things, related to the Common Humanity message:
“What you’re experiencing is entirely human. We all feel behind and like we’re not progressing. We all have times of slow progress and wish it could be faster. We all have days when we are less focused. These are all human experiences. It is also common to feel unproductive and to be hard on yourself – we all fall into those mindsets, especially when some of them have been with us for a long time.”
“Common Humanity” helps us realize we are not uniquely flawed, as shame would have us believe. Learning to speak to ourselves in self-compassionate ways disarms the shame that leaves us feeling helpless and hopeless. I highly recommend this ladder out of the procrastination pit. It disarms the shame, helping us begin to move forward again.
Now that this massive project has ended, I am realizing that my everyday choices affect my tomorrow. If I am not careful, I could fall back into the procrastination pit again or dig a new one. Fortunately, I now have the knowledge and tools to climb out more quickly. It is my hope that this new awareness will help me maintain a responsible attitude that will lead to a freer and more meaningful life. May this be your experience as well, as you ascend out of seemingly insurmountable circumstances, emerging into the light of day.
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