Stage direction: Cue ironic hook
There’s one day left until the essay is due, but what to write about? You’ve put off thinking about it … Oh, how about procrastination?! What a timely topic. And procrastination is a timely topic for just about all of us. We all have some skill at it, though some of us consider ourselves masters of the genre. But what is it really about? One theory is that procrastination reflects ambivalence, when you have a mixture of positive and negative feelings about something, and they’re more or less in balance. Ambivalence might be a project that you like but don’t feel confident about pulling off, or you doubt you’ll get credit for. Maybe you’re stimulated by the challenge, but anxious that you’ll fail in some way, and that’s triggering your subconscious, anxious fear of failure, your fear that you are a failure.
I might image the positive outcome or process and fear the negative outcome or process. When I can’t resolve it, when I don’t want to face the deeper fears that lie underneath, I just let things be. I do things to distract myself. I start and stop, start and stop, so many times. My internal conversations are halting, because I feel the ambivalence, feel the worry, the fear-inducing threat under the surface, and it’s easier and feels safer to just put it off — and not go there. So when we’re talking ambivalence, we’re really talking about avoidance. Procrastination, ambivalence, avoidance. And why do we do this as human beings? Well, it’s because we are supremely gifted at putting things out of our mind, when to look at them is a little too scary.
We are masters of suppression and repression, and compartmentalizing, of being actively forgetful and distracting ourselves. We can do all these things without even thinking — in fact, sometimes it feels safer, which we experience as being easier, to just let our autopilot coping mechanisms for avoiding things that are unpleasant take over. After all, avoiding the unpleasant is the reason for our primal fight/flight/freeze response to threat. So what does a Marriage and Family Therapist have to say about procrastination, ambivalence and avoidance? Well, there are many different tools in the MFT toolset. Here are a few of them:
Your Strategic MFT assigns you to sit down to the project or task you’re procrastinating about, and each time your mind drifts off, you must remind yourself — you read it aloud, it’s written down — that you’re avoiding doing this because you really want to suffer the consequences of not completing the task, you want to live in fear and anxiety because they are so pleasant!
Your Solution-focused MFT listens with great compassion and positivity, and assigns you to note how much time you actually spend on the task you’re avoiding. Keep that log and see if you can improve each day by just a little bit. You can do it! See if each day can be better in doing the thing you’re avoiding than the previous day was, and report back!
Your Narrative MFT helps you give your procrastination a name and tell its story, the story of what it is trying to do. But what would this story be like without the procrastination? What would its name be then? Maybe that could become your story.
So, friend, you have a dragon named procrastination lurking under your bed, in the closet, somewhere just around the corner of your mind. You can feel its presence, but you know more about this dragon than you think. You know everything there is to know about it, if you are willing to probe, and this knowledge is power. You know how to slay this dragon, you know its weak spots, and what it feeds on.
Are you ready to get started?