This week’s article is all about a coping strategy that most people can totally relate to at some time in their lives- procrastination. And, I can guarantee you that if you’re using food to cope, you can relate to it now, in a big way!
Procrastination doesn’t have to be a big deal or a stressful thing if we see it for what it really is and just allow ourselves to look a little deeper. More on that in a moment.
I’m writing about procrastination this week because it goes hand in hand with last week’s theme – Learned Helplessness.
Our society views procrastination as the act of not doing something that we should be doing now.
I define it a little differently:
Procrastination is the act of resisting a task that we are telling ourselves we have to do in a certain time frame in a certain way whether we are able or not; whether we have the energy or not; whether we actually truly have to do it in that way, and in that time frame, or not.
In other words, procrastination is the manifestation of two conflicting stories:
I must do it this way or else vs. I can’t/don’t want to do it that way.
From my definition of Procrastination you can see that it is a very sensible coping strategy – it’s natural to resist things that overwhelm us. It’s just that in truth, it is usually not the task itself that is overwhelming us and causing us to procrastinate, it’s what we’re telling ourselves about how it has to be done and by when that is overwhelming us, and regardless of what you might think, these stories are almost always (99.9999%) a pile of pahooey!
Oh, it’s not that you don’t have to finish that project, or write that paper, or do your laundry. That part’s true. It’s that it really doesn’t have to be done in the way you’re telling yourself it must.
Your brain can handle facts. It can wrap its head around the truth quite easily. Why you feel so overwhelmed so much of the time (and then procrastinate or use food to cope) is because what you’re telling yourself isn’t all true.
Yes you have that paper to write; yes you are going to visit family next month. True. But do you have to write that paper in the way you’re telling yourself you do and in the timeline your good old Drill Sgt. (inner critic) set for you? Do you have to do all the things you’re telling your self you have to before you go to see your family? Really? And is what you’re telling yourself is going to happen while you’re there necessarily true? Are there no other ways it could go, really?
Of course there are. But when all we do is focus our attention on our behaviour (procrastination, using food to cope) and get frustrated and annoyed with ourselves for doing that, we miss powerful opportunities to get to understand WHY we’re doing that, and we miss opportunities to truly know ourselves and to free ourselves from our old all-or-nothing thinking.
If we saw procrastination (and binging, purging, restricting, dieting, etc.) as a coping strategy, as manifesting our learned helplessness and subsequent overwhelm, then we would naturally ask ourselves: What is overwhelming me? And what can I do about that?
Instead, we’ve been taught to stay on the surface, focus on our behaviour, and perceive our procrastination as the problem, as a giant flaw in our character that we can’t do anything about. Therefore we don’t we have any options but to do the thing we’re telling ourselves we have to do, in exactly the way we’re telling ourselves we have to do it, or play ostrich, bury our heads in the sand and just berate ourselves even more, building more and more of a case for our laziness and ineptitude, when all it would take is a little compassion and a little effort to understand what we’re resisting and why.
So, as above, procrastination is the culmination of two juxtaposed stories:
“I must do it this way or else.” vs. “I can’t/don’t want to do it that way.”
The only thing that can happen for any human being when they have two conflicting stories is that they feel paralyzed, stuck. We see the behavioural manifestation of that paralysis as procrastination, and because we don’t understand where it’s coming from, we judge it, and we judge ourselves as lazy, bad, wrong.
Our Drill Sgt. tries to shame and berate us into taking action, threatening and cajoling us to be “responsible.” If only our DS understood that it’s his rigid story about the way we MUST do to that thing and by when, that is triggering us to feel so overwhelmed and to need to avoid it all together.
If only our DS could, instead, offer encouragement and support and reassurance that we can do it, that we’ll be successful, that we can do it a variety of ways – there is no “right” way, and that, perhaps, the timeline he set for us originally isn’t exactly necessary.
What would happen to your resistance and paralysis if that happened? Well, it would fall away. There would be nothing to resist if you were reassuring yourself that you could figure it out, that you could do it, that you had the time you needed to do it and that there was no right or wrong about it. Ahhhhhh, sighhhh, that feels better.
You are not procrastinating because you’re lazy – regardless of what you’ve been told.
You are procrastinating because you’re overwhelmed. And you’re overwhelmed because of what you’re telling yourself you have to do and by when and in what way, or else!
And, again, you’re overwhelmed and procrastinating about that because whatever you’re telling yourself you have to do, by when, in whatever way you have to do it, is something that you genuinely feel you can’t do.
That’s where the learned helplessness comes in.
It goes like this:
- You’ve had a fleeting thought about something that needs doing or that you should be doing and
- Instantly (sometimes because the actual task itself really is beyond your ability or current knowledge, or, as is more often the case, because of how you were telling yourself you had to do it), you have been triggered to feel that certain needs (ie. rest, support, competency, freedom, validation) would not be met in doing that task that way, and so
- You have kicked in to learned helplessness (I can’t. It’s too hard. It’s too much work. I won’t be successful!) and
- Felt overwhelmed and voila,
- You’re procrastinating!
If you’re familiar with my concept of my coping strategy flow chart, you’ll see that as with any other coping strategy, the sense of an unmet need triggered the old learned helplessness mindset which triggered the emotion of anxiety/resistance and overwhelmedness which triggered the behavioural coping strategy of procrastination – likely with a healthy dose of carbohydrate and television! (And some good old Drill Sgt. criticism to round out the mix and trigger more anxiety and overwhelm and more of a need to procrastinate and numb out!)
So, if the only reason you ever procrastinate is not because you’re lazy, or stupid or incapable, or just plain don’t give a crap, but rather because you’re overwhelmed by the all-or-nothing story you’ve been telling yourself about exactly what you have to do, in exactly what way and by exactly when…..
Then it follows that if you were able to see procrastination as a coping strategy; as a natural and appropriate reaction to feeling overwhelmed because of your all-or-nothing thinking about how it had to be done, you could simply see yourself procrastinating and ask yourself the following questions and be done with it.
I notice I’m procrastinating:
- What is it that I’m resisting doing?
- What is it that I’m telling myself I have do to or should be doing around that thing?
- What am I telling myself will happen/how it is going to be/What’s it going to be like to do that thing – that’s making me resist it in this moment?
- In what way (specifically how do I expect I should do/have to do that thing)?
- In what time frame?
- Is there any all-or-nothing thinking in any of the above answers?
- What is it about that way I’m approaching this task that I am resistant to? Ie. What am I telling myself will happen if I do it that way?
- Is there any learned helplessness in that story? (“I can’t.” “It’s too hard.” “It’s not going to work.”)
- Now that I see more clearly what I’ve been telling myself I have to do (when and how) that has been making me want to resist that task, what are some other ways I could approach that task that would feel more truthful and more honoring of me?
Print this out, ask yourself these questions when you notice yourself procrastinating, and watch how quickly you start to feel peaceful and released from your procrastination. This means that whatever you do end up doing towards this task, it’s going to be much more enjoyable and far more likely to succeed.
Have fun with this. You’ll learn lots and see yourself starting to step free from an old, harmful coping strategy very quickly. And if you haven’t put it together for yourself yet, if you’re not procrastinating and shaming yourself about that, you’re going to be far less anxious and depressed and overwhelmed and therefore, far less likely to use food to cope!!
And, of course, if you want some one-on-one help with this or some support as you’re moving through this process, just give me a call or email @ email@example.com and we can arrange for you to have an individual session or to join our amazing web program!