Procrastination. Is it a choice? Is it an affliction? Or is it simply the annoying habit that most people think it is?
My answer is that it’s a little bit of all three, but not really any of those things. Does that clear things up for you? No?
OK, here’s the thing. Procrastination is actually a coping mechanism. It’s a form of avoidance that you use when you have no other option. It does not work for anyone, ever. It’s basically a coping-mechanism-gone-wrong.
The reason procrastination does not work is that it’s a set-up to bring feelings of guilt, self-blame, dread, stress, and overwhelm upon yourself. In this way, whenever you procrastinate, you are ignoring your own need to feel good about yourself and your life. You are neglecting yourself.
The Relationship Between Procrastination and Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN)
There are many different types of emotionally neglectful parents and many different ways that parents can emotionally neglect their children. Generally, CEN is made up of some version of “not enough.”
Here are 3 different forms of CEN that set a child up to have problems with procrastination which may endure life long.
**Special Note: Most CEN parents don’t emotionally neglect their child on purpose. Your parents may have given you everything they have to give but they did not receive the 3 things below themselves when they were growing up.
It’s Friday. Lisbeth is leaving work to meet up with her friends as planned, but she knows she hasn’t finished a report that her team needs to see first thing Monday morning. “I’ll work on it tomorrow,” she reassures herself, putting it out of her mind for the evening.
Lisbeth awakens Saturday morning feeling burdened and tired, and goes through her entire day under that dark cloud trying not to think about the fact that she must finish the report. The weight of the unfinished task drags down her energy all day. She ends up watching Netflix all day, feeling vaguely lazy and guilty all the while.
Sunday is like a repeat of Saturday except under more pressure. As the hours pass, Lisbeth feels the available time slipping away from her and grows angrier and angrier at herself for not having attacked and task and finished the report first thing Saturday morning.
Finally, at 10 p.m., the pressure moves her and she gets to work. Immersing herself in the task, she finally finds her focus and ends up finishing the report at 2 a.m. Of course, she pays the price on Monday. She feels sleep-deprived but also angry at herself for having such a burdensome, joyless, unproductive weekend overall.
Do you identify with Lisbeth? How many days or weekends have you lived like hers?
Growing up emotionally neglected teaches you many things that will color your life forever — until you address it, that is.
CEN teaches you to ignore your own feelings which are the deepest expression of who you are, plus also the loudest alarm bell that alerts you to whether your choices bring you positive or negative results.
So, in essence, CEN teaches you to emotionally neglect yourself all through your life. And procrastination is just one of the possible ways for you to emotionally neglect yourself.
Just as procrastination is not simple, the secret to getting over procrastination is also not simple. But it is definitely something you can do! It involves going directly against your childhood experience and making a conscious effort to do the opposite of the 3 forms of CEN above.
Imagine that Lisbeth follows these 3 steps for long enough that she starts to gain better control of her avoidant tendencies.
Imagine she begins to notice her feelings more and realizes that completing tasks brings her happiness while avoiding tasks drains her energy and makes her angry at herself. Imagine that this emotional awareness enables her to start facing tasks instead of avoiding them.
Imagine that Lisbeth finds herself feeling proud of her daily accomplishments and of how she is no longer neglecting herself.
Now, imagine that instead of Lisbeth, it’s you.
You CAN do this.
You can find the 3 Things Exercise to retrain your brain in the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
You shy away from the limelight. You stay out of trouble. You prefer to stay out of the way. You try not to make waves.
Of all of the kinds of anxiety people can experience, avoidance is probably one of the least studied and least talked about. I think that’s probably because avoidant folks are quiet. They do stay out of the way and they do not tend to make waves.
But, the reality is, avoidance is a serious problem to live with. Take a look at the characteristics of avoidance below. These are some of the symptoms listed in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to identify Avoidant Personality Disorder. Please note that these are not a full description of Avoidant Personality. Do not attempt to use these symptoms to diagnose yourself or someone else. Only a licensed mental health professional is qualified to make a diagnosis.
You may read through the list above and feel that you are reading about yourself. Even if you answer yes to only some of the items above, it means that you may have an “avoidant style.”
Many people are living their lives with Avoidant Personality disorder. And many, many more folks have an avoidant style. Most avoidant folks fight their own private battles on their own, secretly and quietly.
It is very possible to suffer silently with an intense fear of rejection, closeness, or social situations but still soldier on, essentially unimpaired on the outside, but miserable on the inside.
Now let’s talk about you. Do you see yourself in this description of avoidance? We will talk more about avoidance in a moment. But first, we must discuss Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Because I have seen a remarkable connection between Childhood Emotional Neglect and avoidant tendencies in adults.
Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN): When your parents fail to respond enough to your emotions and emotional needs.
What happens to a child whose parents too seldom say, “What’s wrong?” and then listen with care to their answer. How does it affect a child to have parents who are blind to what they are feeling? Parents who, through probably no fault of their own, fail to offer emotional support, or fail to truly see the child for who she is?
Childhood Emotional Neglect teaches you, the child, to avoid feeling, expressing, and needing. You are learning to avoid the very thing that makes you the most real and the most human: your emotions.
When you grow up this way, you grow up feeling invisible, and believing that your emotions and emotional needs are irrelevant. You grow up feeling that your emotional needs should not exist and are a sign of weakness. You grow up to feel ashamed that you have feelings and needs at all.
CEN is a breeding ground for shame, low self-worth, and yes, avoidance.
It is very difficult to take on challenges in life when you don’t believe in yourself. It’s hard to be vulnerable in relationships when you don’t feel on equal footing with the other person. It’s hard to put yourself out there when you feel so secretly flawed.
This is why you must not let avoidance run your life. You must turn around and face it. Not later. Not tomorrow. But now.
The more you face things, the less scary they become, and the easier they become to face again, and the more you face. And so on and so on and so on, around and around it goes in an endless circle, growing ever larger.
But this circle is a healthy, strong one that is a reversal of the circle of avoidance that began in your childhood. This circle will take you somewhere healthy and positive and good.
To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it happens, and how it causes avoidance, see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.
It was a scorching day in Costa Rica. My husband and I decided to take our 8-year-old son for a hike to get as close as possible to the Arenal Volcano. We walked several hours through beautiful, lush forest.
As the sun got higher and the day got hotter, we reached an endpoint marked by signs reading, DANGER, KEEP OUT. We walked around the safe side of the area for a while enjoying the beautiful birds and monkeys in the trees, and then decided to head back.
As I turned to go back in the direction we had come from, my husband said, “No, let’s not go that way. We can get there by going this way.” Puzzled, I slowly turned around and followed. As we traipsed back through the forest, I had a trembly feeling in my belly that, in hindsight I realized was fear. This did not feel right.
It had taken several hours to reach the volcano, and I knew that if we went the wrong way it could be dangerous. We had consumed all of the water we had carried, and it was getting hotter by the minute.
My gut was telling me to speak up, but my brain said, “You know you’re terrible with directions. You’re almost never right about these things. Just keep quiet and follow.”
Perhaps you’ve seen the many amazing studies over the past few years that have proven that there is a direct connection between your brain and your gut.
These new studies explain many things that used to baffle us: why we get butterflies in our stomachs when we’re nervous, and why Irritable Bowel Syndrome and ulcers are both so closely connected to and influenced by the amount of stress we are under.
Here’s the most amazing thing about the new research. We now know that the brain-gut connection travels in both directions. Not only does your emotional state (and emotional health) affect your stomach; the reverse is also true. Believe it or not, recent studies have shown that the health of your gut can also affect your psychological health and your emotions.
Clearly our human brains are wired to our guts for a reason: to connect our brain with our body in a useful way.
So choosing to ignore this vital source of information is choosing to ignore a remarkable feedback system that we are meant to have, and meant to use to our benefit.
4 Ways Your Gut Can Help You
Did some of the “gut feelings” described above seem hard for you to grasp? That is a sign that you are not closely enough connected to your gut. Which means you’re missing out an incredibly useful tool in your life.
It is certainly true that some folks are not as good at tuning in to their gut. If you’re out of touch with yours, there is probably an explanation for it. Your brain / gut pathway became disconnected for a reason. There are many possible ways for this to happen.
Potential Reasons You’re Missing Signals From Your Gut
Hopefully as you’ve been reading this you’ve been tuning in to your gut. Perhaps you’ve attempted to feel some of the gut feelings I described. Perhaps you’ve imagined the connection between your brain and gut, or even tried to visualize it.
If you have, congratulations! You have begun the process of joining your brain with your gut.
How to Start Taking Advantage of Your Brain/Gut Feedback System
And now to finish the Costa Rica story. As you may have guessed, we were indeed headed the wrong way. We were moving further from our destination, not closer. Eventually, thirsty, sweaty and covered with dust from walking down a dirt road for several hours, a kind local picked us up, gave us water, and drove us back to our hotel.
For me, this was an important lesson in trusting my gut.
And I have never forgotten it.
To learn more about the newest research findings on the gut/brain connection, see:
That Gut Feeling on The American Psychological Association website.
The Gut-Brain Connection on the Harvard Health Publications Website.