Toxic Procrastination – Part 1
(Trigger warning: physical abuse; public humiliation)
Lauren Sapala begins her “You Are a Writer – Getting Past the Fear and Moving Forward” course with a discussion of two types of procrastination: the “natural” form and the “toxic”. Natural is what most of us experience – when you need to do something but choose not to do it. When this occurs, we usually feel neutral about the result: it’s no big deal and we just plan on doing it later. Toxic procrastination, on the other hand, possesses a completely different energy: there are feelings of guilt, shame, misery and/or suffering because we put something off.
And not only do these negative feelings exist, but they increase over time. A cycle begins which gets worse every time we experience it.
She stresses that these patterns usually begin when we were much younger and learned that any form of self-expression proved dangerous. This wasn’t just a slight fear – for a multitude of reasons, this became a deeply-rooted terror that something bad would happen while self-expressing.
Thus, those experiencing toxic procrastination feel caught in a trap. On the one hand, we need to self-express – it’s like oxygen to us. On the other, if we allow ourselves to do so, we feel we’re also opening ourselves (and possibly others) up to danger.
While watching this video, I immediately felt like I was in the spotlight – what Lauren described as toxic procrastination is something I experience every time I try to do anything “artistic.” And, to be honest, it’s not just the artistic stuff – it’s pretty much everything.
She describes one of the symptoms as the “I need to know more” mindset. I identify completely with this.
As I’ve said before in various places, my writing library is huge – I have just about every ebook available that deals with the subject (or at least have read them through Kindle Unlimited.) I’m not exaggerating either – there’s over 600 books on my Kindle in the writing section. And still, I feel like I don’t know enough – I just need one more book to tip the scale and show that I know what I’m doing.
And this doesn’t only express itself through my writing. When I was a Visual Basic programmer, I owned just about every Visual Basic book out there. When I switched to web development, the same thing occurred. I remember when I worked at St. Joe’s Hospital in Phoenix, we hired a contractor to mentor our fledgling group of web staff because we were all basically beginners. One day, she looked at me and said she didn’t know why she was there – I knew more than she ever cared to know. And still, I felt like I didn’t know enough.
Toxic procrastination can also manifest as indecision according to Lauren. Again, guilty as charged. This absolutely drives my spouse up the wall – he asks me what I want and the automatic response is “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.” I’m afraid to express what I really want for fear of being ridiculed or worse. I’m sure he’s reading stuff in this blog that we’ve never discussed in our 26+ years together.
I guess this goes back to when I was a kid – I could never express my feelings around my dad. If I did and he didn’t like it, I got the proverbial boot up the ass (they were steel-toed ones at that). If he really got pissed, he would just grab anything that was handy and let me have it. Belt, jump ropes, Hot Wheels tracks – you name it. If he could grab it and it caused pain, it was fair game. I don’t know how many times I went to school with welts on my back and legs.
Now, it’s like I don’t even know what I want – I’d learned to bury those feeling long ago because to want = pain. When I have to make a decision, I stall and go through this entire Q and A inside carefully weighing every pro and con. And then when I do make a decision, I’m always second guessing it. (Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at my Week 2 Check-in that I wrote before watching this video. I describe having second thoughts about a lot of the decisions I thought were nailed down before.)
In my past, locking away self-expression wasn’t just limited to my feelings either.
I was highly musical when I was a kid. I took organ and voice lessons from the time I was in early elementary school. I was in a “rock” band when I was in the fourth grade that was fairly popular with the public. I traveled all over the local area performing – playing or singing at county and state fairs, nursing homes, the local state parks – you name it. In order to do so, my dad would have to load the organ in the back of the pickup and away we’d go. Half the time he’d be drunk however, so he would usually end up embarrassing both himself and me.
When I grew older, he became less agreeable and soon, he was beating either my mom or me whenever one of us mentioned performing. It didn’t matter because I could never practice whenever he was around – it was just noise to him and he wouldn’t put up with it. A lot of times, I’d sit there fingering the organ with the power turned off, hoping I was hitting the right notes.
Thus, as Lauren correctly describes, self-expression meant danger – either to myself or my mom (or both.)
In high school, I was in band, choir, a barbershop quartet that traveled around the northern part of the state, and local drama events. Again, this was a major issue because he thought I should be out helping him in his welding shop. He actually saw no use for me being in school at all let alone doing anything on an extracurricular level. It became an issue of just how much pain I was willing to go through in order to do the things that I loved.
When it came to writing, I went through similar experiences, but not at the hand of family members but rather my classmates.
I’ll admit – I was somewhat of a strange kid. I was intense and had unusual interests. (I’ve already described my love of monsters and UFO’s in elementary school.) This continued throughout high school.
I remember once during 7th grade English, we were doing panel discussions and I helped lead a week long one on UFO’s. I admit I was pretty zealous in trying to convince everyone UFO’s were real. One day at the start of class, several of my classmates ran into the room, excitedly telling everyone they saw a UFO during lunch. This went on for several minutes until it was clear they were openly ridiculing me for what I had presented. Eventually, the teacher arrived, put a stop to it, and lectured everyone involved. I then remember standing in front of the class, tears rolling down my cheeks, telling everyone they shouldn’t make fun of anyone for their beliefs. Again, self-expression meant danger and hurt.
This only increased when I turned in an extra-credit story at the end of that year. (My teacher had tried to encourage my writing and I had taken the bait.) The subject? You guessed it – an alien invasion. And instead of just quietly grading it, she chose to read it aloud on the last day of school. As my classmates moaned and groaned over my story, I sat there trying to melt through the floor.
Anyway, this first lesson showed me that I’m firmly in the camp of those suffering from toxic procrastination. Even though I sometimes feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t get this story out, all I have to do is sit down to work on it and I’m faced with a multitude of emotions – none of them good. I usually just end up deflecting – grabbing one of my writing books to “brush up” on something so I don’t look bad when I actually get to writing. Too bad the writing rarely happens.
I have to admit, though, I’m excited so far with the course. It’s informative and interesting. I sometimes have a problem with falling asleep during video training sessions. Not this time – I was wide awake, taking copious notes.
Yeah, facing this stuff is scary as hell – this one session brought up a lot of memories and most of them were pretty awful. But at the same time, this tells me that there’s hope for the future. If Lauren can provide some ways to deal with this and other problems, I know I can get this novel written. So be it!
(Even though part of me wants to rush through to the next session, I think I’m going to take it a little slower and see what shows up emotionally in the next few days. I may even choose to chew on this topic all week and let things really sink in. Whatever happens, I’ll be sure to blog about my next steps and whatever arises.
Also, if this sounds interesting to you, check out my post here describing the class with a link to sign up yourself.)
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash