Procrastination: Shame in Disguise

Many writers (this one included) procrastinate. We shove our writing projects, no matter how important, under a towering pile of meaningless stuff. We write email, read the news, catch up on Twitter, and watch kitten videos on YouTube. Somehow all of these things take priority over nurturing our own creative and intellectual passions.

Lots of us assume that we can solve our procrastination through better time management and organization. We make schedules, use timers, and invest time learning the latest software that promises to help us manage our projects with magical algorithms.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those solutions and many of them help people move forward with their writing. However, I think we can’t deal with our penchant for procrastination until we get a grip on underlying issues of shame.

When we procrastinate, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. Our actions speak louder than our words. You can tell yourself that your writing is important; however, unless you’re actually writing, your actions tell a different story. Procrastination says that your writing isn’t very important to you. By which, you mean that YOU’RE not very important.  

Procrastination confirms to us all of the bad stories that we tell about ourselves. If you listen closely, many people (self included) have a toxic internal story playing in the background about themselves and their writing abilities. Our stories may be unique and individual, but we often hear them whispered in the ugly voice of shame:

You’re not good enough.

The idea that we’re not good enough cripples our writing ability. It is safer to write nothing than to write something flawed.

As I wrote in this post, procrastination, or the fear of starting, is often just shame, and its handmaiden, perfectionism, in disguise. It’s a double- edged sword, though. Procrastination helps us avoid feelings of shame, but also creates feelings of shame when we don’t write. Feeling shame is downright unpleasant. I, for one, would do almost anything to avoid it, including the kind of self-sabotage that procrastination provides.

When we procrastinate, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. We procrastinate and don’t write because we assume that anything we do write won’t be good enough. Then when we don’t write, we confirm that the voice of shame is probably right after all: we’re not good enough to write anything. It’s a vicious cycle that prevents us from being the writers and people we want to be.

So we make choices that confirm our worst stories about ourselves as people and as writers. Our procrastination confirms that we aren’t good enough. Once the voice of shame has convinced us that we’re worthless and people and as writers (so why even bother writing?), then we’re thrown into a cycle of guilt and panic because we’ve got deadlines and haven’t written a thing. Frantic binge writing magnifies our already shitty feelings about ourselves and our writing. Then we get to be angry at ourselves for causing this whole sorry mess in the first place.

Here’s the thing: to deal with this whole messy shame and procrastination cycle, we’ve got to take a deep breath in and start. Write something. Write anything. Just write. When we write, we tell the voice of shame to STFU.

If you’re a procrastinating writer, the cure for procrastination (and shame) is writing.

Writing is an act of telling yourself that you’re good enough as both a writer and a person to write some words. In choosing to write, we are choosing to prioritize ourselves. In this post, I argued that taking care of our writing is an important way of taking care of ourselves as people. Taking time out of our busy days to write signals to our minds and spirits that we, however flawed, are valuable and important. We become important to ourselves.

The act of writing is an act of positive self-affirmation. In a world that’s constantly trying to beat us down and make us feel small, writing is courageous. It is sometimes an incredibly subversive act.

Writing can even be joyful when we realize that attending to our writing means that we’re being brave for ourselves and affirming our own self-worth. Every time I write a blog post, I’m pretty sure that the sky will fall on my head each time I click POST. Somehow, it hasn’t yet.

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, you already know what you need to do. Your goal is to make writing, which is really a part of a broader self-care practice, not some special thing that you do every now and then. Writing is something you do daily because you’re worth it.

Photo: Volcán Agua at sunset. Antigua, Guatemala, 2013. Full image available here.