Dear Therapist..."Why Do I Do Things I Know Aren't Good For Me?"
I’m so fed up with certain things in my life, and with myself. I don’t understand why I can’t make certain changes. My biggest problem is my procrastination. I want to stop doing this and I’ve procrastinated since I was eight or nine. And I’m still doing it, in my thirties! I know it works against me, it isn’t enjoyable, and I’m cross with myself for not being able to outgrow this habit. It’s ridiculous and immature and makes my life harder, more stressful and sometimes dysfunctional.
To give you a specific example, I’ll procrastinate doing something I care about, or that I might enjoy, like going into a shop or getting exercise. I might procrastinate doing work things that are important too. I’m missing out on healthy normal life.
I’ll shop online for crap I don’t need, and I won’t move until I’ve looked at pages of stuff I don’t need. Or I’ll research something online, telling myself it’s productive and will help me work on something or get something done. It could be a cleaning product or learning about a rare historical fact. It’s like I go into a hyper studious mode of researching and learning when I’m procrastinating. It’s not even fun, relaxed procrastinating, like most people. It’s upsetting and unhealthy and makes things harder than they have to be. Why am I making things so annoying and inefficient for myself? What’s wrong with me and is there anything that will snap me out of this bad habit? I want to be healthy and enjoy life and not make everything so much harder for myself. Why can’t I snap out of my being so stuck?
Thank you for reading this.
I’m going to take liberties and respond as though I know you. You are fighting yourself, and it’s like a civil war that goes on internally, each side stubbornly doubling down. Let’s name the sides: Change and Don’t Change. Imagine them in dialogue:
Change: Come on, snap out of it! Get going! There’s so much to discover and learn and experience, and you need to stop being this way!
Don’t Change: Leave me alone and stop nagging me! I don’t want to budge, even if I know you’re right. Stop telling me what to do and how to be. This is who I am. Even though I feel bad about myself, this part of me feels familiar and certain and it’s what I know.
Our inner competing voices are rarely fully conscious and of course vary from person to person, but Change and Don’t Change exist in most of us, in some form. It’s a dilemma that’s flummoxed psychotherapists, philosophers, and writers and pretty much everyone since the age of time. We want to grow, and we do grow in some ways, but we also hold ourselves back and block ourselves.
The family therapist Virginia Satir explained this conflict as two universal drives operating simultaneously in people in distress: the desire for growth, which means change, and the desire for stability. You describe your wish to be more productive, to enjoy yourself, to be more efficient. But another part of you may be oddly attached to the pesky habits you’ve revealed. Searching for stuff you don’t need, going in circles, avoiding tasks, these habits are so familiar to you, they go back to when you were eight years old! You may be drawn to them and stick with them simply because they are there within you and make you feel weirdly safe, even in their destructiveness. What’s familiar to us can feel comforting on some level, however negative and disturbing it may also be. We see this with addiction, with unhealthy relationships, with procrastination. Even though we think we want to stop hurting ourselves, the familiarity of the hurt feels safer than letting go and risking something new.
The voice of change can be judgmental and intolerant which adds pressure and anxiety. You seem full of self-criticism. You’re quite scolding of yourself, and you may think this will motivate you to snap out of your paralysis, but actually, a strict and threatening inner critic may be freezing you further.
Here’s my two-step suggestion for now:
1. Be kinder to yourself, including your foibles.
2. Take a small risk of trying something new. See what it’s like to consciously experience change. We experience change all the time, by the way, but often without full awareness. When we become more conscious of our capacity to deal with change, we can trust the growth process more and begin to ease into healthier choices. But change is a process, not an event! Rather than demanding that you snap out of it, try easing into growth.