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Procrastination – Challenging Self-Limiting Beliefs

serious man in business attire writing on see-through board and circling the word now
By: Jaylia Rentfro, LMFT

“Yep, I am a procrastinator…have been all my life.  I can’t help it.  It’s just who I am.”

Well.  Speaking of self-limiting beliefs!!!  This is the kind of statement that we therapists love to pick apart.

First, procrastination is a behavior, not an identity.  I have a close friend and colleague that always says “You are a human being, not a human doing.”  Our behavioral choices are about our “doing” not our being.  You are more than your behavior.  Defining yourself only by behavior is incredibly self-limiting.  With effort and understanding, we can change behavior.

Second, we are responsible for our behavior.  When we tell ourselves “I can’t help it” in the context of the example above, we are basically enabling our own poor behavior.  We have given ourselves permission to not even try and do anything about the problem because we can’t help it anyway.  At first glance, this statement might seem harmless, but this way of thinking is self-sabotage, pure and simple.  AND if you have uncovered this self-limiting belief in your procrastination cycle, it is very likely it is hindering your progress in other areas of your life.

Third, this statement uses the past to predict the future, further removing any responsibility from this person to change what’s coming.  We look around us to find ways to reinforce our beliefs, both our healthy ones and the self-limiting ones.  We rationalize to ourselves that it wouldn’t matter anyway, we’ve always done it, we’ve tried before to do something different, it didn’t work, so we cannot change.  Bull.

Change takes hard work.  Before we even start trying to tackle something like this we have to get real with ourselves.  Do we really want to change this? Do we really want to stop procrastinating?  What happens if we don’t change it?  What is the benefit of continuing to do it?  Don’t be too quick to answer that one.  The quick answer is that there is no benefit to our procrastination, but that is not usually true.  I used to play the piano.  I HATED to practice, and I avoided it like the plague.  So I would sit there long enough to convince my parents I was “practicing 30 minutes a day” or find some other way to get out of it and do something else.  Then recital time would come and I would stay up night and day to try and learn my music so I wouldn’t humiliate myself.  These events would come with lots of crying on my part and speeches from my poor parents and commitments to do it better for next time and actually practice.  Unfortunately, I never got there with the piano.  My heart was never in it and eventually I had a piece that was hard enough I couldn’t pull it off, so I quit.  The payoff in my piano example was that I did not have to sit there and practice for 30 minutes a day and deal with my fear that I would fail at it.  Remember from the past 2 weeks, we get a short term pay off by using procrastination.  We get to avoid something uncomfortable.  For me, it was about avoiding boredom and fear.

My procrastination habit didn’t stop for some time either.  I still struggle with it even now, but I am wiser.  I know I am responsible for my own procrastinating behavior and I am able to catch myself more often when I am making excuses.  The other thing I have worked on is identifying the payoff for the behavior.  I have a better idea of what I am trying to avoid and how to confront it.  Fear of failure is a big one for me so I usually have to check that one first before I move on to other known self-limiting beliefs.

Confronting these beliefs will be the foundation of breaking your procrastination cycle and moving into productivity.  If your self-limiting belief is fear of failure, for example, confronting the fear will look something like this:  What would “failure” look like with this?  What is the worst thing that could happen?  How likely is it that the worst thing would in fact happen?  Can the word “failure” be changed to something else, like “lesson”?  Sometimes, writing out this dialog can be helpful and if you get stuck, don’t be afraid to reach out for help from a counselor.  The next thing is to increase your tolerance for the uncomfortable feeling that comes when confronting these beliefs.  Your anxiety will increase, and you may feel antsy and restless.  We usually respond to anxiety by doing something.  Learn to sit in it without reacting.  The inner dialog around this might be something like “I feel nervous right now.  I feel it in my chest, my breathing is fast and my hands are sweaty.”  Notice there are no judgment statements, just observation.  You will drive your anxiety through the roof with self-judgment so when you find yourself doing that, bring your thoughts back to the present and focus on your breathing, taking deep breaths from the diaphragm.  This practice will help you connect to the rational part of the brain, where you can respond and make decisions, as opposed to just reacting to your feelings.

This is just a brief example of how to challenge beliefs and calm yourself when feeling uncomfortable.  Remember, you can change.  You are not destined to repeat the same habit over and over.  You deserve to be free of the unhealthy beliefs that are holding you back.

If you feel you would benefit from sessions with a trained professional to work through this process, please call us at 940.222.2399 and we will get you scheduled.  Next week, I will provide more tips about breaking the procrastination cycle and finding your motivation.  See you next week, and in the meantime, be well!