The Self-Story Behind Procrastination: Bringing the Story Above the Line

In a previous post, we explored the storytelling mind that leads to self-stories that negatively impact our relationships and thwart our endeavours. The impact of these stories is that we become stuck in a pattern of responses (or lack of response) that impedes our progress towards successfully accomplishing our goals. Procrastination, the art of “putting off” some action, is one such habituated pattern.

The self-stories behind procrastination

Procrastination can block us at any time in relation to any endeavour. Behind procrastination there is often a self-story based on fear. It can take many forms and block us from taking action:

  • “I might appear as a fraud or hypocrite because I do not always do what I encourage others to do.”
  • “I could appear stupid because people might not understand what I am getting at.”
  • “I could make a fool of myself because I lack the intelligence to take on this endeavour and be successful.”
  • “I may not be able to live up to the expectations of others if I start on this project.”
  • “What would happen if I fail?”
  • “Will people be upset with me and think less of me if it does not work out really well?”
  • “What will happen to my reputation if things go wrong and don’t turn out as I had promised?”
  • “How can I possibly live up to so many diverse expectations of me?”

Bringing the procrastination self-stories “above the line”

Fear embedded in our self-stories can block us from taking action. The first step to redressing this situation is to identify, or “throw light on”, the stories that underpin our fear. In the previous post, I discussed the “circle of awareness” that depicts our unconscious awareness as existing “below the line”. Tara Brach suggests that the aim in dealing with mental and emotional blocks to our progress is to bring these underlying self-stories “above the line” so that we can loosen the hold of our false beliefs and self-defeating stories.

You can bring the self-stories into conscious awareness (above-the-line awareness), by taking several steps that can break your procrastination pattern:

  1. Identify the self-stories that are blocking your progress, naming the story – “What are you saying to yourself when confronted with a challenging or stretching endeavour?”
  2. Get in touch with the feelings that are generated by your procrastination self-stories
  3. Revisit the parental influences that underly the stories that you are telling yourself
  4. Examine any pattern that may be occurring in your stories
  5. Reflect on any life experiences that have served to “solidify” your false beliefs and self-stories – What has happened in your life to reinforce these beliefs and stories?

The impact of life experiences in solidifying self-stories was brought home to me during a workshop I was facilitating on the power of positive feedback. One manager reflected on why she had stopped giving positive feedback to her staff over the previous five years. She recalled a negative experience of giving positive feedback to a staff member where the recipient turned on her and was abusive towards her. The manager from then on maintained the self-story, “Whenever I give positive feedback, the person receiving it will attack me.” It was only when she reflected on the previous negative experience and brought her self-story to light, i.e. above the line, that she could see what had been holding her back from using the power of positive feedback. She resolved “then and there” to begin again to give positive feedback in a timely, sincere and specific manner that would ensure her success in this endeavour.

Self-stories that lead to procrastination lose their power over time if brought into the full light of consciousness, so that they can be seen for what they are – seemingly true but fundamentally false. Tara encourages the regular practice of bringing self-stories above the line – they will recur throughout your life as you face new challenges or may take on a new shape (as Tara publicly acknowledges, her own self-story challenge has oscillated between “self-deflation” [less than others…] to “self-inflation” [more than others…]).

The repetition of the practice of bringing self-stories above the line, creates new neural pathways so that the self-defeating stories are eventually replaced by self-enabling beliefs and stories. You can strengthen these new neural pathways by developing success “anchors” – alternative stories of successful outcomes that you have achieved.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can develop the capacity to throw light on our procrastination self-stories and bring them “above the line” by naming them, identifying patterns of false beliefs, disowning self-defeating stories and creating new neural pathways that facilitate our pursuit of successful, creative endeavours.

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Image by MabelAmber on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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3 thoughts on “The Self-Story Behind Procrastination: Bringing the Story Above the Line”

  1. Interesting. Very interesting.
    I too have a lot of troubles with procrastination. And up to now mindfulness has had little impact. I guess it is because I used it too passively. What you are suggesting here is a active inquiry into our own stories.
    How do you practically do this? Do you take a small break when you feel the urge to delay the task at hand? And actively scan for self-stories?

    The way I now solve it is by actively doing whatever I do not want to do. Usually that is freeing once you get tot the task, but it takes an enormous amount of will-power, and there is not always enough energy available to overcome the resistance.

    1. Olivier, thanks for your personal observations, disclosure and insight. I wrote the two blog posts on procrastination because I was finding that anxiety was thwarting my ability to design a creative process for a workshop that I am due to facilitate shortly. I have facilitated hundreds of workshops and I could not understand why this one was causing me problems. I found the energy to explore my self-stories (reflected in the second post) because the workshop was fast approaching. The difficulty with this workshop is that it involves two different groups of people coming together to discuss leadership – the groups are very diverse in orientation, life stage and daily focus. By revisiting my self-stories, I am beginning to free up some creative juices to tackle the process design for the workshop (usually an area of strength for me). I suppose it comes down to the fact that you find the energy when the perceived cost of procrastination exceeds the pain of facing up to the self-stories that inhibit you.

    2. Hi Olivier
      You might be interested in the post I have just published – “how to do those difficult tasks that you avoid or put off doing”. Ron

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