A recent study published by Psychological Science has produced evidence suggesting that procrastination is a problem with managing emotions rather than time. The study links it to problems in connection between two key parts of the brain involved in the processing of emotion – the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. “Individuals with a larger amygdala may be more anxious about the negative consequences of an action – they tend to hesitate and put off things,” says Erhan Genç, one of the study authors, based at Ruhr University Bochum.
So what might be at the root of the connections between these two regions becoming weaker? What experiences might have led us to becoming master procrastinators?
In her book “Taming Your Outer Child”, Susan Anderson describes procrastination as “the most pervasive and insidious stumbling block to success”. Acting like an Ostrich is our procrastinator part’s shortsighted idea of stress reduction but as the problem grows, the stress only increases. As Anderson bluntly states “a dirty nappy needs changing, not ignoring!”
Anderson believes that procrastination is an adult form of peekaboo. As newborns, when our Mum’s walked away from the cot, we panicked. To our infant brains, a Mum we couldn’t sense, was a Mum who had ceased to exist (huge anxiety, the Amygdala is involved at this stage). Mum has to be standing by the cot to know that our source of survival was ensured. Mothers help their children manage these primal abandonment and separation fears by teaching them to play peekaboo. Your own mother probably did this instinctively; she smiled playfully as she disappeared and reappeared behind her hands. At first your laughter may have been nervous, but then as you got the hang of it there would be big belly laughs.of relief that Mum always came back again. You then learned that you could make her go away by covering your own eyes, and when you couldn’t stand it anymore, pop, you made her come back again. Hilarious! Through this game you found a way of managing your primal fear. You gained a level of control over this anxiety by making Mum appear and disappear again.
When you learned to walk, you ventured away from Mum’s lap into different rooms. Then you came right back again to make sure she was where you left her. These playful repetition compulsions helped you to inculcate the message that Mum was a retrievable source of nurture. This strengthened the networks in the developing brain (including the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) that coordinate emotional, behavioural and cognitive activities.
As you grew a little older, what if there was something in the outside world you didn’t want to see – a dead squirrel for example.You learned you could play peekaboo in reverse; you could make it go away by tuning it out. Could you make other unpleasant things go away by blocking them out, turning your attention away from them? What if you had a difficult homework assignment? Could you make it go away by simply not doing it? As yu continued developing, you learned to play peekaboo in other situations. Through trial and error you learned what you could get away with. In adulthood, what if the boss treats you unfairly? Can you make the conflict go away by avoiding it?
Anderson suggest that people who harbour a lot of negative feelings about themselves (low self worth, self confidence) avoid their responsibilities and become inured to extremely negative consequences. Things have to reach catastrophic proportions before are “forced” to finally do something about it. They avoid a weight problem for years before a doctor says “Lose weight or die”. Anderson writes “Procrastinators are engaged in repetition compulsions where they abandon themselves over and over again by not taking care of their needs. As this and the study mentioned above suggests, procrastinators have important but neglected needs.
Other points that Anderson makes in her book are that procrastination can have other childish roots; you avoid a necessary but boring task because you assume that things will get taken care of somehow, by someone else (Mum for example). In the terrible twos, children learn to say “no” to just about everything. Into adulthood, it is possible that the child in you can hold onto these oppositional tendencies and self sabotages through procrastination. Procrastination from this point of view, combines the autonomous obstinacy of a two year old with the passive idea that someone else will take care of things. “I’ve got to work on those taxes” says your adult self, “not yet” says your child self.
Perfectionism & OCD
Anderson also says that perfectionism (“its not worth doing unless its perfect so I’ll leave it”) OCD, (in this case the extreme inhibition rather than the obsessive carrying out of an action) and the other childish belief that we can make a particular reality exist by not looking at it (in other words fantasy another example of peekaboo in reverse) are also at play in procrastination.
And the answer to putting an end to chronic procrastination? She proposes her “Outer Child” program which uses mindfulness, visualisation and written practices including dialogue between the child and adult parts involved. As with ‘parts’ and subpersonalities approaches, she encourages a ‘stepping back’, a curiosity and non judgemental understanding of this part of the personality (which she calls the Outer Child) to avoid the common vicious cycle of punishing and diminishing self worth even further. In essences, she proposes a gentle program of getting this part of ourselves to grow up. She writes “the impetus and drive required for such momentous change comes from tapping into your primal feelings and core needs”.
“Taming Your Outer Child” is written by Susan Anderson, published by New World Library.