Emotional Procrastination: Does Your “Emotional Underwear” Have a Silver Lining?

ADHD Strategies    June 15, 2012

[Sunny Aldrich has a remarkable gift of taking an uncomfortable situation, adding in humor, and turning it into an essential life lesson. I hope you enjoy her guest post…]

I always thought I put off doing things because they were difficult or I just didn’t know where to begin. At some point, though, it occurred to me that I was avoiding doing things that made me feel bad about myself, involved other people who might be judgmental or other things associated with uncomfortable feelings. Dr. Bill Knaus, author of End Procrastination Now described the process of putting something off due to dwelling on negative possibilities as getting “tangled in your emotional underwear.” It dawned on me; not only do I get tangled up, those uncomfortable, wrinkly emotions worm their way around whatever I’m trying to accomplish until I find myself stuck in the emotional equivalent of a wedgie.

There are several ways that emotions can shut us down and prevent us from the task  at hand: past negative experiences, judgment and potential negative outcomes. To put it in plain English; you can get hung up because the thing you need to do has painful memories attached, someone else has judged you or your ability to do the task (or you’ve judged yourself) or because completing the item means risking judgment, failure or other not-so-comfortable outcomes. Regardless of the mechanism by which our emotions start creeping up on us, the end result is that we become so uncomfortable that we either shut down mid-project or we simply avoid starting the task in the first place. We end up with an emotional wedgie and procrastinate doing the things that are often the most important ones on our list.

Although the imagery of “emotional underwear” is snicker-worthy, the reality of it is actually quite crippling for a lot of folks. What if you’re supposed to write out a check every month to your ex-husband to help cover his legal fees as part of a court order? Every time you write out that check, you are most likely thinking about the painful divorce and how unfair it is that you have to help cover his bills. How about mailing that Christmas present to your grandmother who always compares your gifts to the much more expensive ones her other grandson sends her? Oh, and then there are those expensive shoes you need to return because they don’t fit. Every time you think about taking them back, you feel guilty about spending money in the first place and you’re embarrassed about having to ask for a refund.

Individuals with ADHD seem to struggle with procrastination as a general rule. In fact, one of the diagnostic criteria for ADHD asks if you avoid doing tasks that require sustained mental effort. What they’re getting at is task avoidance, but the medical community presumes we’re procrastinating because it’s extremely exhausting to focus on long, difficult tasks. A lot of people do avoid certain actions and projects for that very reason. But folks with ADHD can be more emotionally sensitive than other people and we definitely tend to judge ourselves more harshly.  There’s another factor in some of our procrastination habits that seems to get overlooked: emotions. This type of procrastination isn’t about impulsivity, poor planning or organizational skills, although those things can certainly take their toll. It’s a direct result of the feelings and perceptions we have about ourselves and how we think others see us that causes us to avoid doing some of the most crucial tasks on our endless to-do lists. In short (pun fully intended) the ADHD community has an emotional wedgie epidemic.

Coaches and psychologists alike often approach procrastination from a “what’s getting in your way” standpoint. They help us evaluate our mindset or address the excuses we latch onto in an attempt to explain to them, and ourselves, why we don’t seem to be making progress towards a particular goal. There’s no question those are necessary, valuable steps, but stopping to evaluate how you feel about the projects you are putting off may be equally as valuable.

Emotional procrastination began to creep its way to the surface of my life in very subtle ways after I lost my dad and brother to a car accident. I might be cleaning out an old closet and run across a shirt my dad gave me, bringing my motivation to a solid zero. I grew up down-hill skiing with my family in Alaska’s pristine wilderness and had always looked forward to teaching my own kids to ski, but the main ski resort is chocked full of memories of happy times with my parents and my only-sibling triggering a procrastination and avoidance cycle that I caught on to only recently. It’s been 10 years since the accident so the grief is not fresh and new like it was years ago; therefore it’s often not obvious to me that an activity that sounds fun or seems straightforward can trigger an emotional chain reaction.

I noticed the pattern again while sorting through old paperwork from a failed business venture. The losses needed to be claimed so we could get our tax refund and use the money for family activities that are extremely high on my priority list. But the emotional terrorism that goes on inside me when I tackle that project is staggering. In the past I have succumb to waves of guilt, shame and humiliation from failing so spectacularly in such a public fashion. I simply could not bring myself to dig into something as seemingly unemotional as stacks of credit card bills. The problem was they weren’t unemotional to me. Each individual piece of paper was a tangible reminder of a time in my life I wish I could do over and there were literally thousands of them. Getting through that task meant coming up with ways to manage the barrage of negative feelings that threatened to drown me in a sea of self-pity.

One of my favorite strategies involves looking for the positive in each situation I have to tackle. If it weren’t for the star-spangled swan dive I endured with that business way back when, I might never have noticed that I tend to get my emotional panties in a wad. Nor is it likely I would have come up with the techniques I now teach to others for pushing through their own emotional wedgies and becoming comfortable in their own skin once again. I guess it’s true what they say, every pair of emotional underwear has a silver lining.

Sunny Aldrich is a Professional ADHD and Procrastination Coach at ADHD Power Coaching. Diagnosed with ADHD at age 33, and the mother of 3 children with ADHD, she has years of personal experience to draw from. She specialize in coaching adults, especially in the areas of procrastination and time management. She recently launched the Powerful Productivity Club, a unique program offering daily support for people struggling with procrastination. Her coaching approach is based on the philosophy that ADD is the product of a unique brain-style that comes with a set of common characteristics. Sunny believes the “gifts” associated with ADHD are powerful and advantageous, in spite of the challenges they cause when trying to function inside the “box” of common expectations, and that a sense of humor is the most important gift of all! You can learn more about Sunny and her Productivity Club at www.adhdpower.com

5 Responses to Emotional Procrastination: Does Your “Emotional Underwear” Have a Silver Lining?

  1. Sean Shepherd     July 6, 2012    5:23 am    Reply

    Very inisightful and well written. I appreciate that you addressed the emotional aspect of things…the inivisibility of our wounded and underdeveloped emotions are possibly the most prominent factor in the outward manifestation of those of us who struggle with ADD or ADHD. I have a theory as a teacher…that ADD and ADHD are almost exact in their acronym for the disorder, but lacking in understanding about the why. We truly have an “attention defecit”. It is an emotional defecit. It is a painful, numbed, or akwardly uncomfortable void in our emotional realm that we seek to cope with by focusing on things that help us to avoid confrontation with that which we perceive to be unpleasant, terrifying, or even traumatic. It is often the gaping wound that needs ATTENTION desperately. Our defense mechanism, so to speak, or treatment plan, is avoidance, although we often believe we are “dressing” the wound with “fun” activity. That activity, or lack thereof, can come in a myriad of different forms. I have a feeling that the only way out is through. Although the emotional “panties” in a wad was a challenge for me to connect to in a concrete manner, I knew what you meant:0)Thanks for writing the article Sunny:)!

    Sean

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