What if Sisyphus wasn’t being punished by the gods? What if he was an avoider? A chronic self-saboteur? What if Sisyphus rolled that huge boulder almost to the top of the hill and thought, “Screw it, this is just too hard!” and he steps back and lets it go?
He’d feel instant relief. “Oh, man, that feels so much better!” He’d stretch his back, roll his neck, maybe sits down to enjoy the view from the top of the hill, watch the glorious Greek sunset.
Then, when he walks down the hill, all la-dee-da, whistling, he sees the dreaded boulder, waiting for him at the bottom of the hill, mocking him.
When something makes us anxious, avoidance works to lower anxiety. All procrastination is avoidance. And it’s a damn hard habit to break because avoidance works to lower anxiety. So is thinking everything else is more important than the thing that makes us anxious. We’ll do anything but not the thing that makes us anxious.
My avoidance so far today… I woke up at 6:15. By 6:30 I dragged myself out of bed. My intention was to go straight to my home office, into my new morning routine, but I was was forced to take a detour by my elderly dog. No one else was up and he needed to be let out to do his thing.
After letting him back in, got up the stairs when I realized I had forgotten my coffee cup and I needed tissues, both downstairs. I had to go all the way back downstairs to get the stuff, realizing that actually my computer was downstairs too so it was a good thing I made the long trek to the kitchen after all.
Back in my office I started the coffee brewing, sat down at my desk. But I needed to light my inspiration candle! Spent some time striking old matches. I’ve got to get one of those cool lighter wand thingies. These matches are too brittle. They fall apart when I strike them. I have matches downstairs…. No! Give up lighting candle.
Opened my computer. The first window up was of garden benches that I googled last night. As long as I’m here what if I just google adirondack chairs real quickly?
Who knows how many minutes later, I close all my file windows except for the blog. Reach over for my coffee, toss in a little sugar and sit down again. Finally, here I am finally doing what I want to do but I avoided.
Your version of procrastination/avoidance may be more subtle, but, damn it, it totally works doesn’t it? We feel so much better, like, right away! The only problem is, the thing we’re avoiding is still in front of us, like a big, nasty, hairy spider you know is lurking in the basement so you just don’t go down there.
Facing what we are avoiding means doing the hard, but necessary, uncomfortable thing. But how?
1. Own up to the procrastinating behavior. Call it for what it is. This can be hard if you’ve convinced yourself you’re taking care of others as a way to avoid doing the hard thing for yourself. ‘I have to go to that party. My friends will be hurt if I don’t show up. The paper can wait.’ Be honest! If you want to go to the party, go and enjoy yourself! But carve out thirty minutes to work on the paper first. Your friends will understand if you’re late.
2. The anticipatory anxiety that goads us into avoiding whatever it is, is much more painful than any anxiety felt in actually confronting and finally doing the thing itself. This is always true. I mean it! I know because I have used myself as a guinea pig in avoidance experiments.
If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon yourself I’m asking you to take this on faith. That if you do the hard thing that makes you anxious because in your heart you know it’s the right thing, and you finally face whatever it is you’re avoiding, your anxiety still goes down, but this time you are on the other side of the hill and the pain of avoidance is gone for real!
3. Use encouraging, honest, reasonable self-talk. This is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in a nutshell. Talk back to the siren song of avoidance with your own Authentic Voice. The real You wants you to be successful and happy.
There’s Sisyphus, almost to the top of the hill. An automatic negative thought (the one planted by those pesky gods) whines, “This is too hard! You can’t do it. Just let it go. You’ll feel so much better!” But he doesn’t stop, he uses CBT, digs deep to find his True Authentic Voice: “No. Don’t stop. You’re just a few feet away from the top! You can do it! It hurts now but it won’t last much longer. Trust me.”
He gets to the top, gives the boulder one last shove to see it roll down the far side of the hill, where it splashes into the wine-dark sea, never to be seen again.