Productivity and Owning Our Shadow

Owning Our Shadow

In this post, I’ll offer a perspective on procrastination, and an approach to dealing with it, that you probably haven’t heard before.

Often, in my experience, we put off working on a project because we know making progress in our task will force us to face some part of ourselves — some aspect of our personalities — we aren’t fully okay with.

An Illustration

Once, I worked with an accountant who was constantly anxious about turning in reports to her boss, because he tended to make comments she found abrasive. When we explored this further, we discovered that, when her boss was critical, she felt angry. And she was frightened by that feeling — that roiling, fiery energy that came up in her solar plexus.

In other words, at a deeper level, it was her own anger she didn’t want to experience, not the boss’s criticism. So, it made perfect sense that she found herself putting off turning in her work — whenever she submitted a report, she ran the risk that her boss would respond critically, and she’d have to experience that scary sensation again.

Of course, anger isn’t the only example. Some people would rather not experience the part of themselves that’s compassionate and warm, because it feels kind of weak or “cheesy” to them.

For example, I know a man who’s unfortunately cynical about the whole idea of love. He’s been trying to write a novel, and naturally, when it comes time to write about the protagonist’s love interest, he gets uncomfortable and puts it off.

Your Own Inquiry

What I’m suggesting is that, when you find yourself habitually putting off a project, this may be because you — like the people I talked about — don’t want to be with some part of yourself. Maybe you feel uncomfortable with the part of you that feels sad, the part that’s ambitious, the part that’s excited and joyful, or something else.

In my experience, we can build awareness around this “in real time” — while we’re sitting at our desks and having a rough time getting where we want to go in our work. In those moments, ask yourself: “How am I at risk of thinking, behaving or feeling if I continue what I’m doing right now?”

So, for example, if you kept making progress in your task, could you end up in a situation where you got angry? Where you felt joyful and enthusiastic in a way that seemed childlike and embarrassing to you? Where you felt alone and abandoned?

What’s The Worst That Could Happen?

Once you’ve got some idea of the aspect of yourself you’re uncomfortable with, here’s another powerful question: what would happen if that part came out? What if I did actually feel angry, sad, ambitious, or whatever it is I’ve been avoiding? Would some kind of catastrophe ensue? Would I find myself rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth?

What I’ve found is that asking this question helps people put the unwanted feeling in perspective. When they consciously acknowledge that letting that buried part of themselves emerge once in a while won’t hurt them, making progress in their task becomes much easier.

Photo by DerrickT

16 thoughts on “Productivity and Owning Our Shadow”

  1. Great insight into tying procrastination to our internal feelings. I agree 100% with that thought.

    It’s interesting that you bring that up. Sometimes it may be worth learning how to communicate and understand your coworkers’ behavior and motivation styles. It’s really eye opening for teams and helps them work better together. Maybe partly because of losing that fear like you mention.

    Good work.

    1. Hi Bryce — I think doing the kind of inquiry I’m talking about here does help us get a sense of what others, including people we work with, might be going through — that they also might be holding back in the tasks they’re doing because they, like us, are uncomfortable with part of themselves. This can help us to be understanding toward people we’re working with, as opposed to just judging them as lazy or unfocused.

  2. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this is useful to me. Habitual procrastination for me can sometimes mean nothing more than I really don’t believe that following through will pay off. But if I don’t examine that belief I’ll just be stuck in a cycle of poor productivity. Good stuff Chris.

    1. Hi Tom — that’s interesting — I wonder what, in your mind, the result would be if you followed through with the project and it didn’t pay off (or what kind of person that would make you). I know I find it useful to ask myself that question from time to time.

  3. I love the link of procrastination to emotions we don’t want to experience. That’s an insightful link that’s for sure worth examining when reluctance rears its head.

    I’ve found also that when I have no real explanation for why I’m putting something off, it turns out that putting it off served me. Sometimes, our inner guidance knows when we need to hang back because things are falling into place so that our action will be more effective it’s delayed a little.

    1. Hi Ande — reading your comment had me remember recent moments when, in working on a project, I’ve had the sudden realization that I just didn’t feel like working on the project that day. I’ve learned to start respecting that feeling from time to time, rather than just ignoring it and pushing on. As long as I’m consciously choosing not to work in that moment, as opposed to being locked in an unconscious cycle of running from feelings I’d rather not be having, following that desire for a break can help me get refreshed.

  4. Hi Chris,

    I agree with everything you say. The biggest problem I have found with this perspective is those who have experienced violence (at someone else’s hands or their own). These people know that the feeling is dangerous – and they have good evidence that this is the case.

    I am convinced that there are safe ways to express these feelings for these people – but it does require support and a good deal of work usually.

    Thanks for giving this perspective on procrastination I think it is important, valuable and transformational.

    1. Hi Evan — yes, if the feeling the person is avoiding is linked to violent episodes in their lives, I can get how gradually allowing the feeling, perhaps with skilled help, rather than fully opening themselves to it all at once, can help them avoid getting overwhelmed.

  5. I enjoyed the question, “what’s the worst that could happen”. I have found the same too. That asking the question to my clients immediately put things into perspective. They began to explore their fears more clearly, retrieving their abandoned shadowed selves in the process.

    1. Hi Evelyn — yes, isn’t that odd — that it can seem like a feeling we’d rather not experience might swallow us up if we allowed it to arise, but in fact when we take a close look at it, it often stops appearing so dangerous.

  6. Dear Chris,

    I love this!! I am SO enjoying your work.

    I cannot recommend enough your “Work Consciously” audio course — — for anyone who has not heard it. It’s fabulous. It is far from a dry listen. It is funny, warm, very human, and astoundingly insightful and informative.

    Chris, you seem to have a real handle on human nature and what makes us “tick”…or not “tick”. :) That fascinates me about you. When I listen to this I feel like you are talking to me live on the phone. So it’s not only informative, but also entertaining. Then throw into the mix your soothing tone of his voice and you ROCK!!!

    It’s interesting, because that warm humor and soothing voice of yours seems to make me (and probably others) more receptive to the insights and information. I’ve never really had an audio effect me that way before.

    Also It makes me curious how you came to know human nature so well, what life experiences you had that brought you to the truth above and all the other truths in your book. I bet THAT’s a story!! :)

    Huge hugs to you, and thank you SO much,

    1. Hi Robin — thanks, I’m glad you’re enjoying the audio course. The feel of an intimate, one-on-one conversation was exactly what I was going for. I do feel like I picked up a lot of understanding of human nature when I was a kid, just because I tended to be more of an observer than a participant in what was going on around me — or, at least, that’s the way I remember it. It took a long time for me to grasp that being withdrawn in that way had its benefits, and wasn’t just depressing to think about, and these days I’m really grateful that this was how I was.

  7. Hi Chris .. facing our fears is so important .. the sooner we address things that make us anxious – the easier life gets … you explain it so well here .. procrastination of any sort doesn’t help .. if we need to deal with something or get on with a project – just do it!

    Thanks – all the best – Hilary

    1. Hi Hilary — I like what you say about addressing what’s making us anxious, and I’d add that sincerely looking into what’s going on when we’re putting off our work, instead of just beating ourselves up over it, can give us some striking insights into ourselves. So, for me, procrastination isn’t so much something to be fought against but a learning experience if we choose to learn from it.

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