How’s it Helping?

A lot of times when I’m coaching someone, there’s some behavior they just hate that they’re dying to get rid of, because it’s ruining everything. Or so they say. (And when I say “they”, I mean, equally, me.)

When it comes to creativity, this behavior is almost always what the client calls “procrastinating.” Or being “stuck.” Or maybe they’re feeling hesitant about submitting a piece of work somewhere, and they’re beating themselves up for not doing it.

If it’s a person who wants to lose weight, the behavior is “snacking too much.” Or “not exercising enough.” Or tearing the doors off the kitchen cupboards and emptying them one by one.

I get it. In my teens and early twenties, I had an eating disorder. At the time, I couldn’t have told you that: I thought it was “normal.” I thought I had about ten pounds to lose, so I would starve myself until I lost it. I couldn’t stay on my crazy extremely-low-calorie diets, so the pressure would build and finally one day I’d crack and I’d binge. Then I’d feel I’d failed, and what was the use anyway, and I’d binge and binge until I gained the ten pounds back.

I tried to rid myself of this bingeing behavior by more dieting. Then I tried to rid myself of the dieting behavior by “eating normally.” But I had no idea how to do that. One day I didn’t show up for one of my classes in college because I’d eaten so much I felt like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Woman, and I didn’t want anyone to see me.

I was in enough pain by this point that while I was supposed to be in class, I walked to the bookstore down the street and found a book by Geneen Roth called Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating. I had deep skepticism about books with titles like that. But I knew I’d hit bottom. With great shame, I trudged up to the counter to purchase it.

This book changed my life (I still have my little dog-eared, yellowed, paperback copy, in which about half of each page is underlined in red ballpoint pen). Geneen suggested that behavior that appears to be hurting us on first glance actually has a purpose. It’s helping us in some way that we don’t, or won’t, acknowledge.

When we change our question from “How can I get rid of this behavior?” to “How might this behavior be helping me?”, we change the story we’re telling ourselves. I was no longer “woman hell-bent on self-destruction”; I became “woman who’s trying to take care of herself the best she can.”

When I saw how my behavior took care of me, I was able to thank it and gradually let go of it. When I saw that “feeling fat” gave me a good reason to say no, I realized I didn’t have to feel fat in order to say no. I could actually say no just because I wanted to say no. I could actually choose not to attend class just because I didn’t want to attend class. I didn’t have to binge on lasagna and make myself sick so I’d have a “good excuse.”

This was only one way my behavior helped me, of course; it was complex, and I needed to do some digging and some looking around for me to understand all the ways it served me. And it took some time before I was able to truly thank it for its service, and let it go.

When it comes to our creativity, too, our “counterproductive” behavior is serving us in some way. If I’ve stopped writing in the middle of my draft, there’s a good reason for it. I can plow through, force myself to write, but in the long run, it’s probably more helpful to look for the good reason and see how it’s helping me.

That doesn’t mean I will stay stopped. It means I trust that there’s a wisdom within me that wants to be listened to, if I’ll only give it a chance to be heard. This wisdom wants all good things for me — and when I don’t listen to it, it acts out in ways that seem destructive to get my attention. The sooner I listen, the sooner I can discover what it is I really want, and move forward in the way that serves me best.

If you think you are “stuck,” I guarantee you there’s a good reason for it. But you don’t have to stay stuck. Check out my Free Creativity Consultations — I’ll help you find your good reason and we’ll figure out how you can move forward.

Are You Really Procrastinating?

I had planned to write my next blog post on the subject of overwhelm, but inspiration took me in a different direction. Recently I was chatting with my wonderful friend and fellow coach Mackie Schaars about how “procrastinating” and “waiting for the right time” have different energies. “What a great topic for a blog post,” she said. Well, here it is. (There will be plenty more on the subject of overwhelm in coming weeks.)

In our “Just Do It” culture, it took me a while to really get that “not doing it” does not necessarily equal “procrastinating.” There was a time in my life when I firmly believed that if I wasn’t taking action on something, I was procrastinating. Then I would really beat myself up, which inevitably, eventually, led to further, worse procrastinating.

I like to refer to this type of extreme procrastination, triggered by extreme rebellion, as rebellinating. Way back in my teens and up through my early twenties, when I was a dieter (and my inner perfectionist had a deep preference for starvation diets), rebellinating would show up as bingeing on lasagna for six and an entire box of Twinkies after a week of carrots and sugar-free Popsicles. Rebellinating is a good tip-off that something bigger, something deeper, is probably going on.

Because here’s the deal: Sometimes, when I’m not taking action on something, it truly is procrastination. I’ll give you an example: I am long overdue for a visit to the dentist. We’re not talking months here, my friends. How do I know I am procrastinating on seeing the dentist? Because it feels really simple: I want to take care of my teeth, but I’m not doing it. There’s not going to be a “better time” to take care of my teeth. There’s nothing complicated going on. I know it’s a need I want to meet, and I’m not meeting it.

Sometimes, though, a situation feels a little more complex. I might tell myself I’m “procrastinating,” but that might be a lie. I need to look a little more closely. I need to ask questions.

Many years ago, I was having a rough time and I moved back in with my parents. I didn’t have a job, and my attempts to find one were few and far between. I felt lousier and lousier and started hating myself for procrastinating. I made some half-hearted attempts to job hunt, but my energy seemed to be repelling work. When I did get work through a temp agency, I left in the middle of an assignment, in the middle of the day.

The temp agency called and left an angry message. How dare I leave an assignment in the middle of the day? Yes, I thought — how dare I? What is wrong with me? I am ruining my life!

I called my therapist for an emergency session. What became clear as I spewed my stuff to her was that I was really, really tired. It was October, and back in April my immune system had shut down. I’d been sick with fevers for weeks, then months, and had finally ended up in the hospital for a few days when I could no longer eat or drink. Little by little, I’d gotten better physically, but my inability to work when I’d been sick had created quite a bit of debt, and that’s how I’d ended up back in Mom and Dad’s house.

My therapist pointed out that I hadn’t really rested that entire year. “Are you kidding me?” I said. “I’ve spent half the year lying in bed.” “No,” she said with a smile. “You’ve spent half the year fighting an illness.”

She instructed me to go home and dedicate myself to at least two full weeks of true relaxation. No job hunting, no beating myself up for procrastinating. I laughed at her; it was one of those laughs that came out like a snort. Yeah, right. I’d never known how to truly relax. My inner perfectionist enjoyed it when I ran myself into the ground (which, I was beginning to realize, was a big part of the reason I’d gotten so sick in the first place).

But I felt strangely light and free after the therapy session. I did the best I could to put job hunting out of my mind for a full two weeks. Maybe it was three.

What happened over those weeks of not thinking about looking for a job was that I realized I’d been desperate. I hadn’t even had much idea of what kind of job I wanted. I was just throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. The desperation was still alive in me, but I managed not to act on it. Since my therapist had given me permission (and sometimes I truly need permission from someone I view as very wise to allow myself what I most need), I spent a lot of time curled up in bed and a lot of time taking very long walks.

During that time, I got clear. I got clear on the fact that I was tired, my body still wasn’t at its best, and I needed to respect that. I got clear on what kind of job I wanted. I got clear on why I wanted it. I found some job listings for a couple of jobs that sounded very much like what I wanted. Applying for them didn’t feel heavy or desperate. It felt kind of right.

Within a month of that eye-opening therapy session, I was offered both jobs. Apparently, I was no longer repelling work.

When our energy is aligned, there is movement toward what is right for us. If you think you are procrastinating, it could be that you are not aligned with what you most deeply want. Maybe you don’t know what you most deeply want.

Before you beat yourself up for procrastinating (and I suggest never beating yourself up for any reason if you can possibly avoid it), get clear. You’ll know what your truth is because when you’re in it, no matter what it is, you’ll feel free. If I tell myself I’m procrastinating and my deepest self says, “Yep, that’s right,” I know it’s true. I can then start taking small steps toward whatever it is I want.

But if I tell myself I’m procrastinating and it feels heavy, icky, and like I’m trapped in very tiny box, it just might be a lie. That’s when I need to investigate, to gently ask myself, “Hey, what’s really going on here? Let’s take a look.” It’s always worth it to take that look.