If you struggle to meet deadlines or reach your goals, it’s easy to slide down the slippery slope of negative self-talk.

You might believe you procrastinate because you’re intrinsically flawed, lazy, or untalented—but that’s not true! Procrastination doesn’t happen because you’re lazy; it comes from avoiding negative feelings like shame.

How does shame make procrastination worse?

You can think of the human mind like Earth’s layers.

Your emotions (like shame, anxiety, and fear) are at the core. Layered on top of that core are your defense mechanisms. You might avoid confronting your negative emotions by procrastinating with behavior like:
  • Sleeping
  • Scrolling social media
  • Playing video games
  • Watching TV
  • Productive procrastination (doing the dishes, reorganizing your closet, etc.)

It’s not a mystery, is it?

As a chronic procrastinator, you might ask yourself rhetorical questions like, “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why can’t I ever get anything done?” By keeping up this running script in your head, you avoid ever having to confront the real answers to those questions—or even whether they’re true.
It’s easy to get into this cycle of avoidance and convince yourself you don’t know why you procrastinate. You tell yourself it’s inexplicable, but it isn’t. You know why you’re avoiding doing your work.
Procrastination is most often caused by shame, but it can be more subtle:
  • Maybe you’re afraid of success.
  • Maybe you’re afraid to take on even more responsibility once you succeed.
  • Or maybe you’re afraid to learn you aren’t as good as you think.
No matter your deeper fears, you’d rather berate yourself for being a chronic procrastinator than face them.

Common shame-based procrastination examples

Gym failure

Say you want to get into shape, so you head to the gym. Everyone around you seems to be doing well, knowing exactly what to do (and how to do it). You try doing a pull-up and fail spectacularly, and you get tired after five minutes on the treadmill.
Compared to everyone around you, you feel like an absolute failure. After that first gym session, you find yourself avoiding working out so that you don’t have to confront those feelings of inadequacy again.

Writing disaster

You want to be a novelist and have a perfect story idea. You sit down to begin writing—but after the first few pages, you read over what you wrote and decide it’s absolutely terrible.
You feel ashamed of your work, and instead of believing you can keep working to improve it, you avoid writing anymore. That way, you don’t have to think about the dissonance between expectations and reality.

Dating dilemma

You want to start dating, so you download a dating app, take a few selfies, and begin building your profile.
But in your eyes, those headshots are unattractive. You start feeling embarrassed and unlovable, so you delete the dating app.
The similarity between these three scenarios is that you begin having negative feelings once you start actually working towards your goal. Instead of working through those negative feelings in a healthy way, you avoid starting the work at all.

Procrastination is self-preservation

Your defense mechanism—your form of self-preservation—is procrastinating instead of facing negative feelings. Instead of facing deeper negative feelings when tackling your goal, you would rather face the lower-level guilt of believing yourself to be a chronic procrastinator.
Productivity comes down to an epic battle between the two halves of your brain. One part wants to meet your goals, but the other part of you believes if you try and fail, it will be much worse than never starting at all. So productivity is essentially a battle for control of your body and your time.
Will the shameful part of you win? Or will the ambitious part of you win out instead so you can start tackling your to-do list?

How to improve your self-esteem and self-talk

The best way to overcome procrastination is to get used to managing the conflicting parts of yourself. At Slothzero, for instance, we believe the key to improving your self-esteem and overcoming shame-related procrastination is to strengthen the ambitious part of your brain. We help clients manage shame through coaching and camaraderie.
But if you don’t have a coach, you can still practice facing down those negative emotions. Therapy can help you overcome shame and low self-esteem, and other allies can provide encouragement and accountability by doing some of what our coaches do:
  • Being nonjudgmental
  • Believing in you
  • Helping you break tasks down into bite-sized chunks
  • Giving positive feedback
  • Actively reducing negative emotions
Start by making a list of what negative thoughts and feelings you face when you start working on your goals. What’s the worst-case scenario? Will you feel embarrassed at the gym, get rejected by a publisher, or be ghosted by a few dating app users?

Once you write down the worst-case scenario, you’ll realize that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if that happened. Facing those negative feelings better equips you to let the ambitious side of yourself win.
Then, you and your allies (or coach) can brainstorm how to reduce the obstacles to productivity. You might join a group for accountability, get a phone call reminder, or make a plan to meet a friend to do work together.
The more you confront the negative feelings associated with your goals, the better-practiced you’ll be at overcoming them. Eventually, as the wins begin adding up, your self-esteem has a snowball effect. The more your ambitious side wins, the more you believe you can do hard things—which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.