Why were two promising university students always missing deadlines? Find out how a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist helped them to make sense of a personal mystery
"All of us are more human than otherwise" – Harry Stack Sullivan
In our previous blog post on perfectionism and procrastination we explored the link between these two issues. Now we’re diving into the topic further with the stories of two stressed students who came to MTA psychotherapist Dr Shalini Masih for help…
I received a call from Nancy. She sounded like a young woman in her mid-20s. ‘Why are you seeking therapy?’ I asked.
Nancy told me that she was a PhD candidate who had not been able to keep any deadlines for any submissions. ‘I just tend to procrastinate’, she explained. We arranged a time to meet. Yet one day before the scheduled session, I had just wrapped up a lecture when I received a call from her. She was standing waiting outside my clinic. Puzzled, I checked my calendar only to realise that she was one day early. When I told her, she was embarrassed and apologised.
The next day, we met at the scheduled time and she began by apologising for coming in the previous day. Sensing her discomfort, I tried to make her feel more at ease by saying that ‘You were a day early which was in fact very punctual — the opposite of procrastination!’
She relaxed a bit and began to tell me all the ways in which she procrastinated. She spoke at length about her doctoral work, her tutors, various assignments, missed deadlines and chapters submitting late to her advisor, whose consequent resentment felt palpable to her. Something in the way she spoke felt like a cry for help and I let her talk for some time.
When I asked her why she was doing a doctoral programme, she fell silent. This had been pressure from her family to study further, which was seen as a way of compensating for years of poverty and illiteracy that her parents and grandparents had to live through.
I raised the idea with her that her procrastination might be a form of protest. Her face lit up straight away — this idea had clicked with her and made sense. Suddenly, her procrastination was no longer a mystery but told a deeper story about herself.
Meg was 19 years old and in the first year of a Bachelor’s programme. She had come to therapy to get help with her pervasive anxiety. In the first few sessions, we became aware of how her anxiety was related to her identity as a student and that it worsened right before a submission deadline or assessment. She seemed caught in a loop where she procrastinated about submitting her assignments on time, which then triggered anxiety, which in turn fed her procrastination.
On reflecting further together, it became clear that she had a fantasy of a ‘perfect’ write-up and nothing she could write could match up to that image. It either had to be a perfect assignment or no assignment at all. On delving deeper into her childhood experiences, a picture emerged of a largely absent father and a mother who pressured Meg from very early on to always ace it in academics. Meg had internalised this ideal of her mother’s and felt the need to adhere to it, which meant that she dreaded failing. She always fell short of reaching the standards she had set for herself in her mind.
This meant that she would spend hours, days and weeks perfecting a piece of writing while going through paralysing anxiety and breakdowns. Yet nothing she wrote seemed worthy of submission. Meg was caught in a loop of perfectionism-procrastination-anxiety while also being plagued with a deep sense of shame.
Together, we reflected on the ways in which this had caused the spontaneous side of her to never fully develop. And with therapy, she was able to rethink the expectations she had for herself and bring them closer to reality, increasing her chances for success.
Both Meg and Nancy’s stories are similar, yet there is an important difference. And this difference can tell us a lot about the various unconscious reasons for why we might procrastinate.
For Nancy, there was enough internal separation between herself and her family for her to use procrastination as a form of protest. But for Meg it was different, as the internal adherence to her mother’s ideals was much too strong. So for her, procrastination was about fear and shame.
Reflecting on this link between the pursuit of perfection and shame, psychoanalyst Michael Eigen describes it as being related to ‘an ideal me I will never be’ and the pain that comes from this. And if we really look at ourselves, we might find we each have our own individual ‘perfection fantasy’. In fact, many of us can find ourselves oscillating between the desire to be perfect and the fear of being a nobody. But the more we pursue an ideal image, the further it takes us away from our real human selves.
That is why it is essential to make room in our inner worlds for the idea that we are all a work in progress, that we are ‘always becoming’. By entering into therapy, Nancy and Meg began to move towards this truth. They began to see that ideals of perfection imposed by family members were either driving rebellion through procrastination (Nancy) or causing paralysis through procrastination (Meg). By exploring the roots of their own procrastination, they began to see how the desire to be perfect had actually been choking their own development. And this way, they were able to step away from the tyranny of the ideal self and move towards a truer self.
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