Truth be told, even though these posts are all being published within a few days of each other, I originally started the series back in July. Don’t worry, three months is hardly even in the ballpark of my all-time record for procrastination. I once went seven years between journal entries. Anyway, I hope you’ve got something so far out of the series. Here’s the final instalment.
3. Defiance and Rebellion (Counterwill)
Gordon Neufeld, child psychologist and author of the best-selling book “Hold On to Your Kids”, often refers to a natural, instinctive phenomenon which is known as counterwill. Simply stated, counterwill is the instinct to resist the efforts of others to control us. Neufeld demonstrates this instinct in his lectures by inviting an audience member to hold their hand up. He then pushes gently against their hand. As he does so, it is plain to see that, without any thought, the audience member instinctively pushes back.
As I said before, counterwill is an instinctive response. However, it may grow much stronger in unhealthy environments. If you are a child who is overly controlled by a parent or authority figure, you may adapt by acquiescing and completely abandoning your own will or you may adapt by strengthening your resolve to not let them “be the boss of you”. As a kid, and later as an adult, with ADHD, I was exposed to many instances of “don’t do this” and “why did you do that?” I’m sure many of those course corrections were required, sometimes for my own safety and sometimes for the safety of others. However, I’m also sure many of them were not required. Since my natural wiring appears to favour the “fight” response as opposed to a “flight” response, it should come as no surprise that my adaptation to being controlled by others was to dig in my heels and strengthen my counterwill instinct into a defensive behaviour.
Unfortunately, the brain, in its effort to be efficient, tends to overgeneralize its responses to situations. If it finds a response that works in one situation, it tends to apply that same response to many similar situations, even if that response doesn’t work as well in other contexts. For example, if someone was attempting to control me and their efforts would lead to me being harmed or put at risk of harm, then resisting that control would be a good, healthy, adaptive, and necessary response. However, if my brain then generalizes that response to all forms of control, I might find myself in harm’s way anyway, if my mother is trying to prevent me from drinking poison or running into traffic. The brain has identified that she is trying to control me but has not analyzed the context further to see if this is a safe or unsafe form of control and applies the one-size-fits-all approach of resistance.
So, what does this have to do with procrastination? I have a home office and at the end of the day, after my last appointment, I lock the waiting room door, my office door, turn off the lights, etc. However, there was one lamp, right next to the waiting room door that I always seemed to leave on. It wasn’t because I thought there needed to be a light source for the spiders. It wasn’t because it took too much energy to turn it off; it was located less than a foot from the door that I was locking. It wasn’t for any observable reason that I could identify, yet I felt a strong resistance to turning off the light. Then one day, it hit me. As the thought crossed my mind to turn off the light, I felt myself rebelliously and defiantly saying, “No!” It was then that I realized that I was leaving the light on because that internal voice was trying to be the boss of me. My brain had internalized all of those lifelong lectures and warnings and encouragements, as it should, but it had never let go of the overdeveloped counterwill response. In a sense, my brain was still standing up for itself but now it was doing it against itself!
Maybe I’m crazy and weird (ok, for sure I am one of those two, I’ll let you decide), but as I’ve told this story to people, many have nodded in recognition. I am not alone! Many of us chronic procrastinators do not do so out of forgetfulness or lack of motivation, but precisely because completing the task is expected and required of us. For an overdeveloped counterwill response, that is a friendly invitation to defiance and rebellion.
What To Do?
This is a two-pronged answer. The first applies to the parents, partners, friends, teachers, or anyone else who is trying to get a chronic procrastinator engaged in a project. The second applies to people like myself, who are only standing in their own way.
For The Helpers:
It would seem logical that if the counterwill procrastinator is doing so out of a need to fight off your attempts to control them, the best alternative is to try and not be so controlling. I realize that this sounds overly simple but it in reality, sometimes it actually is that simple. However, let’s not confuse simple with easy. You have your reasons for needing to be in control. Some of them are valid, but some of them, if you are like 99% of humans, are not. I’m not encouraging parents, teachers, partners, or employers to become lackadaisical and lower their standards, I’m just suggesting that if you pick your battles, saving your emotional energy for the things that really matter, then the procrastinator may not have spent the last hours or months building a high wall designed to keep you out, thereby increasing the chances of you being listened to and heard.
For example, let’s say you are dealing with a child who hates doing homework. You beg and plead and hassle them to do it and finally you’ve cornered them. Grudgingly, they sit down and start to work away at it. However, this is not good enough. They need to have a clean workspace, so you tell them to clean it up first. Then you notice how disorganized the notebook is and tell them to take care of that too. They predictably respond to this sequence with eye rolling, shoulder-slumping, deep sighing, and various other displays. You feel disrespected by this and therefore proceed to lecture them about how you’re just trying to help and just looking out for them and how they need to be better listeners and blah blah blah…
Not only have we totally distracted them from the task at hand, we’ve taken the tiny spark of cooperation (the child actually doing some homework) and doused it with a gallon of water by demanding conformity in several adjacent but unnecessary areas. Chances are, if this is your child, then these conversations happen a lot, this being only the latest in a long line, perhaps in that one day alone. If this is the case, the childs counterwill is charged and ready to defy even the most reasonable of requests. This is why you need to be very careful to not let your requests come across as demands.
I recognize that sometimes this is not an option. If the safety of the other person or surrounding people is at stake, then demands and force might be your only way. Remember, however, demands surrounded by force may give you temporary compliance but will almost surely erode the relationship over the long-term, making demands and force that much more necessary in the future.
For The Procrastinators:
For those of us whose counter will is unleashed in these circumstances, it is important to remember the origin of this reflexive reaction. There was a time in the past and there will be times in the future when resistance is the necessary and safe response to other people’s controlling behaviour. Our job is to determine whether our current situation is one of those times are not. The internal voice reminding me to do my homework, file my paperwork, turn off my lamp, etc., is not voice of danger. As such, defiance and resistance are not necessary or appropriate actions. By refusing to turn off my lap, I have won no battle, achieved no victory, sent no message, offered myself no protection, and stunted my own growth. It was only once I made this realization for myself that I was able to overpower this reflex and force myself to turn off the lamp. I have used this realization in other circumstances as well. It became a habit to turn off the lamp and wasn’t as necessary to have this conversation with myself each time. Now, if I leave the lamp on, I do it with full realization that it is motivated not by forgetfulness, nor lack of motivation, nor defiance, but just plain old laziness.
I hope you got something this three-part series on procrastination. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below or to send me a message. And, as always, please share and like these articles on Facebook or whatever platform you use to try to influence your friends.