How to overcome procrastination that stems from childhood trauma

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You’ve probably heard the common advice around procrastination. You need better habits and more willpower, or “just do it”.

If you’ve been through childhood trauma, however, procrastination feels more painful and difficult to overcome.

I’ve written before that those who self-sabotage as a result of childhood trauma do not lack willpower. In fact, we often have more than the average person but it has gone into survival and self-protection.

That’s because when we grew up with unmet needs, our brains got rewired to be constantly in survival mode. That means we were on high alert for threats and danger.

We could not relax and enjoy the process of learning or moving toward a goal. We needed to get things over with, we feared making mistakes, and this stopped us from indulging in curiosity and exploration.

Instead of seeing where things go, we needed to control the outcome. We could not risk uncertainty because surprises were never good for us. In fact, they were dangerous.

So, how does this relate to procrastination?

Well, if you need to know the outcome to feel safe, it’s hard to tolerate a process where the ending isn’t guaranteed. This makes it easy to talk yourself out of starting something new.

If you fear making mistakes, it’s hard to put yourself out there. Because you learned if you’re not perfect, you’re not loveable (at least, that’s how it seemed).

Therefore, your subconscious mind says anything less than perfection means you’re worthless. This is hardly incentive to delve into new projects or move forward once they’re started.

Your subconscious mind says anything less than perfection means you're worthless. This is hardly incentive to delve into new projects or move forward once they're started. Click To Tweet

Mainstream advice around procrastination rightfully says you must press through the discomfort you feel and forge on to completion.

But survivors of childhood trauma suffer more than discomfort. It’s pain and fear that feels like life or death, and procrastination is our way of protecting ourselves from perceived danger.

The hypervigilance many of us live under every day because of the way our brains have been rewired makes life more difficult. Ordinary every day things fill us with trepidation, so it’s no wonder bigger undertakings stop us in our tracks.

We may not have learned how to push through challenges to receive the end reward. No one taught us how to deal with disappointment or negative emotions.

As a result, we felt alone in the world, like we had to deal with everything ourselves and never ask for help. All these make procrastination seem like a viable solution, even when we know it’s holding us back from fulfilling our potential.

So, how do we overcome this common outcome of childhood unmet needs? Here are three ways.


Be kind to yourself

Procrastination hurts us, but berating ourselves when we put things off only creates more pain. Instead of shaming yourself for your avoidance, understand why you do it.

Procrastination hurts, but berating ourselves when we put things off only creates more pain. Click To Tweet

Often, the underlying reasons for self-sabotage are unknown to us and that’s why we’ve had a hard time changing. Now that you know why you use avoidance as a coping strategy, give yourself some sympathy.

Thank your inner child for protecting you the best way she knew how. She’s had a lot on her plate. Now you can help her as you give yourself the care and understanding you never received.

Take baby steps to stop procrastination

The “just do it” mentality may work for some, but it is punishing to anyone who’s been through childhood trauma. Often, forcing yourself to do something in spite of how terrified you feel, can backfire.

The "just do it" mentality may work for some, but it is punishing to anyone who's been through childhood trauma. Click To Tweet

It will exacerbate those unsafe feelings and make you feel more dysregulated. So, instead of jumping into a huge project, start with something small that pushes you out of your comfort zone a little.

For example, rather than sign up as a conference speaker, record a brief video and post it to your social media. And don’t feel pressured to do “lives” if they make you feel unsafe.

Know the difference between safety and comfort

At the same time, don’t wait until you feel totally comfortable to try something new. That level of comfort may never come.

We do need to do hard things in order to move forward and experience personal growth. Notice when resistance comes up and acknowledge it without judgment, then keep moving through it.

It is possible to embark on new challenges while keeping yourself safe. That means taking care of your nervous system with self care that works for you. Self-holding and mindfulness are two examples.

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  1. Jo Mc

    Oh my gosh! I thought – and think – I have Adhd, but my new counselor says he thinks it’s trauma as I tried meds and they didn’t work! I now think … it could be both . At any rate , we have discussed attachment and resistance , and his advice is always ‘just do it’ and ‘be kind to yourself ‘: Well, I’m not doing it !

    Maybe I need a new therapist?

    Thanks for such great content !

    • This is interesting because I’m reading a book now called The Deepest Well that talks about the link between ADHD and childhood trauma (among other things). You might want to check it out.