The Siren Call of the Wastepaper Basket- Esme’s Corner

I am, in general, a big believer in giving up. I think you shouldn’t force yourself to do things which bring you no joy. Don’t worry about finishing that book you’ve been trying to read for years. If you hate journalling, that’s fine – you don’t need to make yourself love it. However, I hate preemptively failing; becoming immobilised by the image of a stranger’s rejection in my mind’s eye.

To some extent, my own pre-emptive failing is fuelled by what Tiffany Arment dubbed “the shadow”. That is, the pressure of not being able to live up to what you created before. Unbelievably, after having written a grand total of two blog posts, I already compare every paragraph, every sentence and every word to the last one I wrote.  I’m sure many of us can relate to this sort of perfectionism – we all fight the siren call of the wastepaper basket. 

But, more often, I struggle with preemptive failing – and endlessly procrastinating. This is a form of what Joseph Ferrari, a Professor of Psychology at DePaul University, would term “social perfectionism”. Or, the need to preserve the idea that you could attain perfection in the minds of others. We avoid tasks to protect our self esteem. By rushing something last minute, or never attempting it in the first place, we don’t need to face the reality of what our best effort looks like. 

The gist of all of this, is that I let a lot of people down. I frequently find myself endlessly putting off a task, unable to sit down to it. This was never worse than at university, where I would do anything other than study, despite previously having loved learning. I realised, after hearing that interview, what was going on. I had already decided I failed. I had already decided I was rejected. Unable to brave facing the reality of it, I chose to do nothing rather than actually try. Then I could hope, as Dr. Ferrari noted in an interview by Alie Ward, “[others] will say I lack effort, not lack ability”. 

I wanted to write about this because I suspect it is incredibly common, and rarely spoken about. Mostly, when we mention an unfinished task, we use phrases like “self-discipline” or “time management”. We don’t talk about anxiety, lack of self-worth, and depression.

So if there is something you cannot start – taking exercise, filling in a form, making a phone call – then that’s okay. Maybe you do hate being on hold, or can’t be bothered to find out the right tax codes. I get it. But maybe you’re worried about failing, too, about others thinking you’re a failure.

I don’t have any easy answers for how to solve this. I wish I did. But for years I thought I was a lazy, stupid person, with no passion. That’s what I told myself. But it’s not true for me – and I doubt it’s true for you either. 

Fear is such a powerful voice inside us all that it often becomes impossible to hear anything above the sound of it screaming. However, we don’t need or want it to go away entirely. To borrow an analogy from Elizabeth Gilbert “fear and creativity are conjoined twins – but just because you’re taking them both along for the ride, doesn’t mean you have to let fear drive.”

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