The Lazy Illusion

What if you aren’t lazy?

What if you aren’t too busy, too disorganized, a mess, a procrastinator, a scatter-brain?

What if you already have enough “will-power”?

What if those beliefs were taken off the table?

What if none of those constructs are at all useful for changing your lifestyle, creating a daily exercise routine, feeding yourself well, structuring quiet time, meditating, getting to sleep, tending to your finances, looking for that new job, or for facing down any important, self-regarding task you have been avoiding?

Berating yourself, scolding yourself is rarely useful, and usually just makes things worse, more painful, more shameful.

What if there is a very good reason that this specific task is hard, frightening, anxiety-provoking, unfamiliar, or uncomfortable for you?

Self-neglect often just feels usual, normal. The ignoring feels like a part of us. It’s how we have always done it or not done it. Sometimes we pretend that our avoidance is a proactive choice and express contempt toward others who have mastered self-care tasks that feel beyond us.

We even construct pseudo-identities on top of it:

“I don’t cook”

“I’m a spender, not a saver”

“I’m not an exercise person”

And that way we won’t even notice the void when we step in it.

But – what if that is all an illusion?

What if the truth is more complicated, and much messier? What if you’ve been avoiding the dreaded task, failing to establish the healthy habit because it is associated with something painful, scary, confusing, vulnerable, overwhelming, sorrowful, or is something you simply can’t learn how to do on your own? What if it requires your compassion, attention, kindness or understanding to make it possible to change your ways?

In some cases, we may have a wish to establish a new pattern that is simply un-familiar – literally: not of the family. If no one in your family of origin ever spoke Greek, it is unrealistic to expect yourself to be able to magically, spontaneously, effortlessly speak Greek in adulthood. If you do decide to learn a new language, it will not be an intuitive process, it will not feel natural; it will be uncomfortable, embarrassing at times, exposing, vulnerable. It will involve investing money, time, and consistent effort. It will require generous, patient teachers, role models, fluent-speakers who model proper, conversational speech for you. There are processes that we can only learn through relationships with others.

Many simply continue to parent themselves as they were parented. If your care-taking through childhood was disorganized, abusive, withholding, or passive, you will likely care for yourself the way you were, or were not, cared for. If bedtime was experienced as a battleground, or abandonment, it’s going to be very hard to learn to transition yourself through the subtle stages that precede sleep. If your needs were ignored, you may not, for example, think to seek medical treatment before a condition becomes unnecessarily severe.

In other instances, we have absorbed our notions of how to meet our needs as adults from watching how our parents treated themselves. Did they self-medicate? Smoke? Overspend? Sink into depressed, passive, depleted, deprived, neglected states themselves? Did they chronically – too generously and masochistically – set their needs aside for others?

It can feel disloyal, like a betrayal, to abandon their model, to treat ourselves better or differently than our parents treated themselves. Sometimes, self-neglect is a cherished, comforting memento from home.

Others of us are on strike: still waiting, holding our breath – well into our own adulthood – for an archetypal Grown Up to arrive at long last and take care of it all for us.

Taking deep responsibility for our own well-being means giving up hope that we will be rescued. To stop waiting for Godot means we may be left alone upon a barren mound of grief and mourning. They haven’t come, they never came, they never will come; we may have lost our opportunity to have our childhood needs met, at the right time, by an all-knowing, all-loving omnipotent caretaker. Facing down self-care may mean first accepting this mournful reality and breathing through all the painful feelings that attend a loss.

Sometimes the shame of not-knowing-already, the fear of needing to be taught, the humiliation of asking, and the vulnerability of beginners’ mind, is enough to make us avoid the things we truly need. We feel a fool – a baby, a first-grader – our savvy and maturity stripped away from us, as we struggle to learn the new thing, search for a teacher, struggle, fail, regroup and try again. We want the first meal we cook to be delicious, and to feel powerful and strong our very first day at the gym.

All of us have our own unique, inherited blind spots and neglect-holes:

One woman regularly bickers with her partner about her own messiness, until realizing that her mother, a housewife with paralyzing depression, rarely initiated and never completed necessary household chores.

Another woman, constantly overdrawing her account, discovers that her red-inked bank statements recreate the powerless feeling of living in her father’s household, the family members shamed and controlled by his money.

A man, disorganized and distracted, constantly loses his keys, his wallet, his necessary personal items, creating many anxious, angry, panicked moments in his day. When he begins to consider that there might be some meaningful reason that he does so, he is flooded with memories of being repeatedly forgotten among his many siblings, regularly left behind, and actually lost – omitted from the head count on family outings.

Another man, in a life-long angry battle with his weight and health, begins an exercise plan. He tolerates the sabotaging noise in his head, the discomfort, the agitation, the boredom, the wish to revert. He listens deeper and discovers he is increasingly anxious as he loses more and more weight and his health improves. He realizes that he holds enormous guilt for enjoying his own body, an experience he could never share with his father – who was disabled, in chronic pain since early adulthood.

For each of us, it will be different.

And the same.

Sometimes the avoidance marks a trauma point, other times a battleground, an emptiness, or a low-grade chronic annoyance.

Sometimes we must open up to healing before we can initiate change.

Sometimes initiating change opens us up to be healed.

By occasionally asking you to focus on such rudimentary aspects of self-care, I may be asking you to speak a language you have never heard before and cannot fathom. Please know that these aren’t merely simple behavioral prescriptions.

Instead, I am asking you to

– look beyond self-judgement and the illusion of laziness,
– consider your accepted default, your original template,
– to explore it,
– mourn it,
– and to treat yourself in a new way.

In any order you choose.

copyright © 2011
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

19 responses

  1. lovely blog and hits the nail on the head, home regardless how bad it may have been is a hard place to leave and it requires discipline and faith to commence that journey.

  2. hi Martha– thanks for illustrating the deeper reasons to why it is so difficult to make what seem to be straightforward changes. It implies something that is not easily held in mind: that taking a reflective, mindful approach to change helps us face the fears and resistances we have to change….

  3. Thanks for your feedback Robin,
    I suspect that what many clients most need from treatment, is to learn that even when they don’t know what is blocking or driving their behavior – that there is an underlying, “good reason” – that their psyche makes sense – and organizes solutions – even if the reasons aren’t obvious, or the solution isn’t the best one…


  4. I am so touched by your writing, it is wise and accessible, not an easy thing to achieve. Are you sure you don’t have hidden cameras set up in my home?! I especially needed to hear that there is more than one way to begin. I think I have spent a lot of energy trying to figure out if I need to get healthy so I can heal emotionally, or heal emotionally so I can get healthy. Reading this is just what I needed to hear, again! Thank you so much for another wonderful post.

  5. Great Margie! I’m glad you are out there advocating for change and healing in so many ways –
    Thanks for the comments and encouragement! glad its got you thinking 🙂


  6. great post martha. i feel like in constant negotiation with myself to first undo and then redo. clinically, this is so helpful. it is so great to read your words as a partial script to explain to all my young adults what they may be experiencing as they try an adult identity on for size. thank you.

  7. Glad it is helpful Joy! I do, say a lot of these kinds of things to clients – and it is in many ways – my script in sessions. Often, I have a sensation, when I am writing this blog, that there is no point in writing any of this down, its stuff I’ve said a hundred times – like explaining the safety procedure on an airplane – and that there is nothing new here, so why write it! Its nice to see that it is useful to other people – and validating to others who are thinking and saying the same things in their own sessions…

    Thanks for you comments!

  8. As someone who is in therapy now, and aspires to become a therapist in the near future, I find your blog fantastic. I’m just at a point in my life where I can read it, understand it, and reflect upon it. Everything you have to say either touches me directly, or I can see being useful in my future. I particularly liked this post, as it’s providing much-needed insight into the lives of some loved ones. Thank you, and please, keep writing!

  9. Thanks very much Alisha, I’m glad it speaks to you and feels useful to your personal process and your careeer – which actually are totally inseparable.
    I’m writing! I’m writing! Its a harrowing process in its own way – activating old resistances that have been dormant for many years- but gives me an opportunity to face them down yet again.;-)
    Thanks for reading and your kind words.


  10. I just discovered your blog today and I’ve really been enjoying it! This post reminded me of recent discussions on Psych Cafe about self-care, and how many of us (the population of the forum is heavily tilted towards childhood trauma survivors) interpreted suggestions from our therapists about self-care as being told to “go away and deal with it ourselves.” Someone then quoted their very wise therapist who pointed out that reaching out to someone else such as a therapist for help is actually another form of self-care. Reading that was a big “aha” moment for me.

    Personally, I have found that going to therapy has been absolutely the hardest form of self-care for me to practice. I don’t seem to have too much trouble with the usual things…sleep, exercise, diet, etc. I think at some point I internalised that I *had* to take good care of myself so that I wouldn’t cause any problems to the people around me and I would be in good shape to help *them.* Anyway, I wasn’t imposing on anyone’s time by taking care of myself in those ways. But when it comes to actually using up my therapist’s time (no matter she gets paid for it) to get support for myself on an emotional level, it’s been a real struggle. I run up against all kinds of thoughts that I’m boring her, I’m wasting her time, I can deal with this on my own anyway, that my problems aren’t “bad enough” to need therapy, that someone else needs it more, blah blah… So far I’ve just kept at it, hoping that I’ll eventually internalize that it’s OK to receive that amount of attention and help from another person.

    Thanks again 🙂

  11. I think its true that taking responsiblity for procuring therapy for oneself is a very important form of self-care for many many people…
    And I appreciate the point you make as well, that explorations of self-care – can be experienced by clients as a kind of abandonment – being told to pull oneself up by your own bootstraps, etc. But, I think that ideally, therapists and clients partner together to help clients learn the skills to parent themselves well and deeply –

    Great points, thanks for your comments and for reading.

  12. “…by an all-knowing, all-loving omnipotent caretaker.”

    I appreciated this essay, except that part.
    It implies that we mourn something unrealistic- a perfect caretaker.
    I don’t mourn not having an omnipotent caretaker, I mourn not having a good enough one.
    I mourn being a helpless child in the hands of sadistic child abusers.
    I mourn not having a basically decent person as a parent.

  13. I appreciate that for those that have survived abuse, and not merely failures of attunement, that mourning and healing, and the path to self-care can be far more complicated process.

    Thanks for your feedback.


  14. Interesting! I thought you WERE talking about survivors of abuse. I didn’t know that people who weren’t abused mourn not having had perfect (all-knowing, all-loving, omnipotent) parents.
    Thanks for teaching me something new.

  15. I think that there are many loving households, where chronic misattunements, and/or failed tempermental “fit” between children and parents can leave many needs unacknowledged and unresponded to, the tactile child destined to be a fulfilled carpenter born into a household of cerebral physicists etc –
    tI’m actually reading an intereting piece on that issue right now – called Toxic Nourishment – by Michael Eigen – which looks at the ways that even nourshing love can contain toxic elements, and that toxicity can contain nourishment.
    Thanks for you thoughts.


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