Procrastination – and what it has to do with Hansel and Gretel
Hand on heart. Who hasn’t experienced postponing an exam, postponing a project until the following week or simply not getting a final report done? In some moments we simply cannot manage to achieve the set work goals without being constantly distracted, unstructured or joyless. Procrastination often occurs in educational contexts – such as at university – or in a work context. But what is behind it and what does the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel have to do with it? A look at psychoanalytic theory and an example from everyday life at university can be instructive here.
Procrastination and the success paradox
Procrastination is a very common phenomenon. In general, it is understood to be problems with the organization, execution or completion of work. Sometimes it even has a double character. One might think that the reason for procrastination before the Master’s exam is that one is afraid of not passing the exam. After all, failing would also mean putting even more time into exam preparation if you wanted to take the next exam date – or worse – having to give up your career plans. It would also mean shame, because you would see yourself as a failure if you did not pass the exam. So far so good.
However, procrastination often occurs among students, especially when it comes to the final exam – for example, the Master’s examination. But shouldn’t they be looking forward to finally being finished and not having to write any more exams? This is also associated with another – quite paradoxical phenomenon. As soon as the exam is passed, many a student becomes depressed and falls into a hole. But they should be happy and bursting with pride and relief. But how can that be?
The role of the separating aspects of the experience of success
From a psychoanalytical perspective, success by completing the test in the above example means separation from the previous state. But success through satisfying work – be it a project, a work of art or a book – also transports someone from one state of identity to another. In our example above, this would mean that the Master’s degree exam would turn the student from adolescent to young adult, thus forever separating him from his childhood. At the same time, it also means that the identity achieved by this process excludes many others, and one must separate not only from one’s previous identity, but also from the people connected to it – fellow students, tutors, lecturers, professors.
Procrastination – a compromise between autonomy and dependence
This threatening situation of separation updates the conflict between autonomy and dependence. This ubiquitous conflict describes – in short – the ambivalence between freedom and security. While one side of the conflict – the autonomy side – demands independence and success, the other side – the dependence side – demands connectedness and loyalty. The upcoming final examination and the associated possibility to achieve success, to make progress and to get ahead with it makes one fear – fear of losing the existing or of leaving or being left.
Closely connected with the separation from the existing is often also unconscious feelings of guilt about leaving the other person, changing his or her relationship with him or her, or about changing. In our university example this means that one does not want to separate from the “faithful companions from university”, since one is obliged to you to a great extent. After all, they have given you orientation and support on your own path. At the same time, the attention to the world outside after the last test is considered guilty. In order to keep this inner conflict in check, procrastination is proclaimed – the kitchen has to be cleaned, the desk has to be cleared up quickly and the best friend has to be called back. Only the preparation for the exam is pushed further and further back….
Hansel and Gretel and the ambiguous messages
A possible cause for the development of procrastination and thus for the emergence of an autonomy-dependence conflict can be ambiguous messages of success in one’s own family of origin, which are not due to the child but to the parents:
Here is an example from the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel: As you probably know, the witch gives the imprisoned Hansel food. The witch inquires again and again whether he has finally gained weight – in other words, whether success has been achieved. But she does not want this success for Hansel, but for herself, since she wants to fatten him up and eat him.
Similarly as in the fairy tale, it often happens between the parents and their child, the later “procrastinator”. Such an ambiguous message would be, for example, that the parents are proud of their child in front of their friends and brag about him, but at the same time they punish him for “wanting to be something better” and thus devalue him. Although success is desired, it is not endured. The child of such parents is in a dilemma: Whatever it does, it is the loser. If it does not succeed, it remains inwardly bound to that part of the parents which cannot endure success; but, if it succeeds, it cannot enjoy it, since the parents claim it for themselves. Since the success is to be credited to the parents’ account, the success cannot be used for the child’s own identity either, and thus the progressive detachment from the parents – procrastination arises.
Solution strategies and psychoanalytic business coaching
In practice, one often sees different attempted solutions. These are mostly compromise solutions to overcome this inner conflict and to appease the two inner conflict sides. An example of this would be a student who prepares for the exam, but always puts off three exam contents irrationally. In this way she does not completely exhaust her possibilities to be successful in her studies and thus avoids the accusation of the one inner part – which demands dependence on her parents and yet is not so successful. On the other hand, however, she reproaches herself for precisely this procrastination tendency, saying she does not study hard enough. This proportion in turn drives her to diligence and effort. In this example, a complete avoidance of an exam or even dropping out of a course of study can be prevented and the studies can be completed – despite unexhausted capacity.
Of course, procrastination does not occur exclusively among students, but often also in the educational and working context. If it is not possible to calm down one’s own inner parts or if one suffers from not being able to fully exploit one’s own capabilities, psychoanalytic coaching can also be helpful. We would like to help you to understand and work on your inner dynamics behind your procrastination behavior so that you can fully exploit your potential.
If you also suffer from procrastination and are interested in psychoanalytic business coaching, we would be happy to advise you.
M.Sc. Julia Perlinger, Coach at dynaMIND