(Content note: some discussion of depression, although it’s very much not the main focus. Also overdue library books.)
So for the most part, I’m a pretty responsible person. I take promises and commitments seriously, and I mostly keep up with them. But there’s this thing I sometimes do that throws a giant monkey wrench into my ability to do the things that I’ve promised to do, even things I actually want to do. I’m wondering if other people do this thing, too. (Actually — no, I’m not wondering, I am 98% positive that this is a common human phenomenon, but I’ll feel better when I see other people say, “Great Caesar’s Ghost, I do that too!”) And I want to hear from other people about your strategies for dealing with it.
It’s the Looming Unfinished Task.
With some things on my To Do list, if I put them off, they start accumulating this load of guilt. The fact that it’s late and I’ve put it off makes me feel bad about it. Then the fact that I feel guilty and bad about it makes the task seem both more unpleasant and more daunting. And because it’s now seeming more unpleasant and more daunting, I put it off for longer… and the longer I put it off, the more guilty I feel about it… and the more guilty I feel about it, the more unpleasant and daunting it feels… so I put it off for longer… until eventually, the unanswered email is looming in my consciousness as both The Most Unpleasant And Upsetting Thing Anyone Could Ever Do, and a prime example of Why I Am An Irresponsible And Generally Terrible Person Who Lets Everyone Down.
I don’t just do this with work, by the way. I do it in personal relationships, with unanswered letters or emails from family or friends. I have actually let relationships drift away because of this: I’ve felt so guilty about the unanswered email from three weeks or six months or two years ago, I not only couldn’t bear to reply to the damn email — I couldn’t bear to contact the person about anything else. I was convinced that if I dropped them a note saying, “Hey, we haven’t been in touch for a while, how are you doing?”, they would reply with, “HOW HAVE I BEEN DOING?!?!? I’ve been stewing about that unanswered email, that’s how I’ve been doing! Every time I think about you, I think of what a terrible person you are!” It’s absurd and irrational. After all, I don’t react that way when people don’t reply to me: I assume they’re busy and overwhelmed, and I just write them again. But somehow I’m convinced, not that my colleagues and friends and family are WAY more harshly judgmental than I am, but that my own misdeeds are somehow much worse than theirs. The terrible judgment I’m imagining from them seems entirely proportionate.
The thing is, though — there have actually been a handful of people in my life who did judge me this way. [Read more…]