What’s holding you back?

About three years ago I came up with an idea for new project. It’s something I would love to do.

But I still haven’t made any real progress. I’ve talked to people about it. I’ve researched it. I’ve strategised. I’ve planned. Then, time and again, I’ve re-researched, re-strategised, re-planned. But it’s still not up and running. The big question is ‘why?’

I’m pretty good at getting things done. I’m the sort of person who breaks a project down into its component parts and the associated tasks before ticking them off, one after the other. I’ve got plenty of personal issues to manage but procrastination is not one of them. I know it’s better to get moving and try something, to learn from my mistakes and be happy with something that’s ‘good enough’. But, despite this I haven’t made any substantive progress. Why? Why? Why?

It all comes down to shame. Guilt and shame are easy to confuse but they are very different. Guilt is about my actions; shame is about me. If I feel guilty it’s because I’ve done something I shouldn’t have or haven’t done something I think I should. I might feel guilty when I snap at my husband, get cross with my dog or forget to send a birthday card in time. Shame, in contrast, is toxic. It’s about who I am. It comes with phrases like ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m flawed’, ‘everything I do is wrong’. Shame like this is not an emotion. It’s an identity. When it comes to this project, it’s shame that’s the block.

This project matters more to me than would appear at first glance. Yes, it will be something I will really enjoy doing and yes, it will generate some income. But, in my world, it’s morphed into something much more. If it takes off it will only take up about half a day a month and won’t be financially significant, but, if I can get it to work, it feels like it will prove something about me that my success as a freelance communication specialist has not; that my years of successfully juggling work and study have not; that achieving a first class honours degree did not; that having a thriving private psychotherapy practice has not. It will prove I can do it, that I am good enough. Looked at like this, it’s clear the stakes are pretty high. No wonder I’m stricken with inertia and procrastination!

The sad truth is, even if I get this project going and it becomes a roaring success, there’ll be something else I’ll need to achieve to prove I’m good enough. I’m already doing another diploma! This type of drive to achieve is a typical cover for the toxic shame that has sat at my core for years. So, what am I to do to free myself from the power of my shame? How, instead of seeing this project as some sort of intense judgement on my very being, can I recognise it as just another project that if it works, great, and if it doesn’t, I’ll learn from the mistakes and move on?

Shame’s power lies in the darkness. Its genesis lies in childhood. When the vulnerable parts of our self are shamed, we tend to disown them and hide them away, denying them to ourselves and others. It makes sense then, that shame lives in the shadows. Never named, it will never go away. To heal toxic shame, I need to embrace it. That sounds scary! But as is always the case with healing old emotional wounds, it doesn’t have to be done in one giant leap. I can pace myself. A good first step is to recognise that it’s shame that’s holding me back. Even, as I write this blog, naming the barrier, I can feel its power diminish.

Next, I’m thinking about who I talk to about this project. Right back at the beginning of the process, someone who has been very close to me dismissed it out of hand. The quote and the turn of the head with which it was delivered is seared onto my memory. Seeking their approval was part of my old process. Some of the people I’ve turned to for strategic help have also unwittingly and unintentionally shamed me. They’ve not understood my resistance. The message has been ‘what’s your problem, just get on with it’. I get where they’re coming from, but  it’s not been that straightforward for me. Now, I’m choosing only to talk to those people who will encourage and support me whatever the outcome.

And, of course, there is pain behind the shame. The part of me enveloped in the shame has never felt good enough. Dealing with it leaves nothing but the pain of the original experience, of that moment when I first began to feel I wasn’t enough, that I had to be better. That part of me needs compassion and care. I’m focusing on giving that to myself as well as reaching out to others who are also able to offer it to me.

So, I’m getting on with the project … but it’s not defining me!

By Cathy Connan

I'm an integrative psychotherapist. I help people invest in their wellbeing and live the life they want.