For a class related to my education Master’s Degree, my professor sent a weekly e-mail that had a more stern than usual tone. Usually, these are e-mails no one reads, but professors have to send them out anyway. The stern reminder for this class was to not call our students lazy. “Lazy” is not a term behaviorists or researchers use when they describe student behavior, and is simply not a label that ages well.
As a special ed teacher, I don’t use the label for my students. I don’t refer to anyone as lazy — I can’t describe why, but even if someone isn’t doing something they need to be doing, lazy applies more to the person’s character rather than their actions. Lazy is an insulting label that paints a person with a broad brush and misunderstands a person’s individual circumstances. You don’t call a kid who is grieving and lost someone really close to them “lazy.”
A boss of one of my friends tries to motivate her whole staff through unrelenting sternness and borderline cruelty, calling all her workers lazy. I am not saying we’re all a snowflake generation who can’t take constructive feedback and transparency, but I never saw how treating your workers like crap is an effective leadership technique to get people to work harder for you or respect you.
However, as much as I know how terrible a label the word lazy truly is, and as much as I give others and my students the benefit of the doubt, I call myself lazy every single day. When I played five hours of video games over the weekend, decompressing from finishing my Master’s Degree, I felt guilt over not pushing forward to do more work-related tasks. The tone I police myself in sounds something like “get off the couch, you lazy piece of shit.” It’s harsh, but that’s the critical and non-compassionate manner I talk to myself in to get things done, putting pressure the harshest of football coaches would never put on their athletes.
How can this contradiction exist? I don’t believe in laziness and haven’t called someone else lazy in a long time. And yet my mind will not hesitate to call myself lazy any time I feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do. To be kinder to myself, I’ve reframed “what I’m supposed to do” as exactly where I am now. But the lesson is clear: I have a lot of compassion towards others, and not that much compassion towards myself.
One example is that I’m a procrastinator. I wait to the last minute on almost everything. I’ve worked my whole life to curb this procrastination problem with little to no success. When I’m procrastinating, I give myself more tough love and stricter self-talk. Despite how much I procrastinate, what I need to get done always gets done. It’s not like I’m perfect, but the world does not crash down.
I have come to see “laziness” as a sign I’m not ready to complete something at a given time, and sure, I can force and bulldozer my way to finish something I’m not ready to do. But then all the adrenaline and treating myself like a robot always catch up to me. Undoubtedly, I’ll need to sleep, eat, refresh, and take time not to be giving it everything I have.
Research supports the notion that calling yourself lazy is simply self-sabotage. According to Dr. Jennice Vilhauer at Psychology Today, calling ourselves lazy sets up the expectation we won’t get the work done. And Dr. Neel Burton at Psychology Today reviews the laziness paradox — the notion that very few people choose to be lazy and society casts them off as lazy anyway. Fear and hopelessness can lead to inactivity, or from an evolutionary perspective, we conserve energy when we don’t anticipate a short-term reward. Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist at the University of Sheffield, wrote in Self and Identity that procrastinators like myself tend to have lower levels of self-compassion and higher levels of stress than the average population. This lower self-compassion might explain why procrastinators are so stressed all the time and exercises in self-compassion could help counter the habit.
I am not here to offer you a cure for your self-perceived laziness if that’s what you feel about yourself. I want to validate that you’re probably not lazy and there’s still a pandemic going on in the world, after all. If you live in a United States city like me, just because the whole world seems to be partying outside as the weather gets nicer does not mean COVID is no longer a thing.
But I digress. I spoke recently with a close friend who has known me for a long time. I told her I felt like I was lazy and I was just skating by, doing the bare minimum. This is someone who knows me extremely well — and she pushed back on the notion. She said I was one of the hardest workers she knew, that she always knew me to be way too hard on myself.
Again, it’s not like I believe in a kumbaya world where sternness has no place, but I don’t hesitate to be stern to myself or be extremely critical of myself. All my rules on how not to treat others, like not slapping labels onto people, not cursing at people, and not rushing to judgments — these are rules I cast aside when I speak to myself. I used to think this was simply how the world was, and that I needed to live in it. I had to be strict, or even borderline cruel to myself, to be able to get by or exceed.
I was wrong about how I needed to treat myself in order to get by. As I’ve gotten older and matured, I was wrong about the need to call myself lazy and motivate myself through negative self-talk.
These days, as much as I think to myself “I should probably get off the couch and stop watching Netflix,” I am doing better than ever work-wise. I finished my second semester of my Master’s, work is going well, writing and editing are going well, and even studying for law school is going well. Not that these numbers matter, my performance evaluations reflect I’m doing better than ever. My grades reflect it, and even my physical fitness as a runner reflects it.
Luck more than anything else impacts my ability to do so much and do much of it well. But I believe reframing the way I’ve looked at myself and my need to work has paid dividends as well. I still call myself lazy on occasion since revising how I talk to myself doesn’t change overnight, but I’m significantly more self-aware and understanding of my needs.
I realize that when I’m procrastinating or when I’m on the couch mindlessly playing video games for hours, that’s where I’m supposed to be. I’m not ready to work yet. I realize when I have a bad workout and don’t meet my personal standards or expectations in any domain of my life, that’s where I’m supposed to be. Instead of pushing through and still powering through, I give up early, rest, and come back to try again another day or another week. I average eight or nine hours of sleep, significantly more than I was in college.
All of the results have come from a process of treating myself better, asking for more help, receiving more support, and simply adopting an attitude of greater kindness. There is still a contradiction between what I believe and what I internalize. But if that gap was a mountain, I’m much farther up and closer to the summit than I was before.
This post was previously published on Publishous.
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