Shame And GuilT: The Ego's Tools Which Make You Procrastinate

Introducing: B. F. SKinner's Operant Conditioning

You wake up in a tiny cage. With an empty belly and blurry viewed you notice that there is no exit from the cage. Suddenly, a painful electrical shock strikes your whole body. After two seconds – again. And again. You notice a small lever in the cage, which opens a little door with a small portion of food and water. What you also notice is, that the shocks stop for 2 minutes, the moment you push the lever. What this experiment has to do with procrastination? Read on and unveil the shocking truth about it.

Shame and Guilt: The Fuel For Procrastination

At certain point, every psychotherapist works on the redemption of shame and guilt. They are the evil twins accompanying us with our unquestioned belief, that they are vital to our well-being. Biologically seen, they are. However, times have changed as we know. What shame and guilt will never tell you – they are not on your side. Their job is to make sure your behavior is aligned to the ego’s agenda of fitting into the tribe. And what is the tribe? It’s the script your culture, family, teachers and your friends have written and handed over to you. At the end of the day, we are a huge and messy mix of micro personalities. Our job is to realize this fact and evaluate what’s useful and what’s not.

Shame = “if I only weren’t”

Guilt = “If I only hadn’t”

This automatic script repeats itself again and again, if your >self< or the things you do are not aligned to the beliefs and values created and adopted in your childhood and youth.

→ If I only weren’t that clumsy

→ If I only weren’t that short

→ If I only were smarter

→ If I only were better


→ If I only hadn’t messed this up

→ If I only hadn’t cheated on …

→ If I only had studied more

→ If I only had talked to …

What Happens If We FIght SHame And Guilt

Now here’s the crux. If you don’t act according to the script, which are your beliefs and values, you activate another strong protocol, which is hard to escape. Acting against the grain evokes negative thoughts and memories. The ego does its utmost effort to avoid this with two handy tools:

Experiental Avoidance

Experiential avoidance refers to the deliberate avoidance of thoughts, feelings, memories, physical sensations, and other internal experiences, even though such avoidance my result in long-term harm. The process of experiential avoidance is believed to be executed via negative reinforcement, where temporary relief from discomfort is offered by avoiding these experiences, thereby increasing the likelihood of continued avoidance. However, the current understanding of experiential avoidance emphasizes that it is not the negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations themselves that pose a problem, but rather how individuals respond to them. Specifically, a persistent and ingrained unwillingness to confront uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, coupled with the tendency to avoid and suppress these experiences, is associated with a wide range of difficulties.

Negative Reinforcement

Imagine you spend most of your salary at the beginning of the month. Mid-month you notice that there is no money left anymore on your bank account. Fortunately, you got acquainted to the Wolf of Wallstreet in the fine restaurant you dined last night. You told him about your pitiful situation every 15th of the month. The wolf just nodded confidently, opened the left side of his 5000-dollar three pieces suit and handed you over a little black device with a red button. “If you ever run out of money old sport, push this button and I will immediately transfer you 150 bucks. But, you only can use it if your account is empty. No overdraft. Now, lucky you, every time you run out of money you push the red button, and get some extra cash to just stay over water. This is negative reinforcement par excellence. In order to avoid the negative feeling of being broke, you just push the button, and everything is fine! What a wonderful life!

→ every time your alarm rings in the morning, you push the snooze button

→ every time you don’t fasten your seatbelt in the car, the annoying seatbelt noise starts to torture you. In order to avoid the sound, you fasten your seatbelt

→ every time you feel bad for being overdue with studying, you clean the kitchen, play video games, or go for grocery shopping

→ every time your bills are due, you open amazon and get some inspiration for a next purchase

Negative reinforcement is the encouragement of certain behaviors by removing or avoiding a negative thought, memory, or outcome. Introduced by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s, negative reinforcement is part of his operant conditioning – theory. It was used, or is still in use to “help” children learn good patterns of behavior. He proposed that behavior is shaped by its consequences and that individuals tend to repeat behaviors that are reinforced or rewarded while avoiding behaviors that result in punishment. Skinner’s work emphasized the role of environmental factors in shaping behavior, focusing on observable actions rather than internal mental processes.


Psychologically seen, negative reinforcement is a win-win situation for everybody: In order to remove a negative stimulus, a human or animal is allowed to exchange the negative stimuli with a reward. With that the brain gets conditioned to just seek pleasure in order to avoid pain. Now we solved the mystery, why the human is heavily in danger doing exciting things, instead of facing the pain of a bill, an overdue study, chores, arduous piano lessons, or going out and getting to know people, instead of swiping left and right.

How we conditioned ourselves to procrastinate

To put it simple: The ego rewards our >self< if negative emotions are avoided. As above mentioned, it is not the negative emotion, thought or memory per se, but how we learned to handle it. In the procrastinators case, the reward can be anything that releases quick dopamine. This is why we are so easily conditioned taking the quick happiness shot instead of facing what we want or should face. The vicious part of this is: the earlier in life we started to condition ourselves providing cheap rewards for avoiding negative emotions, the deeper the habit is ingrained in our character.

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