The Basic Finishing Conflict

Every unhappy person I've ever seen has been caught in a belief system that holds out some promise, a promise that has not been kept.

—Joko Beck

We've said that, because of how the vast majority of us are socialized, we wind up with mixed feelings about our self-worth, including the value of what we produce. And yet many of us want nothing more than to finish our projects and feel good about ourselves. But, in order to complete our work we have to have the faith that our projects will be met with praise and acceptance by those in a position to judge us. For many of us who have not found the response from the world to be welcoming, that risk is just too hard to take. And so, we hold out the hope that someday we will produce something of value — but just not now. This is the basic finishing conflict. We could summarize it this way:

Non-finishers overvalue their projects because they undervalue themselves.

What do we mean by "overvalue their projects"? We mean that non-finishers have made the stakes of finishing so high that they are unable to take the risk of actually doing their project and showing it to others. Whether you feel that your final product will prove, once and for all, that you're not as creative or smart as you want to be, or that you'll finally receive the ultimate negative criticism from the authority figures to whom you plan to show your work, you are over-identifying with your project as a representation of your very worth — and, of course, no project, no accomplishment, has the power to undo permanently the internalized feelings that you may not be "good enough."

It's All About Feelings

Tour the world in a heavy metal band, but they run out of gas — the place can never land.

—They Might be Giants

We've said that, because of the Basic Finishing Conflict, non-finishers are stuck. But stuck in what? Ultimately, our investment in the outcome of our work is tied to painful emotions that we are trying to erase or avoid. There are many feelings that may come up when we think we are not "good enough," such as depression and anxiety, but, in the world of non-finishers, I've found that the most important emotion of all is:


What is shame, exactly? Here is a dictionary definition:

the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another; for example, "She was overcome with shame."

I'd go along with this definition except for the "consciousness" part. I believe that it's mostly unconscious shame that's often at the root of unfinishing difficulties.

Shame can be based on feelings that we are inadequate or powerless, especially when those feelings are suddenly exposed by someone(s) more powerful. Shame often comes up when we are "caught" doing, thinking, or feeling something that we (and those others) find objectionable. One basis for shame that we might, at first glance, find odd is feeling especially powerful - for example, someone might feel ashamed if caught in a reverie of becoming a famous dancer or President of the United States. The shame is connected to the thought, "Who do you think you ARE, anyway?"

There are also basic feelings of shame that arise from our most early and primitive experiences, such as being told that we were dirty, messy, and unable to control ourselves — particularly our bodily functions and reactions — but also our emotions in general. (Even now, when I see a new parent exclaim "Ick!" during the changing of a diaper, I cringe — not in response to the ickiness, but because I believe that, over time, you can damage a child by repeatedly telling her that she is dirty.)

What the two positions — thinking too "high" and acting too "low" — have in common is that they both represent being out of control in some way. Wanting to be President may be seen as "getting carried away" with yourself, and being dirty or messy can be viewed as being out of control physically.

Right now you may be thinking, "Are we really all such hothouse flowers? If our psyches can be crushed so easily, isn't something wrong with this picture? I know (fill in name of friend, associate, or celebrity) who was raised by crack addicts and abused daily, and yet he/she is the (name of fabulous job)."

It's true that people are affected differently by things. However, how surprised are we when we learn that (name of successful/famous person) is now in rehab? Or maybe they aren't addicted to substances, but instead they have developed into individuals who seem to be impervious to the input of other people, and wield their power in rigid ways that appear to overcompensate for what we see clearly is their inadequacy. So maybe we can say that, while feeling shamed is a life-crusher — not feeling shame, that is, when shame remains in our unconscious, acting upon us in unfelt ways — is even worse.

But how does shame adversely affect our work? Perhaps, when we attempt an activity, old feelings that we are inadequate may come up. But even more insidiously, when we begin our project — even the thought of it — at first we might feel GREAT. We might think, this is the greatest idea I've ever thought of — in fact, maybe this is even a unique idea. If I follow through here, my advisors will think I'm the smartest student they've ever had! Or, if I finish these songs, I'll perform them in clubs, and I'll be the next great musical thing! I'll be famous! Probably rich, too.

And response to these feelings of greatness, something else begins to happen. It could be very subtle. A slight tension, a vague feeling of anxiety. You try to ignore it, but you can't. So you decide "to take a little break." You figure, you'll get back to your work later. But then you remember that it's time to get ready to go to your job. And then make dinner. And then maybe see a friend. And time passes. And you've never followed through. Then the rationalizations come. Maybe the songs weren't that great. Or maybe they were, and you'll certainly get to them...later. Some time. Except — you don't.

If you let yourself think back, to analyze a bit the sequence of events that has happened, you may find that, at first, you let yourself have some pretty big thoughts about what you are capable of. But then you had to — subtlely, sometimes; sometimes more obviously — shut them down. If this happens to you, it's quite possible that unconscious shame is at work.

Unconscious — yes, we just said that word again. And what we're referring to is that a large part of the socialization process involves learning to be aware of what you can tolerate, and shutting down the rest so that you don't have to feel the pain of awareness.

Awareness is selective — we often allow ourselves to be conscious of the things that fall in line with the way we already see ourselves and the world and let the rest recede into the background (this is called, in psychology, "confirmation bisas"). We wind up thinking and doing things the way we've always done so. And, as far as finishing goes, we've learned to hold up that carrot in front of us that's become a symbol of what we need to do to validate ourselves, to make ourselves think that "if only" we could finish this or that project, we'd finally be "okay." To restate our summary phrase:

Non-finishers overvalue their projects because they undervalue themselves.

But — and here's the kicker — if you don't feel good about yourself, you can't take the risk of finishing because, on some level, you know that your project, whatever it is, will only be a temporary fix to what feels like a permanent problem — your low self-worth. So it feels better to you to finish in your fantasies, where you can make up stories about how good it'll all be once you complete that unfinished thesis or musical or piece of software. In fact, in your head you've probably finished a thousand times. But in reality, you don't dare risk the criticism (from others and from yourself) — or, maybe worse, being ignored — that you anticipate would be the outcome if you really were to bite the bullet and do the work.

Okay, so we've stated the basic finishing conflict. But now, what are you supposed to do about it?

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