Why Can't You Finish Things?

Tell me what you fear and I will tell you what has happened to you.

—Donald M.Winnicott

Where Do Finishing Conflicts Come From?

Most of us were born with virtually unlimited interest, energy, and optimism. Look at any toddler. If her basic needs are met, her enthusiasm, curiosity, and energy seem almost boundless.

Here's an example:

At this very moment I am writing this at a local cafe in the East Village, New York City. And right near me, wandering around, is a little boy. He's 3 years old (I know this because he came up to me a minute ago and said, "It was my birthday yesterday! I was 3!") He's holding a magnifying glass, which, he volunteered, was one of his birthday presents, and he's stopping to examine everything around him (including my laptop and my hands). He's fascinated by every detail. And, most important, as his mother sits on the couch across from me, she's looking at him, a pleasant expression on her face, and periodically she's asking him what he sees, and he's telling her.

But what if, instead of speaking to him in an encouraging tone, his mother was saying, "Stop that!" "You're annoying the lady!" or "Can't you sit still?" or "If you don't put that thing away I'm going to take it away!" At this point you may be thinking: "but what if the boy *was* annoying the people around him? Isn't it his mother's job to teach him how to behave?"

There are a lot of answers to that question: as many as there are styles of raising children. But my personal philosophy is that, no matter how you decide to teach your child good behavior, if it is not done with basic empathy and with the goals of encouraging curiosity, supporting a sense of spirit and adventure, and reinforcing a child's belief in his or her own intelligence, competence, and dignity, then there may well be problems later in the areas of self-confidence, self-assertion, motivation, and the ability to develop and carry out one's goals in life.

You might be saying to yourself at this point: "But I was raised by loving caregivers who were interested and encouraging!" And that may be quite right. However, even with the most love and understanding available, the very process of socialization is one of constantly shaping behavior through a process of discriminations, judgments, and critiques of a child's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Of course the process of socialization is necessary. We human animals need to learn to make the judgments that will increase our chances of survival. And socialization means, in part, putting aside immediate pleasures (such as that last look at your Facebook page) in the service of future goals (that B.A.).

But, for many of us, the socialization process was too intense, too judgmental, not empathic enough and fraught with anxiety on the part of our caretakers. Here's comedian/writer Larry David on his mother's effect on him:

"The whole time I was doing 'Seinfeld' [my mother] would call me up and she would go...and this is when the show was like number one, the number one show in the country; she would call me up [David affects a quavering, over-anxious maternal voice], 'Do they like you, Larry? Do they think you're doing a good job? They must like you, otherwise they would fire you, wouldn't they?! You wouldn't still be there if they didn't like you!' "

[Quoted in L. A. Times]

And those messages, including the anxiety that you are not "doing it right" may carry us into later childhood, where we come to the next roadblock to spontaneity: school.

School: Institutionalized Socialization

Many of us can still feel the tension we felt sitting in those wooden chairs in classroom after classroom, hour after hour, day after day, being talked to by teacher after teacher, opening our books, closing our books, walking down those halls painted the color of bile, sitting in more wooden chairs, opening our books, closing our books...and on. And on. For years. And years. And each day when we arrived home, frazzled, we'd have to stop free play way too early in order to start on hours of homework. And this continued throughout high school, college, and, for some, way beyond.

The very goal of school is to make us "good citizens" and to teach us what our educational system has decided we need to learn. History is a "major" subject, whereas music and art are "minors." Those of us who excelled in the arts might have felt feel special in some way, but how great can you feel about yourself when your talent is considered "minor"?

School is the source of so many later work inhibitions. Look at the contradictory messages we were given: Fit in but be an individual. Have a novel idea for a science project, but don't be weird. Sit quietly but, when called on, spontaneously spout out brilliant answers (in front of an audience of your peers!). Don't daydream but, of course, be "creative." Keep a "journal of your thoughts" but expose it to your teachers and all of your classmates when called upon!

One preschooler's experience:

When my son was 3 years old, we decided to enroll him in a "progressive" pre-school in the Village. Of course he had to be interviewed for this privilege, to see if he was "ready." I dutifully watched as the director presented him with some colored wooden beads on a string. My son took the end of the string and pulled the string of beads around, saying "Train." I thought this was adorable, not to mention highly creative, and was sure that the director would agree. However, I was wrong. My son, it seems, "should" have known that the beads were a necklace and put them around his neck! Therefore, he failed this casual "IQ Test" and the director hesitated to enroll him!

So, then: what are the effects of socialization that have an impact on our ability to finish projects?

Many of us end up retaining a lot of our drive and creativity, BUT when it comes to picking up that project that we've started, the Bad Feelings start to come up. So we decide to turn on the TV instead of working, and then there are the Beautiful People...

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