Every Sunday, I write out some of the tasks I want or need to accomplish during the week. The first thing I do is inspect my list from the previous Sunday and carry over anything that didn’t get done. And there are always a few items that sound like they should have been easy. Yet sometimes, these items stay on my list for weeks, or even months. Why don’t I just Do The Thing and be done with it?
What’s happening is that the task triggers a “negative” emotional response. And that response, those feelings, are easier to avoid than to deal with. I put the word “negative” in quotes because it’s not that the feelings are bad or unhealthy—they are just feelings—it’s that they are uncomfortable or painful.
These feelings are generated from previous times we’ve tried to do a similar task and failed, or they are associated with a person or place or event that the task reminds us of. For me, what sits on my list are calls, texts, and emails. I’ve got a couple on there right now. This goes back to my middle school and high school days, when I had a rather severe case of social anxiety. Almost any personal interaction that had anything at stake freaked me out and overwhelmed me with physical discomfort.
That rarely happens to me now—it’s a long story involving many years of hard work—but the point is that these associations between task and feeling live on in my psyche and in my nervous system, and I’m often not consciously aware of their presence. Instead, I’ll rationalize: “I can make that appointment tomorrow. This email isn’t really that important. I’m really busy, there is so much else to do.”
What’s insidious about this is that the longer I avoid a simple task, the longer it feels like it will take, and the less likely I am to want to do it. The reality of the task slowly distorts in my brain until I’ve lost all touch with it. It once took me nearly two months to write an email that I finished in five minutes. It was only when I pressed send that the scales fell from my eyes. I was legitimately shocked at how easy it had been.
Mark Manson calls these VCR problems. (Yes, I too had a VCR growing up.) Learning how to work a VCR isn’t that hard. It’s a matter of trying to do stuff by pressing the buttons, seeing whether it did the thing you wanted, and repeating that process until it does. But for some people, the VCR became an unfathomably complex machine in their minds, which can only be operated via high-level sorcery. “How do you work that thing?” becomes a question that seems inconceivable to answer, when really the solution is that you just do it.
We all have these kinds of questions that, to all the people living outside our minds, have easy answers. That’s because they can’t see our feelings. They can’t see our Wall of Awful.
The Wall of Awful is what looms between us and the task we can’t bring ourselves to work on. It’s built out of all the uncomfortable and painful feelings that we have ever experienced with this kind of task, or with anything we associate with this kind of task.
Say I asked someone for help tying my shoe as a kid, and they responded by asking me why I couldn’t just do it myself. That’s a rejection, and it doesn’t feel good. That’s a brick. Now I’m worried that when I walk into class, everyone will see that my shoes are untied and laugh at me. More bricks. Now I don’t want to ask for any more help, and I struggle trying to teach myself to do it, feeling more and more like a failure. Another brick.
Add up a bunch of related experiences like this, and after some time, you’ve got a pretty high wall. Or it could be that a single traumatic episode furnished us with a whole bunch of bricks all at once. We all have stuff like this; it’s the unfortunate side effect of having a brain.
So how does this help? Well, if there’s a wall between us and the thing we want to do, then all we need to do is get to the other side of the wall.
We could stare at the wall, or try to walk around it, but neither of those works. (In the metaphor, the wall is infinitely long.) You could work yourself up into a frenzy and Hulk Smash your way through the wall, but that requires generating anger, which isn’t sustainable and hurts the people around you. Or you could internally Hulk Smash and try to guilt and shame yourself into doing the thing. That’s also not a good long-term strategy, you can take my word for it.
What does work is climbing the wall. This means doing the emotional work of noticing the feelings and engaging in good self-talk. “Alright, I know I’m having trouble starting this email. It’s going to be painful, but it’ll only take me about twenty minutes, and then I’ll be done, I never have to write that email again. I can do this.” Maybe it means taking a walk first, or talking to someone about it.
There are a couple other strategies you can use, like putting a door in the wall, by using something like music or exercise to change your emotional state, and putting handholds on the wall, by developing good habits like time-boxing and post-task reflections. (There’s lots more background in the video, which I highly recommend watching next if you’re still reading this. I only wish I’d come up with all this wall stuff myself!)
We need to be able to name these psychological processes—make them more concrete, less abstract. We can’t watch them operate; they’re all mental, not tangible. That means we can often only detect them via their effects, like the to-do list item with a forcefield around it. Unless, of course, we can learn to notice the feelings as we’re feeling them, and translate them into striking images that our minds can more readily work with.
“I am climbing this wall” is an active image. It helps us visualize the important emotional work that we often need to do when confronted with triggering tasks. It gives us an opportunity to step back and view ourselves from the outside, changing our perspective and helping us see that our feelings are just feelings.
We’re really up against it, though, in trying to understand our minds by using our minds. That… doesn’t sound like it should work. The bad news is that we have no other choice. The good news is that sometimes, miraculously, it does work. And we ought to celebrate every win. That’s why I feel so charged-up any time I learn about a concept like the Wall of Awful, and why I feel so grateful that there are smart people out there making it their life’s work to help us all gain a little more self-insight.
Even the best psychological strategies don’t always work. Maybe we’re too tired or frazzled to be present, or the wall we’re dealing with is so tall that we can’t see the top, or maybe we just forgot about it. When this happens, the answer is to forgive yourself. After my two-month/five-minute email, it would have been easy, and typical, to beat myself up about it. “How did I not realize this would only take five minutes? When will I ever learn?”
A different thing I could say to myself is: “Wow, I didn’t realize this Wall of Awful was so massive. I wonder what that’s about. I’m glad I was able to get past it!” Or: “That was rough. How can I help myself deal with this the next time it comes up?”
That’s all I’ve got. Please take care, write back if you can, and I’ll see you next week.