top of page

The Myth of Laziness — How Anxiety, Depression and Conflict Can Masquerade as Sloth

(2 minute read)

I wish I had a dollar for every time a client told me they’re lazy. It seems an awful lot of people are very self critical in this area. I always tell my clients that I’ve been around for over five decades and am still waiting to meet someone who is genuinely lazy.

I can almost see my readers rolling their eyes and saying to themselves “That’s because he hasn’t met my kid/husband/wife/subordinate/boss.” I will grant you that many people exhibit behaviors that look like laziness. And that a lot of people see themselves as lazy, or see others as lazy.

The dictionary defines lazy as “unwilling to work or use energy”. Whenever I meet a client who claims to be lazy, sooner or later we figure out that they’re not unwilling to work or use energy — they’re unable. They want to be able to do more, but something is stopping them.

There are many reasons why people find themselves unable to work or use energy including:

Depression. When someone is deeply depressed, getting out of bed is a herculean task. Blinking is an effort. Suicide would be an attractive option, but it is physically impossible to get up and make the effort. Even for those with milder cases of depression, activity is an exhausting effort. Despite the fact that they are drained of energy, depressed people often still blame themselves for their lack of activity.

Anxiety. Some degree of anxiety can be energizing, spurring effort and activity. But too much can be paralyzing. It affects concentration, making it hard to study or even read. Anxiety makes it challenging to plan activities, because the fear of making mistakes weighs on a person, slowing decision making to a crawl. Anxiety can make it challenging to actually engage in activities too, for fear that something bad will happen. People who are anxious about a task often find things to distract them, and in today’s electronic age, those things are a mouse click away. I often hear “I left the whole afternoon free to do X, and then I got distracted and before I knew it the day was over and I’d barely started on the project.”

Control. The pressure to get things done isn’t always internal. If that pressure is coming from another person, willingness (or unwillingness) to expend effort can be a tool to be used in that relationship. The classic example is parental pressure to study: Parents can force a child to go to school and to sit down with their homework in front of them, but they can’t force the child to actually study. The child can assert independence, or express anger by being ‘lazy’. A husband can get back at his spouse by being too ‘lazy’ to pick up his clothes. A wife can exact retribution by being too ‘lazy’ to keep track of the family finances.

Learned helplessness. If you believe that you have the capability to do something, the chances are good that you’ll be able to overcome a lot of obstacles. On the other hand, if you think you’re beaten before you start, why even bother starting? Children who’ve come to believe they’re inadequate in a subject often do the minimum they can get away with since they believe that no matter how hard they try, they won’t succeed. Adults may simply avoid the task entirely.

Fear of failure. If you try your best, and you fail, you must face the fact of your failure. That can be very painful if what you are trying to do is a core part of your self image. On the other hand, if you never tried that hard, the question of whether you could have succeeded had you done your best can’t be answered. You can console yourself with the thought that you really might have been successful if you’d given it your best shot.

Fear of success. This is an odd one. You might ask why anyone would be afraid of success? Perhaps this isn’t common, but it does happen. Girls, particularly in the past, often received messages that it’s not good to be too successful because no man will want you, and what they should aspire to is marriage and children. Families sometimes also give children messages that standing out from the crowd is bad, or that too much independence will make a parent unhappy.

Using the word “lazy” is somehow satisfying. Direct it at yourself, and you’re appropriately punishing yourself for your supposed bad behavior. Directing it at someone else puts the blame on their supposed character failings. There’s a sense of justice having been done and blame being apportioned. But if you want a solution rather than satisfaction, it’s best to look elsewhere for the source of the problem.


bottom of page