“Masrahiya Yasmeen. Really.” His voice was stoic. I remained silent, creating a Mexican standoff of wills.
I don’t know how my father managed to project such power in his voice at such low volume; it was a quiet thunder which scared me. I knew I was wrong, but I was more stubborn than afraid. I stared straight ahead at the television which was actually turned off. I didn’t want to meet his stare, because I could have easily cracked.
Starring In My Own Play
In Arabic, masrahiya means a play; a play in theatres where you watch actors perform live on stage. In Kuwait, they are popular with children and adults alike, thriving to this day despite the temptations of streaming services that confine many of us in our homes.
But my father wasn’t suggesting we go to a play. He wasn’t interested in taking me to one of my favourite places in the world (I loved the masrahiya–it was magical). What my father implied was that I was causing a spectacle. I was putting on a flair for the dramatic, starring in a show that everyone–him, my mother, my siblings and my nannies– had the insufferable task of having to sit through to get me out of the house so they could carry on with their busy days.
My masrahiya was in full force because I didn’t want to go to school. The previous week masrahiya was about not wanting to eat my vegetables.
My father was disappointed in me but he wasn’t in the mood to fight a battle that day. “You don’t want to go to school, then change back into your pajamas or get up from the sofa and into the car, because you’re going to make me late if you just sit there.”
I was a toddler when this transpired; you could say I had an innate emotional need a six year-old couldn’t articulate–it just came out in the form of not wanting to go to school, which was unusual because I loved school. So I created a silent, empty space that I needed an adult to figure out on my behalf. When this need wasn’t met I remained in emotional suspense, waiting for someone to come. A lot of times no one did. And I think that’s one of the things that started my lifetime habit of procrastination, of waiting for someone or something. I suppose you could call it learned helplessness, which is dangerous when it starts during early, formative years.
Sitting on that couch was the beginning of a habit of a lifetime of extended stagnation before action. I grew up to be one of the biggest procrastinators I know; the type that would wait years to get a living room couch (no joke) and months to develop film (when Kodak was in business and you had to wait days to see if you took a photo correctly!). As a student, it was normal for me to curse myself for not starting a university essay sooner while I pulled an all-nighter before the due date.
It wasn’t just the small things: I procrastinated on getting my health together, on quitting sugar (emotional eating is something I still battle with); on picking a career, and on waiting years before leaving a city that no longer served me.
I think of all the career ideas I put off. I think of the creative projects I kept tabling, not only in my mind, but in resources (unused watercolour pad and brushes). A professional organizer once said to me that clutter is a sign of postponed decisions. I look at my piles of papers, magazines and books scattered across my studio or an ad for a tango class I’d been meaning to take; three months of back issues of Harper’s magazine I hadn’t read because I was mindlessly watching reruns of Modern Family–a show I love, but had been repeatedly watching for years– when I’m winding down at the end of the night and thinking of all the things I have to do. This perpetuates masrahiya, which feeds my anxiety.
Decades later this persists. For example, before exercising, I need to sit on my couch to decompress after getting home from my job. When I enter my apartment, I set my purse and my lunch bag on my patio table (patio furniture, since I am–shocker– procrastinating on getting a proper dining table) and peel off my clothes to cool off after a hot walk in the sun. I would have a cup of low-calorie chocolate pudding, lie on my stomach on my bed, watch the news on repeat until I was ready to work out; masrahiya.
Most days, the last thing I want to do is work out. After eight hours at my day job, it’s a mental crawl to the exercise finish line just to begin: get dressed and start that YouTube workout video, or picking up fifteen-pound weights: masrahiya. It’s a mental play, a spectacle of a ritual in my brain to psych myself. My own mind hears my father’s or other caregivers’ voices who would have to say the right things to cajole me into completing tasks.
Sometimes it costs me up to an hour and a half. During really bad periods, half a day. Short-term, a few hours are nothing to fret about. But compounded, hours turn into days. If I were to look back on the spectacle of mental shows I played in my mind just sitting, waiting for the ghost of emotional longings to arrive, I could have probably gotten a four-year degree with the time I wasted.
Healing from Procrastination
My aim in life is not to get rid of masrahiya; I don’t think it will ever go away; consistent high motivation is fleeting even for the most disciplined of us. My desire is to shorten the masrahiya period, to manage it so it doesn’t eat up huge chunks of my time.
On the bright side, masrahiya has its benefits, especially if you have a creative mind that needs boredom to activate imagination. I’ve come up with great ideas when my mind wanders and rests in mental motion.
Meditation works. Watching your mind go through its’ own thoughts shortens the masrahiya sessions. It allows me to change the narrative I’ve been playing most of my life. It’s not an easy task. I am undoing a lifetime of mental chatter that seemed harmless at first, but was actually a toxic neural pathway that kept me stuck for years.
I also implement the five-minute rule, which James Clear talks about extensively in his book Atomic Habits. Almost every post of this blog started with setting a timer for five minutes of writing. Most times, I kept going after but I was ok if I just wrote for five minutes–the cumulative work, in the end, is worth it.
It’s been a few years since I began this shift. I engage in daily microtasks of change in how I think; it’s part of the journey of transformation in the ideal internal dialogue I want to create for myself. Masrahiya has a place and time–you just need to have the right, succinct script with a time limit before getting on with the business of living (a creative) life.