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"Insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results every time."
August 25, 2011 12:32 PM   Subscribe

How does one remain determined and confident in the face of repeated failure? Need help retaining my "original mind".

Left unchecked long enough, depression engenders chronic ineptitude in almost every aspect of one's existence. The simplest of things become difficult to do and even more difficult to do right.

I've crashed and burned in more things than I can count, and my numerous repeated failures in each of these aspects of life has wrecked my state of mind. No matter how hard I try, every new approach is tainted by both trepidation and subconscious prognosticating that this time will be just like the previous 75 tries. It's akin to the feeling that some race car drivers have after a near-fatal crash.

While I have no problem intellectually understanding that my attempts are statistically independent events, this kind of realization doesn't suffice. To use an example, my depression almost led to my academic demise in university. Once I started failing courses related to my core specialization (physics & math), my attitude toward the entire field changed for the worse. The cognitive decline steadily worsened, claiming my proficiency in other areas as well (programming, writing, spoken language, debating, etc.). It took me about half an hour to compose this question.

I now have to revisit some cognitively demanding concepts that I didn't successfully internalize back in university, nor did successive attempts to do so help much. I just can't do it. I stare at the page and the words don't make any sense. The vast majority of people have no trouble understanding something so simple, yet I can't do it. I have failed yet again.

Motivation isn't the problem - I'm very motivated to tackle most challenges (although interest is usually lacking). The trouble is that the slightest setback triggers thoughts of past failures, which in turn makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I fail once more, then get frustrated, which leads to rage (both in the form of the abstract Platonic Ideal, and directed at myself).

Have any of you been in a similar situation? How did you manage to overcome this psychological bugaboo?
posted by identitymap to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
Have any of you been in a similar situation? How did you manage to overcome this psychological bugaboo?

THERAPY. MEDS. MEDS. THERAPY. MEDSTHERAPYTHERAPYMEDS.

Are you doing those things? Can you do them more or in a different way? (Cocktail/higher dose/different drug/different therapist/more frequent therapy/etc?)

Seriously, meds took me from being afraid (for SEVEN YEARS) of calling the dentist lest he frown ever so slightly over my failure to floss to getting a root canal and actually JOKING about it to pretty much anyone who came near me. (There are so many good root canal jokes, seriously). Okay? Okay.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:45 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Success if going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm."
- Winston Churchill

Then again, there's that quote about "Insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." (Albert Einstein)

Sorry to hear your troubles - it does sound like something that seeking professional help can probably address better than some strangers on the internet.

For my own specific failings, after a few failures I'll try my hand at doing something else before coming back to a project that just. won't. work.

A lot of the time, the time spent away from failing project allows me to think of a different angle of attack. Sometimes it works.
posted by porpoise at 12:48 PM on August 25, 2011


Perhaps expanding your definition of "success" may work.

There was a moment from the play A Chorus Line where one character at an audition confesses that a few months ago she'd had a nervous breakdown; she'd been in a hospital, had been through extensive therapy, and was just barely coming back now. Her doctors had all told her it was much too soon to try going out to auditions, she said -- but here she was, at an audition, and it was actually something she felt okay about doing. "So even if I lose," she said, "....I've....still kind of won."

Maybe that -- I went through that phase myself a couple years ago, feeling like I was the world's butt-monkey. But this year I tried to do something again that I'd failed at two years back; and I failed again, through sheer dumb luck, but I noticed that I didn't get anywhere near as upset this time, so I considered that a successful thing. Start keeping track of your own reactions to failures, and see if you notice any change in attitude ("wow, last time I screwed this up I didn't talk to anyone for a day, but this time I actually felt good enough to crack a joke to someone an hour later"). Embrace those things, because they too are success. Just of a different sort.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:56 PM on August 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


THERAPY. MEDS. MEDS. THERAPY. MEDSTHERAPYTHERAPYMEDS.

I've read that SSRIs are no more effective than CBT in cases of mild to moderate depression. I wouldn't qualify my depression as severe (probably between mild to moderate, nearing the latter on some days). Besides, most SSRIs have a negative impact on mental performance.

I've read through Feeling Good by David Burns. While a lot of his recommendations in the book make sense, they haven't worked in my case. I don't think any of the chapters can be applied to modified to address this issue. I'm not anxious, nor do I engage in negative self-talk. I don't curse myself upon failure - I just feel immensely frustrated. My internal monologue is more along the lines of "Fucking hell, not this shit again. Graaar!", rather than "Woe is me! I'm a miserable piece of shit."
posted by identitymap at 12:58 PM on August 25, 2011


I went through this after I graduated from University. There was this phase where I fucked pretty much everything up, and I wound up feeling a lot like you. Negative self-talk was a part of that for me, and can make things worse, as you convince yourself that you can no longer do something you used to be able to do. You say that negative self-talk isn't part of your problem, but I beg to differ: "not again!" is still a defeatist way of framing the result.

Part of the issue is framing how you think about the problem. If you've been a whiz at stuff and things have come easy, then finding yourself unable to do something is horribly humbling. For me, music is easy, but my choir members don't always think so. Sometimes, confronting something way hard is the universe's way of reminding me that not everybody finds music as easy as I do.

Porpoise has a point - time spent away gives you perspective that may help in your efforts. A different angle of attack helps too.

But honestly, sometimes, just asking for help is the most important thing.
posted by LN at 1:04 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I am not a doctor, but have you ever been screened for ADHD? The frustration-tolerance thing seems potentially red-flaggish in that direction. Meds (non-SSRI) can help somewhat with that, but all that aside, it sounds like what you need in the immediate future is to be able to set and achieve some small, workable goals. And I mean really seriously tiny goals, like "open book on subject X and stare at it for 5 minutes". Even though it might sound silly, your brain sounds like it desperately needs feedback along the lines of "hey, I can do SOMETHING"! Stuff like that has been seriously helpful in terms of getting me out of low-confidence ruts.
posted by aecorwin at 1:05 PM on August 25, 2011


I'm not anxious, nor do I engage in negative self-talk. I don't curse myself upon failure - I just feel immensely frustrated. My internal monologue is more along the lines of "Fucking hell, not this shit again. Graaar!", rather than "Woe is me! I'm a miserable piece of shit."

Yeah, I recognize that very well.

Went through a year or two of that frustration, which made me circle the wagons a bit and recoup, and do simple things that I knew I could succeed at; that gave me a bit more steam to go out and tackle other things. I still had some failure, but I had a better mind frame (rather than "not this shit again", now it was, "okay, yeah, you got me again, but I'M NOT DONE FIGHTING YET").
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:06 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Try this.

When something doesn't work for you, ask why, and write it down. Then, ask why that thing happened, and write it down. Go until you get to a root cause that a) can be fixed, so you fix it (perhaps you don't understand a sigma, to use a silly example), b) is random, so you just have to try a lot until you succeed (you have intermittent headaches), c) is permanent, and you should do something else (can't think of anything, honestly, but practically speaking some problems can't be solved in enough time.)

You can do this stuff. There is a finite list of reasons you can't understand a math formula, and you can address them all if you take a moment to realize what they are.
posted by michaelh at 1:06 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Perhaps expanding your definition of "success" may work.

Success is understanding p-values and the Central Limit Theorem within a couple of hours, as opposed to a couple of weeks (yes, it's doable - I've done similar things before). It's being able to work with new programming APIs quickly, because I could get fired for underperformance if I don't. Success is reading and internalizing The Enchiridion by Epictetus, without promptly forgetting almost everything within a matter of minutes.

I don't find consolation in being able to function in my present capacity despite psychological ailments. My employer (rightfully) doesn't care about issues with my brain tissue. If I can't cut the mustard, I don't belong at the company. This poses a serious financial problem. That's all that matters.
posted by identitymap at 1:12 PM on August 25, 2011


Huh. If that's the case, it sounds like you have a much more specific problem than we've all assumed.

So this is specifically a work issue? Could it simply be a matter of your needing a sabatical?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:22 PM on August 25, 2011


Success is reading and internalizing The Enchiridion by Epictetus, without promptly forgetting almost everything within a matter of minutes.

You may need to adopt strategies which you have not needed before, but will get you where you need to be. For example, taking structured notes, which perhaps you did without. It may be a temporary help, or a permanent resource. I personally find my ability to concentrate on texts like that goes west when I am stressed. It looks to me as if you are then seeing this deterioration in performance (from a high baseline, let's be honest) as some kind of permanent impairment and getting more stressed. break the cycle by developing these strategies - perhaps like starting to wear reading glasses - you never thought you would need them, but once you use them, they allow you to function as before, and you don't even notice them.

And then who knows - the old facility might come back quicker than you think. But if it doesn't - no harm comes to you.
posted by communicator at 1:28 PM on August 25, 2011


Seconding THERAPY. MEDS. MEDSTHERAPYMEDS.

"I've read that SSRIs are no more effective than CBT in cases of mild to moderate depression. I wouldn't qualify my depression as severe (probably between mild to moderate, nearing the latter on some days). Besides, most SSRIs have a negative impact on mental performance."

Impressive that despite all your failures, you've still been able to go through med school and qualify as a psychiatrist. Oh wait - you didn't ;-)

Dude, when you're depressed, your depression is going to think up all kinds of rationalizations for why the things that are going to help you won't help you, and how you're not depressed enough for that to be an explanation and how the real problem is that you're a bad and/or inadequate person. OF COURSE your depression doesn't want you to go to the doctor. You have to say "I call shenanigans, depression! We are going to the doctor whether you like it or not!"

And I must say that the first thing that popped into my head when I read your account was ADHD. Now maybe you don't have ADHD, I can't possibly know that, but I reckon it's worth going to a specialist - not just any old doctor - to get that checked over. Also, it's usual for gifted and untreated ADHDers entering university to start experiencing serious academic problems for the first time.

I get that your brain is not your employer's problem, but I'd check out the law where you are. If you have been diagnosed with a health condition and/or disability it may not be super easy for them to toss you out on the street if your decline in performance has been caused by that condition. If there's a disability at work they may have some obligation to accommodate you. And the good news is that doctors, and specialists in particular, will know about that kind of thing.

Oh, and as for reading a text and forgetting about it: check these out.

So the secret to overcoming failure is DO WHAT I TELL YOU and DON'T DO WHAT THE DEPRESSION TELLS YOU. Get off your duff and Google ADHD support groups in your area now. They will be able to find you a specialist.

(drums fingers)

Did you Google a support group? No you didn't. Do it now and then dial their number and talk to them.

(drums fingers)

I can wait all night if necessary, you know.
posted by tel3path at 1:50 PM on August 25, 2011 [9 favorites]


Read the biography of General Ulysses S. Grant.

He went to West Point, where he graduated 21st in a class of 39.

Then he fought bravely in the Mexican War. He was given the chance to resign from the Army when he was found drunk off duty at the pay officer's table. He resigned in disgrace.

He worked a family farm and it failed.

He was reduced to selling firewood on the streets of St. Louis, where a former Army colleauge took pity on him and bought his supply of wood.

He then moved back in with his parents where he was made subordinate to a younger brother in his father's tanning business.

Then the civil war broke out.

He lead volunteers to a stalemate at Belmont. After winning at Forts Henry and Donelson, Grant was almost whipped at Shiloh. Only his personal intervention with a few guns saved the Union's critical position on a river landing. His opponent telegraphed "COMPLETE VICTORY" to the Confederate capital. That night but General Sherman said "Well, Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we?" Grant replied:. "Yes, Yes. Lick 'em tomorrow, though." Lick them he did--he did not give up after a setback but assumed that continued application to the problem would create opportunities for himself.

Then he went after the Mississippi. Stymied on multiple approaches, he continued to keep searching for a way. He finally found a way to surround Vicksburg, which surrendered to him on July 4. Again, the hallmark of the campaign was continuing forward after an initial setback, until he found a way forward.

This was a contrast to every Union general in the East, who would face one battle, lose, and completely fall apart and retreat.

Grant was promoted to the head of all armies and sent to Virginia. Every time he tried to whip Lee, Lee got away. But unlike other generals, Grant did not retreat. He moved to his left and south. Eventually he laid siege to the Confederates at Petersburg, Virginia. He never gave up the fight, broke through after months and then chased Lee until he surrendered. Again, the signature strength of Grant was to assume he could always continue working on the problem and find the way forward.

Grant went from being a complete failure, a counter man at a tannery to being the general of the largest army ever to take the field up to that time in 3 years. In 1868, this "failure" was elected President of the United States.

What Grant did was keep moving forward. He continued to get around adversity by assuming that continued effort produces results. And it does.

I've read through Feeling Good by David Burns. While a lot of his recommendations in the book make sense, they haven't worked in my case. I don't think any of the chapters can be applied to modified to address this issue. I'm not anxious, nor do I engage in negative self-talk.

I'm going to make a guess--you never did the exercises. That book is about the exercises. And you know what? You do engage in negative self-talk. You engage in "all-or-nothing thinking", assuming that a series of personal setbacks means an eternal series of setbacks. You also engage in "should statements": my internal monologue is more along the lines of "Fucking hell, not this shit again. Graaar!" This is assuming that these sorts of setbacks aren't normal. They are--indeed the hallmark of our frustrating existence.

So I suggest going back to Feeling Good and committing yourself to 6 solid months of doing the exercises every single day. Every. Single. Day. That book will do nothing for you without intense solid work on your own behalf.

The key is that continuing to apply yourself to the problems of life will get better results for you than not applying yourself to the problems of life.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:56 PM on August 25, 2011 [15 favorites]


So this is specifically a work issue? Could it simply be a matter of your needing a sabatical?

It's not strictly limited to work. It's a more general issue that has naturally spilled over to work. Reading and understanding things unrelated to work is just as difficult.

Did you Google a support group? No you didn't. Do it now and then dial their number and talk to them.

Yep, I Googled ADHD support groups, just as you commanded. I may or may not have ADHD. I prefer to leave that diagnosis to a doctor, who I'll visit tomorrow. Thanks for the tip (you too, aecorwin).
posted by identitymap at 2:04 PM on August 25, 2011


It's not strictly limited to work. It's a more general issue that has naturally spilled over to work. Reading and understanding things unrelated to work is just as difficult.

Then I'm....not sure why you reacted so strongly when I offered a more general "reframing of success" suggestion.

But, since you're seeing a doctor tomorrow, I'll just nod and say "that sounds like it could give you information that we can't and maybe that will help."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:05 PM on August 25, 2011


Then I'm....not sure why you reacted so strongly when I offered a more general "reframing of success" suggestion.

My apologies for the phrasing. I certainly didn't mean to come off as annoyed, as I sincerely wasn't annoyed. It was a perfectly valid suggestion, one that I've considered in the past. However I can't stomach the implications of accepting a revised notion of "success". I think that would be ignoring a very serious problem when what's needed is direct confrontation. I'm confident that I can get to the heart of the matter and eventually return to previous levels of cognitive ability. I just don't know how to.
posted by identitymap at 2:13 PM on August 25, 2011


Well first key to success is don't lose your job. All the fancypants Epictetus stuff can come later. That may sound like I'm not understanding, but you don't want to overload yourself and suffer brain fade.

Good for you for sorting out the support groups and the doctor. You are a man of action.
posted by tel3path at 2:32 PM on August 25, 2011


Awwwww, dude, you know what? I'm sorry I was so snappish in that first reply. And it was the first frackin' answer! All right, man. I'm gonna try this again.

Now that this conversation developed a little bit, I see some things that look familiar to me. Your genuine distress at work, your feeling that you are about to get fired and that you maybe sort of deserve it, your conviction that things are terrible but you aren't THAT depressed, your ability to give specific examples of things that used to be easy but aren't anymore, your resistance to some of the answers here, this barely suppressed irritation that I can sense you FEEL but sort of recognize isn't QUITE right- but you can't keep yourself from expressing it, either.

I remember a lot of those things from my own mental health struggles. I said these things to well-meaning friends, I felt these things, I quit college and lost a job and stayed in the house eating junk food and reading livejournal all day. This stuff all happened to me.

I don't know what's going on with you; I can't see you through the screen or peek into your life or your brain or watch you through a two-way mirror. I don't know if you have the same mental health condition that I do, or maybe a physical thing that is sapping your concentration, or a different mental health thing, or maybe you just aren't getting enough sleep or you need some Vitamin D tabs. I don't know.

But I do know this. The day that I went to the doctor and said, "Everything is wrong, help help help," things started getting better. My life got better. My job got better. My relationships got better. My free time got better. Things can be better.

I'm glad you're going to the doctor. I'm glad you're checking out support groups. I just want you to- just take some steps forward, okay? Be open to meds, be open to the doctor suggesting that maybe you are more or less something than you think you are (here's a sample one: I think you are MORE sick and LESS lazy than you think. Yeah?), be open to just trying some of the things suggested here.

Look, you fell in this hole, yeah? Let us show you how to climb out.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 2:45 PM on August 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


Awwwww, dude, you know what? I'm sorry I was so snappish in that first reply. And it was the first frackin' answer! All right, man. I'm gonna try this again.

No worries, dude. I didn't interpret that as snappish.

Thanks for sharing your insights on how to beat this. It certainly helps to know that someone else has managed to get out of this hole by enlisting professional help.
posted by identitymap at 7:13 PM on August 25, 2011


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