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October 2, 2011 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I feel like I just have moment-to-moment mindsets; that I have no underlying unitary will. Help?

This is something I've struggled with a bit my whole life, but more and more as I get older and it matters more. I'm in my mid-twenties. I feel like I live exclusively in the moment my head is in and have no perspective outside of that. When I’m happy and confident, I feel like everything is going great and I come up with all sorts of plans for the future. When I’m down, I don’t feel like doing anything. When I’m doing something I enjoy, I get a feeling of THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO DO and can’t think of anything else. For example, if I get a wack-ass idea in the middle of the night that I NEED to get a working holiday visa and go live in New Zealand, I’ll frenetically research that instead of doing my grad work due the next day, because what’s the point if I’m going to New Zealand next month? Of course the next day in class when I’m loving how great school is, that completely falls away. Or I’ll listen to a song that reminds me of a prior period in my life, and I’ll get intensely nostalgic for that period and feel the need to somehow get back there, even though I generally like my current life. Or on the flipside, the second something is going bad in a job or some other situation I get a panicky fight-or-flight reaction and need to change things NOW. Basically this all has led to a life where I am constantly flitting through jobs, relationships, and even countries because I am always feeling the moment and completely unable to grip a perspective outside of that.

A few family members have bipolar and I was diagnosed with ADD (which I now medicate) and a side order of hypomania.

I feel like there is no overriding ‘me’. All my desires are mediated through the moment. For example, I am debating applying to an additional job that would make me extremely busy, even more so than I am now. When I’m in a good mood and feeling energetic, I know I should apply because it is the perfect job for me, and I would love it, and it makes sense in so many ways. When I’m feeling tired, I know I should definitely not apply because it will leave me sapped and it is a crazy, ridiculous idea. See what I mean? How do I work through this? No decision I make will ever be right because I am always of two intense minds about everything. On the occasions that someone has asked me “are you happy?” in a general life sense, I have truly no idea how to answer. It’s almost an absurdist question to me. I’m happy when I’m happy. I’m not happy when I’m sad.

Right now I’m poised to have to make some serious decisions about my career and other life choices, and I don’t necessarily feel like I have what it takes to make them.

Has anyone struggled with this sort of thing and has any advice? I know it’s sort of the condition of my generation, but I think I have it more than most people. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds to me like you're not properly medicated. When I get the "let's fly to New Zealand" kind of urges, my psychiatrist goes on high alert.

Also, are you in any kind of therapy? All those years of instability and uncertainty and not being properly medicated really did a number on me that therapy and CBT and such have really, really helped out with.

And under no circumstances agree to start a project like a new job while you're hypomanic. Due respect, but duh.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 9:38 AM on October 2, 2011

How old are you? It is possible your brain is still developing. It is also possible you have blood sugar issues.

That said, it sounds like you make plans primarily based upon how you feel. This would be difficult for most people, as no one feels exactly the same all the time. An alternative which you may consider is to make plans based on objective facts. For example, if you need a job, you must set your emotions aside to a degree, and apply to those you are qualified for. You must realize that you will be in a better position to actually assess the job AFTER you interview.
posted by blargerz at 9:39 AM on October 2, 2011

For example, I am debating applying to an additional job that would make me extremely busy, even more so than I am now. When I’m in a good mood and feeling energetic, I know I should apply because it is the perfect job for me, and I would love it, and it makes sense in so many ways. When I’m feeling tired, I know I should definitely not apply because it will leave me sapped and it is a crazy, ridiculous idea.

This sounds pretty standard to me, my thought processes are definitely also influenced by how I feel at that particular time. Admittedly, this was worse when I was prone to depressed and hypomanic phases . (I can also relate to the inability to answer the "are you happy" question.)

What has helped me, apart from stopping to self-medicate, was (as usual...) therapy. It also, to go back to your example, helps to be aware of your extreme emotions and try to come to a decision by ignoring them - that is, you take longer to decide and try to find a balance between the extreme up and the extreme down. You have to teach yourself that your emotions are treacherous. I know it's hard in the moment. Anyway, therapy.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 9:44 AM on October 2, 2011

You need good therapy, so you'll start to have some insight into when you're in a manic period and tools for adjusting and coping, and some drugs if that's what your psych deems appropriate. Have you tried keeping a journal, or doing something else self-expressive over the long term? You might feel that there's no "you", but everyone has a unique viewpoint and values different things, loves and hates different things, and has something unique about how they relate to the world. I've most often gotten that jolt of self-recognition when I come across something I wrote years or even decades ago.
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 10:01 AM on October 2, 2011

I'm the same and have pretty much come to accept that this is how life is - I guess (no experience) that the unifying will others have takes the form of religion or family or whatever. Without these things, without a greater cause, I have the luxury of being victim to my own vicissitudes. I'm sure those bound to a unifying will at times romanticize this freedom, and likewise I have moment-to-moment fantasies of immersing myself in some sort of bondage.

TL;DR - this is how it is if your decisions aren't made for you
posted by forallmankind at 10:04 AM on October 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

What you've described is quite harmless. Ask yourself whether you want to never get the urge to travel or never get the urge to do school. Obviously you want to be a person who wants both. However, you want to want both while steadily pursuing one of them. The best way to do this is to know when your work's done for the day and then to do your research (or whatever) after your studies are finished.
posted by michaelh at 10:37 AM on October 2, 2011

Are you taking stimulants for the ADD, but not medicating the hypomania? IANAD, but I do have ADD and bipolar disorder, and if you're bipolar to any degree, taking speed without a psychiatrist's supervision is a pretty terrible idea. If you're subject to hypomania, you might well need to be given something stabilizing to compensate.
posted by Adventurer at 10:48 AM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of what you said I identify with. I've come to accept it about myself and try not to become too destabilized by something I generally won't feel as strongly a day or an hour later.
posted by Cerulean at 10:59 AM on October 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you tried meditation? It can help to get some disengagement from your immediate thoughts.
posted by selfnoise at 11:13 AM on October 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Has anyone struggled with this sort of thing and has any advice?

I couldn't give advice relating to ADD or hypomania, but I deal with anxiety now and then, *especially* when I am very tired or sleep deprived, and this is very very familiar to me:

When I’m in a good mood and feeling energetic, I know I should apply because it is the perfect job for me, and I would love it, and it makes sense in so many ways. When I’m feeling tired, I know I should definitely not apply because it will leave me sapped and it is a crazy, ridiculous idea.

I have learned that I should not think about things at certain times! For example, I've learned that I should pretty much never think about all the things I have to get done in the morning, when it's late at night and I'm tired. I feel such a strong urge to do so at times, ironically, because my anxiety is kicking in and making me feel like I'll never get everything done and I have to stay up coming up with a plan for how to do everything, and worry about it. I have to deliberately not allow myself to do this and agree to just not even think about it at all till the morning. In the morning, everything is invariably a million times less intimidating.

So even though the underlying problem that you might want to fix, is that your moods and desires change so much from time to time, I think UNTIL that is fixed, or even if it never is, you can still work around it in the same way that I do. Decide not to think about certain things at certain times. "I'm not going to think about any life plans in the middle of the night, I'm only going to think about it during the daytime." Or, if you can't stop yourself from thinking about it, make an agreement with yourself that you won't take those thoughts seriously if they're at certain times or during certain situations. "If I hear a nostalgic song, no matter what it makes me want to do, I won't take any action until at least 2 days later."

It's like when you're drunk. When I'm drunk I get super strong urges to call people up and have really emotional conversations with them and that feels really right. I've had to tell myself -- okay, if this is really the right thing to do, you'll still feel that way once you are sober, so wait till you're sober and if you still feel that way, then you can make this call. And that's never happened, of course.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:46 AM on October 2, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have no competence whatsoever to speak about ADD or bi-polarism, or therapy and medication, but here is a slightly different perspective:

Your post describes about 70 to 80 percent of my co-nationals, myself included. On the whole, and very much in its place, I think it is a wonderful approach to life. But it works best if you move within a framework which is already in place, keeps you in check and gives you direction, maybe supplied from outside (some people have mentioned family and religion). It helps if you find yourself in harmony with this framework, and your "living-in-the-moment" actions do not catastrophically disrupt this harmony.

I'll give you an example: in my country, a lot of people still live a very patriarchal life-style as peasants pure and simple, working the fields, incredibly strong family and community ties which cannot be scorned if only because you cannot survive without them, a strong (Eastern Orthodox) Chrisitan belief system etc. This is a framework which is internalised, but it also very much exists outside as well. Their work and play patterns, for instance, are heavily conditioned by the seasons, the weather, and their own living necessities. However, within these limits many of them are incredibly spontanous, impulsive, day-dreamy, lacking in a PERSONAL coherent long-term and over-arching meta-narrative on which to base their self-identity. Nonetheless, even though they lack this intellectual self-definition, they certainly have a FEEL for who they are and who/what others around them are, or are like.

Big problems seem to arise when there are no such frameworks (external, but also internalised), or when you find yourself at odds with them for whatever reason - so when there are no internal or external checks on your moment-to-moment living. Going back to your example - how to chose between the path that starts with grad school and the other ones, which requires you to go work in New Zealand? Or a third one, inspired by a documentary on Animal Planet, which demands you retrain to become a veterinarian? Or a forth one, a fifth one - only the sky's the limit here, really? How to know when you are on your current path for a good reason, and when you should go look for something else, given that many peope experience periodic disenchantment, or can be temporarily seduced by a day-dream and then need re-calibrating? And also, very importantly, how to make sure that my (you, our, some people's) over-excitability and impulsivity is not harmful (to your sense of self or to your relationships, your eployment history etc).

These are my current tactics:

1. Assume that your current path is valid until proven otherwise. Alternative excitements are not proof - they are just that, alternative excitements. Check with yourself repeatedly if what attracts you is the sheer novelty value, or more permanent virtues of the alternative versus more permanent flaws in your current situation.

2. In order to achieve the above - it is very difficult to withstand excitement. I have spent many sleepless nights with an over-active mind, ideas chasing each other (which seem excellent at the time if only by virtue of their quick-fire popping up being so invigorating), plans forming and being researched etc, only to forget the whole thing (many of these things lose their appeal as they "age", generally after a couple of days to a week. Or they become relegated to day-dream territory). So, what I tend/try to do now is jot them down as an action plan. For instance:


Overview: how did the idea come about (what thoughts led to it, what exactly am I thinking of) etc

Benefits: what makes me think it is a good idea

Draw-backs: what are potential negative outcomes

Requirements: what would I need to do

Resources: weblinks/contacts/articles extolling the virtues of New Zealand, or moving to a new country etc.

Actions: what exactly do I need to do to prepare and execute life-change

Results: what outcomes do I expect (more exciting life, learning about xyz, moving away from bad situation, whatever)

Likelihood of results: what guarantees do I have that I will achieve what I want with this change etc.

On a scale from 1 to 10, how do I feel about taking this path (as opposed to my current one or others that seem enticing).

You might have your own categories.

For me, drawing up such quick action plans has several benefits: as soon as it is on paper, I can return to other things which require my attention (for me, work I need to do, or, most often, sleep). Further, I can return to it whenever I want, add stuff, flesh it out, and, most importantly, check how strongly I feel about it after some time lapses - most of my enthusiasms vanish. Thirdly, the risk of losing some really valuable insight is minimised - sometimes, there are really important things that emerge which I can transfer to my current path and which impact it in a way I really like. Fourthly, occasionally I do actually want to stick with that change, and having a plan drawn up makes all manner of things much easier.

3. You probably know enough about yourself by now to have figured out what activities give you most pleasure/you are most competent at, what kind of environment you find most suitable, inspiring and conducive to contentment, what situations you thrive in etc. Draw up a list of these things and see what emerges. Maybe you'd be at your best in a fast-paced oand/or varied environment, maybe you actually need some core stability but with a lot of variety/excitment in your free time, maybe you need a partner who stimulates you endlessly, maybe you'd do better with someone who is reliable and caring and can create a safe environment for you to explore etc.

Finally, I would not entirely agree with you not having a "me", at least as it appears from where I sit. You are enthusiastic, probably have great ideas on occasion, I'd assume you can be infectious in your enthusiasm to others around you, you are curious about a variety of things and can devote a great amount of focused attention at least short term, you are extremly responsive to stimuli etc. These are not things to be dissed, they are extremly valuable, they just need to be teamed up with slightly different things so that they become a constructive force long-term.
posted by miorita at 6:27 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have the same issue. I think one thing that helps to mitigate this is to sit down and really think about what your values are. What kind of life do you want to live? What kind of person do you want to be? Think in overarching terms about general types of work you want to do, what kind of place you want to live, who you want to associate with. Think about what's important to you. Personal integrity? Wealth? Helping others? Being famous? Exploring the world? All/none of the above?

Once you've figured out your ideals, your values, this can help to steer you in the right direction and give you guidance in the face of fleeting new ideas.
posted by allseeingabstract at 11:44 AM on October 3, 2011

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