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How can I stop being constantly unhappy?
April 23, 2012 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Badly burnt out student - with wider questions on how to stop my ‘missing-out’ syndrome.

22 years old, female, enrolled on a health policy-related masters programme in the UK after a science undergrad. My course is astonishingly badly organised and taught (but with massively long contact time), such that I’m now just completely burnt out: anything that might have spurred any interest before I now can’t bring myself to have any other reaction than active bitterness or passive ‘I can’t give a shit’. Before, I had envisaged myself building a long-term career in the field - now I don’t know whether I just hate my course, or whether I hate the discipline altogether, and am having a crisis over my future career as well.

This uncertainty and the feeling that I’m wasting my year (especially compared to my contemporaries), have thrown me into a state of constant unhappiness. I can’t remember what it means to truly have fun with friends/activities etc (rather than the momentarily enjoyable diversions they have become now). I just feel tired, ALL the time, without motivation to do anything (like even clean my room); I know I should be going to all the seminars/career events etc, but the mere thought of ‘networking’ makes me want to be sick. I have exams in about a month I can't take seriously, and a thesis to write that I have little more than indifference to. Diligence and work ethic are almost conditioned in me since I was young, so my grades aren’t falling (yet, anyway) - but I feel steadily more awful as I study. Sometimes I feel that the walls are closing in around me, with no way out - or even if I find a way out, it won’t make a difference because there’s nothing worth it waiting on the other side anyway.

I know I should just slow down, and realise it’s okay for me to have meandered this year, or not to have found my career calling from this masters. But this is part of my problem: I have an almost pathologic ‘missing-out-on-opportunity’ anxiety. I’m always worrying about the future, and that if I’m not always ‘on’, I will miss out on the opportunities that will come by and somehow miss out on ‘life’. Objectively, I might appear to be living life to the full (wide hobbies, academics, life experiences abroad, internships etc) - but it’s never enough, and I've never stopped feeling inferior to others. If I’m not constantly on the most efficient possible trajectory towards some ideal, I feel anxious; my current uncertain situation fills me with dread. I *know* this fixation on success and opportunity is unhealthy for my long-term wellbeing, but I can't seem to get myself out of it.

[If it helps - I generally behave as a MBTI INTJ, but am deep down an INFJ - an utter idealist and romantic at heart. Things of humanitarian nature or that display the richness of life (literature, culture, history etc) fill me with inspiration; on the other hand, moral wrongs fill me with indignation and I have little patience for something I feel does not have intrinsic value. Looking back, I always enjoyed the humanities at school: although I liked the puzzle-solving aspect of science in how concepts linked together, I’ve always been naturally drawn to the study of words, history, people, and thoughts. I went down the science route because I was good at it. Maybe this is the root of all of my problems - because I can't find intrinsic inspiration or value in what I'm doing.]

So, a few questions:
1) How do I salvage my current situation, in terms of bringing back motivation towards my immediate tasks and rekindling enjoyment in my life?
2) How do I deal with my ‘missing-out-on-life’ syndrome, so that I’ll be able to become a happier person in the long-run?

I'm sorry if that was an incoherent mess. Thank you all in advance!
posted by pikeandshield to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Wow I totally relate. It's not clear, but is this program only a year long? Are you coming up to the end? If it's not, my advice may be a little different.

Missing-out syndrome will follow you everywhere. It's not about your masters program. It is in YOU. The sustaining culprit is excessive focus on all the 'negative space' in your life. What you could have done instead is an INFINITE list. Do not waste your energy on the infinite. Do not use the hypothetical possibilities to punish yourself in the very real "now."

You made a big life decision that you regret. That is something concrete to deal with. It makes you question your ability to make important decisions in the future if you regret a big one now. Your question is full of anxiety. Being able to handle your regrets in life is a seriously key predictor of future happiness. Now your task will be to restore your trust in yourself and focus on the things you have done/are doing.

From the age of 5 you were constantly "achieving" by moving up a year in school. There's always a forward trajectory towards, graduation, college, etc. It's an as-yet lifelong career with added benefits and promotions every year. Now you're realizing that this may be the end of your planned trajectory towards a career in this field. Of course that's is gonna freak you out! Onward and upward, career-wise, is all your have known! You are about to make a big adjustment in the pace of your life and it's okay to be a little unprepared for that. Even so, you now have a more complex background, another tool in your belt and who knows what opportunities that may create in the future.

A diagonal line to the top right of the graph isn't the only worthwhile trajectory. Everything you do and all the experiences you have, even the risks, regrets and mistakes, are going to make you and your life what it is. I find it comforting to read biographies of great people because guess what? they usually did all kinds of weird, crap jobs, or had different careers altogether before finding their stride. The key is you being able to deal with yourself. Own your decisions, take risks, handle your regrets with grace. Maybe this will help you get in the right head space to complete your program.
posted by Katine at 9:54 AM on April 23, 2012 [7 favorites]

One more thing: Don't compare yourself to others! Deactivate your facebook if you must! As they say, comparing yourself to others will only make you vain and bitter.
posted by Katine at 9:57 AM on April 23, 2012

You only need to do two things, and in the following order:
1. Survive
2. Enjoy surviving.

Address point 1 first. You're currently on a nosedive towards burnout, so do whatever you've got to do to survive. Therapy, drop out and take a sabbatical from learning, go on a retreat for a week to chill, whatever. Take evasive action in order to survive.

Then you can think about point 2 once you've got yourself in check. I'll leave that one up to you, but keep an open mind and remember that if you figure out your life's meaning at 22 you'll be doing better than most of us older folk did.

Finally, I'll crank out the old quote "life is what happens while you're making other plans". You can try as hard as you like to be in the right place at the right time to have opportunity knock and have a million meaningful experiences, but the most important ones may well fall in your path unexpectedly and randomly. Live passionately, but let your life unfold rather than doggedly pursuing it.
posted by greenish at 10:07 AM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

It really sounds like you might be depressed, and I think that's worth you looking into.

One of the things depression can do is put a kind of bleak grey filter over everything in your life, so everything seems a lot more useless and hopeless and awful than it truly is, including things you used to enjoy. This doesn't mean that your current career/education path is necessarily right for you - maybe it's not, and maybe you'll need to change that to be happier - but it might mean that you'll need to remove the underlying bleak grey filter before you can make practical changes.

Another thing depression can do is sap your motivation to do, like, anything, and then compel you to beat yourself up over all the things you haven't done. So you get stuck in a loop of self-recrimination, forever thinking "I really, really cannot summon up the energy to do this thing that I really don't care even slightly about, and this makes me an awful person who is sabotaging all my own opportunities and will now totally fail at life, and now I feel even more miserable/uninterested in everything," and so on. That sounds like where you are right now.

You probably do need to do some serious thinking about what you want from life, and how your current approaches towards success and opportunity might be getting in the way of what you need to be happy. Maybe your university's counselling service could help you with that, or your GP could refer you to someone who could, or you could try something like MoodGym. I really do think, though, that what you need right now is to be thinking less about your future and more about your present.
posted by Catseye at 10:10 AM on April 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Sounds like you (and your course) are lacking boundaries, specifically around achievement. We live in cultures that do not like to discuss costs, we only discuss benefits. We parade achievement, but the hard work and tedium to get there? Not so interesting, so let's not talk about it.

The boundaries you need are around how much work is enough. Right now, it sounds endless -- that it could go on forever. That work has been conditioned into you. And nothing is ever good enough! DAMMIT! FUCK IT! (that's how I hear it. maybe right, maybe wrong).

The problem is that there is no boundary to work. There is always more work to be done! You cannot enjoy yourself because enjoyment is bad. Work is good. Activity is good. Inaction is wasteful. Inaction is bad.

First of all, in achievement, there are two measures. "Good enough" and "Perfect". The last 10% often takes as much energy as the first 90%. You really need to think about how much achievement you want and need. And it's not about being mediocre at all. It's about finding balance.

Some people like to do lots of things to a moderate level of skill. Others like to spend all of their time achieving a very narrow point. I had a meeting today with two men. One is a fantastic generalist who has had a career spanning a variety of industries. He's very social, and people hold him in high regard. The other is a world-class expert in a very niche area of finance. He has spent 25 years studying a certain class of tax incentives. Two very different people, each quite happy, and held in quite regard.

You need to know what you want to get out of a situation in order to function within it. Some people want to leave the office at 1800 every day. They could make 50% more money if they worked until 2200 but they would rather go to the gym and sit in the pub. Other people work until 2200, and they take nice holidays. They want to go to the gym and the pub, but they'd rather have the money.

There's no right answer to it. So figure out where in your life you want to excel, and where simply good-enough will do. Adjust your time commitments accordingly.

Have a boundary... or maybe two...
posted by nickrussell at 10:23 AM on April 23, 2012 [6 favorites]

First, this program won't hurt your future; it will only help it. Health and public policy are both very cross-cutting issues with wide relevance and applicability. And I know a few INFJs (with good T skills) in the public policy field; I think you may well be on the right track.

But it makes sense that if you're in a badly run program and unable to network or look for internships, you'll feel like you're going nowhere. Is it possible to massively reprioritize your time? The best definition of burnout I found was "a crisis of efficacy" -- the sense that your work achieves nothing. Can you find a way that your work achieves something, perhaps by multitasking in the back of the classroom to find an internship or thesis project that takes you in a direction you want to go? It sounds like you'd get a lot from doing your thesis project with a nonprofit. I think you have the answer yourself when you write that you need to find "find intrinsic inspiration or value in what [you're] doing."

Don't worry too much that your program isn't that great. Instead, think about what you can get from it, and how you can protect the time (and mental health) that you need to get that. And maybe consider transferring if possible.
posted by salvia at 2:13 PM on April 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just to clarify - I'm on a one-year programme, due to finish in July/August, and my thesis topic is already decided (which I'm not massively keen on, but can't be helped at this stage). There's thus not much I can do structurally to change my situation (transfer, choose a different thesis topic etc - though I appreciate your suggestion, salvia).

(Thank you all for the replies so far - they are massively helping and makes me feel less like I want to curl up and cry! Please do keep them coming.)
posted by pikeandshield at 3:01 PM on April 23, 2012

Your university will have some sort of counselling services, which I advise you to take advantage of.

I did a one-year postgraduate course in the UK as well, and I can really relate to a lot of what you're saying. Doing these strange, intense courses doesn't encourage a wider view of life, especially if you've gone straight from an undergraduate to a postgraduate course.

Also, deactivating your facebook account - and not comparing yourself to other people in general - is a great way to get some happiness back.
posted by The River Ivel at 3:46 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd like to address one point: "massively badly taught and organized". It's frustrating when romantics and high achievers come up against the realities of working in a messy world, with messy people - and may activate all these negative feelings and stress you are having.

Once again, Cary Tennis nails it in this article: skip to "the ground game" for his advice.
posted by lalochezia at 7:56 AM on April 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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