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Help me write an anti-bucket-list
June 8, 2012 3:58 PM   Subscribe

How do people learn to want more for themselves? My baseline standards for 'not failing at life' are way off.

I’ll be starting therapy (mostly CBT) in a couple of months, and asking about this problem, but I’d really appreciate other people’s insights before I start.

Trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault/abuse/sex work.

My problem: after the first flush of enthusiasm fades I just leave my jobs- even if I have no financial provision for the next period of time. Over the past two years (I’m 24, female) I’ve been able to improve my diet and exercise habits significantly, but working harder hasn’t stuck. I’ve read many of the procrastination/self-discipline/ADD/being-an-adult threads here, and compiled a monster list from them of specific strategies for getting myself to function. This has helped a lot on a day-to-day basis, but hasn’t prevented me continuing my usual pattern. After a while I just start to feel hopeless and detach, even if the job is going okay, and leave.

In my eyes, I’ve always been able to just scrape through. So I haven’t summoned up the will to go any further with my jobs. I’ve spent periods of time being homeless, struggling to cover food costs, and working as a prostitute (note: this question isn't anonymous for building-personal-integrity reasons, I won't be your personal hooker). Plenty of people would categorise my choices and experiences as ‘failure’ rather than ‘just skating through/managing’. So I’d like to learn to do that, as I think it would be motivating.

Probably relevant background: at university I was raped, and since then I’ve had trouble dealing with that, and it also caused me to start thinking about and dealing with some child sexual abuse. Over about five years I’ve gone from expecting myself to excel academically and get into the best university in my country (which I did), and hoping for an academic career, to being proud of myself for getting up the courage to go out to johns’ houses, or for going running sometimes. I’m sure that dealing with some underlying feelings about the past would help me, but that’s not my focus in this question. Work problems are what is immediately keeping me from a stable life and I’d like to address them directly and quickly if possible. Also, I realise this question is pretty self-centred, sorry, but I’ve found that while focusing on other people definitely helps my mood and is good in itself, it hasn’t helped me organise my own affairs any better.

I don’t think my life needs to be like this. I have a smattering of skills in different disciplines, and a good (though humanities) degree from a top-tier university. I’m becoming more concerned for the future: it’s probable that my ability to skate by will diminish as the short-term positions on my CV pile up, and the number of good references I can give dwindles. I’m also scared by the apparent consensus that if people don’t get their shit together in their early/mid-twenties, their negative behavioural patterns can entrench themselves for decades/life.

Many people ‘hit rock bottom’ at some point and then stop their self-defeating behaviours. I’ve hit several rock bottoms and all it’s done is make me realise that I can survive down there. I don’t know how to persuade myself that my standards for myself should be higher. I don’t like my life when it’s not going well, but as yet it hasn’t been a strong enough motivator to make me change. I’d like to build a collection of reasons why I should try harder to hold onto work and not let myself slip.

So, or tl;dr:
1) Given any option to avoid them, which life choices do you see as ‘failures’ which are simply impermissible? I’m not asking what you judge other people for, but rather what standards you hold yourself to.
2) Why is it better to hold onto stable work and not be scrabbling all the time?
3) If you’ve raised your expectations for yourself, how did you do that?
posted by pickingupsticks to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Lots of stuff to think about, but I'll give you an 'and' for your 'so.'

1) For me, stopping is not permitted. When I was at my lowest, the only thing that kept me moving was the idea: 'What is the difference between alive and dead? The dead don't move. I am not dead, I am alive"

2) Having stability, having a center, means having a place you can plan from. I am a planner by nature, and while I can happily go with the flow and change plans, I live having somewhere to start from. I sounds like your 'starting point' is somewhere before 'stable work.' What helped me was to recenter my ideas for what constituted a beginning.

3) I am reminded of something a friend said to me once: 'Just because you've done bad things, doesn't make you a bad person. And it doesn't mean you have to keep doing them.' I was struggling with significant moral and personal failings at that point, feeling like I was stuck, like I had shown myself to be unworthy through my own evil deeds. That reminded me that the past is not the future.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 4:13 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why is it better to hold onto stable work and not be scrabbling all the time?

Because, among other things, financial stability gives you really boring things like: the ability to buy groceries, the ability to secure safe and consistent housing, the possibility of having children you can care for sufficiently, and while it is REALLY BORING, retirement. You can't work forever, so you need money for when you are no longer working. Perhaps if you're not invested in taking care of your current self, you could give your future self a break and look after her?
posted by DarlingBri at 4:28 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure contemplating "how can I convince myself that I'm bad at life?" has not ever actually been helpful. Being a sex worker is not being a failure. Being a little messed up in the head is not being a failure. It sounds like you want to change, and are looking into CBT therapy. These are healthy steps. From personal experience, ignoring the ways in which I'm a failure and working on other things (until I'm in a better mental place) has been far more motivating than focusing on them.
posted by mismatched at 4:58 PM on June 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Financial stability also makes it easier to work on personal shit: to fight off depression, build up habits you find useful, make peace with old traumas, things like that.

Basically, making progress on any of that stuff requires a lot of energy and attention. And it requires time too. It really helps to be able to say "Okay, for the next year, I'm going to see a therapist regularly / meditate every morning / write for a half hour a day in my journal / pray twice a day / go to recovery group meetings" or whatever other thing you find helps your personal growth. And to do that, to make that sort of commitment, you need to know that you'll have the time and the money to see it through, which is way easier if you're confident you'll have the same job for the whole year.

There's often this sort of snowball effect, with people who are climbing out of the sort of mental and situational shithole that you're in now. You'll get to a certain point and it will start getting easier rather than harder. "Okay, it's taken a lot of effort, but I have a steady job and an apartment and I don't have to work as a prostitute anymore. Now if I'm really frugal I can afford to see a therapist and get my head straight." Followed by "Oh, wow, now that I've been in therapy for a while, holding down this job is way less of a psychological strain than it used to be. Suddenly I have leftover energy at the end of the day." Followed by "Oh, wow, now that I have money and energy to spare on 'frivolous' shit like fulfilling hobbies, I'm finally starting to relax a bit. And the more I relax, the better therapy seems to go, and the more progress I make there." And so on.

I mean, it's not always that straightforward, and there may be lots of backsliding and struggling and whatever, and that's fine. But basically the better your mental health is the easier it is to provide for your material needs, and the better your material needs are provided for the easier it is to improve your mental health, and you can totally get into a positive feedback loop there if you aim right.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:14 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I am struck by your insightful comment that your lows keep teaching you that you can survive anything. Perhaps that knowledge has been, on some level, so important to you that you keep seeking confirmation of its truth. And I also hear you say that you are ready to move on, now, to learning (or re-learning) other truths. One truth is: you deserve compassion and tenderness - including from yourself. You are very strong. You can survive. Now your quest is to prove that you are strong enough to nurture and shelter someone wounded, to be a fierce protector and a guardian to someone whose protectors have always failed her in the past.
posted by Ausamor at 5:33 PM on June 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


This is total pop-psychology from a stranger but I wonder if some part of you just feels like you don't deserve any better. Whether you decide that it is OK to skate by or that you are a failure for skating along the bottom, neither one gives you any support for feeling better.

If this fits, I would suggest that you construct a vision of your future that is both positive and realistic - the life you would like to have and that you could believe might be possible if only...
Then practice imagining this life in as much detail as you can. Whenever you notice yourself starting to reject it, firmly tell yourself "I am capable of doing this and as a human being, I deserve to have my dream" (or some other affirmation that reminds you that you really are worthy of having good things happen to you.)
posted by metahawk at 7:15 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I’m also scared by the apparent consensus that if people don’t get their shit together in their early/mid-twenties, their negative behavioural patterns can entrench themselves for decades/life.

Okay, first of all, that's not even the case. That "consensus" is from people looking backward at their own pasts and patting themselves on the back or beating themselves up. It's not real. Most people in their mid-20s have started thinking about how nice it would be to have a steady income but are still casting about looking for the area where it feels worth it to take the entry-level job in order to put in the time to build a career.

Secondly, you've dealt with some seriously heavy shit that probably makes you simultaneously functionally older AND younger than your calendar-age-peers, so don't create a judgement for yourself based on assumptions that are caught up in what sounds like "consensus." Fuck consensus, it's just one version of a common denominator, it's not you.
posted by desuetude at 8:45 PM on June 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


I wanted to find some way not to be miserable. I went to AA and I got a lot of therapy. I had been abused and I had also treated myself pretty badly. I just wanted to get better--I used to joke that I was not so much interested to know if there was life after death, I just wanted to know if there was life before death. I had to learn how to live and how to care for myself. I had stuffed so much pain, anger and sadness so far down that it took quite a while to dredge it up and get rid of it. I learned to give myself the right to be here and to want what I want. I forgave myself for so many mistakes. I accepted the past and let go of it. I said out loud that they were wrong to have done those things to me and I was hurt and angry and reacted badly but I wasn't going to live there any more, beating myself with all that old hurt. I decided my life was my life and I would live it the way I thought best. I found I liked being safe, having friends, liked having my own place and the things I prefer. I liked learning and growing emotionally and discovering myself. I even found I liked helping others and that sometimes I could, even if just a little bit. It was worth keeping a job in order to have this better life. Gradually, I got better but a lot of people helped me. Sometimes it--the world, the job--wasn't so great, but I got better. I have a good life today. It makes me happy. I don't think in terms of success and failure because I don't think that is meaningful when you are talking about someone's life.

That's my take on my life and, while I don't know you, I know you're hurt and you need to care for yourself, nurture yourself. You can do this. You know you are smart and strong. You're invited to have more. I invite you.

Good luck to you. If you want to write to someone as you get started, you can write to me; I'll be happy to reply.
posted by Anitanola at 8:45 PM on June 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


1) I don't view any of my life choices as failure. Perhaps that's naive of me, but I think everything has a reason even if I might not know it or perhaps will never know it. But, if I can learn something from the decision or experience, well then, that in itself is an accomplishment.

I hold myself to one standard which is my life motto: goodness is the only investment that never fails. I strive to be good to myself and good to others. In other words, I strive to be kind to myself and kind to others. I can be kind to myself by rewarding myself for accomplishments both big and small, being proud of where I am in my life even if it's not perfect, creating an abstract idea of where I want to be in the future, and forgiving myself for my past.

This is the standard that I hold myself to. I strive to use this motto of mine so that I can use my life as a means to become the best version of myself (read: best-not perfect!). To me, this means being able to reach a point in my life where I am filled with contentment, positivity, pride, wisdom, humbleness, kindness, and truth.

I am not perfect and I screw up when it comes to working on becoming the best version of myself. I know that I will continue to screw up for a very large part of my life. But, I should take these screw ups as an opportunity to learn something and change something rather than being so critical and unforgiving of myself.
---
2) It's better to hold onto stable work so that you can take care of your needs and wants. Money is required to take care of basic needs, but also those special things that we want whether it be materialistic such as a high end laptop or desktop, a fancy sports car, or memories like a trip to Australia or a delicious 7 course meal.

I used to only be concerned about the NOW which to me meant purchasing anything that I liked while shopping for clothes despite a lack of infinite funds. This meant that I had to live paycheck to paycheck and scramble just to last to the 15th and 30th of every month. Thankfully, I have improved my spending habits so that I don't end up with nothing in the bank!
---
3) I'm still working on this. I try to set high standards for myself by simply doing something to BENEFIT myself. I know this is general, but to give an example-I stopped going to the gym for six months and just laid in bed and ate anything that my heart desired.

Until just this week, I decided that enough was enough because I didn't want to affect my physical health and knew that I was unhappy with lying in bed and eating food even if this was comforting to me, someone with something along the lines of PTSD.
---
I’m also scared by the apparent consensus that if people don’t get their shit together in their early/mid-twenties, their negative behavioural patterns can entrench themselves for decades/life.

I have learned that SO, SO many of life's decisions can be changed regardless of how far deep you are into a problem or unhappy situation. That's another reason why I don't view any of my actions as a failure. It's never too late to get your shit together, but you need to be working on that shit in order to make any progress.

CBT helps a lot with this. But, what I can generally say is that it's okay not to have your shit together even if your late 20s. Most people don't have everything together, but most people don't show this to others.

Many people ‘hit rock bottom’ at some point and then stop their self-defeating behaviours. I’ve hit several rock bottoms and all it’s done is make me realise that I can survive down there. I don’t know how to persuade myself that my standards for myself should be higher. I don’t like my life when it’s not going well, but as yet it hasn’t been a strong enough motivator to make me change. I’d like to build a collection of reasons why I should try harder to hold onto work and not let myself slip.

I can understand this in ways that I will not disclose on the green. But, use these rock bottom experiences as a testament to your strength. You are strong enough because you survived despite your rock bottom experiences. But, you need to be KIND enough to yourself so that you avoid repeating those mistakes again. You need to be kind enough to yourself so that you can take care of yourself.
---
Anyways, this is so incredibly long but it's my take on life. I obviously don't know all of the answers, but this is how I choose to view many things in my life...
posted by livinglearning at 10:13 PM on June 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


1) This is so completely unique... In my eyes, my biggest unavoidable failure was the unwanted termination of a relationship that I had committed myself to for life. However, a true failure would have been to wallow in self-pity; instead, I focused on myself and my own goals and changed my life.

2) Well, again, individual. For me, a career should be something you truly enjoy doing so that work is fun. I don't want to be one of those people who hates their job and spends all their time thinking "what if...". Perhaps that would be true failure for me, actually...

3) This was all about changing my goals. I changed them for me. I thought about what my ideal life would be like, and then I figured out how to get there. In my case, my relationship failed, I decided I needed to go back to school to get my B.A., I decided there was no point doing that unless I went to a really good school and got my B.A. in something that I loved but was also a potential career, and then I applied and got in. Now I'm 3 semesters from meeting this first major life goal, despite the fact that I'll be 28 when I finish college. But because I have a big all-encompassing life goal that is something I made for myself, not because anyone else wanted it, it kind of pushes me in that direction in all areas of my life.

So I suggest starting by figuring out how you envision your perfect life to be like, and then figuring out what you would have to do to get there. Best of luck!
posted by DoubleLune at 11:20 PM on June 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I'm most struck by in your question is an apparent insistence that you have standards or baselines or expectations for yourself that, in comparison to others, are lower or inferior. For me, however, I think comparing oneself to others is always a fool's game.

My advice would be: compare yourself to your previous self -- to yourself last week or month or last year or last decade.

If you're doing better than you used to be, if you're on an upward trajectory, that you're doing everything right. If you're not on an upward trajectory, ask yourself what that would mean and how you would get there.
posted by lewedswiver at 11:39 PM on June 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


look, i know you're asking for reasons to do this or that, but if having reasons were good enough, every halfwit would be a millionaire. don't worry yourself about what the consensus view might or might not be, and don't fool yourself into thinking that if you just had better reasons to be different, you'd be different.

let me ask you this: if you had a best friend that you cared about more than anybody else, what would you tell her to do? would you nag her, or would you be patient, forgiving, and kind to her?

i'd also like to say that at 24 you are in no danger of running out of slack any time soon. if you were 64 you'd probably need a good kick in the ass, but at 24 you're sitting pretty.
posted by facetious at 12:15 AM on June 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


1) Given any option to avoid them, which life choices do you see as ‘failures’ which are simply impermissible? I’m not asking what you judge other people for, but rather what standards you hold yourself to.
Failures are usually the life choices I made when I wasn't listening to my instincts but instead to some external pressures, or when I wasn't honest with my self about what I realy wanted. I call them failures because that's what they felt like at the time, though now I am older and wiser I can see how my failures taught me important life lessons.

2) Why is it better to hold onto stable work and not be scrabbling all the time?
I don't know if it is better really. Better is a value judgement, and most people will say it is better because they really mean it is easier financiallly and potentially more socially acceptable to have stable work than not. Stable work gives you more time to do other things outside of work and gives you a base off which to build realtionships with your coworkers. Staying in the same field for a long time gives you expertise that makes it easier to get a new job when you want one, and means people respect you more than a newbie.

That said scrabbling all the time could have some advantages- you have to keep your skills sharp and your wits about you, you are always aware of your market value, and you don't take anything for granted. It might meet someone's need for challenge, risk or excitement in their life. Something like starting a small business, working in sales or temping might have some of this element of constantly canvassing for new work, constantly convincing people, coping with frequent changes etc.

3) If you’ve raised your expectations for yourself, how did you do that?
Actually I am not the person to ask about this. I grew up with very demanding , perfectionist habits and "Tiger mom" style parenting- so for me the challenge has been to lower my expectations for myself and to be ok with less.
posted by EatMyHat at 7:55 AM on June 9, 2012


Thanks everyone for your thoughts, I got something from all the responses. Nebulawindphone's 'snowball effect' rings really true, so I will probably make that the basis for most of my work-related effort. And thinking about what would be the right choice for an abstract other person or friend is also really smart. Thanks all!
posted by pickingupsticks at 7:13 PM on June 10, 2012


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