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How do you stop a self-sabotage spiral?
November 18, 2012 3:36 AM   Subscribe

My life is spiraling out of control due to constant self-sabotage. How do I start battling this problem?

I'm a college senior, female, 21-years-old. Currently, I have a major issue trying to complete ANYTHING on a regular basis. Most days I complete the bare minimum (or even less than that) to get by, and any ounce of free time I have gets devoted to pleasure. I’ll read fan-fictions, spend hours on Tumblr, watch TV—I'll do just about anything that will give me the most amount of pleasure in the shortest amount of time. I will neglect anything and everything in order to satisfy these short-lived, meager impulses. I will spend hours reading a 20 page fan-fiction, while balking at the idea of reading 10-15 page assignments for class.

Doing these things makes me very guilty. I know I’m doing something I’m not supposed to. I watch the hours pass by, knowing that I’m supposed to be doing important work all the while. Somedays, I wake up and have the perfect plan--the one where I get a majority of my work done, the one that will solve the majority of my current problems. Yet, almost always, these plans fall through. I have hours upon hours of free time to devote to these superficial activities, but I can’t even bring myself to do things that will actually benefit me in the long-term. It’s pure, senseless self-sabotage in the most mind-numbingly obvious sense. It’s absolutely deplorable—I feel disgusting and lazy, helplessly bound by my impulses and indulgent behavior. But that’s not even the worst part.

Right now, my GPA is in jeopardy because I'm way behind on work, and I'm once again considering withdrawing from several classes in order to stay afloat. I'm at a good school, and I've managed to do very well so far (I'm actually aiming for a pretty prestigious graduate program), but it has come at the cost of dozens of all-nighters, pleading for extensions, and lot's of procrastination. As a matter of fact, the last sentence pretty much characterizes my entire college experience: Doing well but barely staying afloat, all the while being under a strenuous mountain of stress. This behavior is also starting to affect my internship as well--I've been warned of coming in late numerous times, and I had another sit down with my mentor just last week. I'm putting everything in jeopardy, for what?

Just for some extra detail, here's a list of just some of my self-sabotaging behaviors:

-Not taking my medication (for depression and anxiety)
-Not engaging in self-care (showering, brushing my teeth, washing my clothes for school, sleeping)
-Spending too much money on food/useless things (when I could easily buy cheaper lunches/pack food)
-Constant lying (to friends, therapist, etc.)
-Burning bridges at work
-Ruining any potential relationships
-Masturbating (as a form of escapism, I guess)
-Constantly going late to school/work
-Failing to complete assignments
-Spending hours watching tv/using the computer
-Skipping class
-Pretty much doing anything that (a) I'm not supposed to do; (b) is not a priority; or (c) helps me avoid doing work

TL;DR: After lots of self-inspection, I've come to the point where I feel like all my suffering at this point is directly related to self-sabotage/self-destructive behavior that I've engrained in myself. I would just like advice...if I'm going to take a serious first step in changing how I act, what is the first thing I should do? How can I stop making myself miserable? How do I force myself to do things that will start helping me in the long-term? I legitimately want help, because I truly hate how I am...
posted by tammi209 to Human Relations (26 answers total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing you have to do is work on taking your medication again. If you had stopped taking it because it wasn't working, you should talk to you doctor about that so she can adjust the dose.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:08 AM on November 18, 2012 [9 favorites]

Your therapist can help you learn how to make yourself do these things, but you can not lie to them. Tell yourself that the one person in your life that you will never lie to is your therapist, because if you aren't honest with them, then you're wasting their time and more importantly, your time. Print this post out and take it to your therapist. They can read it, see what you're struggling with and begin to address it.
posted by hollygoheavy at 5:05 AM on November 18, 2012 [13 favorites]

The fact that you can be honest with yourself is huge and a big part of the battle. You are aware that some part of yourself wants to protect this situation from being corrected. In the way that addiction sometimes has to get to a breaking point before you really give in, maybe your life has to get messy enough that you really know you want to be on the side of change. Pinksuperhero has it, just focus on getting straight with your meds and the rest will follow.
Was college really your choice or did you get pushed forward by expectation? If you are really doing the things you want to do it becomes less attractive to fight it all.
posted by InkaLomax at 5:53 AM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've come to the point where I feel like all my suffering at this point is directly related to self-sabotage/self-destructive behavior

When we're in pain, our minds automatically try to figure out how to get rid of the pain. This will often involve trying to find something or someone who is responsible for the pain. Clearly, you've decided you're responsible for your pain. Meanwhile, the equation is probably reversed. It sounds like you could be depressed and that your way of coping with it all is to dedicate all of your free-time to things that give you pleasure. In a way, you're doing what you can to not sink further into suffering (even though, you might feel and many will likely agree that these aren't the things that will help the most).

For some reason, you find it incredibly difficult to function right now. It sounds like it could be a depressive episode. It could be that you're mentally exhausted (burn out). Would it be possible for you to start with this: Accept you're suffering. Avoid blaming yourself. Ask for support.

On a side note, you might want to approach your campus' counseling services, if only so that they can help you deal with the academic fall out of this. Depression is fairly common among students, especially at this time of year, and most universities have developed systems to support students.
posted by Milau at 5:54 AM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't think anyone really "self-sabotages"... we just cope better or worse with our circumstances. It sounds like you are under a lot of stress. That's why you procrastinate, masturbate, escape, etc.

Don't add blame for yourself on top of that.

The thing to do now is to figure out how to cope better in your environment. That might require taking some time off. Don't worry -- there is plenty of time. Give yourself a break and figure out how to cope with your environment. Don't blame yourself, just seek solutions.
posted by 3491again at 6:11 AM on November 18, 2012

It sounds like you're being extra hard on yourself, and might be doing things like not taking your medication as a punishment. I've been there. School is really difficult and it's embarrassing to have problems like these in a high pressure environment.
You know who is least likely to judge you for it? Your therapist. When I looked for a therapist, I made sure to find one that I didn't care about impressing. Could you shift the way you think about yours from authority figure to something else? Or possibly see someone new?
Also, try to cut yourself some slack here. Of course it's harder to read 15 pages of academese than 20 pages of fanfiction! Masturbation is not an ethical flaw! You are not a machine, either perfect or deplorable. Have you tried working on plans/schedules that build in free time/fun time in addition to study time?
The only self sabotage I see in your question is not taking your meds and lying to avoid getting help. Try to do less of those. It's a reinforcing cycle the other way too.
Three years ago, I was where you are, struggling with a lot of the same issues, and then I graduated. I have friends who were more depressed and messed up than I was (and than you are), and they did too. I have faith in your ability to do this, even if it might take an extra semester to get your act together.
posted by mismatched at 7:05 AM on November 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Constant lying (to friends, therapist, etc.)

Start here, and work your way towards your other points. Honesty makes a world of difference.

You may want to sit out a semester if you can afford it. The added stress of always being behind on classes is distracting you from your mental well being. The breather will hopefully allow you to re-evaluate what your limitations are. You'll want to strategize a more rigid form of self discipline before getting back into the cycle of classes/studying/projects/etc.

As for the rest on your're simply depressed and burned out. Don't be too hard on yourself. You'll get through it ok regardless of success or failure. Life goes on.
posted by samsara at 7:35 AM on November 18, 2012

It's also worth considering whether your therapy and medication are working correctly. Is this significantly different on the days you DO take it?

It's possible that you might have depression and anxiety, but the root cause of both of those is something else - specifically, ADHD.

Impulsive behavior, excessive procrastination, lying to cover symptoms, avoiding anything that isn't immediately stimulating, lateness/time management problems, making time management plans and not sticking to them... what you wrote sounds extremely familiar.

Message me if you'd like more information or stories from people in the same situation who found out they had ADHD. It's often misdiagnosed - particularly in females - as depression/anxiety due to being non-hyperactive.
posted by Ashlyth at 7:40 AM on November 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

Being at a school with a high incidence of overachievers seems to have skewed your point of view on this. In reality, you've just described a third of the college sophomores across the country and a fifth of the seniors--maybe more. Sure, you're a little late in pulling things together, but going through college like this is very common (at least from an instructor's point of view).

I'm not saying it's harmless either to you or others who don't enjoy hearing the excuses and whatnot. But you seriously need to stop beating yourself up over it. The only thing on your list with a moral component to it is lying about what your issues have been.

I agree with others saying you should print this out for your therapist. In the meantime, try to interrupt thoughts you're having about the overall situation or the huge mound of work or whether you're going to succeed or not. The big picture doesn't matter, and not everything actually needs to get done. Just pick the very smallest relevant tasks you think you can make yourself do, take some pleasure in their completion, and if there's time, allow yourself some of the rewards and escapism stuff.

Doing the tiniest, easiest, but relevant bits of work leads in the end to 'procrastinating with work,' which can be a problem too--prioritization of work matters--but it's better than just procrastinating. And it often gets the job done well enough, because there aren't many things you can't get done by chipping away at the smallest bits of what needs to happen.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 7:52 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't know of this will help, but I have had the same sort of issues that you describe, and I came the the realization that, in my case, the self-sabotage was incidental -- I wasn't trying to undermine myself. The issue was that, after months and years of engaging in a certain behavior, it had become habit. There was very little decision making going on. I just continued doing what I had habituated myself to.

So I set about changing my habits. At first, I tried to change too many habits at once, and got overwhelmed, and just reverted back to my previous collection of habits. But, over the past few years, I have tackled one specific habit every month or two months, depending on what the habit is I am trying to develop and how hard it is going to replace an old habit with a new one. It has changed my diet, my previously non-existent exercise regime, the way I interact with people, and what I accomplish.

From my experiences, here are some of the things I have learned:

1. It helps to make a new habit time-bound, if possible. So, say, you're trying to develop the habit of making your bed, which I am. Now, I don't always wake up at the same time every day, so I decided I would make the bed the moment I got out of it, and not do anything until the bed was made.

2. It helps to do the new habit every day, if possible. The more frequently you do a habit, the faster it will stick.

3. It helps to identify triggers for bad habits and make them triggers for good ones. For instance, you may discover that you get the urge to snack every time you sit down to watch television. Replace this with drinking a glass of water every time you watch television, or something similar. This can be a bit of a fight, because water = boring while snacking = fun, but knowing what triggers bad habits can go a long way toward replacing them with a good habit. And it is much easier to replace a bad habit than simply break it.

4. It is going to take a minimum of a month for a new habit to start settling in, and three or four months before it really sticks. Be patient. You will fall off the wagon and start doing your old habits again. Forgive yourself and get back to building the new habits.

5. Prioritize what habits you want to address. It's probably a lot more important that you really develop the habit of taking medication than you get into the habit of washing dishes every time you eat, as a hypothetical example. And, again, don't overwhelm yourself with new habits. Do one until it really starts sticking, and then add one more. If you develop a new habit every month or two, you will start seeing changes immediately, really significant changes in a few months, and, within a year, you'll find you're getting more done than you had imagined possible.

6. Reward yourself for your accomplishments, but don't reward yourself with food or by doing something linked to a bad habit. You can continue to read fan fiction, as an example, but if you make that a reward for accomplishing something, you may inadvertently end of reenforcing a bad habit. For me, good rewards for accomplishments are things like going to see a movie, or buying a decoration for my apartment that I want but don't need.

7. Identify quantifiable goals and track them. I have a word document open all the time that lists what habits I am trying to change at any one time, and how often I want to engage in the new habit per week or per month. I check it every morning and every evening and mark when I have done something. This serves a couple of functions -- it reminds me what I am trying to habituate myself to, and it charts my progress. It also identifies which habits aren't really sticking, and so I can reevaluate what I am doing with that habit -- sometimes I need to really set a time for it, or locate a new trigger to remind me to do the habit. And sometimes it turns out the habit isn't really worth the time I am putting into it. Always reevaluate.

What I find especially helpful is that it takes shame out of the equation. My intentions are good, but I am battling years of behavior that I have accidentally allowed to become habit, and so, if there is self-sabotage, it is unintentional. I have found, when you change enough habits, you start replacing unintentional failures with unforeseen accomplishments. And that's probably the best reward of them all.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:14 AM on November 18, 2012 [82 favorites]

You're under a lot of stress and things seem really bad right now. There is a silver lining to your problems. You are young, intelligent, and self-aware. This is a great opportunity to work on your issues with your therapist so you can like yourself more and have more fulfilling relationships. Do you think you could admit to your therapist that you have been lying to her and to others? I think this would be very beneficial.

I think it would be helpful to drop the labels and be kinder to yourself. You're in a shame spiral.

I don't know how you're burning bridges at work or ruining potential relationships. Remember that if you're constantly beating yourself up, you're more apt to be unkind to others.

I think you need better time management skills and honesty. Time management is learned and needs to be practiced. Keep practicing. When I was your age I had a lot of the same problems. I would go to my school's library to study. I needed to get out of my apartment and go somewhere where I would not be tempted by distractions.

Practice being kinder to yourself. You don't have to be perfect. You can work on your self-esteem issues with your therapist. It's okay to read fan fiction, Tumblr, masturbate, have lazy days when you can, etc. Aim to find a balance.
posted by Fairchild at 8:18 AM on November 18, 2012

First of all, I want to offer you compassion. I don't know if I can say "I've been there," but I've had some similar experiences in school—for a while it was easy for me to excel without much work, and then after I got into a competitive graduate program, I was paralyzed for a time by anxiety. I, too, tended to "self-treat" the anxiety by self-sabotaging in a variety of ways, mainly by engaging in self-indulgent and escapist activities (including many hours spent reading Ask Metafilter). I understand how you can hate your own behavior but at the same time have enormous difficulty changing it. For all the escapism and hedonism, it's actually a pretty miserable state of life. I am sorry you are suffering.

In my experience, it is possible to get out of the Slough of Escapism*. It doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't happen by forcing yourself to become the perfect ideal of diligence and responsible time management. You have to address the root of the problem, which is the anxiety.

Your first steps should be: 1) Talk to your therapist really honestly about the behaviors you're engaging in and the feelings you have about them. 2) Talk to your psychiatrist really honestly about how often you skip your anxiety meds and the fact that you're effectively self-medicating with escapist behavior. You may need to switch drugs if the ones you're taking aren't working, or you may need to get some extra support with compliance for a while.

I hope your treatment team will be able to help you understand the nature of your anxiety and find ways to relieve it.

For me, after many months (years, actually) of work, the analysis ended up looking like this:
  1. In school, I'd always been praised for being smart and excelling at schoolwork. That praise got mixed up with my sense of identity and self-worth.
  2. I developed the assumption that if I didn't excel academically, it would be a catastrophe. I didn't have really specific ideas about what would happen if I didn't succeed; there was just this creeping fear of annihilation. If your whole identity is "really smart person who excels at school," then what do you become if you fail to excel at school? I wasn't afraid of looking "average" or "dumb," really; I was afraid of that abyss of losing everything that I thought I was.
  3. When I got into grad school, I found myself surrounded by my intellectual peers, so I could no longer impress my professors by running circles around my classmates. I also faced much more demanding research assignments and higher standards for success than I'd ever encountered as an undergraduate. All of this is to be expected; it's inherent in the grad school experience.
  4. I thought a lot about the future I had planned for myself (the dissertation, the academic job search, the academic career) and I worried that I might not succeed. I worried a lot.
  5. I sank into the Slough of Escapism. This served two complementary functions for me. First, it gave me temporary relief from being preoccupied by anxious thoughts. Second, it asserted some control over my future, in a perverse way. The idea that I could do my best and still turn out to be not good enough for the kind of career I envisioned for myself was devastating. So without consciously opting out of that career track, I subconsciously opted out by sabotaging myself. By "not living up to my potential," I avoided being judged on my real capabilities. (It's one thing to do a half-assed job of writing a paper and get the bad grade you expect. For someone with my kind of anxiety, that's far less painful than really putting your all into it and being worried that you still won't get an A.)
I eventually got out of the Slough. A combination of anxiolytic drugs, talk therapy, and time management coaching helped a lot. But what ultimately helped me the most was facing my fears head-on and coming to understand that even if I did not succeed academically, I would still be a good, worthwhile person with lots of possible careers open to me, and I could still have a job and enjoy my work and basically have a happy life. Embracing this alternative understanding of my identity and my future made it a lot easier to focus on my work and get stuff done, because I was no longer living in fear of being devastated by somebody else's judgment of my performance.
posted by LBS at 8:27 AM on November 18, 2012 [25 favorites]

When I read the first sentence, I though "therapy" - I do this kind of stuff, sometimes, and therapy helps a lot. Can you print this out, or write up a different version of it, and bring it to therapy with it? Your therapist will not judge you - even if you tell him/her you've been lying.

I've told my therapist before that I've been lying by omission, though I don't think I've ever lied point blank - I might have. My therapist's response was along the lines of, "Thank you so much for trusting me enough to tell me. Let's figure out what was going on that you felt the need to lie." She wasn't even a little bit upset, judgy, or surprised.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:29 AM on November 18, 2012

In addition to printing this out and taking it to your therapist, ask him or her if they know anything about Executive Dysfunction and whether they think you might be suffering from it. I've had problems with this for years. A skilled therapist can provide you with CBT exercises to help you with this. It certainly helped me, though I am still very far from perfect.
posted by double block and bleed at 8:37 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh sweetie, I've been there. Christ, have I been there. Getting stressed and depressed due to work, knowing that fanfiction and Tumblr/Livejournal/Internet is so much better and relaxing than the work you have to do, getting more stressed because you're not doing the work, needing to read more in order to alleviate the stress, on and on and on and it just gets worse and you don't think there's a way out.

But there totally is. And you're not sabotaging yourself. You just need better coping skills. And while it's tough, it is totally doable.

One of the best things you can do right now is find one person - any person - where you tell them the truth. It doesn't have to be your therapist (although that would be good), it doesn't have to be your "best" friend, it just needs to be someone, that you talk to, in person (or one-on-one) and you just tell that person everything and keep them updated.

Update them on good days and bad days, and ask them to remind you to take your medication, to keep in contact with you, to make sure that you're focusing on what you need to. It's gonna be tough, but a single IM or quick "Hey, you okay today?" while passing in the hall can make a world of difference.

If lists help, write lists. I know they help me, because no matter how long and complicated the list gets (I currently have one that includes everything from 'clean living room coffee table' and 'bake pie' to 'put insulation in attic space' and 'paint back garden wall'), the minute I can tick off something, it's a massive relief to me.

Remember that other people have been through this. And you can totally get through this as well.
posted by Katemonkey at 9:05 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Couple of thoughts:

There seems to be a bit of all-or-nothing thinking going on, as well as a bit of drama...

major issue, ANYTHING, bare minimum, any ounce, anything, most, shortest, anything, everything, very guilty, all, perfect

And that's just the first paragraph!

It seems there is a fair bit of depression present, based on what you're saying. There's a variety of signs, from the previous list of cognitive distorsions, to the lack of self-care, to the procrastination, to the lying and the guilt.

If there is depression present, you need to honour it. Right now, it reads like you have a life with ample aspirations and a lot of pressure. There seems a lot to publically live up to in your world – high grades, internships, future ambition in grad school.

And something's happened. You are not performing at the level required to maintain that, and you are concerned. Perhaps as you should be. First, honour yourself for knowing something is amiss, and you need to make a change.

Let's back up a little bit. University Is Hard. It's designed to transform and reshape – to elevate your entire being to a level where you have greater capabilities. I've listened for years whilst people berate college educations and whatnot. "What does studying Psychology for four years do?". Well, it means that you can make it through a challenging process. It means you can delay gratification for four years, because if you don't get the degree, you don't get the degree.

Basically, University is a big version of the Don't Eat The Marshmellow test. The longer one can delay gratification, the more successful one will be.

So that's University. It's doing what it was designed to do. You have to really want it, for it's a lot easier to leave university than it is to stay in... year after year... for four years. Writing papers. Going through motions.

I'll give you a hint. The University is a thousand years old, and it really works. As you're finding out.

So you are smart, capable, have a plan, have a vision, and now you've hit a point where you're stalled. So what? It happens. The trick is that you have to drain the depression present of it's power. You probably are in jeopardy of ruining some opportunities for yourself. It happens.

What I've learnt about that is that 1) there are always more opportunities, 2) it's hard to recapture momentum after you've lost it.

So the trick is realise that 1) you cannot really "fail". You will end up where you belong in life. Most likely you will go on to have a long happy life. You will be as accomplished as you want to be. Good things will happen. Bad things will happen. In the end, life is and will be fine. Save yourself ten years of Twenties Angst and worry, and even a quarter life crisis. Things are going to be fine. They will not work out the way you plan. It's an amazing journey and you're going to have a great time, if you can make peace with the fact it is a journey – a journey that in the end, you have very little control over.

That leads to 2) All Opportunities Are Not The Same. I sense a bit of perfectionism in your statements. I wonder if you are a high performer who is used to doing well at everything. There's a trick to that. Everything you do takes energy. If you are a perfectionist, as your world expands and individual undertakings require more energy to perform, you will burn out. Because you only have a limited amount of energy.

The trick to perfectionism is to realise what needs to be done well. Literally sit down and make a list of your priorities. With a pen and a piece of paper. Be ruthless. This is your list and your life. Part of perfectionism may come from not being able to discriminate what's important and what's not. Perfectionism often is a result of shame and guilt (which it seems you feel). A case of never being good enough, no matter what happens. When one is a perfectionist, it seems like EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT OMG HOW DO I DO IT ALL.

Depression is the body saying "something's wrong". It's the organism protecting itself. What is your organism protecting itself from? If you are a perfectionist, and your demands are not realistic, you will try to achieve them, and then run out of energy and need to recharge.

So what's the fix? Get your priorities absolutely clear. What do you want to do? If you want to finish university, that's number 1. If you want to go to grad school, that's number 2. Be absolutely ruthless.

Then start discarding things from your life until you're back on even keel. People, commitments, activities, hobbies. Throw them away. Get rid of them. Literally stop calling negative people back. It's not about being a dick or hurting people, it's about taking care of yourself and getting absolutely clear with what you want to do.

It happens to a lot of people in college. I saw it and continue to see. So many options, so many choices, so much pressure, so much opportunity. The artificial barriers diminish over time and they need to be replaced by personal barriers. Barriers that you create for yourself.

And I feel that you are at an essential time and you don't want to throw away opportunities, so you may need some actionable. Immediately today. In that case, first stop feeling guilty. You do not have to answer to anyone but yourself. This is your life and you own it. If you want to spend your time playing with yourself and reading fan fiction, then do that. And be shameless. Lots of people masturbate. Lots of people deal with pressure by escaping into fiction. There's nothing wrong with that.

You are not going to solve all your problems in one day. But you can start by making a priority list. You will achieve those priorities in that order, because that's important to you. Make it simple, very simple. And then start discarding things. If all you do is study, go to your internship, and masturbate all the way to graduation, guess what? You still graduate.

The key overall is to stop fighting yourself and love yourself. Be easy on yourself for a while. Do only what you absolutely need to do to 1) graduate, 2) get into grad school (if that's what you want).

Thinking out loud, it sounds like you may have lost your ability to discriminate what's important. Your body and mind are going in different directions. You don't feel like yourself. I'm not going to say anything about the meds, because you know that already. What you can do now is get really, really simple. It doesn't matter how long it takes you to read those 15 pages for school. It doesn't matter how you finish school, as long as you finish.

Be merciless with your time. Love yourself. Don't care what people think. You're almost there. This is a bump in the road. To get back on track, don't panic. Just take it very gently for a while. Get your confidence back. Set sail.

And be merciless about getting rid of those things in your life which are not contributing to your success. Relationships, friends, people, commitments, activities. If it's not serving you, it's gotta go. Something better will replace it later.

And don't take yourself too seriously. You are not All and you're not Nothing. You're part of the tremendous grey area in between. And as long as you know what you want – as long as you are very clear on what outcome you want – you will get there.

Good luck. Holler if you need to.
posted by nickrussell at 9:11 AM on November 18, 2012 [10 favorites]

Great feedback and advice here. Especially about being compassionate toward yourself. College is a really hard time for people with anxiety and mood disorders, for lots of reasons that are sort of structural (and not personal to you). If you can get through this week, this month, this semester, and this, your final year of college, things are very likely to get a lot a lot better.

In the short term, consider what everyone has said here, take your meds, call and see your therapist, email your professors with periodic updates, and do what you can to do what is required (take the exam, turn in the paper, etc.).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:26 AM on November 18, 2012

Oh, I'm dealing with this right now! I hope it's comforting to you to know you're not alone, I know it is for me.

Like Bunny Ultramod, I've been tackling my habits by changing something every week or two, slowly increasing my workload. The real breakthrough for me was that I started going to the gym several years ago. When I first went, I was doing 10 minutes on the treadmill at 3.6 mph. That's like... it's not even really a jog. More like a brisk walk. Currently I'm running a 10 minute mile everyday. If you had told me I needed to run a ten minute mile everyday when I first started, I probably would never have gone.

Willpower is like a muscle. The reason you wake up with all these plans to sort your life and it falls apart by the end of the day is that you're trying to do too much. It's more obvious with something like running, your body would collapse on you, but when it's your mind you start to think it's broken. It's not! You just have to give it what it can handle and increase at a pace that works for it.

Starting tomorrow, decide on one thing that you will do every day. I started with making my bed every morning, but I really think you should start with your medication, considering taking it regularly should help your brain perform (and if it's not, your therapist needs to know that). Write a list from Monday to Sunday, and decide on a time that you should take your medication. Every day you take your medication within that timeframe, check it off. If you succeed in doing that everyday, reward yourself. Massages, movie tickets, an awesome pair of socks, whatever floats your boat. I stick to healthy indulgences, no junk food or spending outside my budget.

If it was easy, add something next week. If you really struggled with it (and no shame if you did!! Shame will kill motivation, be kind to yourself), then do it again for another week, until it is easy.

I've been making really good progress with this, I hope it works for you. I still have anxiety when I set out to do something on my list, and my brain wants to flick over to the mind numbing I'd been giving it for so long (honestly, I feel like Frodo holding the ring over the lava. Dropping it is so simple! You just open your fingers! But it's so freaking hard), but habits are taking over and the boost to my esteem is invaluable.

Things that have helped me stick to this:
- Create only goals you know you can meet. If you backslide, adjust your goals to what you know you can meet. Lifting weights that are too heavy only damages your muscles, it won't make them stronger faster.
- Never shame yourself, don't insult yourself when you fail. Bad emotions do not motivate! Only use positive reinforcement on yourself. Give yourself rewards when you succeed, pat yourself on the back and say "good effort!" when you fail.
- Don't judge your abilities against other people, only work on being better then your past self. I don't have a body that lends itself to physical activity, if I had compared myself to my brother (who naturally grew muscle just sitting around on the couch when he hit puberty) I'd be severely deflated, but compared to what I could do a few years ago, I'm doing fantastic.
- These books really helped me: The Willpower Instinct and The Power of Habit.
- CBT therapy. It's been very useful. It's hard for me to explain what I'm going through to my friends, there's a ton of shame layered over everything, but I'm honest to my therapist and her support means more as she knows how bad things have been.

It takes time, don't try to rush it! Best of luck.
posted by Dynex at 9:51 AM on November 18, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, and for things that take time, like reading an essay, try the timer technique. You set a timer for 10 to 20 minutes and work for that amount of time. You can stop guilt free when the timer goes off.

To prevent myself from waiting until 1am to get around to it, I added "do 20 minutes of -this- before -this time-" and when it got easy I added another 20 minutes.

I've also been using a timer on my bad habits, I'm only allowed to muck about the internet for a set amount of time a day. I start the timer whenever I open my browser (I use this one). This is the most recent change and I'm still trying to get into the habit of remembering to turn on the stopwatch.
posted by Dynex at 10:00 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am going through almost exactly the same situation right now -- seriously, I was thinking of writing this question last week. So, thank you for posting it, and I'll be keeping an eye on the answers.

As I see it, the most important thing you have to do right now is be honest with your therapist. I totally understand the impulse to lie! And telling them the truth is going to be the scariest fucking thing. But you have to do it -- it's the first step toward getting this giant weight off your back. They're not going to be disappointed in you. It's their job to help you. So you have to let them. Is your therapist someone associated with the university? In my case, being in counseling with someone on campus means that my counselor can put me in touch with the head of disability services (even coming with me to meet with her!), who is helping me talk to my professors and explain my situation. If your therapist is someone off-campus, this will be a little harder, but I'm sure they're still willing to help you.

It's almost the end of the semester, so things are piling up. If you can get in contact with your professors, most likely they will be willing to help you prioritize what needs to be done in order to help you finish out their course. All of this is super scary, I know! But honest communication is the number one priority here.

Do you have any friends to help keep you accountable? I know you say you're "ruining any chance at relationships", but even Internet friends can help here. Again, you have to be honest; but you've already admitted these things to all of us here (as anonymous a venue as this is) -- it's only a small step to telling people who know you personally.

I'm sorry this is kind of disorganized, but trust me. I know exactly what you're going through. You can get through this.
posted by jeudi at 10:02 AM on November 18, 2012

Oh, sorry, it wasn't "The Power of Habit", it was "The Now Habit". Sorry, I read a ton of these in the same time period and they all have yellow covers.

"The Power of Habit" is more businessy and felt structured for managers to read on plane rides, "The Now Habit" explains more of why your brain is flailing and really drives home why being cruel to yourself when you don't succeed makes the problem worse. It and "The Willpower Instinct" were enormously helpful to me.
posted by Dynex at 10:21 AM on November 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are already some great answers here, especially LBS's.

But one other thing comes to mind when you say you have hours and hours of free time available to do your work in, and that you feel like you are self-sabotaging. Is it possible that on some level you are scared that if you DO start doing what you are supposed to, it will eat up ALL your free time, and you will never get to do anything fun again? I know when I have struggled with procrastination in the past, it's sometimes been a bit like that.

It's like a dieter who is scared that once they start eating healthily, they'll never get to eat their favourite foods again, so they tell themselves they'll start tomorrow, and meanwhile binge on all the junkfood in the world. And of course tomorrow never comes, and meanwhile they are eating more crap than they would have without the fear of dieting hanging over their head.

If any of that feels true to you, maybe you should try making an "unschedule", where you pencil in blocks of time where you absolutely won't do any work. Time that is specifically set aside for goofing off, reading fanfic, surfing youtube, etc. Once that is there, you might feel more comfortable about doing work in the rest of the time available, because you know you only have to do it until the next "fun" block on your schedule comes around.
posted by lollusc at 1:25 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

You have anxiety and depression, either of which can cause all the behaviors you describe. I'm wondering whether things are any better when you take your meds on schedule. If so, you need to find some way to get yourself to take them. I know from experience that it's much easier said than done... you might have to try several methods and/or gimmicks, switching tactics.

If you still are avoiding life while taking the drugs, then you need to see a doctor and either try something else, or add something to what you're taking. If you're taking an SSRI, please know that they're not all alike in how they work. They work differently for each person and also one person can have very different benefits/side effects from each one.

If you don't want to tell your therapist (because you haven't been truthful with her till now) then see a different therapist and be completely honest. It'll be hard, BUT you just have to get through the first session. You don't even have to say it all out loud; you can print what you wrote above or summarize it on paper.

It's not about willpower. It's not laziness. Please stop believing that you just have to pull yourself together. I've been where you are... please get help.
posted by wryly at 2:57 PM on November 18, 2012

Unfuck Your Habitat (and various other things)

I also had the thought about ADHD and the effectiveness of your current treatment regime. But for immediate relief, as in, like, now, get stuck into UFyH.
posted by tel3path at 3:46 PM on November 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you all for the great comments and advice. I guess my starting point will be talking to my therapist about this (I'm really scared though...I've omitted the truth for fear of being judged harshly, so I don't exactly know how she will react to all this information), and re-starting my medication regime. These are the basic things I can do...everything else is totally habitual, so I will definitely have to try to "re-learn" good habits by slowly letting go of the bad ones. Once I get into better patterns of self-care I feel like I will see some sort of slow transformation. I just have to try...

I've also decided that I am going to take the late withdrawals. I'm going to focus on treating my depression (without the extra stress), and coming to terms with myself. I frequently tend to seek out that one major issue that perfectly describes what I'm going through. But, in reality, it's much more complex. All in all, I pretty much have to stop beating myself up about it and start doing some positive things, for once.

Thanks so much, this thread has become an invaluable resource for me.
posted by tammi209 at 6:59 PM on November 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

There is a theory that self sabotage is the work of guilt.

The theory says that we punish ourselves to atone for something that we have done for which we feel guilty. A psychologist friend of mine who made a good living training traders who were sabotaging themselves argued that in most cases traders who were ordinarily quite prescient about the condition of the markets, often took positions against themselves, he thought, because of this guilt/punishment motivation.

He held that even when you bump your head, it is a manifestation of that phenomenon.

His remedy was to try to understand the source of the guilt, and try to rationalize it and come to grips with it.

He had a lot of followers.
posted by MrPaladin at 5:01 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

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