Self- sabotage: A beast with two heads
September 18, 2014 3:26 PM   Subscribe

For the past few years, I've had to deal with what seems like procrastination's more stubborn cousin. It's not just a tendency to put things off- it feels like a visceral, physically-manifested resistance to doing things that should involve no forethought in terms of effort whatsoever, or that do, but that would only serve to help me better myself if I managed to get them done.

I guess the best way to describe it would be to liken it to the force you feel when trying to bring two matching poles on a magnet together, only this is something much more visceral and felt throughout my entire body. I don't know- is this fear of success? Failure? Anxiety?
I can generally divide the situations in which I have this sort of reaction into two categories- professional and social.
Professionally: I'm looking for a job, but will avoid doing things like responding to MeFi mail brimming with excellent suggestions on what to do to help me get there, or avoid sending in a writing sample to a given firm or a medical form to another( I'm trying to volunteer at a hospital that, two months ago, was delighted to have me start with them. All I had to do was hand in an on-boarding packet to HR). I'm also taking a medical coding course that, despite offering the promise of a well-paying, decent job after certification, I can't bring myself to sit and finish, despite it not being all that difficult.
Socially: I have a HUGE issue with isolating myself. I won't answer the simplest of facebook messages, even if they're from people I want to see or talk to. Same with messages from my Meetup group. People have begun to ask me why I'm ignoring them and still, I stay silent. The thought is always ...' It can wait".
Most painfully though, I was part of an intensive stuttering therapy program in the summer. The group was small, and we all forged decently strong connections with each other. Since then though, I can't bring myself to answer their emails or group Whatsapp messages, even though they're some of the sweetest, most interesting people I know.

Why does everything feel like throwing cotton balls at a brick wall and why do I put the stupidest, silliest things off? Why do I punish myself?

Relevant history: Treating for depression with 20mg Prozac for the second time in a few years. Working, but slowly, and on pretty much every other aspect of my life except this one. Also in therapy. No sleep apnea ( according to one flawed sleep study). Possible ADD but I can't treat with stimulants because of high BP. Taking a vitamin D and omega 3 supplement every day. Energy drinks seem to help with focus, but not whatever sort of motivation is required to beat this thing.
posted by marsbar77 to Human Relations (19 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
Someone will no doubt chime in with this little bit of CBT so I figure I should address it beforehand: I know some of these things involve more work than maybe I'm allowing myself to believe, but they're all still straightforward things, or things I know, at least on an intellectual level, that I'm capable of.
posted by marsbar77 at 3:31 PM on September 18, 2014

Go to bed earlier. That will help you figure out what you are too scattered to do, and what you just don't want to do. Writing seems to be a common theme here; try getting even one sentence out and seeing if it's enough to hit send or complete that packet. Writing the second sentence will be easier than writing the first. It's a skill.
posted by michaelh at 3:37 PM on September 18, 2014

I've noticed too, that a lot of it is centered around writing / thought formation. Would love to know if anyone else has experienced anything like this and what they did to get over it. (FTR, I'm 25 and this has been an issue since I was about 20). /threadsit
posted by marsbar77 at 3:51 PM on September 18, 2014

This really sounds like a symptom of depression. It's when depression is taking up all of your mental energy and you just can't deal with anything else. I know it seems like it's easy stuff, but ease/difficulty/motivation in normal terms don't really apply. If it's reaching out to other people, it's going to feel like you don't have the energy for it, because your energy is being tied up. I think it's a symptom of your depression not being completely beaten yet. I can tell you from experience that once you're feeling better, all of this stuff gets way easier.
posted by bleep at 4:04 PM on September 18, 2014 [9 favorites]

I think most people have problems with procrastination. I do, and if my head were not attached to my body, I would probably delay putting it on my neck each day (really).There would probably be a day or week where I would also viscerally throw my unattached head across the room, because - why work towards these other things?

Here are some of the things that have helped me knock the procrastination monster, although I am going to modify them for you so that you can meet your goals.I still struggle and always struggle with this, but all of these solutions have worked to increase work toward a goal from 0 to (hours, or complete a goal, or whatever):

-Get a buddy with the same goal and have "dates" where you meet and do these things. Also have deadlines where you turn stuff in. So for example, find other people who are also looking for a job (or have goals they want to meet). Go to a coffee shop where you meet. You can work together side by side on your separate goals. Once a month, or week, or whatever you pick, the goal is to email your buddy a copy of (application you turned in, or whatever). I think that this could meet your socializing goal and your do other things. But there is socialization, you allocate time towards it, and there is some compliance/must demonstrate compliance.

-Make it into a competition. You could have this be simple if you find another friend/colleague lookign for a job. Who can complete the most job applications in a month? (This is what I use for bets to help competition, but this is what fuels me so feel free to modify: Loser buys dessert or whatever thing that both people like for the other person.Loser can watch the person eat it, but can't eat dessert...let me say that this fires me up to admit progress and compete).

-What about finding a support group for finding jobs? You can go to the place each week and meet with other people. Listen to their challenges.Help them with their CVs/resumes. They can help you and give feedback. This action (although for other goals) has really helped me because you learn from the others. What is an effective resume? What can you suggest that they do (and think, do you do the same thing?) You will be part of a team working towards the same goals.

-The other small thing that helps me (if I am not buried by work) is make a schedule. Each day, when you get up, work 1 hour toward your goal. Have this be for 5 hours a week, or whatever. But during that time, no computer, no internet, no email.It is just ONE HOUR you will survive without all the other things.

I could be wrong but I think if you do find the job part you would like/the interact with others might fall into place.

It sounds like you are working on your mental health, which is great. IF therapy is part of it, too, have you discussed this specific problem? They might have ideas that would be viable for you.
posted by Wolfster at 4:12 PM on September 18, 2014

So, I used to have pretty much the exact same problem that you do. I have ADD, and the first part of the pharm treatment was Welbutrin (bupropion), which REALLY helps with the way that ADD and depression comingle. It's not an SSRI and not a stimulant. Ask your doctor. It helped get me out of my hole in a major way.
posted by klangklangston at 4:21 PM on September 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tried Wellbutrin for a little bit. It made me super anxious and made my muscles tense in a way that doesn't play nice with the fact that I'm already dealing with a base spasticity from cerebral palsy :(
posted by marsbar77 at 4:25 PM on September 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I get this myself. When it comes up, one thing that I try to remember to do is to give myself LOTS of credit for getting even small things done. Things like returning one message, or setting a timer for 5 minutes and working on something for that time.

I find it helpful to tell myself something celebratory or even literally pat myself on the back after that, it's so much more encouraging than thinking about how there's so much else to do.

Try to reframe your thinking so instead of "it can wait" about the whole thing, you plan to do one small thing and think "the rest can wait". Wash, rinse, repeat.
posted by yohko at 4:26 PM on September 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

I have the same thing. Depression/anxiety are in my bag, managed using Lexapro. But avoidance still crops up frequently.

A could of things help me:
- I try to banish "should" and "supposed to" from my vocab and thinking

- My counselor has been incredible. She pointed out that avoiding contact is also a form of control. Not that I am controlling, but it still a way to calm the world around me.

- like yohko said, acknowledging all the little things helps a lot

- creating space to respond to things. Give yourself x amount of time. Try to focus on it during that time. Train it like a muscle. Once that time is up, take a break.

- finding buddies to help, and being completely upfront about issues with them. I have 2 friends who aren't the people I hang out with all the time, with whom I am completely frank about *all* my issues. They are understanding about my hang ups and challenges, and we support each other with things.

If you ever want to talk, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by troytroy at 4:46 PM on September 18, 2014 [9 favorites]

Check out writings and podcasts by Barbara Sher on Resistance

Just click that link, and start listening to that oldest podcast. You can listen while doing something else. Fold your socks. Do your dishes.
Her books have more, but, that's an easy place to start.

I think something that helps is answering your own, "What if?" with - I'll cope. Or even, I'll quit!
Sometimes there's resistance to applying for a job etc, because you're worried it'll be a bad fit. You know what you can do? You can just not take the job if you don't like the interview. Or quit and get a new job if you don't like it when you start. You'll just be back at square one, and that's where you are now! Think about what you're scared of if you complete the next step, and then reassure yourself that - you will cope. You can change path. You're not setting anything in STONE by just moving in a direction. It seems like, so often, I get frozen with worry about the thought of being 'stuck' with an option - see the irony there? Doing something doesn't leave me stuck, doing nothing leaves me stuck!

If you're really just faffing around, try making a list of things you actually need to do on a piece of paper.
Put at least a dozen things down. Include the things that are freaking you out. What's the biggest, scariest item on that list? If you can do it, great! If you can't, just avoid it by doing ANY of the other things on the list. Ha! Structured Procrastination. At least you're getting things done!

When you actually need to do one of the big things, take that big thing out of the list, and put the smallest, tiniest step in there. No, that's too big. SMALLER!
I'm talking, if you need to edit your cv, and fill out some forms in Word, and find somewhere to print them out, and scan your ID, and submit them to the hospital -
Your todo list item should be...
"Open your CV in Word"
That's it. Open it, and you get to cross that off the list! You don't even need to edit it. If you get carried away with enthusiasm, and edit it, that's fantastic, but break down that overwhelm. Open the CV, and if you don't get any futher, write it on your Todo list again.
posted by Elysum at 4:56 PM on September 18, 2014 [13 favorites]

I put myself in this kind of Opposite Day mode. I'm sure that if I had a more functional brain, I could stay in my normal self and get all of this stuff done, but since I don't, this is a pretty good hack for me and maybe for you.

First, make a hypothetical list: "what would I do if I didn't hate doing all of this stuff?" Just make a list. Put all that stuff on it. If it's on the list it won't be nagging at you in the back of your mind. Tell the part of yourself that's avoiding these tasks "it's just a list, you can always not do it later."

Okay, now, turn off the part of your mind that decides whether or not to do something, and turn on the part of your mind that just goes down a list and gets stuff done. Get to an item, do it. Get to the next item, do it. You'll discover that it is incredibly easy to knock items off the list.

Writing emails is hard for me, too, and Opposite Day works here too. "Okay, what would I say if I were going to email this person?" Do not address the email; just draft up something. Take a break, then look at it and (most likely) be pleasantly surprised at how perfectly fine your draft seems. Do a bit more minor editing and hit send.

The strategy here is to sneak past the part of your mind that tries to block the road with negative statements like "this is stupid, you can't do this, you're going to hate doing this, they'll probably think [x] about you." Just sidestep it by pretending to agree with it. That's why I call this opposite day. "Yeah, you're right man, it'll sound too dumb to send. I mean, if I were going to write an email, it would probably sound dumb like this." *drafts email* "Oh, hmm, never mind, that actually sounds fine." *hits send* "Yeah, you're right, these are all awfully painful tasks, and there's too many to ever get them all done. I mean, just look at this list of things I could do." *drafts up list* "I mean, at most, I could probably just take care of this one." *pays credit card* "And this one is terribly hard, I probably don't even have her email address in my contact list... Oh look, I do." And so forth.
posted by salvia at 5:34 PM on September 18, 2014 [18 favorites]

I think this is a larger, but still quite direct manifestation of your CP.

I think you are highly motivated to do these things, that you want to do them with your whole self in a very real sense, but that when you go to do them, a struggle develops between a part of your brain that is capable of doing them, and a part of your brain that is 'designed' to do them and would in most people, but can't in your case because of your CP, yet can still block and interfere with the capable part.

Stuttering, your stuttering and the stuttering of the woman in the totally amazing video you linked in a previous question (and thank you for that), offers a model of and a general type for what I'm trying to describe here; and I think the reason pot helps her so much is that it puts to sleep the interfering part of her brain.

Stuttering is a normal part of development:
Stuttering that starts during a child's early language-learning years (ages 2 through 7 years) and goes away on its own before puberty is called normal disfluency. It's a normal part of language development. Most children aren't bothered by it and may not even notice that they're doing it. This type of stuttering may come and go for a while. Then it may slowly decrease until it doesn't happen anymore. ...
And I think signifies a handing off of language from one part of the brain to another, and occurs during a normally brief period when two parts are competing with each other for control of an utterance -- and I think you and other stutterers are stuck in transition because the new part of the brain can't take the baton but won't let go of it either.

I wish I could say this view offers an easy way forward that you haven't already tried, but perhaps you would indeed be one of the few for whom pot could be as effectuating as stimulants are for those with ADD/ADHD.
posted by jamjam at 6:12 PM on September 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

JamJam-MeMailed you!
posted by marsbar77 at 6:18 PM on September 18, 2014

This resistance is what occurs when you are not meeting your real needs. You are trying to persuade yourself that you want to do something that you think you Should Do but don't actually want to do.

Meanwhile, there are things you actually want to do that you are pushing aside. You could be pushing them aside for all kinds of reasons: because you are ashamed of wanting them, because you think you can't get them, because you think they can wait.

But they are protesting. That protest is the resistance you feel against doing anything else.

It's gotten to the point of all-out war.

You need to be more honest about what it is you really want, not what is supposedly 'best' for you, and go after that. When you fight yourself, you will assuredly lose.
posted by shivohum at 8:27 PM on September 18, 2014 [12 favorites]

I agree with shivohum -- it sounds like you've talked yourself into doing this very pragmatic thing for completely appropriate reasons, but can't bring yourself to do it because it's maybe alien to your nature and just not intrinsically compelling enough. Boredom is more difficult than complexity, a lot of times.

I can relate to the self-imposed isolation. In my case, the poisonous reasoning is "I'm not allowed to see people / do x fun thing until I finish y". But I'm finding that all work - not even work, just the hope of work - and no play very definitely makes Jack a dull and completely inefficient girl, and all this feels (to me) a lot like what living at the Overlook is probably like. I suggest (to you, and to myself) getting out and seeing some people as a matter of mental hygiene.

Something I am wondering about the kind of procrastination you describe -- is it only resistance to and dread of a scary task (the scariness could be addressed by CBT or learning skills in the scary areas if there are gaps), or could some part of it have to do with difficulty initiating activities? If it's the latter, maybe something else is going on (maybe related to CP? possibly ADD if it's there?). I don't know what the solution would be in that case (stimulants? or some gentler alternative to prescription stimulants?), but it might be something to think about.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:02 AM on September 19, 2014

I had very similar experiences in my worst moments of anxiety.

For example, I was socially anxious and I could not bring myself to listen to work phone messages

The phone messages accumulated

I felt even more anxious and like a failure

I let more messages accumulate

...and the horrible cycle of shame continued (at a given moment, I could have more than 20 phone messages in my work phone - weeks old some of them)

In my case there was also a huge fear of failure that would prevent me from trying things (in my mind, it looked better to not try than to try and fail).

What made it better (cognitive therapy and Mood Gym really helped), was a couple of realizations:

- Most people are compassionate and have (to a less crippling degree) the same fears you and I have.
- Most people are not thinking about me. They think about their own lives. My therapist told me to imagine them going through their weekly shopping list whenever I felt like they HATED me.
- Failing is okay. Let yourself screw up. I was wrong when I thought it a good idea to keep my pride by not trying hard things. It is a million times less boring to fail at something than to stay at home feeling stupid.

Ask yourself: what is the most horrible thing that could happen? You will realize that your fears are very probably disproportionate to reality.
posted by Tarumba at 6:00 AM on September 19, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm following along because I have this problem ALL. THE. TIME. But it just occurred to me that I have had success in the past with one tactic.

Ask yourself this: If you don't do This Thing You Want To Do, what's the absolute worst thing that could happen? I mean, the worst thing EVER EVER EVER that could happen. Take it out to its logical conclusion. Now, if you DO do This Thing, what's the absolute worst thing that could happen?

For me, the end result wound up being the same in both cases. (And to give you a glimpse into the mind of The Almighty Mommy Goddess, in both cases, worst case scenario drawn all the way out to the end, I was going to die alone and forgotten after being involuntarily committed to an insane asylum and subjected to electroshock therapy.)

And since the end result of doing This Thing and not doing This Thing were both the same for me, I said to myself, "Screw it, might as well do This Thing."
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 2:37 PM on September 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, apologies - I was linking the podcasts from at work, and couldn't listen. The ones above are not what I meant.

Turns out the ones I wanted to link, are no longer available online, I could only find the archive page, but not the files:
Barbara Sher Resistance Podcasts

I have them if anyone needs them, or, if anyone can find the above files online, that'd be great.

Her books though, such as "I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was", basically deal entirely with Resistance, and why you might be feeling it, and how to get though it, or find something you DO actually want to do.
posted by Elysum at 3:01 PM on September 21, 2014

This is late, but I just wanted to reach out to say you're not alone, and I am struggling with pretty much the exact same thing. The same tendencies nearly resulted in me getting a terrible degree, but I have just about scraped through for it to not have a hugely negative effect on my future. Anyway, if you ever want to Memail, chat, or just try to hold each other to account, get in touch.
posted by lethologues at 4:22 AM on October 2, 2014

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