How to overcome feeling lost, aimless, confused, and alone?
February 27, 2011 4:52 AM   Subscribe

How to overcome feeling lost, aimless, confused, and alone? Thirty years into my life, I feel like I haven't accomplished anything, and I'm not sure how to go about achieving the things I want from where I am (physically, mentally, and emotionally) right now.

Most days are an attempt to avoid dealing with the fact that I feel like I am a failure.

I'm in my early 30's, male, unemployed, and living with my father in southern Riverside county (CA, U.S.A.). I've had exactly one relationship in my life that lasted more than a few weeks (and she was very emotionally abusive). The others I can count on one hand.

I have a bachelor's degree in psychology, but now I feel like maybe I just got it because of external influences rather than a true desire to pursue any work in the field. It took me 11 years just to earn that degree. I spent most of my time post-high school in and out of community college. I don't feel – nor have I ever felt – especially drawn towards any specific field of study. I find many things fascinating, but none so much that I feel like I want to dedicate my life to them.

I am a chronic procrastinator. I put important things off until the very last possible moment that I could get them done. I was frequently late to my last job. I would often wait until the day of an exam to study for it. I have trouble finding the motivation to do things (even things that I find enjoyable), and I am very good at finding excuses. I'm not very good at making long-term plans and I'm worse at sticking to them. I fear that this is the result of over a decade spent in front of a computer screen. I fear that the nature of online interaction has shortened my attention span. I rarely read whole websites anymore. Instead, I often open new pages and they sit in my browser until they get closed or filed away.

I used to be able to read a 400 page novel in a day or two. Now, it takes me months.

Whenever I am away from a computer, I fear I'm missing something cool and/or some opportunity to socialize with people on Twitter or Facebook (and hopefully earn their acceptance/respect).

I feel completely overwhelmed when I think of actually trying to read and critically process information from the various websites, blogs, books, and other media that I want or think I should take in.

I have no truly local friends. My last local circle of friends broke apart years ago. They were all emotionally unhealthy in different ways, but they were all that I had. I have a loose group of acquaintances that I meet with weekly now but despite their attempts to reach out to me, I've resisted forming closer bonds with them because many seem set in their ways, and their ways are antithetical to what I think I want out of my life. I don't want to let them make me complacent. And they all live 30 minutes or more away.

There are other people I'd consider friends in my life but they all live far away. Some are in northern California. One is in Virginia; she's moving back here next month, but she'll still live an hour away. My oldest friend lives on the east coast. Another, who is probably my closest friend, lives in Texas and I've never even met her face-to-face; we've only ever communicated online and on the phone.

Even among people who I should get along with, I feel left out because they tend to quote things or make other references to things that I've never read or seen or even heard of. Or they'll reference things I have seen, but I won't get the reference. My brain just doesn't seem to work like that. Sometimes they'll have long, drawn out, intelligent conversations on topics that I'm just passingly familiar with. It leaves me feeling very out-of-the-loop or behind the curve at best, and uncool and dumb at worst.

Sometimes it seems like my brain doesn't process things the same way most do.

I feel like a jack of some trades, master of none.

I've never had a large circle of friends, and I often feel like I have to constantly prove myself in any given group. At the same time, I highly resent and dislike people who are “too” popular/“cool” and who have hangers-on and yes-men/women surrounding them. The only time where I consistently feel at-home and among people who I can understand and relate to (and visa-versa) is in a scholastic setting. However, even that doesn't guarantee anything. My entire university tenure (2 years) didn't net me any long-standing friendships. Nor did any of my years at the community college. I am not a very social person, and though I'm usually open-minded, I can also be very judgmental and picky at times.

For years, I've spent the vast majority of my time when I wasn't obligated to be elsewhere seated in front of my computer. It's a habit I picked up in junior high. I socialize a lot online.

I resent living here. I've been in this small town for 20 years, and its been 10 since I moved back in with my father. It's to the point now that I actively avoid interaction with him as much as possible. Seeing him, or even talking with him is the single most potent reminder that I've managed to accomplish very little with my life. Even little habits that he has annoy me, now.

I've avoided looking for work as much as possible since being laid off over a year ago. Sometimes I tell myself its because I think I should be able to find something better than a retail or other service job. I have a degree now. That should count for something. Sometimes I tell myself its because I might go back to school. Honestly, it's because going out and seeking a job would only likely depress me more and make me deal with the fear that I'll end up stuck in this little town for the rest of my life. I want to get out of here. I want to move away. I want my own life. This is not where I thought I'd be at this point in my life.

I fear failure. I also fear “growing up” and getting stuck in some boring job just to pay bills.

My unemployment benefits will start running out sooner than later. I'm already behind on at least one student loan because Chase seems to be completely unforgiving of my situation. Add to that a couple of near-maxed out credit cards and a dwindling savings account.

In my perfect life, I am a published author. I write stories about magic and technology. In my spare time I am an architect. I design buildings that at once both evoke the past and embrace the future. I am an amateur photographer. Occasionally I go on long hikes or bike rides, before the storms roll back in and I retire to my home where I brew up hot tea and read while thunder rattles the windows. On the weekends I go to rock concerts and goth/industrial clubs. At least once a month, I travel somewhere to experience something new or visit old friends and family. Preferably both. Every week people come over to play video and analog games. I have a small circle of close friends who I can trust with personal musings and chat with at length about life, the universe, and everything. Many of these people live within a few minutes drive, so we can visit each other without much advance planning necessary. Oh, and I have a huge library and regularly drop in on college courses, because at heart I am a perpetual student.

I have tried a couple times to seek counseling, but both times I was met with someone who just wanted to deal with surface issues. They showed little or no interest in helping me deal with what seems to me to be a mix of low self-esteem, possibly depression, and some attention/concentration problems.

I don't know what to do with myself at this point.

Temp e-mail:
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 97 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, I could have written a lot of what you said - the fear of failure, the short attention span, the online social life, the "I have a degree, what am I doing in this job", the procrastinating... and like you, I also have a "perfect life" in my head that I know I'll never achieve. (I'm also in my early 30es and feel like I've wasted away pretty much all of my life so far, cuz look where I am, aimless and driveless etc etc, you get the idea).

I'm in therapy. You should be in therapy. Find a better therapist - they're there to listen to you and help you work towards what you want. I mentioned to mine last week that I felt we were stalling, and we talked about what we could do to improve that, and worked on a "plan" to get what I want from therapy. You can find someone like that, even if it takes a while (this is my 4th therapist, tho my 2nd one was also great).

What you should also tell yourself is that there is no shame in being where we are, our life isn't over yet and we can start again. I don't even have a clue where I wanna go yet, but I'm not gonna stress myself into making a decision - if I only figure out "what I want" in my 50es, then so be it, as long as I'm not completely miserable in the meantime.

So take it slow, face your (seemingly insurmountable issues) one at a time. Don't set yourself impossible goals that you won't achieve and then get depressed over. Little things. Get a job, even if it's beneath you. Then you have a safety net that'll give you some breathing space to figure out your next step, and so on. And don't stress yourself out if it all takes a while.

It's worked for me so far. Good luck!
posted by ClarissaWAM at 5:33 AM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

It strikes me that it might be really, really useful to think in much smaller tasks, have you tried this?

Your dream life has an awful lot to it that you can realise. I strongly advise against architecture because it's all-consuming and absolutely disastrous to a procrastinator or anyone struggling with depression/low self-esteem, but you can be a published author. Maybe it doesn't pay your bills, something else does, but if you write 1000 words a day you're amassing work and it gets better and you keep at it and you pitch it and eventually, odds are it will get published, and you keep learning and keep going. Maybe it's not 1000 words a day, it's 200 - slower, but still happening, right? Maybe it starts with 50. 50's nothing. It adds up and it's easy, though.

So, take that and apply it to work - retail and service industry jobs mostly suck, but they allow you to chip away at your debt and avoid being consumed by that while you work on a bigger dream, or while economic recovery broadens your jobs options. Don't weigh it against your degree, it's just a little thing right now that's solving a real issue (debts for which you are responsible), not your identity. At all. Actually, the more something becomes your idea of identity, in my experience, the more it's a big deal and jumps into procrastination - do the stuff that's easy and doesn't matter, because doing stuff makes it easier to do other stuff and it buys you time, and doing nothing is both brutally depressing and the cause of other problems (still that debt, hi!).

You want to go to rock shows and goth/industrial clubs? Dude, go! Find groups of gamers that welcome new people - they won't all be your friends but maybe one will, they won't be dropping in to you but maybe some day they will. You can totally do these things, and those connections will be much more fun and enduring than trying to impress someone on Twitter. It won't start out as deep conversations, but it'll start. That group doesn't work? Try another, it isn't a damning indictment of you to fail to connect with a few particular individuals.

(I really don't mean to be judgmental and I identify with lots of this, and have been stuck in a similar sense of aimlessness before - heh, it turned into service industry jobs followed by six years of studying architecture, nearly finished - and I am so convinced you can overcome this through little steps. The totality of the problem isn't worth sitting and thinking about, seriously - take a bit and get started, whatever seems easiest.)

I won't tackle the counseling angle because I'm not sure what to say, other than that low self-esteem in particular might need the surface issues dealt with as part of it - it's hard to get to the root of anything straight off, unless a chemical rebalancing is the solution/catalyst.
posted by carbide at 5:43 AM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

You sound depressed. There are plenty of things to try if you look at your experience through the lens of depression - with antidepressants, exercise (preferably outdoors), healthy food, and good sleep hygiene (going to bed at decent hour, minimizing screen time before bed) at the top of the list in addition to the aforementioned therapy.

Being unemployed is terrible for mental health, especially extended unemployment. However, once you have got used to the inertia of not having a job, feeling worthless, etc. it is very difficult to get up and going again. But you need that job - if just to get out of the house and meet new people. At this point, your focus should be at getting you functional enough to get a job, which will help you move toward your dreams (job means meeting people, money means moving out). Don't try to conquer a lifetime of hopes, fears, expectations, and disappointments right now - one thing at a time, just a landing a job is a good start.

First, you will need to work on dealing with feelings of failure. Starting today, you can celebrate successes as they come. Getting up, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, going for a 20 minute walk - this counts as success. Calling to make doctor's appointment - success. Making phone call for job - success. Hell, don't even try to do both in one day, that's probably too much work and invites failure. Set your goals small, so small that success is almost guaranteed, and try to find success once a day. Eventually, once the depression starts to lift, the momentum from small successes should snowball and you should be able to slowly, ever so slowly, change your life. Good luck.
posted by crazycanuck at 5:46 AM on February 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

ClarissaWAM is right. Also focus on what has worked so far...small successes. Use those to build on.

You are in the same situation many people are. Fear of failure or stagnation prevents them from getting started on living a great life. Don't worry today about 10 years from now. Today work on making today good and making this week good. The activity of the day is more meaningful than the plan of the future. If your perfect life is to be a published author, then write today. Have some tea. Build into your everyday life the activities you want. It takes practice, but it will raise your level of happiness now.

And do some things to take care of yourself. Find a fun activity and do it for yourself every day. It may be exercise or yoga or meditation or great music...but build that into your life too.

I'd also suggest volunteering somewhere. Getting out of your own head to help someone else is amazingly powerful.

Good luck to you.
posted by Jandasmo at 5:47 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

You want to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, get going -- no matter how slowly -- in any positive direction. Stop moaning, for chrissakes. At all times: 'Am I doing something good right now, is this pointing me in the right direction? Yes? Good,' and stop dwelling on the past or the present crumminess. Why dwell and moan when you are taking steps to improve your lot?

Let go of the ego issues. Why shouldn't you work a service job? There's dignity in honest labour. You have a 'failure to launch' issue here; you don't get to have a fancy career with business cards, not just yet. If you can't find a regular job, work on side hustles; paint people's garages or something.

I don't mean to be harsh, just -- I have suffered from plenty of this crap myself.

This stuff:

despite their attempts to reach out to me, I've resisted forming closer bonds with them because many seem set in their ways, and their ways are antithetical to what I think I want out of my life

I highly resent and dislike people who are “too” popular/“cool”

is why you are lonely. Grow up a bit, accept that everybody else is just another mammal. Stop looking at their clothes and cars. It is likely that the people you are snarking on are more interesting, and would add more value to your life than, the people you are messing about with on Twitter. How far has the on-line stuff actually got you?

If you stop whining and fantasizing, and start making 'baby steps,' you can get yourself out of these ruts. For example -- "At least once a month, I travel somewhere to experience something new or visit old friends and family. Preferably both. Every week people come over to play video and analog games" -- okay, great. It is not difficult to (1) take a day road trip to the next city, (2) invite one person over for cards and beer. Do these things.

Community service of some stripe is another good way to get out of this and get on the path towards growing up. Pretty much anything counts so long as it involves getting out of the house and doing something to better your part of the world. It will also be useful, at this level of mild depression, to have something for which you are required to get out of bed and fix yourself up for, and -- this is key, really -- which will get you out of the house, off of the computer.

Your issues are (1) not uncommon, so don't be ashamed, (2) much easier to fix than you realise.
posted by kmennie at 5:54 AM on February 27, 2011 [16 favorites]

Once you're over 30, nobody cares how cool you are. So get over that -- get over feeling uncool and get over caring if other people are "too" cool. You're over 30. The word cool has ceased to apply. Half your cohort is driving minivans or dull sedans and liking it. A quarter of them are ordering neighborhood children off their lawn and going to bed at 9 p.m. Ten percent of them just bought high-tech binoculars for their birdwatching hobby. Cool is over. What's left is being passionate about things that interest you (like birdwatching!), which makes you interesting, and which is a lot more worthwhile than cool.

Get a job, limit your computer time, APPRECIATE your parent who is your safety net, and realize that procrastination is often a fear of failure that forces you to fail anyway ... but to fail by not doing, rather than by trying and failing. If you're going to fail either way, why not try? At least that way you're closer to succeeding. So start DOING some of the things in your ideal life, several of which are free, except let go of the architecture and get realistic about how far away your friends will probably end up living.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:36 AM on February 27, 2011 [59 favorites]

I can't favourite Eyebrows McGee's answer enough.

It definitely sounds like you suffer from depression. While you are looking for a better therapist, you may also want to try reading and doing the exercises in David Burns' Feeling Good Handbook. I myself am quite prone to being a Negative Nelly about myself and my life, and doing the exercises made me understand just how devastating my own thoughts were.

Make a list of what you accomplish. Then go out and do them. Small successes breed bigger ones. Don't be afraid to fail. Celebrate when you do, because you've tried and that's absolutely better than being paralyzed by fear.

And...don't be so mean to yourself. You may not believe it, but you are already an awesome human being just as you are right now. Appreciate what you have, right now: a parent who is willing to support you, the time to make the steps that will take you to where you want to go, that even though your friends are far away, appreciate that you have friends, period.

Good luck.
posted by so much modern time at 6:57 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, regular exercise will help in dealing with anxiety and depression.
posted by so much modern time at 7:06 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been fighting depression for a while now, and I really can't stress enough how much spending hours and hours on the computer makes me feel empty and worthless. I've been actively avoiding being online so much and not spending so much time with my smartphone in my hand. It was stressful at first, and I still fall into the trap on occasion, but ultimately it's really really helped. If this is too hard for you, there are tools and software available that will only give you an allotted amount of time online.

When I'm not online, I'm reading, taking care of things around the house, doing stuff outside....remember outside? Outside is all kinds of awesome...chances are you're being active, you're getting sunlight and fresh air which are great medications for depression.

I also lived with my parents for maybe 6 months while unemployed in my late 20s after I had been living away from them for 10 years and wound up essentially closing myself in their dark, dark basement because I couldn't face them anymore. Even hearing "good morning" felt overbearing. Unfortunately, the only thing that helped it was time and moving out. The good thing was when I stopped hiding from them and instead using my discomfort as a great engine to get my ass out, get a job, a move away. Writing this paragraph, I realize I've barely been there since I left over ten years ago and every time I visited I felt that same nervousness come back.

Good luck.
posted by nevercalm at 7:20 AM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I can't add anything new to the good suggestions you're getting, but I can make one comment on one part of your post.

For your dream of being a published author, I'd suggest that you start right now (today) in getting published by taking the following small steps:

- a blog: this is a good way to practise your writing skills and get instantly published. You may or may not have readers, but that is true of any form of publication
- non-fiction articles and advertorials for newspapers and magazines, especially local and regional publications. It's *much* more attainable, and speedier, than a book publication (plus, it gives you credibility when you approach a publisher later on with your book manuscript).

Agreed that it's the bit by bit accumulation of work that accomplishes what you need. If you write 1 page (500 words) a day of imperfect words (with weekends off) at the end of the year you have a manuscript.

Then you can spend another 6 months polishing it and you can start to send it out.

It's not a given that your manuscript will be published by a publishing house, although self-publishing is always an option. I've worked in the industry for over 10 years now, and every publisher has approximately 200 submissions for every one they'd like to publish.

Even if your manuscript is accepted, the wait is often 2-3 years, and in that time publishers can close or change direction significantly.


Good luck--you *can* get through this. Let us know how it goes.
posted by purplesludge at 7:33 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

You are not a chronic procrastinator in the same sense that you are blue-eyed or left-handed. This is a learned habit, not an inherent trait. You have not been broken by the computer. You can learn new skills and new habits. It will be hard work, but you can learn to make different choices. I mean, sure, we all know people who are always late or always early, who always put things off until the last minute or who are always on top of everything. Personality and talent do factor in. Some people are naturally good at staying organized--but even if that's not a natural talent for you, it doesn't mean that you can't learn better habits.

If you are open to discussing strategies with a therapist, you can look into low-cost or sliding scale therapy options in your area (universities with clinical or counseling psychology programs often have low-cost therapy centers where students and recent grads work under the guidance of licensed therapists). Also consider that you may be depressed, and treating your depression may allow you the clarity to see how to change your procrastination habits. You can also look into getting assessed for ADHD and learning disabilities, just to be sure you know what's going on with your brain (perhaps start by asking your PCP, if you have one). Also consider picking up a couple books about procrastination. A book that addresses why you might procrastinate, strategies for making better choices, and exercises or customizable goals could be really helpful if you'd prefer not to work with a therapist.

My point is, stop thinking of yourself as unfixable. Replace "I'm a chronic procrastinator" with, "I have some bad habits and need to develop better ones; I'm going to do XYZ to start." As you begin to address the procrastination issue, you will have an easier time of making small but concrete steps toward your goals. Procrastination makes you think that you can't buy rock concert tickets until you have a job, and in order to have a job you need to pick a career, and you don't even know where to start with that so you might as well just put the whole thing off for another day. But that's a distraction: you can find free concerts, or you can get a retail job (apply for everything) and use part of your first paycheck to buy concert tickets.

The reason I'm harping on the procrastination thing is that I've found that some people (myself included) look at bad habits and get stuck, thinking "I'm X and there's nothing I can do about it!" There are things you can do about this. You can't resolve everything at once, you probably won't get everything exactly the way you want or expect it, but you can take steps to make yourself happier.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:08 AM on February 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

In addition to all the fine advice above, I have this to offer:


Shut off the computer and take refuge in the tangible.
posted by desjardins at 8:28 AM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

You need to DO something. You know, objects in motion stay in motion, objects at rest stay at rest. Set small goals for yourself even if it is just one goal to accomplish during the day. Once you get the hang of that, add another daily goal. If you can't handle two goals a day go back to one a day for another week. You are ersponsible for yourself and if you do nothing, you get nothing.
posted by MsKim at 8:32 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Number one, you sound depressed and therefore in need of medical advice.

Number two, you are much much further ahead than you think because you have a vision of your perfect life and pretty much all of that is attainable.

You seem so depressed that you might have to take baby steps. First thing you want is to be a published author, so I would like to make a specific request of you. Could you please write 250 words and then come back and tell us you've done it? I'm certainly not asking you to show them to us, just to do it. They don't even have to be 250 good words, as long as you write them.
posted by tel3path at 9:35 AM on February 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

getting stuck in some boring job just to pay bills.

Well, you're stuck in a boring life and you can't pay your bills. How much worse would a job be?

Yes, I think you're depressed, but I also think that you're wallowing in it. Yes, therapy, exercise, activities would be good ideas, but also, I'd suggest that you get busy. Do you do your best at the tasks at hand? Do you make your shared living space as clean and attractive as you can?

Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water. Meaning--do what needs to be done. No matter how lousy you feel, get up, take a shower, go for a walk, take out the trash, etc. By doing the unexceptional things well, you prepare yourself for the exceptional.

And are you grateful? Do you thank your father? I don't mean this in a sniveling, sorry-for-yourself way, but rather from an attitude of true gratitude. You've got a place to live, some $$ coming in, and the time to sort yourself out. You've got a degree, which proves to employers that you can set a goal and finish a task. You've got a friend moving to SoCal--are you going to help her move and set up house? You've got a circle of friends.

Now that you've unloaded all this baggage here, you're in a good place to start sorting it all out. I think that letting go of grand ambitions and setting attainable goals, working towards them and achieving them would go a long way in setting you on a path to a life you want.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:07 AM on February 27, 2011 [9 favorites]

Whenever I am away from a computer, I fear I'm missing something cool and/or some opportunity to socialize with people on Twitter or Facebook (and hopefully earn their acceptance/respect).

That's not how acceptance & respect work, which you know already, and it doesn't take you further towards being the person you want to be - you have a picture of your life that is so crisp, so lovely, so vivid - figure out how to move towards that, even in tiny steps. Many people who are feeling the kind of sad and hopeless that you're feeling don't have that picture and can't even imagine what something better looks like. You can. Make it happen.
posted by judith at 10:48 AM on February 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I fear that this is the result of over a decade spent in front of a computer screen. I fear that the nature of online interaction has shortened my attention span. I rarely read whole websites anymore. Instead, I often open new pages and they sit in my browser until they get closed or filed away. I used to be able to read a 400 page novel in a day or two. Now, it takes me months. Whenever I am away from a computer, I fear I'm missing something cool and/or some opportunity to socialize with people on Twitter or Facebook (and hopefully earn their acceptance/respect).

I'm sorry to be so blunt, but the internet is ruining your life. You need to unjack and get out into the real world. You might need to physically spend a couple months away from a computer… your situation sounds pretty bad.

My recommendation: the single simplest way to feel like a winner is to win. And the healthiest way to win is to remove chance from the equation. What does that mean? It means you pick challenges that you know you can accomplish with effort + time and nothing else.

You'll find there are actually very few challenges that satisfy this criteria, but there is one. One that I think could do you a lot of good: exercise. Exercise is a simple matter of input == output. Work == results. It's one of the few things in life that really works exactly as advertised. The harder you work at it, the more results you'll see. But because there are no shortcuts, and because luck has no bearing on success, you quickly find you have no excuses. You either want it or you don't.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:34 AM on February 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry to be so blunt, but the internet is ruining your life. You need to unjack and get out into the real world.
This is true. One thing you can do is get rid of your internet at home so you are forced to go outside to go online.

And if you don't have a job, then you have plenty of time to write. There's nothing stopping you from living out that part of your ideal life.
posted by betweenthebars at 5:32 PM on February 27, 2011

I would recommend "Mindset" by Dweck.

I resisted reading it for a long time, because I thought it was going to be pop-psych drivel. But, it turns out to be really great, practical advice from a great psychologist. Plus it's a quick read.
posted by achmorrison at 7:50 AM on February 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Read back into Metafilter for more answers. This question gets asked all the time.
posted by talldean at 1:21 PM on March 2, 2011

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