How can I stop dwelling on the past and live in the present instead?
July 21, 2011 6:19 AM   Subscribe

How can I stop dwelling on the past and live in the present instead? I'd like to know of any coping strategies you've had which allowed you to move on from mistakes you've made and live life more fully in the present, while dealing with self-destructive tendencies and poor discipline.

I began my university education in a prestigious, expensive UK university in the mid 2000s, but half a year from the final exams, I took a year off as I wasn't prepared, mentally or academically, for them. When I returned, I had to take a re-enrolment exam, which I failed by 2 points.

That was in December 2009. Since then, I've returned to my home country, enrolled in a local university, and am about to begin my second year as an undergraduate in said university. I'm doing okay, but not as well as I can.

At this point I'm in my late 20s and living with my parents (who have been remarkably supportive). However, since December 2009 - when I got the news I'd failed the re-enrolment exam - I've been obsessing about my failure to complete my first go at an undergraduate degree. There hasn't been a single day where I haven't thought about it, and it always saddens me. Mentions of the UK or graduations or even just sitting in a classroom at school sends my train of thought careening back towards my dropping out of college. It's gotten to the point where I'm avoiding my high school friends simply because they've all graduated, started their careers and our conversations invariably turn to their jobs, which sends me off the deep end (again). I turn sullen and morose - so I've taken to avoiding them altogether instead.

I do enjoy a few things - I'm involved in my college's theatre group, teaching certain drama skills to members, and I really like videogames, except that I suspect I'm addicted. I have no financial or health worries at this point, even if I'm living off my parents and am chronically overweight. All too often, though, I start projects and never ever finish them for lack of willpower or discipline - when things start to get hard, I just stop doing them.

If I had to give an answer, I'd like to graduate with a decent degree, pick up a couple of languages (I've got basic French and German, but I've not gotten further) and write for a living. (Blogging for a living would be my dream job, actually.) I don't know if that's pertinent to my questions, but they may be.

I have three questions, which are interrelated.

The first is: how can I stop myself from thinking constantly about my dropping out? It's been almost 2 years and I'm still obsessing about it. It's definitely unhealthy and I want to stop so I can think more about what I'm doing now instead of living and reliving the past.

The second is: I have some self-destructive habits which likely contributed to my failure back in 2009, which stem from a fear of failure - e.g. procrastinating for all my schoolwork to the point where I give myself only one day to study for the end-of-term exams, not studying properly for tests, and so on. This is despite me knowing that procrastination is bad for my grades. How can I avoid this sort of behaviour and maybe actually get some of those projects completed?

The third is: I'm addicted to videogames as well - are there any solutions that I can implement, aside from going cold turkey? If I have to, I will completely cut myself off from videogaming, but preferably not.

Throwaway email at Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
For the first: "Am I doing the best I can right now? Yes? Okay, all's good." You can't fix the past, so focus on pulling up your current socks. Dwelling on past failures is not really doing the best one can at that particular moment; total waste of time, so, use that little mantra to remind yourself to cut it out. it too obvious to suggest you start blogging about video games?
posted by kmennie at 6:49 AM on July 21, 2011

I would guess you'll get advice about seeing a mental health professional, as all of these problems sound linked to mental health. Always a good idea!

In the meantime, little meditation exercises may help you be present. One of my favorites is to, when traveling, treat each stop sign, stop light, or other stop as a chance to "stop and be present". It's not a long period of time, but you stop and notice where your mind was think about what you are doing right now, stop and use your senses: look around and listen and feel your body. It's good training to leave the past and future where they belong and focus on your now.

On the video games, can you use something like Health Month to set parameters for yourself and give yourself some accountability? I have a "turn the computer off at 8:30pm" health month rule that I struggle with - but it does help overall with leaving the escapism behind.
posted by ldthomps at 6:59 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you choose to engage a mental health professional, look into dialectical behavior therapy. It's all about being ok now, while actively working to move in the direction you want to go. Feel free to email me if you have any questions about it, as I did it for 3+ years to great effect.
posted by bilabial at 7:02 AM on July 21, 2011

What about treating video games as a reward for doing schoolwork, studying languages, starting a blog, etc.? Maybe give yourself 15 minutes of video games for every hour of productive work you do, or whatever. If you get in the habit of doing this now, hopefully video games will be less of an interference when you start your next school term. Good luck!
posted by jabes at 7:05 AM on July 21, 2011

The literature on thought suppression is pretty compelling - the studies suggest you can't do it, and that, indeed, when you try to do it, the thoughts get even more intrusive ("Don't think of an elephant!"). Wegner is an important investigator in this field, if you're interested in learning about it. The bottom line is that your attempts to stop yourself from thinking about your past have the paradoxical effect of *reminding* you about your past.

So, what to do? Acceptance and Committment Therapy might offer you a different way to approach this issue that centers around mindfulness and being present. If you don't want to see a therapist, check out some of their self help books. Two that I'd recommend are Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven Hayes, and The Happiness Trap, How to Stop Suffering and Start Living by Russ Harris.
posted by jasper411 at 8:22 AM on July 21, 2011

Dwelling on the past sucks! I wouldn't say I've wasted years doing so, but I spent a good amount of wasted energy doing nothing productive. I was put on academic probation, and that's when I realized what I was doing wasn't getting me where I wanted to go.
Soon I was deans listed, retaking every class I failed, or received a grade less than a B in (even when it wouldn't change my gpa, it was based on principle). I wanted to prove to myself that I could do better, and I did!
Fast forward to January, I received my LSAT scores, and I bombed the logic games. I was really devistated. All the studying I did, planning, and things I missed during that study period felt like they were for nothing. Yet, even when this was going on I had a plan. I would enroll in a Masters program since I wouldn't be able to retake the LSAT for 2011, and why wait for 2012? May as well pound out a masters and re-apply after a two year degree. That same month, I got my shit together, and currently I am taking a summer class right now.
My point within this rambling post is you cannot change the past. One needs to understand the past, and learn from it. Today is what matters as it will get you where you'd like to be tomorrow. Take advantage of today, not yesterday. Seize today while working towards tomorrow.
posted by handbanana at 8:23 AM on July 21, 2011

Oh, let me add a concrete thing you can start doing. Document your time. Use google calendars, or a paper bound one. Mark down what you are spending your time on. Back date what you just did and how long you spent doing it. This will enable you to see where you are focusing your energy and time management. If you feel you are spending too much time playing video games than you'd like, adding up the time spent playing videp games will put in perspective what's important to you. Think of it as a self accountability system.
posted by handbanana at 8:27 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nevermind how others might perceive your past or your present. Forgive yourself so that you may move forward.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:33 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

For the first one, I have found that there's a moment when I can decide to not go that thought-direction. There are certain subjects that I know will hook me into an obsessive thought pattern. When one comes up I can say to myself: do I really want to do this right now (at 1 am?). If not, I pick up a book and resolutely read something distracting. If it's not 1 am, I call someone, ask how they're doing, and really listen to them. If they're up for it, after I've listened to them, I can tell them I'm calling because I was getting all neurotic and I needed to hear a friendly voice. It has gotten so that I almost never go down the obsessive-thought rabbit hole any more, but it took a couple of months of practice, which is annoying.

The rest of it I'm still working on, pretty much all through Al-anon. I'm way WAY better but not great, especially at the procrastination. The video game problem I've solved by getting rid of them from my computer, which doesn't sound like a solution for you. They and TV shows were eating SO much of my time and I didn't get enough sleep, and not enough sleep is enough to get all my bad obsessive things up and running again.

It might be worth checking out Al-anon's or Adult Children of Alcoholics's online questionnaires to see if they apply to you. Who knows? But Al-anon has given me a ton of life-hacks of the sort you seem to be looking for.
posted by small_ruminant at 9:40 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hey OP, just wanted to offer a bit of clarification about gaming based on my experience. I have what can only be called "portion control problems" where video games are concerned. I played World of Warcraft for five years, and I'm pretty sure I devoted the better part of those five years to that game. There are some resources out there for gaming addiction, and I'd look those over carefully. A support group might be helpful, but it might also be difficult to find since it is a rather newly recognized phenomenon. MMORPGs get the brunt of social stigma right now for gaming addiction, but it is important to note that all types of games can result in compulsive playing.

I went cold turkey on gaming, many times. I quit. And went back. And quit. And went back. And eventually ended up in a situation where I just couldn't play - and that broke the cycle. Even so, I'm pretty sure that I'd go right back to playing 80+ hours a week if I went back to it now. Some of the times that I quit Warcraft, I would substitute another game for it, and play that just as much. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I have played Minesweeper for hours and hours and hours at a time. It wasn't the game that I wanted, it was to act on my compulsion to play. After realizing that it didn't matter what type of game I was playing, I had to set it all aside.

Today, I do occasionally play games. But that's not exactly a happy ending. I try to avoid ones that I see myself becoming compulsive about and I try to stick to games that are designed in a way so as to be as unobtrusive as possible and non-time-intensive. No RPGs, no simulations, nothing level based at all. But that doesn't always work. I have at least one failed attempt at the bar exam that I can credit to playing Bejeweled and Field Runners when I should have been studying. Gaming is often an escape for me, and it is a tool which I use to enable my procrastination. Even the best laid plans (like handbanana suggests about about scheduling and tracking your time) go awry when I introduce a game to the situation. That's when I start rationalizing. "Well, I'm only a day off from studying. I'll make that up by working twice as hard." and then "Well, I'm only two days off, so I'll work twice as hard tomorrow and then I'll just lose out on that free day that I scheduled in two weeks." Because I know that's a likely outcome, I don't let myself get sucked into technology. I don't have cable or the internet at home. I don't even have a computer at home, currently. I know that sounds like a really hard line. But I know myself and I know that I will - if I let myself - get sucked back in. All it will take is one free, boring night when my guard is down... and I'll have resubscribed to Warcraft, will have created a new character from scratch, and then I'll be gone again.

When I am not actively pursuing my compulsive habits, the overwhelming feeling that I get is... boredom. I know that doesn't sound promising. But do you know how many hours there are in the day? A BAJILLION. Seriously. There are nights when I sit around my completely cleaned apartment and try to think up things to do to be productive because I just have so much free time... and I already sing with the symphony and a smaller choir and am practicing for an upcoming orchestra audition and I have a boyfriend and I'm studying French and Spanish and I go to the gym regularly and am the one who shows up early and stays late in my office just because I have the time to get more work done.

Finally, I direct you to the following comment that I left recently which is your real answer here. Life *is* the ultimate video game. Designing a game is a science. And so designing your own life's game is going to take planning and preparation. There are a ton of tips and tricks that MeFites have suggested for the Gamification of Life. Stop playing other people's games and start playing your own.
posted by jph at 10:07 AM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

The word you're looking for is perseveration - you're perseverating on video games and past failures. It's a symptom of depression and it's a little chemical red flag. Talk therapy may give you coping skills, but you also need to address your overall health and possibly look at medication for a least a short term to give you some breathing room.

Get some sun in your eyeballs and take a walk around the block. You might be surprised how much better you feel in just a week or two. I think it's worth spending some time with a therapist to help work on a better plan, and maybe get a general medical checkup as well.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:23 AM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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