How to help a friend stuck for decades?
November 28, 2012 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Friend stuck in a deep rut. Increasingly concerned he may never escape. Anything I can do to help?

A close friend of 25+ years who is categorically one of the most intelligent and talented people I know has a life that seems stuck. He's done little to advance a career since finishing law school almost 3 years ago at a middling state school that gave him a full scholarship. Before going to law school he spent the better part of a decade living in his parent's house working the same 'entry level service industry / minimum wage' job he did in high school. Before that 'lost decade' he completed a bachelor's degree at a university you'd recognize as a Top-10 elite school. Before that, he spent a year living in his parents house, working the same job he worked after college. That initial year living at home and working the entry-level job was because he didn't apply to any elite colleges while in high school, and decided he was nonplussed about going to the local middling state school that had given him a full scholarship and was the default option.

In this time of 'under-acheiveing' he makes lots of 'false-starts.' Such as finding an apartment in a city with a booming economy where he should be able to get a good job, moving furniture in, and then never moving himself in. In the run-up to law school was a time when it became apparent to me that he has crippling perfectionism. He took the LSAT several times, but kept cancelling his scores without viewing them (so that the LSAT attempt didn't 'count').

He's not dated seriously since breaking up with a serious girlfriend after college. He's gained a lot of weight and lost a lot of hair.

He says he has conventional goals in life- wants a good job, wife, kids. But he doesn't take 'the next step.' He's got at least 3 very-long-time, close friends who are exceptionally well connected in the legal industry and offer to help him get a foot in the door, but he declines these networking offers.

The 'extended adolesence' -- postponing of getting a job commensurate with training, etc, looks like it's gone on for too long when you're just 2 or 3 years shy of 40 years old.

It pains me to watch him idling for so long. Is there anything else I can do to help him?
posted by u2604ab to Human Relations (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Has he asked you for help? Do what he asks. Otherwise, no.
posted by desjardins at 9:40 AM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

You can express concern and encourage him to seek therapy, but unless he asks for advice, that's about it.
posted by Specklet at 9:43 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

You could suggest he be assessed for both IQ and learning disabilities. This pattern is one I have seen with twice exceptional (gifted and learning disabled*) adults who were never ID'd.

I graduated STAR student, national merit scholarship winner, etc, and passed up my scholarship to a more prestigious university to attend college locally and later dropped out to do the homemaker and mom thing. I repeatedly refused to get a job. It was clear to me that would be disastrous. I was always sickly and I was sure that getting a job would result in winding up too sick to work and repeated firings. I felt that was worse than just stsying home, clipping coupons, and cooking from scratch.

Just before I turned 36, I was diagnosed with a genetic disorder and finally started receiving appropriate care instead of accusations of hypochondria and laziness. It empowered me to return to college and eventually get a job. I still look like a loser at the moment, which is probably neither here nor there for purposes of helping your friend.

My only point is that if he has some unidentified problem, that could be the real reason he cannot get his act together. Identifying my actual problem empowered me to start fixing my life. It will take more time for me to achieve career success, but until I was diagnosed I was not in a position to realistically even try. I knew that, even though I could not get anyone to believe me. Everyone just viewed me as a loser, not a person with an obstacle to success.

* Yes, I know: technically, mine is not a learning disability. But hidden disabilities usually are. My situation is pretty unusual.
posted by Michele in California at 9:48 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Going to law school is sometimes done as a symbolic demonstration of making an effort to do something in life, even by people who have little to no interest in practicing law. I wonder if that is the case with your friend?
posted by thelonius at 9:53 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not your job to fix your friend, and it very well alienate him if you try to imply his life isn't what you think it should be. Maybe he's perfectly happy where he is, and tells you differently because he knows it isn't socially acceptable to lack ambition or remain single by choice.

Of course, it's possible he has some kind of mental illness or hidden addiction problem that has stalled his life out, but, again: not your job to suss that out and fix it.
posted by something something at 9:55 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have had a friend that was in a similar rut. I found that the standard advice of 'not being able to make people change; they need to want to change' holds true.

Franky, I came to the point where I realized this and knew that I couldn't force my friend to change. I offered sincere, honest advice when he complained about his career path. I did the same when he spoke about his relationships or any other issue that he faced. I was kind, compassionate, but honest about how I felt. When I spoke about trying to improve his situation, I helped however I could. Otherwise, I stayed his friend, did the usually friend things that we did (movies, hanging out, etc). I could have forced the issue more, but felt that all I would do is alienate him.

Another thing to think about is that this friend likely has no shortage of people who are telling him what he needs to do to "fix" himself. Having a friend that he knows is there for him and won't make him feel bad about himself is going to be just as important to him (or more) than another person trying to improve his situation.
posted by Nightman at 10:00 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

How frustrating.

At some point this guy will wake up and say, "Shit, I could have had a life" or he'll keep doing what he's been doing.

If he askes, you can make recommendations, but after awhile, you'll drift apart because all you'll have in common is the past.

You could broach the subject, "Dude, you've been navel gazing since I've known you. You seem to be having a problem getting off the pot here. Why do you think that this is happening?" Either he's up for a dialog about it, in which case you can talk to him about steps to take to get his shit together. Or he's not.

If you find him fun to hang around, keep hanging around. If you find it morbid and sad, move on.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:06 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

One person's rut is often another's groove.
posted by Aquaman at 10:10 AM on November 28, 2012 [18 favorites]

Radical question - did he actually WANT to be a lawyer? Or was it just sort of something that he did because he was smart and people thought he'd be good at it?

For people who are both smart and really sensitive (points to self), it can be really, really hard to pick through the difference between "what do I want to do really" and "what do people think I should do". Really sensitive people can sometimes pick up on family "vibes" easier than you'd think, and even if their parents never flat-out say "we'd be happier if you grew up to be a [foo] instead of a [baz]", they still know that that's what their parents think, and may feel that pressure to be a [foo] anyway just to make things easier for themselves.

So I'm wondering if maybe his stalling is a sign that deep down, he doesn't actually want to be a lawyer, but he's just afraid of letting everyone else down. Maybe the simple jobs are what he really wants, so he can have ample free time and a simple life. And if that's the case, I'd support him in whatever he does want to do, if he genuinely wants to do it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:11 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

No grad school debt? Sounds like a great life right there.

When he was talking to you about goals, was he like, musing? Or expressing unhappiness with the status quo? Or are you just imposing these goals onto him? Not everyone wants a career.

Whatever you do, don't push him to get a legal job. No one likes practicing law.
posted by murfed13 at 10:45 AM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Do you know what his family situation is like? Are there issues of abuse and/or codependency there? For the same reason abused spouses may not be able to break away from their abusers, sometimes grown children of abusive parents can't break away either even if they are legally of age and entitled to.

It's also possible that his parents are codependent and want at least one child to stay in the nest.

If you suspect abuse, maybe point him to resources for abuse victims and let him know you are there for him. If it's codependency - that's maddening, but there's not much you can do about that, unfortunately.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:46 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Echoing Rosie M. Banks - impossible to tell from your question if these are family-of-origin issues, but if you know him well and there are indications that his family is keeping him dependent, you might want to look at David Celani's book "Leaving Home," or perhaps recommending it to him. Here's an interview with the author about the book.
posted by ziggly at 10:59 AM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

He's smart but not ambitious or energized enough to pursue them. He probably feels ashamed and knows you guys all look down on him. That makes it hard on a guy afraid of failing.

Also, I don't think he can help losing his hair.
posted by discopolo at 11:00 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

It pains me to watch him idling for so long. Is there anything else I can do to help him?

What has he asked you to do? When he says "I want to meet/marry someone" you can say "I'll be your wingman" and when he says "I want to be self-sufficient" then you can say "take Joe up on his offer to help you network" but if he doesn't do it, all you can do is say "I've got your back when you're ready to give it a try."

He's a nearly 40-year-old man who still has the financial support of his parents such that he has never had to support himself, never had to live with/recover from the consequences of poor decisions/mistakes, or take any risks. There's very little his friends can do to help him jumpstart his life if he doesn't have to.
posted by headnsouth at 11:02 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes. I would see about involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital. Clearly, not being driven or striving is a sign of psychological issues.

Seriously, though. Some people aren't driven. They are lazy, irresponsible and immature. That's OK. Unless he has asked for your help, there's nothing you can do. I bet he's pretty happy. The miserable ones, IME, are the ones who are never satisfied.

As for wanting a job and a family, well, there are varying degrees of "want". Maybe he doesn't want it bad enough to make the effort, but, hey, it'd be nice, someday. Everyone prioritizes wants but in different order.

Maybe focus on the good stuff in his life and try to be happy for him, instead of focusing on what you see as lacking. That's a way to be an awesome friend! He'd probably feel crappy if he knew that you are pitying him.
posted by peacrow at 11:03 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Regarding family of origin: His two older sisters lead quite conventional lives; Jobs, kids, husbands, etc.

Regarding motivaiton: He does say straight out, "I'm lazy. I don't want to work like a junior associate at a law firm; I want 'friend X' to hire me as a paralegal."

And y'know it's OK if that's the extent of his ambition in life. But he is starting to be more open about regret and shame in his situation, and he expresses 'openness' to moving to places where he'd be likely to get a job, but action never quite follows the idle chatter about these things...

I don't see 'dropping' or withdrawing from him as a friend, ever. We see each other 3-4 times a year and communicate by e-mail weekly; The conversation never goes dry and I don't expect it ever will since we're 25 years in and nearly 20 years past living in the same town. His current lot in life isn't something discussed often-- it's mostly left unsaid. And it seems, unsurprisingly, that there are no magic bullets here, alas.
posted by u2604ab at 11:22 AM on November 28, 2012

Frankly, I'm kind of jealous of your friend. I spent so many years running after goals (and throwing money at them) before I figured out the hard way that I'm not really that goal or achievement oriented. And not everyone is "relationship material," either, nor do they have to be medicated or therapized into being such.

Or he may truly be "stuck" but he has to figure that out for himself.

Accept your friend for who he is, or move on if it bothers you too much. No one wants to be pitied or judged by a "friend."
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:23 AM on November 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Hey, this could be me you're talking about, or perhaps me if I hadn't got help. Crippling perfectionism and a fear of failure that makes any endeavour seem both impossible and simultaneously not good enough. Accepting help is admitting you're not perfect, so all offers of help are refused. The result is a life of constant paralysis and fear. I doubt he's happy. I bet he barely even knows what it means to be happy.

If this guy is who I think he is (and I'll admit I'm projecting a bit here, but I think I'm right, it rings a little too true), then he carries a heavy, heavy, heavy burden that has been with him his entire life and which he probably feels he cannot talk about with anyone. He may feel that with the intelligence and education and background he's been given, he's supposed to be a star, a leader, one of those successful people with a glow around them. Everyone's invested in him and told him he's great and everyone has always expected big things from him. But he's always doubted himself and felt that he didn't earn the praise and couldn't belong 'on top' with all the other bigshots.

He desperately wants to just find a job that allows him to get on with his life and be happy, but he can't, because any job that's too 'mundane' will make him feel like a failure, like he's let everyone down, and any job that's too 'good' will either be not good enough, or will feel like something could never do, thus exposing him as a fraud.

I'll point out a few things about the way you relate to him. He's a shining star, incredibly intelligent and talented, 'under-employed', coming through a 'lost decade'. From his point of view, he's almost 40, unemployed and underemployed, wasted his youth, wasted his adulthood, nothing to show for all the good fortune that was showered upon him. It is impossible for him to believe that he should be in a good career. He knows that people over-inflate his value, because they see his 'potential' and not what he actually is, not what he's actually achieved (not much), not what he actually wants (to just be okay, to not be the best). I know you're concerned for him and that's great. He needs you. It's no longer possible to maintain the facade that he's still that shining star on an upward trajectory which would have carried him through school. Now the harsh reality stares you both in the face and stabs him in the gut every single day. For the longest time everyone thought he was great and he felt worthless, and he's slowly sabotaged his life until it's in line with his inner perception of himself. Now he really has failed in the way he always feared he would, letting everyone down.

His deepest innermost desire, so deep that he doesn't even know it's there, is to lay it all down and rest. Just lay the burden down. Stop needing to be perfect and be okay with just being okay. Then it wouldn't matter, none of it would matter.

Be there for him, but be there for him, not who society thinks he should be. Ask him how he's feeling. Encourage him to seek a therapist. It will be hard for him, because perfect people don't admit they need help. Insist. Tell him it's not to fix him so he can go be a lawyer -- it's to help him lay the burden down.
posted by anybodys at 11:25 AM on November 28, 2012 [51 favorites]

His deepest innermost desire, so deep that he doesn't even know it's there, is to lay it all down and rest. Just lay the burden down. Stop needing to be perfect and be okay with just being okay. Then it wouldn't matter, none of it would matter.

I'm projecting here too but 1000x yes.
posted by murfed13 at 11:33 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

He has graduated right? No significant debt?

He doesn't need a law firm or someone to hire him. He can just do his own private practice. Be his own boss.

There is so much pro bono he could do... and imagine all the clients he could meet while doing his practice. There are so many opportunities... If he can not see the immense value of the skill set he became certified for, there is not a lot any friend can do.
posted by Bodrik at 1:55 PM on November 28, 2012

Hm. It might not be "crippling perfectionism" so much as an inability to handle deferred gratification. The thing is that he's comfortable where he is now, living at home. Moving out and creating a life is like paying off a debt-- it costs more up front and puts a dent in your lifestyle now, so you might not feel motivated to do it, and it's easier just to make the minimum payments. Since he's almost 40, he feels like putting a big dent in his lifestyle to pay all that money and make all that effort to live on his own is really daunting-- like he'll be 45-50 before he's fully on his feet and living the life he thinks he should live. The longer he puts this off, of course, the further out the time he gets fully on his feet and into a life-groove gets, as well.

The whole "personal satisfaction of living on your own" isn't universal, just like being goal-oriented and achievement-oriented isn't universal. For some people, independence and living on one's own isn't not a reward in and of itself, so they figure if they can't have a nice house and a yard now, then they might as well just stick living at their parents' house with their yard, because it's better than not having those things, and they don't get inner satisfaction from the feeling of self-support. You focus on what your friend "could" have, but he's focusing on the fact that he will have to give up a lot of what he does have.
posted by deanc at 5:50 PM on November 28, 2012

Just be his friend. Just hang out with him and enjoy his company as a person. Don't try and help him unless he specifically asks for your help. I think the maximum you could do is suggest therapy if he complains about his situation.

You seem like a caring person who posted this with the best intentions, but if someone posted this question about me I would be upset and sad. That my friend thought I was wasting my life, that I was in an "extended adolescence"? That's judgmental and patronizing. He knows he's not living up to everyone's sky-high expectations. Don't make him feel like he has to answer to you as well.

Please really try not to focus on how intelligent and talented he is, i.e. on his potential. Being told you have great potential can be a horrible burden because it practically guarantees "failure" of some sort. If you do merely OK, you always could have, should have, done better. And if you do achieve something extraordinary, well that's just what was expected of you - great start, now keep it up. If this person has crippling perfectionism, he might well feel paralyzed and trapped, afraid to try. Whatever his issues are, it sounds like he has had them for many, many years, so I'm sorry but I don't think there is realistically much you can do to kick-start him or motivate or help him beyond just being a friendly, non-judgmental buddy.
posted by asynchronous at 8:13 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

If anybodys' comment rings true, you can meet him where he's at (e.g., hear what he's wanting now); model for him what it's like to create the life that you uniquely want; and help him reject ambition for its own sake, the idea that your worth as a person relate to your accomplishments or work status, and others' ideas of what one is supposed to do.
posted by salvia at 11:01 PM on November 28, 2012

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