Can you change yourself with difficult experiences
January 20, 2014 1:02 AM   Subscribe

I am a mid 20's male and have been suffering from social anxiety for 8 years. I have recently come out of a deep depression due to the residual effects of SA (intense isolation, no job, minimal contact with friends) and I can't endure this anymore I need to go through an intense change and to start a fresh.

Basically my life has become meaningless and empty and I've become a weak and scared person and i'm starting to really hate myself. I feel like a loser with no good qualitys and nothing to offer anyone. I am aware some of this is low self-esteem and bad self-image but I feel there is some truth to this.

I'm constantly searching for answers to my problems via books and the intetnet. constantly searching. This has been a useful tactic for making me feel less guilty and ashamed for not having the guts to confront my problems head on in real life, because I know having knowledge without action is useless.

There are some things I badly need in my life right now: that are love, the feeling of acceptance, companionship, and to truly become man. And I don't feel the former will happen until the latter has been achieved. And by “to truly become a man” I mean: to have self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-confidence, courage. To be able to stand on my on two feet and be proud of myself as a man and a person, and go into the world as I would like to.

And for this to be actualized I think I need to experience something intense and difficult like putting myself in a sink or swim situation, or to go through some kind of rite of passage. I traveled for some time when I was 20 before my SA was as severe as it is now but it was basic travel. I've lost so much self-identity and sight of who I am as a person due to isolation, that I feel I need to go through a really tough experience, somthing that's going to push me to my limits something that might break me down and force me to rebuild myself into a strong capable person and to begin the process of becoming the person I would like to be.

I think my question is has anyone gone through such an intense, hard, or profound experience that they came out the other side a new person or were changed for the better.

posted by frenchfryfrenzy to Human Relations (24 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I think my question is has anyone gone through such an intense, hard, or profound experience that they came out the other side a new person or were changed for the better.

I feel for you, OP, but I think you should be wary of the allure of baptisms by fire. The idea of some kind of trial, One Big Deal, completely changing things is one we see in a lot of narratives and media, but that doesn't necessarily mean it follows through in life. Witness the average longevity of new years' resolutions, people moving somewhere far away and taking their problems with them, the horrible sense of failure that can go with... well, failure. Changing yourself is often a lot harder than changing your world, for better and for worse. And it tends to happen gradually.

I have had a few intense experiences, though perhaps not short and sharp like you thinking of. I developed a chronic illness (colitis) and spent many years before it was diagnosed and treated correctly. Living with chronic pain and the limitations of the illness certainly changed me. I like to think mostly for better. Chronic pain - like social anxiety - can be very isolating, and before a diagnosis was clear, I was questioning myself and my ability to handle things very aggressively. My illness has taught me more patients, a better understanding of my limits and resources, and a clear insight into how I respond to things, and often why.

I have had other profound, intense, experiences that I don't feel comfortable discussing on this site. Suffice it to say they were mentally as tough as the colitis, though not physically in terms of pain. I don't feel that I can out stronger for those. In fact, I know that I didn't. Those things hurt me, damaged me, damaged my resilience. My outlook changed, my personality changed, I sometimes wonder about that shadow self that didn't experience those things, what it would be like in relationships, in work settings, in life. Those things hurt my confidence, increased my anxiety, and in doing so indelibly shaped how am I today. I don't know if, overall, that shadow self would be happier, but I suspect so - certainly there were periods of unhappiness he would never have experienced.

But these things were out of my control, by and large. I'm just using them to illustrate that there are all kinds of "experiences", and no, you don't always come out unequivocably stronger for them.

To use a different example, I am a runner and just prior to the birth of my first daughter, I ran a half marathon. It didn't change me, change my outlook on the world, or anything like that. But it did give me a great sense of accomplishment and pride (esp in my time), the serious training I did for months beforehand helped relieve stress, made me sleep better, and obviously increased my fitness to a high level. But the half-mara itself was just the culmination of hours and hours I spent stretching, pounding the treadmill, the track, the pavement. I liked it, though.

I guess what I'm saying is that a desire for change is nothing to be ashamed of, or afraid, but be wary of the idea that it's going to completely change who you are, or banish certain thoughts or feelings. Think of it like a metaphysical crash diet - it's tempting, but there's not quick fix. If you don't change anything before or after this event, you cannot expect anything else to change.

Small, concrete, daily steps - in the face of fear, uncertainty, sadness, in spite of those things - that's a quiet daily heroism that everyone and anyone should be proud of. Not banishing fear, but accepting it, and choosing not to let it shape your actions. Saying, "I did the thing that the best frenchfryfrenzy, the one I want to be all the time, would have done today." That's a nice thing to rest your head on before you close your eyes. Good luck.
posted by smoke at 2:01 AM on January 20, 2014 [20 favorites]

Planting trees for a living in my early twenties satisfied a lot of the criteria you mention. The minute to minute, day to day was often torture, but very rewarding overall. Maybe there's a job wherever you are that is a bit off-the-grid, outdoor, physical, well paying if you put in the effort, that gives you time to be solitary with your thoughts, but also forces you to work together with a small group of intelligent social misfits?
posted by mannequito at 2:30 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Or something like a gym, martial arts class, or climbing wall?

If you stick with it, you'll come out a bit more centered, I'd guess.

And exercise helps with mood.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:39 AM on January 20, 2014

I've been in a similar place, similar enough that I recognize the daydream of hoping that someday something big would happen and my life would be transformed. During the time I was depressed I went through an extreme, dangerous experience and survived. I am a different person for having survived that, but surviving did not give me self-acceptance or self-esteem.

I believe you are going to rebuild your life, and you're going to do it brick by brick. Pride comes from accomplishment, but the good news is that even small accomplishments count. Perhaps you're so depressed that you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. Set an alarm. Fight and get up. Do that day after day after day and you will be a man who has control over the beginning of his day, and that will be a new part of your identity. Brick by brick, start accumulating the identity you want to have. You can be a man who really knows how to cook (commit to aim a little higher with your cooking on fridays), a man who exercises (commit to two mornings a week or some such), a man who knits -- whatever manliness means to you you can build it up one area of competency at a time.

Easier said than done, tell me about it. Becoming the person you want to be will be hard, which is why you'll be proud of every step toward that goal.

Look, if you find a manliness ritual that actually works, send me a memail. I would love to join you in the woods to hunt deer with chipped flint knives if that would make me the man I want to be, but it won't. There are no shortcuts - it's brick by brick or stagnation.

some things I badly need in my life right now: that are love, the feeling of acceptance, companionship, and to truly become man. And I don't feel the former will happen until the latter has been achieved.

I think it might be better to think of companionship as a goal like any other. You can't build a social circle overnight, but you can commit to signing up for one club/team.

For what it's worth, writing this has inspired me to take my own medicine. I guess I'll be cooking some cuisine this Friday. I used to be a man who cooks and I think I'd like that aspect of my identity back.

Side note: you're talking about deep depression. Have you tried counselling? I say from experience that addressing the problem of bad brain chemicals directly can make it much easier to implement other steps you need to take to improve your life.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:04 AM on January 20, 2014 [13 favorites]

The intense experience you need most is probably some form of psychotherapy. You asked almost this same question a year ago and said you were going to get going with that. What happened with that plan, since you don't mention therapy here?

I do think some kinds of intense experience can be life changing, but not just personal accomplishments like running a a marathon. You need to see other people struggling with heavier burdens than you are to put your problems in perspective. Volunteer service of some kind, or even military service, come to mind. Nothing develops the self like serving others and getting out of your own head. A "meaningful" life is one with other people in it, and being a man means facing your problems head on because it's your job to solve them.

Look, you say you're in your mid 20s and haven't felt good about yourself in 8 years. That means you haven't been happy since you were a child. You have nothing to go back to. You are wasting the most precious years of life by pathologizing yourself into inertia. Get off the Internet, go tutor at risk kids or something, and get into therapy. It's not rocket science. It's what growing up means: you work on your shit.
posted by spitbull at 3:08 AM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think most people that have been through difficult trials/ experiences would say they are changed/ a new person etc. - but some could be traumatic/ horrific/ haunting and take a lifetime to overcome or become "changed for the better" - but people will always have emotional scars.

But instead of seeking answers from the outside (a "big trial"/ internet/books) start your "intense experience" from within. Start doing something, no matter how small, that you are interested in and completely control-- a hobby, a project, art, an activity or something. Something that speaks to you. (If you don't know what that is. Quiet everything in your life --literally turn off as much content as you possibly can and "listen.") But no one else has a say in your new activity/project-- on any aspect. Be mindful to talk/connect to people you will meet as you expand on it, build it. This is the "intense journey" you seek I think.
posted by mrmarley at 3:28 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Don't go looking for hardship. Believe me, the horrors of adult life will find you and give you a sound trashing soon enough.

You wanna sink or swim? Get a job where you have to work with the public a lot, ideally in healthcare, social work or something else where you are dealing with people who are suffering and need help. I've had terrible social anxiety for most of my life, and I've found that being forced to deal with people and talk to them and learn their stories does wonders for my ability to be around humans. It can be damn near impossible to just make yourself go out and be a normal charming person in your own life, but a job gives you specific tasks to achieve and social parameters to work with, and you'll probably amaze yourself with how quickly you get used to making small talk with strangers on the job.

A job where you have to talk to people every day is good, and a job where you have to sit down with people and try to help them figure out their problems is going to do wonders. You'll see yourself making some difference in the world, you'll learn some empathy, and you'll get used to being around folks. Seriously, try it. Spend too much time stewing alone, and you're just gonna get weirder and sadder. Get out there and mingle. It gets less awful.

And that stuff about "becoming a man" gave me the shivers. Look, I'm a tranny, so I have some experience with wrestling with macho cultural BS. If you identify as male and you are over 18, you are already a man. Becoming braver or stronger or awesomer isn't going to make you more of a man, and neither is suffering. (Women can be brave and strong and awesome too, and they can suffer plenty.) I suspect that what you really want to become is a grown-up. And that process is already underway. Give it time.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:21 AM on January 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

What spitbull said. You talked in your last question about therapy, but here only about looking on the Internet and reading stuff. Therapy can be an intense, hard experience that changes you for the better (it did me). Picking up the phone the first time to call a therapist can be really hard. Have you done that?

Changing yourself is an ongoing process, and not all intense, hard things will change you for the better - some are just traumatizing.

Do you have a job? Do you live apart from your family? Are you financially self-supporting? Those can be hard things. Getting them can change you for the better.
posted by rtha at 5:33 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have problems with anxiety myself, and am currently in a better spot than I've been in for years. And that's thanks to:

1. Therapy (although I definitely could still use some more of it)
2. Medication
3. Being in social situations more often
4. Taking it one day at a time

I have the problem too of spending too much time alone, ruminating over things and reading books and The Internet in hopes that I would find that *one* answer. But there is so much to learn from experience. Keep reading, but spend less time on it. Meet with a therapist weekly, and slowly make the necessary changes you need in your life. Focus on one thing at a time, because it will help you gain competency, and focusing on specific small concrete steps will increase the chances of success.

Are you open to other people about your problem? If not, it helps to find other people who you can commiserate with in real life. It makes you feel less weird and more accepting of yourself.

I don't know what are the specific treatments for social anxiety, but people are social creatures (or most are). You don't have to be good enough, you're already good enough if you're kind and respectful of others. Attend a club, a meet up, or an ongoing event. You won't get along with everyone, but now and then, you'll find that sense of belonging. You need social contact to facilitate that sense of belonging. So take the steps to find it on a regular basis.
posted by Hawk V at 5:54 AM on January 20, 2014

Find a therapist that will work with you to sort out some of these feelings. If you haven't already, you should. There's no stigma here, if you had a complicated tax problem, you'd have no issues going to an accountant. If you've got complicated emotions, just go a therapist to help sort through them. Professional help is good, and a very adult thing to do.

And then, volunteer on a framing crew for Habitat for Humanity. Building houses with them can be an immensely rewarding. You can start with things as simple as raking leaves, and work all the way up to carpentry, framing, and electrical. They are a wonderful organization that does much needed work, and are a warm and welcoming bunch of people. I think having some new skills could be a lot of fun for you.

Set out to learn something new - something that you decide you'll be good at - and then consistently work towards being great at. Perhaps it's learning to juggle, or bench pressing your bodyweight, or building a clock out of paper, or riding a bike 50 or a 100 in a day. You do need a challenge, but I can't recommend Arctic Fishing just yet - Build yourself and work towards being confident and super excited before you take on that life altering trial.
posted by tumble at 5:58 AM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

And interesting enough, the "difficult experiences" I endured weren't that great for my mental well-being. I ended up being even more fearful and completely stuck in survival mode, instead of reaching out to others, taking healthy risks, and finding the things that give me purpose in life. Your experience will vary, but for me, moving in with others (versus being depressed and living alone, which was a terrible combination) and being lucky enough to receive financial assistance from family did wonders. The stakes felt lower, and I felt safer to just live life. I've been working, socializing, and been more productive than I have been in a long time.

So to sum it up, difficult experiences aren't necessarily the solution. Be open to other solutions, and try them out and see if they work.
posted by Hawk V at 6:01 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are some things I badly need in my life right now: that are love, the feeling of acceptance, companionship, and to truly become man. And I don't feel the former will happen until the latter has been achieved. And by “to truly become a man” I mean: to have self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-confidence, courage. To be able to stand on my on two feet and be proud of myself as a man and a person, and go into the world as I would like to.
Self-confidence doesn't come from waiting for someone else to approve of you.
posted by deathpanels at 7:23 AM on January 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

And I don't feel the former will happen until the latter has been achieved. And by “to truly become a man” I mean: to have self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-confidence, courage.

You don't have some kind of life changing experience after which everything is different or that moment where you "become self confident" and then you start living your life. Rather, the process of taking small actions in service of living your life results in you becoming more self confident.
posted by deanc at 7:38 AM on January 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

Therapy is hard work. Therapy is taking responsibility for yourself and facing your problems. Therapy is an adult choice. Therapy can help free you from SA so you can become the person you want to be.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:05 AM on January 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Did you ever get the therapy you mentioned in your previous question?

Therapy is work. It's not easy, it's not comfortable, it's a difficult process.

Recognizing a problem and getting yourself the treatment you need is of the most adult things you can do.

This has been a useful tactic for making me feel less guilty and ashamed for not having the guts to confront my problems head on in real life, because I know having knowledge without action is useless

If you feel like you want to go through something difficult to feel like an adult, and decide you need to hike the Inca trail--then you can do it. But getting treatment is going to help you actually have the knowledge and skills to be able to do it, and enjoy it.
posted by inertia at 8:39 AM on January 20, 2014

I know it's sort of a goof, but how about joining the Coast Guard?

The military has boot camp, which is a "trial by fire" sort of thing. Certainly, the military can boast of Making the Man. You will forge friendships nearly instantly with your fellow recruits, and the military can be an awesome way to jump-start a career.

The neat thing about joining the military is that it will be a year before you need to make any decisions for yourself. There's something freeing in that.

They'll test you to determine where you'd best fit in, they'll tell you where to live, feed you what you'll eat and tell you when you can have time off.

It's okay money, you'll be clothed and housed and you'll learn how to kill a man with a paper-clip.

I can't think of anything more designed to do exactly what it is you want done.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:55 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

If mindfulness meditation appeals to you, you can go on a meditation retreat. Often this involves taking a vow of silence, and working to be present in all your actions. You can start with a one-day class and see if you think you'd like to do a multi day retreat, or a daily practice.

I don't know if it would help you "be a man", but I do think it might help you feel more comfortable in your own skin.
posted by tinymegalo at 10:17 AM on January 20, 2014

I had something of a similar experience in my mid 20s, the reasons were a deal self-inflicted but are secondary to the fact that I ended up in a deep dark hole of depression, with no ability to support myself, no prospects and almost no social contact.

3 things sorted me out:

A relatively short stabilising course of anti-depressants;

Learning to practive mindfulness meditation... Mindfulness in Plain English is a great primer with minimal spiritual / religous bumf attached;

Getting a 6 month job through the summer on a campsite in a forest, doing a lot of manual work and spending the vast majority of my time outside.

In their own way, all of these things acted in the same manner to enable me to learn how to cultivate meaningful action and self-accepting thought in my life and what I choose to do with it. I emphatically look upon it as the period in which I began to "grow up".
posted by protorp at 10:57 AM on January 20, 2014

has anyone gone through such an intense, hard, or profound experience that they came out the other side a new person or were changed for the better

Yes, actually, I have. I had a years-long nightmare of a relationship with someone, which generated experiences that made my lifelong anxiety and natural melancholic tendencies look like kid stuff. After that I had to rebuild myself from the ground up (still doing that). I guess you can say that out of the ashes came gratitude (felt, every single day, still) that I am no longer dealing with that guy. Also, my survival instinct kicked in.

But it’s only because I was lucky and had caring people to support me – emotionally and pragmatically -- that things got better and not worse, and made it possible for me to now have the opportunity to begin to flourish, late in the game. A lot of people coming out of difficult situations like that never make it past bare, grinding survival. I regret the lost years, which have impacted my life in a bunch of not-great and real-world ways. I’m dealing with it (as in, I do not look back if I can help it -- never look back, only forward!), but the truth is I’ve paid unnecessary costs. So I am going to nth people in saying NO -- do not go looking for hard times.

It sounds like you’re angling for someone to tell you to join the army or something, for structure, externally imposed meaning, etc. If that’s so I would look at PTSD rates and other fallout like that. With your history, you’re vulnerable to that sort of thing, I’m afraid. I don't know about the Coast Guard.

Nthing others’ suggestions to shoot for small changes, small pleasures, building on strengths (e.g. I know you can write!), get support. Those are the things that helped me despite my intense experience, not because of it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:43 PM on January 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Sounds like things have been really, really bad. If you really want to do a massive restart on your life and work on ALL the dimensions of your problem consider a residential program that combines doing meaningful work, learning to live in community along with lots of therapeutic support for the process. The program I know best is Cooper-Riis, a farm based healing community, and there are others listed here.
posted by metahawk at 1:55 PM on January 20, 2014

You want some sort of outside support in this endeavor. Some people come out of do-or-die situations stronger, some people come out dead.

It sounds like you are looking for Outward Bound.

Wilderness expeditions require participants to dig deep and discover hidden strengths they didn’t know they had, while gaining the confidence they need to succeed.
posted by yohko at 2:25 PM on January 20, 2014

I agree with what has been stated above. While it seems like all you need is one big push and hoorah moment in life to kickstart your engine, that's not how it works. There's no special lever that you can pull to get all your various components to finally work in harmony and you will suddenly feel happy, healthy, and successful.

It's going to take a million small, measured steps, and one day you will look back and it will feel like one giant step.

Take each day, and give yourself one goal. Maybe it will be to send out 5 resumes. Maybe write an email to a friend. Maybe go for a walk and clear your head. As long as you complete that one goal you've set for yourself, you are allowed to feel good about yourself. If you feel up to doing more, then do more, or just chill out the rest of the day. The key word here is action. Stop reading and theorizing and pondering the meaning or non-meaning of life. I've been there when I was depressed, and it's an endless downward spiral. There will be no magic book or article or sentence that will make you feel okay.

Above all, be kind to yourself. I know with depression comes self-loathing, but this isn't the time to punish yourself. You've been punished enough. You're already suffering. Treat yourself well, but don't spoil yourself. Encourage yourself to take one small, measured action every day, but forgive yourself if you fail. Try again tomorrow. There is always tomorrow, and we're all rooting for you!
posted by madonna of the unloved at 3:54 PM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just want to clarify my last comment. I said, “don’t look back”, but also mentioned your past. Of course, what you know is a result of what you’ve known; certain things happened and others didn’t, and you are where you are.

I think it’s vital to accept one’s history and present circumstances, to make it possible to focus on constructive actions without setting up situations likely to be driven by the past. And of course acceptance isn’t easy – it means letting go of expectations, grieving for what could have been, appreciating vulnerabilities.

It is important to be realistic, though, in order to focus one’s view on challenges that have a good chance of being won. Others (like a therapist, or good friends with sound judgement) can help us grieve, accept, set the target at the right distance.

‘Don’t look back’ meant: try not to fixate on bad memories. Look at what is achievable, today, tomorrow.

Good luck to you.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:47 PM on January 20, 2014

Yes, yes, YES. You can absolutely get through this, come out the other end the person you want to be. Obviously I don't know much by what you posted, but it sounds like the #1 thing you need are friends. Two suggestions:
1. Therapy. When you're really lonely, a weekly appointment with a therapist can temporarily substitute for friendship. This is NOT a long-term solution, and maybe that sounds weird, but it works.
2. Meetup. You have interests. Other people have interests. Go to a Meetup about these interests. Remember that in most groups, everyone is looking for some companionship, just like you are. You are like everyone else there.
posted by cnc at 10:56 AM on January 21, 2014

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