How to maintain motivation for self-improvement?
May 4, 2014 9:49 PM   Subscribe

I am a 27 year old woman who, after spending most of my twenties held back by depression and insecurity, is FINALLY taking steps to improve my personal and professional situation. However, I am battling doubts, regret, self-loathing, and the fear that it's all too late. How do I keep the self-criticism at bay long enough to actually get ahead?

I apologize ahead of time for rambling ...

Background: Was artistic most of my childhood, went to school to study graphic design (really wanted to study art, but wanted to be "practical" and choose something that I thought would be more financially stable). Completed my degree, but graduated in 2009, right after the economy went downhill (the design industry was hit especially hard). I struggled to find even an internship after graduation. Eventually, when I was down to the wire, I found an internship at a small not-for-profit which was practically taking anyone with a warm body. Because of the difficulty I faced in finding a design internship, I convinced myself that I really had no talent, and the design field was dying anyway, so I should give up on graphic design (did I mention one of my biggest flaws has always been that I give up too easily)?

I threw myself into the NFP internship, and the staff was impressed by my hard work, so I was hired on part-time as a receptionist. I then worked my way up to a full-time administrative position, and then after about 2–3 years managed to move myself into a full time design and marketing position. I like the work well enough, but typical of many smalll not-for-profits, the pay is awful, the chances of a raise are nil, and the organization suffers financial difficulties. For the first few years I worked there, the financial problems lead to a lot of strife within the organization, creating an extremely toxic work environment. I'm talking about "having to deal with screaming and crying co-workers almost every day" bad. "Constant threats of firing the entire staff" bad. There were a lot of nights I'd come home in tears over how unhappy everyone was, and how worthless the place made me feel. The lowest point was about two years ago, when so many staff members had just quit out of frustration that I was the only administrative staff member left, and was left practically running the organization myself for about 1-2 months. Things have cooled down significantly since then, but money is still an issue.

One good thing during this whole time is my boyfriend, who I've been in a steady relationship with for about 4 years. He is a wonderful, caring partner, and things are pretty great between us.

During this whole time, I was still living with my parents. I brought up the idea of moving out several times, but my mother was very resistant. She suffers from issues with depression and anxiety herself — anxiety issues around money are especially prominent. Because of this, there was always •some* reason I could't move out yet — wait until you have enough money saved to put a down payment on a house, rent is a waste of money! Wait until you have a year's salary in savings! Wait until your boyfriend has a better paying job, or you'll resent each other for your lack of money! My mother is sort of emotionally isolated, and has always leaned on me as a primary source of emotional support, so I was very reluctant to push an issue when I started sensing anger/resistance. At the beginning of this year, though, after an EXTREMELY BAD bout of depression regarding my living situation, I finally just announced that I was moving in with my BF, and that was that. She actually handled it pretty well, which makes me feel like an idiot now. I know I should have (wo)manned up and stood my ground, but I was actually convinced that it would destroy our relationship if I pushed too hard.

So, I'm in this sort of weird emotional situation right now. Since late last year/beginning of this year, I've had this sudden sense of focus. I've recommitted to graphic design, and I'm doing all sorts of things to improve as a designer: self-initiated projects, taking tutorials, learning web design and coding, doing some freelance projects for clients, and getting out a networking. It's like something finally snapped into place and I knew what to do.

HOWEVER, this is being held back by reoccurring bouts of severe depression and self-loathing. I'm talking about "spending all day holding back tears over how much I hate myself" severe. I keep battling thoughts that it's ALL TO LATE. YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE THIS ALL A LONG TIME AGO, NOW IT'S TOO LATE TO CATCH UP, AND YOU'LL NEVER HAVE A GOOD JOB. WHY WERE YOU SO FUCKING LAZY AND WORTHLESS. YOU'RE A LOSER WHO DOESN'T DESERVE TO BE ALIVE. YOU'RE DISAPPOINTMENT TO ANYONE WHO EVER BELIEVED IN YOU. I hate myself for not doing enough to work towards a design career, for not moving out sooner, for not making enough of my own artwork in my spare time ... I pretty much don't see anything worthwhile about myself most days. And worst of all, I'm convinced that it's ALL TOO LATE for me to change anything or to get back on track.

It's getting to the point where every single day is a constant inner monologue of all the things I've failed at. Battling these thoughts is draining all of my emotional energy, and it just keeps getting worse. Most of the time, I honestly feel like I have nothing to look forward too. I'm honestly terrified of turning 30 and having nothing to show for my life. I started therapy this year because the depression was getting to be too much for me, my family, and my BF to handle. I'm trying my best to hold it together for their sake, but I'm feeling pretty brittle.

So, believe me, I know all the things I've done wrong. I'm aware that I'm probably a typical entitled Millenial brat who's made her bed and now has to lie in it. I just want to know if there is still a chance for me to make something worthwhile out of my life? If not, how do I live with myself?
posted by celestine to Human Relations (22 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Look at the portion in all caps. If someone screamed that at your boyfriend, would you say they were being mean? Would you make them zip it and apologize, or just push them out the door? Would you console him by telling him none of what that person said was true, or by reminding him of his good qualities?

If you would protect someone you love from harsh angry words, love yourself enough to protect yourself from those harsh angry words. Don't speak to yourself that way. Be a kind, supportive friend to yourself.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:53 PM on May 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well, you could shit the bed or make something of it. That's definitely a brave way to look at it.

I think this is part of growing up. It's like you noticed a really important detail in your life that's not working and there's a huge issue underneath it. It's awesome that you're talking about it. Keep doing that.

Life is not always about self-improvement, it's also about self-acceptance. Some people, myself included, confuse the two and struggle tremendously with the latter, and it probably has something to do with our upbringing. Honestly, as you may have already experienced, the improvement of your external circumstances may do little to change that inner voice, and that endeavor is usually accompanied with a certain sense of futility and fear of the future.

The upside to self-acceptance is you have the right to access some inner peace right now, no matter where you're at, even as you're reading this, if you would just learn to let yourself do that. You're in the right place. Fight back against the inner voice. Your job and family are not as important as you. Loving yourself doesn't have to be contingent on anything. You don't even need to be worthwhile. You just need to be you.

This is a big deal and an important skill to start cultivating. I think it's no small coincidence that you talk about staying at a low-paying job while everybody else quit. I used to have a "stay with the sinking ship" mentality, always underpaid, always the last to leave and pick up after other peoples' messes.

All I can tell you is that changed. I learned what my real responsibilities are, and they are to myself. It's hard to be more specific without writing ten more pages, so let me just say, your life is really at stake. Maybe that will give you the push you need to find your own answers. Chances are you already know what the leap of faith is. Great things come out of self-love. Go for it.
posted by phaedon at 11:24 PM on May 4, 2014 [20 favorites]

All that stuff in caps is lies. Figure out the truth, the realistic & believable truth, and repeat it to yourself everything time depression starts telling you those lies again.

For help in being nicer to yourself, check out Kristin Neff's TED talk on self compassion.

You would benefit from help finding new ways of thinking that support you in being the great, talented, capable person that you already are. Therapy is an option. David Burns' self help books are are another.
posted by metahawk at 11:33 PM on May 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

Look forward to your best years which are still in front of you. The years behind you have their merits, too, but if you're finding your true calling in your 20's you're doing something right.

That voice which yells those things at you in all caps is a bastard who I wish I'd confronted earlier in my life, too. For me it took therapy and meds for anxiety. No good reason, in my case, I've just always run quite hot. I don't know if you're searching for a reason, but please look at antidepressant options on top of therapy. They can help you figure out how to apply your energy.
posted by SakuraK at 12:01 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a lovely friend who is having just the worst time on the dating scene. She turned to me last night and asked if she was low-hanging fruit. I asked her: "Who said that to you?" And she said to me "No one said that to me; I just think it to myself."

We then had a long talk about how thinking things like "I'm low hanging fruit" to yourself? That is mean. That is just stone-cold mean behavior. Does she ever say things that are that mean about anyone sale? Well, not to my knowledge. The woman is a sweetheart - just not to herself.

One thing that might be incredibly helpful is to start saying nice, true things back to the mean thoughts. Keep a gratitude journal and write down good things - good things you do, things that bring you joy or satisfaction. When you hear those yelling, mean comments in your head, say back: "That's not very nice. I may not do as much art in my spare time as I would like, but this morning I ____" - and fill it in with something from your gratitude journal.

The way we talk to ourselves can sometimes be very cruel. You sound like a loving and caring person. I hope you can turn some of the compassion you have for others and use it on yourself.

Mindfulness and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) might also be helpful to consider.

Good luck.
posted by sockermom at 12:02 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes - when I was really badly depressed, it occurred to me one day: I wouldn't treat a dog the way I am treating myself in my private thoughts.
posted by thelonius at 12:07 AM on May 5, 2014 [8 favorites]

No! You haven't done things wrong... Look, everyone has a different start in life - temperament, circumstance, family... Some start with one hand tied behind their back, because of one or another of those things. Others get by easier, because both hands were free. There's no sense or fairness to it, but don't waste energy on that; just recognize that your start was different from other people's. It is what it is. What's great is, you just untied your hands! And you're like, well shit, I could have done this earlier. But: it took the time it did to figure out how to do it. That is what it is, too. Maybe your mom would have had a harder time earlier, you don't know for sure. Maybe it was important to you to work that out between you. In any case, there's just nothing that can be done about the past.

But, you can do things now, and you have been doing things. You're 27. That is not too late. Do good work - you know you can, and people who ought to know agree with you - and keep doing what you're doing.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:08 AM on May 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Just to address the part of your post about making something of yourself - I for one think you sound like you're doing an amazing job. Despite the dire economic situation you made the best of an opportunity you did have. Through hard work and dedication, and against the odds, you worked your way up when almost everyone else fell by the wayside. Do you realise what an achievement that is, especially coupled with the fact that you're suffering from depression? Not only that but you've also successfully extricated yourself from your difficult living situation. You honestly impress the hell out of me and I'm not just saying that.

I'm 41. At 27 I wasn't doing half as well as you are but no matter what I didn't give up. Now I'm very successful, happy and fulfilled in my job. These things have a way of working themselves out. I know that sounds facile but I've seen it amongst all my friends. Those who never gave up have now made it. You're someone who doesn't give up. So I'd place good money on you if I were a betting woman! You really do have a lot to be proud of.
posted by hazyjane at 12:17 AM on May 5, 2014 [12 favorites]

I don't have much to add to the other answers, except for two points:

1) Therapy - glad to hear you're availing yourself of this resouce, but an important point to keep in mind is that it is okay - even necessary, sometimes - to shop around for different therapists. Both research and my personal experience have taught me that the quality of your relationship with your therapist most strongly determines your outcome. Doesn't really even matter what orientation they follow (CBT, DBT, psychodynamic, etc.); only as long as you like them and sense that they like you will you make any significant gains. It's not terribly different from dating or friendships, honestly: some people you'll click with, and some you won't.

2) Medication - have you considered it? This is something you could bring up with your therapist (who, unless you live in NM or LA, won't be able to prescribe, but s/he could talk to your GP and at least give you some feedback on whether medication might be appropriate for your case). You might also bring this up with your GP directly. Medication has helped me tremendously, especially in that it made me feel better by just enough that I was able to start implementing the changes I discussed with my therapist. Of course, you'll probably have to try various kinds and combinations before you hit on something that works, same as above.

Good luck, and feel free to memail me if you have any questions about therapy/medications.
posted by obliterati at 12:40 AM on May 5, 2014

Yes - when I was really badly depressed, it occurred to me one day: I wouldn't treat a dog the way I am treating myself in my private thoughts.

I agree with this and I also was thinking that your "ALL CAPS" thinking is very insulting to your boyfriend. Do you think he is so ridiculous and desperate that he is going to be with THE WORST LOSER EVER. No! So if you care about him and trust his judgement, then trust that an intelligent caring, hardworking person sees the same good qualities in you. And start recognizing them in yourself.

It's never to late to start over/keep trying.
posted by bquarters at 3:50 AM on May 5, 2014

Continue therapy with the right therapist, and consider medication.

You are not "a typical entitled Millenial brat who's made her bed and now has to lie in it." You're a typical depressed person who is mired in negative thinking that (a) makes it triply difficult to push or pull yourself out of the situations that are contributing to your unhappiness and (b) can persist even when you DO manage to make good choices/improve your lot in life/things get better.

I mean, look at the past several months: you've got a great boyfriend, you worked up the courage to move in together, you've recommitted to pushing your career in a more satisfying direction, and what does your brain tell you? "YOU'RE STILL A LOSER, IT'S TOO LATE, WHY BOTHER?" yada yada yada. That voice is devaluing the progress you've made so far and making it really hard to continue making progress. The answer, honestly, is not "more progress" but "less depression." And "less depression" requires more than a simple reframing or a few people telling you "hey, you don't really suck."

I know you said you're in therapy now, but I'm struck by the observation that you still came to Ask Metafilter with this question. Are you telling your therapist all this stuff but not getting helpful answers? Are you not really telling your therapist the full story of how bad things are for you? If you very recently started therapy then it can take a while to get everything out on the table and make progress but if you're a few months in and are coming to the internet and not your therapist for help dealing with your "YOU'RE A FUCKING WORTHLESS LOSER" voice then maybe you're not working with the right therapist for you.
posted by drlith at 4:34 AM on May 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'll let others handle the emotional assistance; I just want to come in to say that all your IT'S TOO LATE talk is just plain FALSE. Google it: careers after 40. It's a thing. And you are only 27.

Literally TONS of people change careers, go back to school, try something new, reinvent their working lives after many years doing other things. It's not at ALL too late. You're WAY early to the party and you have plenty of time to figure it out. Plus, you've already started the changes (YAY, YOU!!) so you're already on the way to a great new life. 2009 was a horrible time to try to get a job out of college (google that, too, if you don't believe me) so you can truthfully say that IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT and YOU DID A GREAT JOB IN SHITTY CIRCUMSTANCES.

So, even if you decide to disregard the folks who are telling you to quit the crappy self-talk, at least make that talk be more truthful.
posted by CathyG at 5:59 AM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your inner negative voice reminds me very much of my own and of the "black smoke monster" in this webcomic Sauceome. That comic is more about body image, but stems from a very similar place: that negative self talk.

Be kind to yourself. Sometimes I have to tell myself what previous commenters say: Would I let someone say something like that to someone I cared about? No. Absolutely not. I shouldn't let myself say that either.

I am a season behind on Game of Thrones and only just finished the first book. But Daenerys makes some pretty big fatal mistakes in that first book and yet keeps going. The little voice in her head tells her not to look back on her mistakes as that way lies madness. You can't change the past. You can only move forward.

My husband made a complete career change last year at the age of 42. FORTY TWO. Realistically, he still has over 20 years left of working (with over 20 years in his previous career).

Be gentle to yourself. You are worth it.
posted by jillithd at 7:08 AM on May 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

So, you managed a foot in the door in the worst job market in memorable history, bridged the divide to paid employment, earned two significant promotions, survived a hellish work culture, and all by yourself kept the org operational at its lowest point. On top of that you have earned the love and respect of an admirable human being. You asserted yourself in a sticky family situation. And you are taking active, valuable steps to position yourself for the future. Dear woman, you are awesome. If ever you need tangible proof that you are not an unworthy loser, this is it.

I'm 54 and thinking it's too late. But last week I got an offer for a new job I think I will really like. When I was 52, my career was stalled and I thought it was too late. Then I got promoted into a job that opened a whole new range of opportunities. When I was 40, I hated my work and thought it was too late. Then I managed a move into a whole new awesome career. When I was 30, I thought it would be fun to program computers, but thought it was too late. My perspective is so much different now.

You can only move one direction from here and that's forward. Appreciate your accomplishments, and marvel at where you may go from here.
posted by mama penguin at 8:10 AM on May 5, 2014 [11 favorites]

I empathize a lot with this, so I want to just emphasize that a lot of the recommendations in this thread have helped me tremendously in my own attempts to get on top of what felt like, honestly, a long trail of failure and wasted opportunities (a process that I'm still in the middle of, also at the age of 27). Those are: getting on medication, in tandem with therapy, absolutely; working on combatting the negative self-talk, which ties in with medication/therapy; and realizing that in spite of everything that I feel I'm really doing pretty okay, and it sounds like you are too -- you've handled a tremendous amount of responsibility, you've shown that you have the capacity to kick ass and take names at what you do, so in short you're more powerful and capable than a whole lot of people out there. Don't let the asshole part of your brain tell you otherwise.

One thing I would stress is that the time period after you do something that's been scaring you, like telling your mom that you're moving out, is one of the most critical in terms of building your confidence. It's really easy after something like that to let your nerves get the best of you and start wondering if you were too aggressive, if you left something unresolved, if you could have handled it better, and so on, and I think that when that happens you start to associate asserting yourself with those anxieties, making it more difficult to assert yourself in the future. To the extent that you can, try to reflect on those events positively: you stood your ground and lobbied for your own interests and it turned out really well. You got something you've wanted for a while, your mom was pretty much fine with it, everybody's come out the other end doing either the same or better, and that's a really great thing and the more that you do it the better you'll get and the better it will feel.

Lastly, one thing that always makes me feel better is that five years is a pretty negligible amount of time, and as far as anyone else is concerned I could very well just be an abnormally-experienced 22 year old recent college grad in terms of where I'm at career-wise. They don't ask for your birth certificate with your resume, after all. So yeah: you are so far from being over the hill that your position with respect to the summit is visually indistinguishable from someone who hasn't even started the climb, except for the fact that you know a whole shit-ton more than that person does about how to do what you want to do.
posted by invitapriore at 8:57 AM on May 5, 2014 [6 favorites]

There's other good advice in this thread, and I'm all about trying to have a meaningful life, and god knows that's generally not in a non-profit. But something that helps me a little bit (I have a secretarial job with great insurance; if I'm lucky I will complete my retraining and....become an accountant!) is to remind myself that, like, somebody has to be the secretary, or the receptionist, or the bus driver, or the barrista, or the auto-body-detail dude, or the person who processes requests for permits down at City Hall.

It's easy to get into this headspace of "if I don't [achieve vaguely upper middle class self-actualization career] that is a sign that I have wasted my potential and I am a disappointment and a failure"*. But if your aunt were the receptionist down at the bank, would you be cool with people telling her she'd wasted her life? Would you think that she had wasted her life, just because she wasn't a CEO or a self-supporting artist?

There are far, far more people living working class lives in working class jobs than anyone else on the planet. That's the common lot of humanity. The "I must have a creative-class job or be worthless" line of thought is implicitly saying "all working class people lead empty lives".

Certainly, you should do the best you can to have a happy life - and being a low-ranking administrator at a broke non-profit doesn't sound that thrilling. If you can have a life of greater success and more fulfillment than the average working person does, that's great. But it just isn't realistic about the lives of the majority to believe that your actual self-worth depends on getting a creative-class job.

*Americans, much more than people elsewhere, believe that we should totes be able to overcome recession, class background and entrenched inequality by our individual genius and special snowflake qualities. While it's great if you can get a better job than people in your family typically have, an awful lot of getting a creative class or other "fancy" job is about being able to network and having the right social skills. Lots of people are creative and brilliant; that's not necessarily enough to get a career. My point is, let yourself off the hook a little bit.
posted by Frowner at 1:07 PM on May 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your kind words and advice. I appreciate your patience and empathy.

I actually started feeling embarassed/cringey about this Ask once I realized what a big old pile of privilege there was around it. It's true that most people don't have fantastic careers, and that doesn't make them worth any less as people. And hey, compared to the horror show that a lot of people on this planet have to endure, I've got it pretty good. I grew up in one of those suburban, middle-class communities/schools where there was the whole "ACHIEVE! YOU MUST BE A ROCKET SURGEON BY 25!" thing going on, and even though I know *intellectually* that it's bullshit, that sort of cultural script can be hard to get past *emotionally*. I apologize for not having more perspective.

I will take all of your words to heart — thank you again for your insights.
posted by celestine at 4:53 PM on May 5, 2014

You do not have to apologize for being a normal human being concerned with your own concerns. Others have their issues; these are yours, and you've got a right to them. Just because you've got a roof over your head doesn't mean you shouldn't hope for more and go for it if you can and want to. Not that you should - that's another kind of guilt no one needs, and I mean it's up to you to work that out, but it seems you have settled on a direction. If you have the capacity (check), desire (check), and opportunity (seems to be happening), you do not have to be ashamed of wanting to make the most of it.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:27 PM on May 5, 2014 [5 favorites]

So, you're minimizing your problems here, and that does a great disservice to yourself. It is much harder to actually take care of a problem if we tell ourselves it's not important to be dealt with. The issues that you discuss sound like they have serious ramifications for you and your happiness. It is a good and righteous thing to deal with them and to face them head on and to take care of them.

I have to say that from my personal perspective, for me, not dealing with my unhappiness and not taking care of myself helped pave the way for me to make some very poor life decisions that I regret greatly. I am so proud of myself for taking care of myself and for getting myself to where I am now. That has made me a happier person and I have to be honest with you - I think that it also made me a better person.

I am not trying to say it is easy to do this; I am trying to say that it is OK to do it.

Take care of yourself. It is the greatest thing you can do, not just for yourself, but for everyone and everything around you. I wish you all the best.
posted by sockermom at 6:45 PM on May 5, 2014 [4 favorites]

I went to college to be a journalist and left in 2003 with a mountain of debt and no real prospects in a dwindling market. So I became an IT guy. Just like you, simply showing competence in my position allowed me to sail up the ranks until I was in an administrative position. Unlike you, I was paid very well, which made the prospect of staying at my job that I had no passion for all the more enticing.

5 years later, 6 months after turning 30, I applied for an unpaid internship at an outlet I really liked on a lark, and I was accepted. I now work at a job where I'm making less than half what I was making before, but I am so much happier.

I understand depression and regret. I suffered from both in my old job and I am medicated for depression. But at least I don't have the regret of never having gone after what I wanted. As someone who went from making close to 100k a year to working at a moving company on weekends to work an unpaid internship on weekdays, it is worth it.

Also, I was three years older than you. If it wasn't too late for me, it's not too late for you.
posted by to sir with millipedes at 2:21 AM on May 6, 2014

Just in case: I really didn't mean "check your privilege for wanting a job you don't hate". I meant much more "it's easy to judge yourself really harshly for not being able to get a job you don't hate, and that's not realistic in terms of how the world works". And "you would generally not look at the grocery store clerk and think their life must be a hollow shell devoid of meaning because they didn't sparkle brightly enough, so don't think that about yourself either".

Everyone should have non-horrible jobs that contain at least some meaning and satisfaction - it's okay to want that. It's just not realistic to assume that if you are enough of a Heroic Individual you will succeed, and if you fail it's because you didn't do a good enough job.
posted by Frowner at 8:12 AM on May 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ok I think maybe one way to short-circuit all of this BRAIN JUNK is to admit that it is JUNK. You have to get real with yourself and admit that although it feels valuable and honest, it is actually crap. you don't need it, other people don't need it, and it gets in the way of you being useful to society or being happy.

The next thing to do is to figure out what YOU NEED and what you HAVE TO DO. What do I need is a question you need to start asking yourself on a regular basis, and you will be able to give honest answers after a while.

What you have to do is a question that can be answered by asking yourself how, ideally you would like to act in 3 months' time. So you might think future celestine gets up every morning and looks at her favourite design blogs for inspiration. Future celestine looks after herself by exercising and eating well. Future celestine is a supportive girlfriend and daughter, future celestine is nice to herself and has positive self-talk!

So one way to get rid of all your insecurities is by sorting out your automatic negative thoughts (there are many resources online for that) and you could do that every day. On top of that, focus on the fact that your brain junk is just a byproduct of a dodgy hormonal balance, and that it isn't factual. It's just made up mumbo jumbo. Furthermore, focus on taking ACTIONS, on looking after for your own needs, and striving towards becoming future celestine. This is basically ACT therapy in a nutshell. But it's a good place to start. Good luck! :)
posted by dinosaurprincess at 10:44 AM on May 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

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