Finding it difficult to imagine ending cycles of self-sabotage
June 17, 2014 5:48 PM   Subscribe

I keep falling into cycles of self-sabotage, with a few complicating factors. Recent academic news feels like its biggest manifestation - advice on this, and the possibility of moving past this when i go into employment. Apologies for the long read.

Brief background: I'm a student at a decent university in the UK, in the final year of my degree. I generally seem to come under the classic type of being told that I was intelligent when I was growing up, and having a resulting complex around having a good 'work ethic'/finding it difficult to be able to 'work hard'. Through a mixture of (what i now realise is) mild depression, 'laziness' and anxiety around work, I kept not doing well/handing first-class work in late, which meant that I was subject to late penalties. My second year average was just below a 2.1, and since my final year is double-weighted as 2/3rds of my degree, I came into it realising I needed to try as hard as I could to counteract this tendency. My first semester marks generally went well - a decent first, in the range of the 70s.

Over Christmas, a close friend of mine passed away. I had since found it difficult to stay on top of work, and I felt old habits returning. In the assessments for the second semester, with 40% of the year's credits, I asked for an extension as I was having trouble getting it done in time, as I was going through a difficult mix of grief, anxiety, and frankly, apathy.

I exceeded the extensions by 6 days, and was told I wouldn't be given any more, but that if my work was late, the best I could hope for was to apply for special consideration after having handed them in to forgo the late-penalty deduction . I've since done that. After handing the work in, I started seeing a doctor about getting diagnosed for mild to moderate depression. Eventually, my grades pre-penalty came in at just under 80 as an average for these 40 credits (the threshold of a first-class degree is 69, and I needed an average of 73 for the year to balance out the second-year average).

I've just received an email from the department saying that my application for special consideration was rejected, and that my late penalties would not be rescinded, as they feel they'd given me enough extensions (2 weeks) considering my circumstances. There are still a few options left to me - my personal tutor suggested as much when I spoke to him, and said I should get in touch with him if this turned out to be the case, as did another student advisor.

Sorry for the amount of detail this has gone into. Basically, if any of the few remaining options manage to rescind the penalties, I come out with a first-class degree; if not, I scrape through a 2.1 degree, which is generally considered passable, but probably precludes me from a masters at a good university.

Nevertheless, right now, I just feel a little sick of the way I do things, even though it has led me to come out only just on this side of average. I just feel exhausted with the flow-chart process in my own head of how this self-sabotage seems to come about, where I'm clearly capable of doing really well but constantly undercut myself. I know a lot of this is down to a 'fear of failure'. I guess I am just worried that this won't stop here, that it will continue into whatever job I have. I also just feel sick and angry with myself at doing this because I'd feel like a disappointment to my parents: they constantly tell me i'm the smartest in the family but can just never manage to work, and I feel like this degree is going to be a rehearsal of a similar routine that happened at previous academic milestones (GCSEs and A-levels, where my results were un-noteworthy)

I know a degree is far less deterministic of the quality of my life than I might be suggesting it is, but I'm just looking for some advice, since these last weeks of university seem like when everyone enjoys themselves and prepares to end their years here on a good note, whereas I can't seem to move past feeling really angry with myself. Apologies if this sounds petulant, but I guess I'm just looking to read some consolatory words of advice, or something, from people familiar with academic self-sabotage, UK universities, employment, life, or chronically feeling like you're disappointing someone. thanks in advance.
posted by lethologues to Education (3 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
First off, lelthologues, I am so sorry for your loss. I wouldn't underestimate how hard and how long something like that may stay with you. Our society doesn't tend to allow grief to be considered for periods of time, but please be gentle with yourself and kind to yourself. You are likely still dealing with that blow, and that will affect you on some level for quite some time.

Understand though that you don't want that to kick all the legs out under your academic career, something, regardless of what you've said, you HAVE worked hard at all your life. In order to get into any university at that point, even if you are extremely bright and it all comes easy for you, you've done the work, just like everybody else. It's okay that it's been easy for you. Perhaps its put you in a situation where you weren't able to build the 'good study habits' muscles, but don't underestimate the time you have put in as well. You've earned your place.

Now: most universities, understandably, won't grant special considerations, because so many students have so many personal situations. If they granted it for one student, they'd have to grant it to all. That said, I am truly sorry they couldn't make a longer extension in your case. You need to be proactive at this point, do as your tutor and advisor told you to, go to them, get ALL the help you possibly can, don't turn down any help, work your ass off, get some sleep, take vitamin B, eat well and get this done. For better or worse, just get it done. Worry about your personal work habits after this.

Once you've completed this program, here's what I recommend: ENJOY YOUR SUMMER. You've earned it. Go have fun! You sound like you may be young? Early 20's? Please enjoy your summer. Road trip with friends, go to music festivals, meet new people. And yes, be productive too. If you have internships set up, or summer jobs, then work hard at them too. But make some great memories. Enjoy yourself. Don't be too hard on yourself. You've had a tough semester. It's gonna be okay. Enjoy yourself. Recover. Live a little. For your friend:)

At the same time: stay healthy, exercise. Keep taking your meds. I highly recommend begin seeing a therapist. If you've never done this it may sound weird or annoying or scary, but it's extremely helpful. It's like yoga. Get recommendations from people you trust and start there (i'm from the US and not familiar with the UK system, but for what it's worth). If they're not a good therapist or not good rapport, get another therapist! but please get a therapist and keep seeing them for a while, several months at least. Don't miss this one. it'll be extremely key for you as you feel like you're continually letting yourself and loved ones down. You're not alone - your problem of letting yourself down because you were told you were amazing at everything (and genuinely had it easy cause you were very bright and things came easy) is the problem of our generation. SO many people have it. You seem very eager to deal with this now. Good. The older you get the harder it will be to deal with it. That's why I recommend staying with your therapist. They will help you obtain good habits. One habit at a time.

And again, be gentle with yourself. Have some fun. Good luck to you, friend.
posted by zettoo at 6:27 PM on June 17, 2014 [5 favorites]

You are so not alone. I feel for you, because I know how hard it is to live under the pressure of expectations, even if they are self-imposed.

In my experience, self-sabotage is a way of refusing to live under the pressure. For whatever reason there is a sense that one must achieve and excel, and that if one fails to do so the consequences are severe (e.g. 'letting everyone down', being a 'failure'). In other words, having no worth or value, which, if you think about it, would be an awful way to feel, especially if one were stuck in it all the time. Believing in the value of one's own self and life is a pretty fundamental prerequisite to any kind of state of health and wellness.

So, deep down you can sense that there is an immense amount riding on each test or assignment, and you know that if you work hard and somehow fail -- if you put yourself out there and are not given the result that validates your conception of yourself -- then everything falls apart. That's too big a risk to take. But if you sabotage the test, the failure is due to depression, motivation, work ethic, and thus does not threaten the fundamental self. Of course it's a more attractive option.I can't say I blame you.

So many students struggle with this. I've seen many people receive a low grade and argue vigorously that they deserve top marks, because that's their identity. What they have a hard time with understanding is that it's not them being graded, but their work. In your case the pattern is different; it's avoidance, to protect yourself, but in each case the difficulty is that the work (or the grades) is conceived of as part of the self, which makes its evaluation dangerous and threatening.

Advice? See a therapist; it helped me immensely. Learning to be mindful of thought patterns like anxiety is the first step. Focus on small tasks instead of big ones. Think about the parts of your personality that aren't related to achievement. Do what you can to take the pressure off of yourself. Think about what happiness would look like if you didn't haveto please anyone or live up to anything. It is possible to overcome this.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:38 PM on June 17, 2014 [7 favorites]

"self-sabotage" is not an objective description but implies things we have no way of verifying from here. It also blames you for doing it. If you really want to figure out what's going on, you need a therapist.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:25 AM on June 18, 2014

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