Have you ever managed to break a long-term cycle of self-sabotage?
July 21, 2014 3:43 AM   Subscribe

or repeated mistakes? If you have any insight or personal experience please give it. I'm starting to suspect that I may never make any progress because it keeps happening again and again and the consequences are only getting worse. Details inside.

I am a second semester college senior who has essentially been dragged kicking & screaming and spoon fed throughout my entire academic career thus far. In the past 6 years (late hs and college), I have not gotten through a semester without multiple extensions, incompletes and/or withdrawals. Even so, I barely get things done and virtually never at a quality level with which I am satisfied.

Right now I am in summer school taking two courses necessary to finish my degree in December. There is no doubt I will fail them if I continue and it's mostly because I spent the past few weeks feeling very upset and falling into old bad patterns of behavior (big time procrastination, binge-eating, insomnia and similar) rather than due to any difficulty with the material. If I withdraw (or fail) I will lose about $6000 of my parents' money and be in a tight spot in terms of graduation, because my school does not allow students to spend more than eight semesters there. I could take a leave and fulfill my credits at another institution and transfer but that is incurring additional cost and pushing back my graduation date even further. Plus, I don't know how I will break this to my parents because I think they will react even worse than I can imagine and it may never blow over. I have also not been totally honest about my recent academic issues and I think the betrayal will be a much bigger issue than the $6000, which I would of course offer to save up and pay back.

I've seen multiple therapists (some were a better fit than others but none were right, I suspect cultural factors make me especially not susceptible to this sort of treatment, or maybe my issues would be best handled in other ways) and have tried a few medications for depression: a handful of SSRIs (no effect) and wellbutrin which was somewhat helpful. I feel it is losing efficacy which makes me wonder if I experienced a placebo effect before or that I am not really depressed but just understandably upset because I keep self-sabotaging and ruining my own life for no good reason, which I feel is most likely.

At this point, I just really don't believe that my behavior will ever change. I always tell myself that I will do better and I almost never do, or I do drastically better but then the next semester I backslide entirely. I get that I have to "just do it" but the point is that I never really do. I feel incredibly hopeless and like I will never be very competent. My parents are tired of dealing with this and will be furious and heartbroken if they have to again. My friends really have nothing left to say either. It really doesn't help that my peer group is almost uniformly absurdly successful for our age (all ivy grad school or professional school, wall street firms, top research institutes. how?? HOW????) which makes me feel even worse (and dumb), as many of them had to overcome way more serious issues. At this point, there's really nothing I can see myself wanting to do in the future at all.

I'm sorry this is so long. I know that these types of issues are hardly unique (and most people have to deal with much much worse) so I was wondering if anyone on here had ever had fairly permanent improvement after basically a lifetime feeling low & making bad decisions? If so, how? I know people who have pulled themselves out of depressive episodes but those all seem to be stories of a one-time thing, not a 12+ time thing. Even if I am just really really lazy and have zero excuse for my behavior, it still doesn't give me a solid starting point for changing it. Or what to do with myself.
posted by hejrat to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you sound immature and victimized. In fact, I think you're shockingly self-aware for someone so young. My ex-husband basically flamed out the last year of college and staggered along with a lot of indulgence from the staff to get him out of there. For him, it was EVERYTHING but himself -- me, the professors, his parents, his computer, his dorm room, the food, whatever.

At this point, there's really nothing I can see myself wanting to do in the future at all.
This is the crux. Reframe it -- do you want to be a college student? Do you want to do whatever the degree you're working on is preparing you for?

If you don't -- that's OK. It might not be OK with your parents, but it's OK with the universe. I have a cousin who refused to go to college. She didn't know what she wanted to do in college and insisted it would be a waste of time. Over frantic objections, she moved to the beach and worked at a tiki bar while she figured out what she wanted to do when she grew up. And no one is a billion dollars in debt for it.

If you could do anything -- ANYTHING -- what would it be? Envision a happy day. Break down what it looks like and how you could do it. Does it require you to finish your college degree? If not, it's really OK to call it quits.

I'm sure this advice will come below, but keep looking for therapists. Don't look for a therapist who will help you do better in school -- look for a therapist who will help you accept yourself as you are and turn off the negative voices that scream at you for not being what you think your parents want you to be.
posted by mibo at 4:18 AM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I just want to clarify that the how wasn't a real how heh; I am aware of what they did, why they deserve it and how I am not doing those things.
posted by hejrat at 4:20 AM on July 21, 2014

My first attempt at college went much like yours. It was influenced by my depression, but largely I simply had no motivation to be there but was unwilling to accept it in the face of external pressures. I ended up quitting to pursue a hobby I was passionate about, and six years later I've finished successfully finished my undergraduate and will be starting grad school in the fall at a top university. The difference between then and now is my studies are in the pursuit of a career I truly want to do, rather than completing coursework for the sake of having a degree.

I agree with Fairchild that you sound immature. That's totally OK, plenty of college students are. Perhaps it is time you start examining why you're there and what really makes you happy.
posted by Anonymous at 5:00 AM on July 21, 2014

Personally, I fixed my problems (a little bit - i.e. I have not yet dropped out of my programme, even though I'm not doing amazingly well at it) by realising that I wasn't sabotaging myself "for no good reason". Figuring out the actual reasons why I did things was a major part of the work towards not doing them anymore. Of course not doing them is a separate piece of work, which also has to be done, but it's easier now that I don't feel like I'm battling a completely inexplicable enemy. The tool I used was the Immunity to Change approach plus a lot of online CBT work over a year or so. It's been slow and painful but I've seen a measurable improvement in my ability to get things done and cope with academic anxiety.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:05 AM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wasn't an academically driven student. I didn't like college, transferred schools, still didn't like college. I was on the four, then five, then six year plan to graduate. I mean, I stopped going to class, I took a leave of absence, there was really no end in sight for me.

What I ended up doing was getting an internship that I loved while I needed to finish up my final three classes to graduate. And it was made clear to me that if I wanted to be hired and begin my career in the field, I needed a college degree.

I'm not saying this will be true for you, but as soon as I saw that stupid piece of paper as a ticket to the the fuck out of collegeland and into something I actually wanted to do, I committed to taking those classes and passing them. No more excuses, no more, "Oh my God these classes are so stupid and I'm not getting anything out of them and this sucks and I'm not going any more."

The degree gave me the ability to just stop doing college and finally do what I wanted.

Is there something you want to do? Chances are, you'll need that stupid degree to get it done.

So reframe your thinking into you will go to those classes, you will commit to getting college done and then you can finally start your life.
posted by kinetic at 5:14 AM on July 21, 2014

At this point, there's really nothing I can see myself wanting to do in the future at all.

Of course not, you are in crisis mode. It's very hard to take the long view when your immediate situation seems so scary and fraught.

Don't worry about your future career right now, focus on the job in front of you. Figure out what you need to do to pass these classes. Talk to profs, just see if it's possible. If so, come up with a plan for getting there. I realized in my 30s that I have ADD (not saying you do, but I could have written something like this at a few different points in college). Having someone sit with me while I do my work helps me, if I'm particularly scattered and stressed. Exercise helps. Breathing helps.

Stop beating up on yourself for not being perfect and not being more like what you think other people are like. Don't worry about producing top-quality work, just about getting passable work DONE and turned in.

Now is not forever. Even if you completely fail out of college and your parents are furious - this will pass.
posted by bunderful at 5:20 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you need to back off from the larger issues right now, and stop beating yourself up, and just focus on getting through the end of college. Don't think about what you're going to do in 10 years, or even next year. You are really close to the end of college, and you just need to work hard RIGHT NOW and get through this. You will have a degree, and you will not have to worry about creating huge issues with your parents. You will have accomplished something, and that will make you feel better about yourself.

Just DO THIS NOW. Plead with your teachers, if you must, for any way they can help you get through this. The future doesn't have to matter yet. The next 5 months matter, that's all.

You sound deeply depressed. Therapy and the meds are good and necessary, but you are young and this shit is hard. You have some work ahead, dealing with all of this. (Please give a few episodes of the Mental Illness Happy Hour podcast a listen. You will probably find yourself laughing and weeping, saying, "Yes, it's just like that.")

I think of self-pity as hating your life, but not trying to do anything to fix it. By that definition, you are definitely not wallowing in self-pity. You are in therapy and taking meds, and posting here. You are TRYING to work on this stuff, and that's excellent. Keep working.

Don't bog down, this close to this finish. Show up, and go through the motions. You can survive another 5 months. Even if it means nothing to you now, it will someday. You will always be glad you did this. Give yourself something to be proud of.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:26 AM on July 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't think you sound immature or victimized whatsoever. You sound like a person suffering from depression.

I don't know if there is a magic solution- I used to love school and be completely on top of my grades until the age of 15. Then I just stopped caring. Just like you, I kept thinking "okay, this semester, I'm going to turn everything around" and I never did.

Unlike you, I never, ever saw a therapist. But looking back now, it's clear to me that it was a manifestation of depression. I can't give you any pointers about what to do specifically right now regarding school, besides talk to your teachers- typically, they don't want students to fail. I'm sure they will be willing to help some time.

Regarding your question "I was wondering if anyone on here had ever had fairly permanent improvement after basically a lifetime feeling low & making bad decisions": I have found that working in an actual job was completely different from doing schoolwork in terms of my level of motivation. Where I lacked motivation for school, I have always thrown myself into whatever work I'm doing, even if its work I don't particularly like. At this point, there's no way you'll have a good GPA for your undergrad so get your degree as quickly as possible, and find a job and work your ass off in that job.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 5:41 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make commitments to change small things. Not just now, but over the long term. I doubt anyone feels "they have made it" and can relax with good mental health, stellar self-esteem and accomplishment. You don't have to make big changes to make a big difference. Off the top of your head, come up with one small thing that is most important for you to change, and do that, nothing else. See how that works out and then think about the next small thing. If needed, think very small :) The worst that can happen is you will end up where you started.
posted by waving at 5:46 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First of all I just want to say you're not alone. My first 3 years of college (or 4 or 5) were of me sometimes attending class, partying up a storm, and sleeping through a lot of classes (especially that Art History one after lunch). I dropped out, went to work, and then went back for 3 semesters and finished it all up. I had a 2.0 and a diploma.

I worked at the phone company and enjoyed it, I learned new stuff, and climbed up the corporate ladder. They asked me to get my MBA on their dime. I was skeptical, I laughed a bit, I refused about three times. Then I did it. I guess I grew into my brain, or I matured, or whatever, but I really enjoyed it and graduated with a 3.7 GPA. (Not that ANYONE has ever asked me about it.)

I had depression as an undergrad, and I had no idea what to do with myself.

So, here's what I suggest:

Go to the professors in your classes and 'fess up. "I've been battling depression and I realize that I've really messed up. I need to pass this class. What do I need to do to do that?" Then write it all down. I've had to do this and I've found that most instructors were sympathetic and helpful. In one case I totally blanked on the final and the prof let me write a paper. I got an A in that class.

Now, make a plan and execute it.

1. Set your alarm and wake up at the same time every day. Even if you had a sleepless night, even if you feel like shit. Just do it.

2. Work out. Even a brisk walk around the neighborhood will count. I like pool workouts, but whatever works. The point is to get your blood flowing.

3. Set aside study periods, if you need to write, do an outline and then spend X hours per day doing the work.

4. Eat well. No processed stuff. Take a turkey sandwich to class rather than eating at the McDonalds on campus. Eat fruit. You're eating garbage by default. Just decide that you won't do that.

5. Forgive yourself. Seriously, so many of us just have a problem with university. You're young, you're probably depressed and you're doing the best you can with the tools you have.

6. Talk to your parents and ask them for moral support. Tell them you've been having a hard time emotionally with school and that you appreciate them for sticking with you and supporting you. Oddly enough, this will make you feel better about the whole thing.

7. Write out a schedule for every day of the week, and check things off as you do them. You'll be amazed at how much fun it is to check off your work out, or the introduction to your paper, or that two hours of reading you did.

Right now, it's not about getting good grades, it's about finishing the damn thing up already and to not have it hanging over your head anymore. Nothing has to be perfect, it doesn't even really need to be good, it just needs to get done.

See about getting assessed for depression, or just see a therapist for moral support.

You can do this! I know you can.

And yes, I came back from it. The thing is your life is a series of ups and downs. As of Friday, I'm unemployed. So I have a daily schedule, apply for so many jobs, work out, clean something. All that kind of thing. Sometimes it really is about going through the motions.

Good luck to you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:11 AM on July 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Nthing the advice to just focus on getting the heck out of college. Level with your professors, figure out what the bare minimum is that you need to get done to finish the degree (note: not finish WELL, not finish happily, just finish!), and do whatever you need to do to get that done. I sucked out loud at college, especially towards the end, and my professors were very willing to handwave things for the sake of getting me out of the institution and out of their hair. I wouldn't be surprised if you can come to a similar arrangement.

Don't let perfectionism stop you from just finishing stuff. My meh undergrad performance has not stopped me from getting into and completing grad school while working full time and pulling straight A's. It did not stop me from developing a fulfilling career. I still make shitty choices sometimes, but on the whole I'm a reasonably competent adult, and who I was in my teens and early twenties hasn't been an impossible obstacle. Most of the world does not and will never care about your grades or your adolescent struggles, no matter how big they seem to you. Finishing college and finding a boring day job that pays the bills and where nobody knows or cares who you are may be the thing to turn your life around - it was for me.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:14 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think you need to realize that academic success is not a barometer for being successful at life. Lots of people don't do well in college (or drop out) and go on to find vibrant, exciting careers doing something else.

Instead of trying to force yourself to finish college, you might use therapy to help you figure out another life path. I know someone (now in her mid twenties) who is very bright didn't do well in college, lots of incompletes, then she decided to just drop out for the time being, get a job and make some money. She was criticized along the way by concerned people in her life who worried she was making a mistake (especially because she didn't keep these jobs for long..) In the end, though, she heeded advice to try to stick to one job for at least a year and to start to think about her long term interests, talents and passion. That job "stuck" - and she proved very good at it - to the point where she's now put together an exciting career, keeps getting promoted and enjoys what she does.

I would encourage you to think more about your talents - things that come naturally to you - and cultivate them. Whether you stay in college or not, you're a talented person with unique skills and abilities that you can develop. Perhaps get more involved in service and volunteer work. Build up your self esteem. College is not the end all or be-all.
posted by Gray Skies at 6:16 AM on July 21, 2014

Okay first off: YOU WILL BE OKAY. This is not a fun point, but we change so much over the course of our lives and our circumstances change and our coping mechanisms change based on our environment and our mental state and the people around us. Now does not equal forever.

I've known a couple of different people who were dealing with similar challenges to the ones you're facing. Of those folks, one was struggling with depression, one with ADD, and one with ADD+anxiety that meant they never wanted to start work unless it could be perfect, basically perfectionism-based procrastination. (In adults, and particularly in women, for whom it often first appears around puberty, ADD often presents as inability to concentrate, poor memory, disorganization, etc., not the hyperactivity we're culturally expecting). These factors kept all three of them from engaging with schoolwork in ways similar to the ones you're describing, but all three eventually got the help they needed and are now doing great and have jobs they love. You will too, though I know it's a tough road and hard to see the end right now. Maybe you're dealing with diagnosed or undiagnosed health issues, or maybe school is just a challenge for you at this point in your life. The things that are hard for you are hard for you, no matter how hard they're "supposed" to be, and it's worth remembering that. School is actually a crazy difficult thing to do, emotionally, and that it's artificially structured in a way that doesn't necessarily agree with everyone's personality. Be kind to yourself. Get the help you need, and trust in the people around you to be better to you than you're expecting. Get this stage of your life done with ASAP and see how the next thing treats you!
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:19 AM on July 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Have you ever been tested for ADD?
posted by wizardpants at 8:10 AM on July 21, 2014

I think you may be describing yourself as self sabotaging when in fact the career path chosen for you by your family and by your friends is a poor fit. I mean, really, you don't want to study for seven hours a day so that you can get a nice job in a law firm working sixty hour weeks going over case law? Or Wall Street! Again, heavy duty studying so that you can get a job spending sixty hours a week going over futures and derivitives until ten every night so some investement firm can skin another .5 of a percent off the investors? To me that sounds ghastly.

You haven't described one thing that motivates you, only the things that make you feel inadequate. Your family will be disappointed. Your friends will be sucessful and you will not. Do you actually like to study? I mean, enjoy it, get zen and really get into it? No? Are you eager about the amount of money you figure you will make, all those tech toys that you can afford when the career works out? I'm not hearing any good reason for you to be in school at all in the first place.

I do think you should try and finish it if you can. But I think you should work from the assumption that the system you are in is faulty and doesn't fit you. There may not be anything at all wrong with the way you are. You might not even be depressed, just a laid back sort of person who saves their energy for things that are really important to them.

If you can't think of anything you want to do it may be because nobody has ever offered you anything that you could thrive at and be happy doing. If you can keep you options open you may find things you like, or that you at least tolerate better.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:10 AM on July 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Are you physically healthy? Do you get enough sleep? Do you have a healthy diet? Do you get exercise and sunlight/vitamin D? I find that working on these things improves my mental health a little.

If you are a low energy person, is there a possibility that you have a medical condition that causes fatigue?
posted by Ophelia Bleu at 6:18 PM on July 21, 2014

Best answer: Oh how well I know this cycle!

Among the many reasons we can't break cycles, is the fact that we tend to approach the problem with the same solutions and just keep hoping for different results.

Some things to keep in mind that have worked for me.

1. will power is finite. Yes, we all know you would be mentally healthier if you exercised, ate right, slept enough, which would then give you the mental energy to do your work. But the reality is, if eating right and exercising and sleep are each a struggle in their own right, you can't actually fix all of those things at the same time. You might try, but you'll set goals that are unreachable, then feel very frustrated with yourself for failing and give up on all your goals.

2. thus: have small goals. Seriously. Small. I actually, at my lowest point, have put "shower" on my to do list to have something to cross off. Once you are able to do one goal, add another. If you fail at that new goal, don't give up all goals. Just go back to where you were before and then try again.

3. I have found that I start to engage in destructive behavior (procrastination, overeating, undersleeping, etc.) for very specific though connected reasons. I obviously cannot presume to speak for you - mine are

- exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed (too many goals, see #1)
- overfocusing on distant goals that seem unreachable (I'll NEVER be a famous professor! I'm not going to read this article, I"ll watch 3 hours of The Wire instead!)
- fear of failure
- comparison with others

So I would suggest you figure out what you think makes you engage in this behavior. I don't have failproof solutions to these - I struggle with procrastination and lack of motivation every day of my life. Things that have worked for me:

- a study partner - it's weird, but having someone right next to me for 3-4 hours somehow helps to keep focused. Plus I see someone else working - and I realize that they aren't magical fucking unicorns succeeding at everything, they struggle too.
- I HAVE to find some intrinsic joy in what I am doing. I cannot do something if I hate every minute of it. If you hate school, and can find nothing of interest in it, then I don't know what to tell you. But if there are parts of the classes you like, try to block out all of the noise, all the "everyone else is better at this" or "I have to do this for 4 more hours?!" and think "I am interested in this topic" or "I actually want to learn this skill, at least for the next hour."
- Sometimes, when I start working on a school project (paper or whatnot), doing just a couple of hours of work really only serves to show me how much MORE work there is to be done. This can lead to deep deep demoralization and procrastination. Be mentally prepared for the fact that sometimes the work you do seems like a drop in the bucket. Shrug it off. If you only do a drop, well at least you did a drop.
- Did I mention small goals?

Finally, the way in which we speak to ourselves is perhaps the most powerful influence on our behavior, so listen to the way in which you chastise yourself, you motivate yourself, you make excuses for yourself, you compliment yourself or put yourself down, etc. You can learn a lot about how you convince yourself to do or not do things if you pay attention to that voice. A lot of people here are mentioning being kind to yourself. I think that's great advice. When you drop the ball on a goal, show yourself some love, don't let it ruin all of the other things you've accomplished (even if that only other thing is a shower!).

And if you find a magic solution, please share!
posted by microcarpetus at 8:22 PM on July 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

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