How do I stop feeling like this?
December 19, 2014 6:37 PM   Subscribe

It hurts me to recognize that I will never be the person I have dreamed of. How can I learn to be okay with this?

Whenever I think about my life it seems like a series of endless failures and disappointments; the truth is I don't think there is anything I have ever excelled at. I'm not meaning to say I don't have interests – I have many of those: Middle Eastern and Central Asian studies, writing, chess, photography, geography, raising exotic spiders and collecting insects, etc. – but that I have never succeeded in anything or accomplished anything.

In school, I failed basically every course, and in fact some schools only graduated me because "it was in everyone's best interest" that I move on, as if I was too young to understand what that meant. Extracurricular activities weren't any easier for me; I have dreadful motor skills and equally dreadful social skills. To this day I have still never succeeded in completing a degree in anything. Over a year ago I did complete truck driving school but even then I came bottom of the class, having failed it twice.

What I really desire is to be able to come out on top for once, to no longer receive sad facial expressions combined with overused cliches like, "What matters is you tried," or, "Who cares if you failed – You tried!", but to truly be recognized as talented and admirable. My idol-nemesis, i.e., the person I wish I was and hate myself for not being, is Magnus Carlsen, the 24-year-old World Chess Champion and the highest ranked chess player in history. Fame, fortune, looks, talent, how I wish I was him instead of me.

Obviously I will never be someone as exceptional as he is, and despite recognizing this rationally, I find that it is extremely hard to accept emotionally. Never amounting to anything other than a nameless, faceless someone with no exceptional abilities and never accomplishing anything other than what most people I know already have is intensely disappointing to me.

To which I ask, how do I learn to stop feeling so disappointed in who I am?
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
What I really desire is to be able to come out on top for once

And so you can. Look at the post you've written: Lucid, grammatically correct, no misspelled words. I taught undergraduates for ten years and I can tell you that you write better than 90% of college graduates.

On the other hand, it sounds like you want to come out on top of the world. That's kind of a different story. Given how small the world has become, you will be competing for that title in any endeavor with everyone who has a gift. Belittling yourself for not winning that lottery is like berating yourself for not winning the Superball lottery. The odds are ridiculously long. Hard work will only take you so far; the rest is up to genetics, social and financial inheritance, opportunities, and all kinds of other factors over which you have no control.

Also, trying is admirable, and it sounds to me as though your commiserators are expressing admiration along with sympathy.

One sure route to gaining respect and admiration from others is to make yourself as useful as possible, preferably with an attitude of humility. Instead of trying to win, try to serve, and you'll find some satisfaction in that at least and I suspect some of the approbation you crave.
posted by bricoleur at 7:01 PM on December 19, 2014 [34 favorites]

Well, not to be flippant, but this is what becoming an adult is all about. Basically every novel written about adults is on this very theme: trying to reconcile the person you want (or wanted) to be with person you are. So, you are in good company!

Before reading your question, I had no idea who Magnus Carlsen was, and I must say that I do not find him at all physically attractive (sorry, Magnus!). I say that only because I hope it might lead you to think more about how very *local* some of our ideas about success are. I'm sure you wouldn't have heard of many of the people in my field that are seen as super successful. And 500 years from now, no one will remember the vast majority of people living today who we could agree are exceptionally successful.

You get that fame, fortune, looks, talent are all transient, right? And the people who have these things don't tend to be much happier than the rest of us; in fact, in some cases they are much less happy.

Maybe you want to take a look at some of the recent empirical work on happiness and well being, and think about ways to bring more happiness, rather than more success, into your life.
posted by girl flaneur at 7:09 PM on December 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

Brings to mind the old saw from the Desiderata: "Do not compare yourself to others lest you become vain or bitter". Honestly, you are at least reasonably bright and you have had the opportunity to do many things of interest. The good news (and bad news too I suppose) is that what you seem to require is a shift of mindset, not some external accomplishment.

As hackneyed as it may sound, you might wish to begin an organized practice of gratitude. Additionally, I concur heartily with bricoleur, you may find genuine solace and even joy in cultivating a practice of service to others. Like most of us, you seem to suffer from a kind of negative narcissism. The truth is you have much and have much to offer but your inner world view is hindering you.

kind regards and may you find some peace
posted by jcworth at 7:09 PM on December 19, 2014 [10 favorites]

"Never amounting to anything other than a nameless, faceless someone with no exceptional abilities and never accomplishing anything other than what most people I know already have"

That's what 99.9999% of us have to work with. How do I, personally, deal with it? I try to be someone other than a nameless, faceless, nobody to the people who are close to me - kids, lovers, workmates, etc.

There are damn near seven billion people on Earth. Being in the upper echelon of seven billion is a combination of luck and effort, but mostly luck. You can either beat your head against that, or lower your bar. And don't think of lowering the bar as settling or lowering your standards. Think of it as being realistic with your scope.

Alternately, cocaine will get you to the headspace you want in a hurry.

Good luck.
posted by colin_l at 7:18 PM on December 19, 2014 [10 favorites]

Have you achieved anything in photography? Lots of photography forums and groups have "photo of the month" competitions - have you ever tried entering those and getting positive feedback there?

How about your spiders? Do you get requests for advice and kudos for your knowledge from other members of spider-raising groups?

Do people think of you as a nice person, or a kindly person, or someone they can go to for help and support?

Any of those things would potentially bring you some sense of achievement. There's no point in chasing things like "World Champion" because unless you choose something completely esoteric there's just too much competition from the rest of the world. I've achieved plenty of stuff, but I'm not the world's best at anything, or even in London's top 10 at anything. I'm sort of in the middle, with everyone else.

You need to compare yourself to your previous self. Running, swimming, cycling and other solo sports are good for this - I am an embarrassingly slow runner, but I have been improving my distances over the past year. I'll never run a marathon, and almost everyone I know is a better runner than me both in terms of speed and distance, but I am improving and that keeps me motivated.

(Also on preview yes Magnus Carlsen looks weird to me as well. Not my type at all).
posted by tinkletown at 7:24 PM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm reluctant to recommend David Burns' "Feeling Good" because it seems like it gets recommended in every question. But he does talk a lot about how one of the most common distorted patterns of thought that makes people depressed is "Disqualifying the Positive", meaning you always find reasons why the good things (like your accomplishments) don't count. I really think the book is worth a read; if you get past the corny self-help writing, it has pretty powerful ideas that are fairly well validated. I am very familiar with the feelings you're describing and I think this book will help you. You actually need to write the stuff down like it says though.

And I really do think it is just a matter of mindset. There's no way to satisfy this need. It's the human condition, you'll probably always be a little bothered by this but you can still have a basically good life.

I will admit that Magnus Carlsen can legitimately feel he is the best, historically great, but eventually he's going to get old and lose his edge and then what? I guess he can look back on his glory days while he waits for his inevitable death. And being great is no guarantee of goodness or happiness.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:46 PM on December 19, 2014

When I was in high school this one girl won every single award at the end of year awards night. She was brilliant at everything she did. I envied her so much because all I wanted was to win just one award and she'd just won about ten of them. A few years later, during mental health awareness week, she gave a speech to the whole school about her years long struggle with an eating disorder, self-harm and suicide ideation. She still wasn't sure whether her suicide attempt, an overdose of paracetamol, had permanently damaged her liver. She is the last person I would have ever thought would struggle with those things.

The lesson to me? Don't compare yourself with others; no matter how perfect their life may seem. You never know what's really going on. All you can do is work with what you've got and try to find something that makes you happy.

To me it sounds like you still just need to find something that will make you feel accomplished. It's not truck driving or academia. Maybe it's volunteering somewhere? Maybe it's a sport that you have yet to take up?

You're still young and, besides, life isn't a race or a competition.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 8:58 PM on December 19, 2014 [8 favorites]

This is something a lot of people have to learn to manage throughout their lives. I only just learned that one of the people I admire (a talented professor in my field) still struggles with feeling like an impostor. I definitely have a hard time with it. Anyone who is passionate about something will feel this way at one time or another. Your passion leads you to recognize what the best is, but it will also show you where you fall short.

Every time I've struggled with these feelings of self-loathing and envy, the solution was to focus on what I could do rather than what I couldn't. To first recognize how far I have come relative to where I started, and then to apply myself to the next steps. That's all the control we really get in our lives. We can reflect on our past and we can build on what we have. This approach always feels overly simplistic to me, but it's worked every time. Every time I stop fixating on the self-loathing and spend time thinking about achievable tasks, I feel better.
posted by rhythm and booze at 9:27 PM on December 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

I’m on board with the other replies here, especially the idea of trying to serve others. And, yes, we all struggle with a form of this, I think.

In reading through this thread, I noticed that your concern is over who you are to yourself. But I wonder if you’ve examined who you are to other people. I imagine if there’s anything that you have constant practice in, and constant opportunities to improve upon and excel at, it’s being yourself. The danger to this is worrying about people judging you—but that’s essentially the issue right now. You are focused on other people’s perception of your success. You’re the one who should set the terms of your success level, what’s being measured, etc.

You’re not likely to get kudos for being yourself, but it is possible to achieve great things without being recognized for them. I think those are among the most important achievements. For instance, a smile from you could make someone’s terrible day that much better, and you may never hear about how important it was to that person. I say this as someone who’s been on the “terrible day” end of this too often (sick/dying family members, things like that). Because I know how important and helpful that was to me, I’m now the person in my office building who gives out the smiles. Granted, the practice could also piss someone off. But that’s their issue, not yours.

Aside from that, you say you’ve never succeeded in anything or accomplished anything. I have no idea as to your age, or how long you’ve tried in anything. But please don’t let your perceived non-accomplishment deter you—the reason why “what matters is you tried” is because the chances of succeeding or achieving are a guaranteed zero only the moment you stop trying. Trying is an exercise in itself. It is hard, for a lot of people, depending on the activity. Maybe try, more, at something you have an interest in (passion is a great motivation) or find other things that spark your interest.

For writers, a lot of getting the book done is butt-in-chair time. But a lot of getting that book published (traditionally) is getting rejected from 100 publishers to find the 1 who will take your book. And maybe book #1 doesn’t sell. Maybe it’s book #10. You can’t know unless you try. And the only way to guarantee non-success is to stop trying. So, it’s a cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

I’m sorry that you feel disappointed. I think it’s good you’re addressing it by recognizing it and examining where it’s coming from. You’re even trying to find a solution! (All well-composed, at that.) You’re going about this the right way. I can only suggest from here to stop focusing on it. (Not easy.) Divert your energy into something you have power over. If you try doing some things (new or old), perhaps go in without any expectations. No benchmark. Just be interested in something because it’s fascinating. Or because you want to do it. Is there anything you enjoy doing just to do it? Because that’s the kind of experience that will keep you coming back, and keeps you trying without even realizing it.

Good luck.
posted by artful at 9:34 PM on December 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

You are not uniquely fucked.
posted by miles1972 at 9:56 PM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that you are viewing it as a static thing. It is as if you think you have no future. I highly doubt that is the case. I am not sure about your goal definition, but to me, the way I am satisfied is if I reach my potential. I am old (in my 50s), but I used to struggle with this notion too. Now, at my stage in life I have regrets about not reaching certain milestones, but I just don't care about it too much. I have three terrific kids who think I am a good father, a good friend and even funny once in a while. I have friends who I have known for 45 years that I still talk to and I know would walk through a wall for me. Professionally, I have not reached certain goals and I am disappointed, but that I have rationalized is more about opportunity than ability.

I hate to admit this, and my question earlier today sort of re-enforces my failure, but I have always wanted to be President of the United States. I think I would be great at it in a Mr. Smith goes to Washington sort of way. I even ran for and won a small town election. When I ran for a different office, I lost. I would have been a great President, but I found out I am not a good politician. I hate to ask for money and I can't keep my big mouth from saying what I think. The two biggest things you need to get into office are not really qualifications for doing the job well. My point is, as you get older you realize that a lot of goals and dreams are not achieved. That does not make you a failure.

A lot of public recognition and achievement is not always based 100% on merit. There are so many other things that go into recognition that are out of your control that to focus on public recognition or to compare you to others is really not fair.

I especially want to address school. I am involved in education in a sort of way. I have thought long and hard about ways to improve teaching and learning in US public schools. One size fits all assessments are meaningless for a great many of the students taking those tests. Failing in school has no meaning to me without context. Did you learn? I attended and graduated from the University of Virginia. UVa was founded by Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson had some unique ideas about school. One of them was that he did not want the University to give out grades or diplomas. He felt you came to Charlottesville to learn and when you felt you had learned all you wanted or needed you went back home and that was it. You learned for knowledge sake, not to be measured against some standard or against your peers.

As someone pointed out up thread, you clearly have learned a lot. You write better than many many (most?) college students even if your grades did not reflect that. Your interests in things like chess and photography and various studies shows you are a curious person willing to risk failure to learn.

I guess what I am trying to say is two things. One, there is no value judgement to be made in failing based on some standard created for the masses or for someone else. Measure your success versus the mirror. Did you try your hardest and did you reach your potential? Two, the grass is always greener... You are projecting your vision of what it is like to be recognized for some accomplishment. I am not so sure acknowledgement or a plaque or whatever of your achievement will make the issue of your internal happiness change.

I think you should view yourself, your achievement and your life not based on merit badges, but on your own internal set of principles. Are you hard working? Do you try your best? Are you nice? Are you a good friend, a good brother or sister, etc?

I would rather people see me on the street and say, "There goes 724A, one of the nicest, most generous people I know" rather than say, "There goes 724A, he won the award for most sales last year" or "He was named student of the month."

Finally, this question made me think about who is/was the most successful person I know. I have met Bill and Hilary Clinton. I have spent time with several pro athletes. I have spent time with CEOs. They are all very successful people, but they do not win the award from me.

THe most successful person I have known is a quote reporter on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade (in the 80s). He was around 60 years old making $40,000/year. He took pride in doing his job well. He often volunteered to help even if it was not his job, he had a 35 year marriage, two children and two grandchildren. He was a deacon in his church. He was working poor with respect to money, but he was the richest person I knew. He was happy. He loved his family. He had raised a great family. He served his faith. He simply did not measure his self worth in terms of recognition, achievement or anything other than being a good man.

Be the best person you can be.


(Apologies for the rambling.)
posted by 724A at 10:19 PM on December 19, 2014 [14 favorites]

I think service is important, but it's wonderful to be able to serve using skills you have.

You asked this question, correct? Your foreign policy articles are being published in national and international outlets? And you've got enough ideas in you to write a book (good ideas, that people you trust agree are worthy of addressing)?

Do you know how many people with (multiple!) degrees would like to be you, right now?

Why don't you keep writing - articles, for now, since you've got momentum there - and see where it takes you? The world is rewarding this. You should pay attention.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:45 PM on December 19, 2014 [6 favorites]

Jim Carrey quote: "I’ve often said that I wished people could realize all their dreams of wealth and fame so they could see that it’s not where you’ll find your sense of completion. Like many of you, I was concerned about going out in the world and doing something bigger than myself, until someone smarter than myself made me realize that there is nothing bigger than myself!"

The reason why so many celebrities who seem to have it all suffer from depression and commit suicide (Looking now at a magazine cover with Robin Williams RIP) is because before they 'had it all' they thought that achieving these things would finally make them satisfied and happy. Yet after all that work they find out that that's not the case and then they feel lost and don't know what to do. Society says fame, wealth, beauty are the things that are supposed to make you feel complete but when you already achieve these things and still don't feel complete what else is left? So there is suicide. They don't see any other answer. But the answer is- true contentment doesn't come from those things. They come from within you.

I strongly suggest you take up a daily meditation practice. I'm not enlightened or anything, but it has definitely improved my life and my appreciation of it. After some time you may be surprised to see your inclination of wanting to "add" and pile on things onto yourself as if you weren't already enough, will reverse into a wanting to instead strip away all the crap you've attached to yourself instead.

And just as an aside: You can be good at one thing, but you can't be good at Everything. You have way too many hobbies. You need to pick one or two and stick to that. Not for the sake of being #1 in that hobby or anything, but rather because when your mind is scattered around like that, it becomes a lot harder to be present and enjoy the activities you take on. Simplify. Rather than putting a little bit of yourself in everything, try to put all of yourself into the doing of one thing. And revel in that. As a bonus, you'll probably end up being pretty good at that thing eventually.
posted by rancher at 11:55 PM on December 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh so you DID complete truck driving school, so it's not true that you failed every course.

Your articles are being published in the press and your friend with the PhD thinks it should be a book and you don't even have a degree? I meet so many people who introduce themselves by blustering that they don't have a degree but are just as accomplished as someone who has. I'm not saying they aren't, but they don't have the same validation for that claim that you have, and you aren't even making that claim!

Lastly, truck driving school or degrees or books don't make you a worthwhile person, for dust we are and to dust we will return. You are a beloved child of God. You're worth so much more than a degree certificate or book deal.
posted by tel3path at 2:04 AM on December 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was at a gathering where Rob Brezny spoke. (the astrologist, but this talk had no astrology) He enjoined the crowd to yell as loud as they could "I've got BIG FUCKING PROBLEMS". It took him three tries to get the crowd to truly shout and scream out "I'VE GOT BIG FUCKING PROBLEMS". Then he went around the crowd and had a few people tell what their problems were. These were the usual stuff: no money, bike stolen, boyfriend back on meth, the usual.

Then he proceeded to describe in briefly loving detail a few of the biological processes that we all had going at that moment that allowed us to gather in front of him and see him speak. I vaguely remember the krebs cycle, rods and cones in the eye, that kind of thing. He made the point that everyone there that day had woken up to tens of thousands of things were going RIGHT that had continued to go RIGHT all day long.

No idea if his point of view will help you but it has pulled me back from the brink more than once.
posted by telstar at 5:45 AM on December 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

There are a lot of good answers in this thread, and yet, I feel there's something missing. Let me explain. I am 48 and feel exactly as you do, except probably a little longer. The thing is, I have this distinct feeling that I should be able to excel at something. I started out great; academic parents, all the possibilities at my disposal, etc. The smart kid in school. But I have always ran into this "mental laziness", where I opt for the easy way out instead of the long hard road. I think the great reward is somewhere down the line of the long hard road. The daily studying, the choosing and sticking to one interest. The falling and getting up again. But it's not for me. I blame my parents; they always took care of everything for us, so I developed a "lazy mind" where others (but certainly not everyone) may have developed stronger mental skills. So basically I failed at everything; school (quickly after starting out as "the smart kid" the results plummeted), relationships, study, work, music (spent years on different instruments), hobbies, reading, you name it. Tried everything. Jack of all trades, master of none. And now it's just me, a lot of regrets about the past. "Failed opportunities". If only this and if only that. Blah blah biddie blah. I only hope for you that you find a way out of it. I must say I have tried a gazillion things; therapy, meditation, trying out all those interests, courses and tutorials.... so I think the answer to your question is not an easy one. More like a rite of passage. Good luck!
posted by hz37 at 6:51 AM on December 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've had thoughts somewhat similar to yours. I have no interest in being grand master, but I'm sorry I didn't focus more on my music skills and that I haven't written a novel or done anything amazing. Yet.

The thing is that when I start to feel better it's usually because of something that has nothing to do with the thing that seems like the problem. Going for a walk on a nice day, connecting with friends, meeting new people, getting the apartment cleaned, sometimes getting my meds tweaked.

Something about your need to feel that you are doing better than others both resonates with me and concerns me. I think maybe the thing you crave is acceptance and a sense of community. If that rings a bell for you, then that might be something to explore.
posted by bunderful at 8:15 AM on December 20, 2014

I don't think you should give up at being the best in the world at something. You're so young! If that's what you want - dude, go ahead and do it. Pick something reasonably small. Not regular chess; you're right, it's probably too late for that. But here is a list of some several hundred recognized chess variants. Pick one and master it. Or not. You could decide to be the world's top breeder of one particular kind of exotic spider, or the world's top amateur expert in one particular aspect of arachnology. Whatever it is, pick your thing and start getting good at it. Spend an hour a day on it, most days, and devote one full day to it on the weekend. If you stick it out, in fifty years, you have a damned good chance of being the best in the world at it. In the meantime, do whatever small things make you feel more like the person you want to be. Get a goofy haircut. Start wearing pale blue collared shirts under your blazers and tell people to start calling you Magnus. Do whatever the fuck you want, yo. You've got one life and most people waste theirs. Don't reconcile yourself to anything. Fight for the life you want to live.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:20 AM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

I want to make clear that I don't wanna discourage you from this burning ambition that you have. It sounds like you have a lot inside, and you know it, and you're having trouble getting it out, somehow.

I don't know if you ever mentioned whether you'd been assessed for any learning disabilities or ADHD or whatever, and I'm not suggesting you have them, and apologies if this is a dead horse for you, but if you haven't looked into that I recommend that you do so.

I know what it's like to want to do something unequivocal. There may not be one single best person in the world at any one thing, and aiming that high is kinda... not something upon which to hang your self-respect. No external achievement is something on which to hang your self-respect. But that doesn't mean you should give up on this ambition that's burning within you, even though you're not sure how best to use it.

How's that book coming along, by the way?
posted by tel3path at 10:29 AM on December 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

What is your passion? I find that I do much better at the things I am genuinely interested in, and working on them usually feels more like fun than work. If I am forcing myself to pursue something, no matter how badly I want to do well I usually make kind of a botch of it.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:21 PM on December 20, 2014

Instead of focusing on achievement, focus on enjoyment. You may not be the best in a given area, but you most definitely can look at your activities as things that you are privileged to practice and enjoy.

Virtually any hobby or activity can be commodified into a competition and jammed into some kind of unnatural hierarchy of achievement. But when you think about the most fundamental purpose of your chosen activity, what is it? Why did the earliest writers record their thoughts? Why do people make art? Why do people care for nonhuman creatures and seek out their companionship? Tap into the factors that have motivated these activities since our early days.

And then enjoy, for the sheer human pleasure of it.
posted by delight at 2:27 AM on December 22, 2014

One last thought: what about breaking a world record? There are plenty of records in the Guinness Book that are pretty silly and don't seem unbreakable. If you broke a world record and ate the most shrimp in 30 seconds or something, you would know that you are officially the best at something, worldwide... at least until a hungry challenger comes along!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:28 PM on December 22, 2014

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