How to get over an inferiority complex...when I am actually inferior
April 7, 2015 2:52 PM   Subscribe

Most of my former college and high school classmates are doing really well (academically/professionally) and I am...not. I'm upset at myself for not taking advantage of opportunities I had in the past and the fact that I am so far behind them and may not actually be able to ever get to a similar level. How do I get past this?

I know this seems improbable but it really seems like the vast majority of people I knew as a youth/in school are doing really really well for themselves--everyone is in fancy jobs, top ranked graduate + professional programmes etc. while I still haven't finished undergrad and have done really poorly there so far and it looks like I'll have limited prospects post-grad.

I feel like this is a stupid question, because it's unfair of me to be (privately, of course) resentful of my peers and classmates for being successful because they put in the effort etc. and I clearly didn't, so it is the natural outcome. But I'm so obsessed with other people's successes that I just feel like anything I do from here on out will be pointless, because I'll always be mediocre and "behind" them. The fact that it was my fault and I didn't have any adverse circumstances (I actually think I had a lot of advantages) makes me feel worse because I just spend a lot of time ruminating over past mistakes but never really fixing them because I always feel like it's "too late" to make any difference, and also because it's kind of pathetic to be so mediocre (or below) when you really had no excuse to be.

I don't really think I am depressed anymore, and therapists I've had thus far haven't been very helpful with this specific issue. It just doesn't seem like something mental-health related, more like related to circumstances and my own flaws. But I guess the crux of my question is how do I care less about what other people are doing + move past regrets of not doing well like them? I feel bad for asking this question because it reaaaaally makes it sound like I think I'm entitled to a good future but I really don't feel that way (at least not since I was a teen)--more like I'm just kicking myself for wasting opportunities and I'm reminded of that every day because the vast majority of my peer group are being successful? I'm not saying their lives are perfect or anything (I would suspect that a good chunk of them have probably faced more adversity than I did because I was very sheltered) but that actually makes me feel worse, because they are able to do well despite (I'm sure) having a lot of other shit to deal with.
posted by hejrat to Human Relations (52 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Oh man, this is like the fundamental question of adulthood!

Short answer: you just have to live your life and remember every moment you spend thinking about this shit is increasing the perceived disparity between you and those you are jealous of. Your digging your own psychological grave, STOP IT!

PS It is cliche, but the most superficially successful people I know are often deeply miserable. Driven to work and succeed by demons not unlike your own.
posted by lattiboy at 3:01 PM on April 7, 2015 [22 favorites]

How do you know how these people are doing? Delete your Facebook if that's part of it. Focus on your own achievements. Get a hobby that allows you to create things and be proud of those creations.

Our culture is work oriented and pushes towards a very specific and narrow definition of "success." Personally I've found that the more I self-define success the happier I am. To me, success is spending time outside every day and eating healthy and having friends I care about. It's taking care of a finicky cat and getting really good at knitting complicated things. It's writing a book and having an herb garden that I don't kill instantly (still working on those two!) It's giving money to charity and taking weekends off. For me it has nothing to do with the letters piled up after my name from my degrees or the fact that I've pushed through a hell of a lot of crud to get to where I am. It's essentially a quiet life where I get to work on self-improvement a lot and give back to others a lot too.

So: think about what you mean when you think of success. Work to define success in a way that is personally meaningful. And get rid of Facebook. It's toxic. I think life is infinitely better without it.
posted by sockermom at 3:01 PM on April 7, 2015 [31 favorites]

I'm an IT professional with an engineering degree from a great university, a beautiful wife and a fantastic job.

If you met me at 22, you'd find a slacker who got kicked out of the Marines, knocked up a stripper and had already filed for bankruptcy because I'd gotten stabbed in a fight.

Point is, you're just fine. The story of your life is still in its early chapters. If you don't like how things are, then forulate a plan and work towards that change.

Yes, I know - easier said than done. Still, its what you gotta do. You can do it, and you are worth it.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:02 PM on April 7, 2015 [42 favorites]

I've learned that comparing myself to other people makes me feel bad. Every single time. But then I realize that I'm in the top 5% of wage earners in the entire world and that perspective flips things.
posted by tacodave at 3:04 PM on April 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

Well, from the outside their lives may seem impressive -- and perhaps they ARE as awesome as you'd think -- but likely they're experiencing their own troubles, too. You've got a lot of life experience under your belt, even if it's not the thing of passport stamps or university degrees, and what you've got counts for a lot.

There's no quick fix, unfortunately, but I'd work on building your self-esteem by trying to avoid situations where you keep comparing yourself. (Limits on Facebook usage, etc.)

I'd also focus on what YOU love and enjoy: what hobbies do you love? What traits do you value in yourself? Please make a list, here even!

Finally, can YOU start believing in your own value and worth as a human being? It's one thing to use others' accomplishments to motivate yourself BUT, until you start seeing yourself as someone of inherent value, I don't think you'll find the happiness you're looking for. I don't know if your previous therapy situations were bad matches or that your negative attitude made it hard or impossible for them (and you) to start actually working on feeling better.

I wish you luck on your path!
posted by smorgasbord at 3:04 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

You are entitled to a good future. You just may not find it on the same path as some of your "higher flying peers" may be taking. Look again in ten or twenty years You may be surprised at how they end up. Some will be divorced and have lost their big jobs as they get older. Just be the best you can be and look for genuine love wherever you find it.

Wait and see, may end up way happier as a run of the mill person.
posted by BarcelonaRed at 3:04 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Are you otherwise happy with your life? Have you "accomplished less" because you chose a different path?

I was part of gifted programs from kindergarten through high school. Some days it seems like everyone I grew up with is a doctor, a lawyer, or an academic. Meanwhile I'm a low-level paper pusher in the entertainment industry. I'm never going to be a big deal. I'm never going to make that much money.

But you know what? I love the life I've chosen for myself. I just beat the star of a major network TV show in my office March Madness pool. I host a live comedy show in my spare time. My office doesn't have a dress code, and I get two months off per year to travel, and my boss has a desk full of geeky action figures.

Find the things you like about your life, which represent the choices you've made. You probably wouldn't be happy doing whatever "successful" thing your former classmates do nowadays. Life isn't a race or a game to see who can rack up the most "prestigious" points.
posted by Sara C. at 3:04 PM on April 7, 2015 [31 favorites]

Another technique to add to those above: Play the long game. When you're feeling resentful or angry, think about what you would like your life to be like [not theirs] and do what would get you there in 5 years.

For example: Grrr, so-and-so has a fancy job and I won't, but I want one.
Solution: Study for an extra 20 minutes today, or join an extra-curricular club where you're more likely to meet people who will help you access fancy jobs, or volunteer your time strategically to build your resume.

I come from a school of high achievers and I am a mid-achiever, so I know the feelings. But the solution is focus on your own goals. Also, one of the most successful people I know who became a giant in his field also committed suicide in an extremely public and not-understandable way and time (except of course, that he must have been in terrible pain to do so). It's not just about the trappings of success, it's about feeling okay in your life.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:05 PM on April 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

One one thought: were you raised to believe that one always needs to be "the best"? You really only need to be "good enough."
posted by smorgasbord at 3:07 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm not generally the inspirational quote type of person, but I do have this little saying tucked in a strategic place in my apartment: "Do not be afraid to use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those who sang best." Henry van Dyke. It helps me deal with exactly what you describe.
posted by ericc at 3:19 PM on April 7, 2015 [49 favorites]

I asked a very similar question on this site last year not once but twice (!), and found the responses to be very helpful (thanks, MeFites!). Perhaps you will too.

Also, I want to say that how things appear to you on the outside -- especially on websites like Facebook, where people present very self-consciously curated personal lives for public consumption -- isn't necessarily how things appear to those actually inhabiting them. For instance, from the outside I might appear to one of those people you're talking about that you're envious of (several fancy degrees from highly prestigious schools, etc.); and yet, if you look at my question above, here I am asking the same thing that you are. I think that this question is something that many (most? all?) people have to come to grips with, regardless of what specific choices they have actually made.
posted by ClaireBear at 3:37 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

You are not living their lives, and they are not living yours. I spent most of my young adulthood being profoundly envious of a certain classmate who always seemed so freaking happy and popular and successful. I chose to live in her shadow every day, until she revealed to me that she had been suicidal since she was very little and that her struggles with anorexia and depression were literally killing her. She wasn't happy. She wasn't successful by her standards. She was fundamentally miserable. It really shook up my worldview, and I've never been the same since.

Much of what we perceive about other people is us projecting. Live your life for you with your own timeline. The lessons and experiences you are meant to encounter are for you alone. Choose to engage with them for your sake, not for the sake of the audience you erroneously believe is judging your every move. You will be much happier for it. I promise.
posted by Hermione Granger at 3:39 PM on April 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

You can't compare yourself to others that way. You don't know what their lives have really been like, you're only seeing the cleaned up, happy stuff they're putting out there for the public. As somebody said, you're living the whole movie of your life, but you're seeing everybody else's highlight reel.

Focus on achieving the things you want to achieve. That's what matters. Every minute you spend feeling depressed about your lack of achievements is a minute you're spending not achieving anything, and those minutes add up to make you less likely to ever achieve anything.

Also, ask yourself if these people are achieving the things you really want to achieve. I used to get depressed about friends who'd gone on to be literal rock stars and stuff, and then one day I realized I'd only wanted to be a rock star in that vague way everybody kind of wants to be a rock star, but I'd never really wanted to be a rock star. That wasn't my dream. Don't envy people who have achieved dreams that weren't your dreams.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:47 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

A coffee shop near my house has a little sign in the hallway that says, "Hey, you made it out of bed today! Congratulations!"

And I love that little sign. I'm not nearly as successful as the people I went to school with, but I do OK, and I try to be kind to people, and I try to impact whatever I do in a positive way. I'll never be a millionaire. I'll never be famous, or even internet famous! But I got out of bed today and I have this lovely coffee to drink, and it's a good day, so I'll see what else I can accomplish while I'm at it.
posted by mochapickle at 3:47 PM on April 7, 2015 [16 favorites]

Also: based on this previous question you asked a couple of months ago, you appear to be 21 (or at most, 22). If so, 100x all the above advice. Anyone who appears to have figured out their lives by age 21 is either lucky, lying and has a good pokerface, or the entire thing is an optical illusion on your end. Seriously. What you are describing is the human condition of being 21 (or the human condition of being, period).
posted by ClaireBear at 3:50 PM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Also, take a look at your life and give yourself some credit for things you have achieved, even if they're not everything you want to do before you die. Have you helped people? Have you persevered through difficult situations? Have you achieved things that really mattered to you, even if other people wouldn't be so impressed? Have you in some way become a better person than you used to be? That stuff matters, even if it may not be stuff you can put on a resume.

Also, also, if you have a bunch of old friends who have done well professionally, that's a potentially useful network.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:54 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

To echo what others are saying, you only know what these people are showing to the world. Maybe they're exaggerating a bit. Maybe they're not telling you they're putting in 60-hour weeks for little pay. Maybe they have no friends. I don't know. We all tend to put our best faces out to the world (which is why this year I've actually decided to ... not be negative, but share bad things along with the good).

It's never too late! I know so many people who are still doing super-cool things as they get older -- or even starting new super-cool things. Your life isn't over. It's barely started! That goes for any age!

(I keep talking about it for many reasons, but I found Viv Albertine's memoir to be a delight -- not only because the early punk days stuff was fun but because it talked about her life after all of that with equal weight. I almost found that more inspiring than what came before. )
posted by darksong at 4:01 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can spend all your time being intimidated by the accomplishments of others, or you can use that time to do what you want to do with yourself. It isn't worth it to expend all that energy being in awe of or cringing before the success of others. You just need to spend your time concentrating on yourself and your goals.
posted by deanc at 4:02 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

To get over this, you need to change how you think. There are a bunch of reasons that your extreme disappointment with your accomplishments is misguided. I am going to try to cover all the angles I can see in this answer.

First your perception that your former peers are all basking in success is unlikely to be accurate. It sounds like you know this to a point. As others have noted, you almost certainly aren't looking at the full picture as you compare your professional success to others'. Keep in mind that people generally advertise their triumphs and keep mum about their failures. I'm sure it's true that you can find many accomplished people among your former peers, but I doubt you have kept track of everybody. Consider that some of those who have slipped off your radar are probably struggling as much or more than you have, and even those whose accomplishments you have heard of probably have had their share of disappointments.

But let's pretend that your old classmates and friends are really basking in professional glory. So what?

1. No point in comparing
The worth of your own accomplishments has nothing to do with what people you used to know have done. Yes, you came from the same place, but that doesn't mean you must compare yourself to these people. Imagine if one of your classmates was Mark Zuckerberg or Barak Obama or whatever, would that diminish the relatively modest accomplishments of the peers you are now so envious of? Of course not.

2. You have time
The story isn't over and life isn't a foot race. Some of the people you are now so envious of will flourish, others will crash and burn. By the same token, you still have time and opportunities. You may yet do amazing things!

3. Your worth doesn't depend on your success in school or work (This is the most important point.)
Even if you don't ever succeed professionally by your standards, you are still a worthy human being. You seem to be very eager to blame and insult yourself. You haven't achieved some of your goals. That is all. It doesn't mean that you are lazy or untalented or worth less than those who have achieved what you wish you had. You are more than your resume. You also don't owe the world a certain amount of accomplishment, even if you have been privileged. There are many domains in a person's life. Yes, strive to do well, but don't fool yourself into thinking that you can't be happy unless you succeed. Consider reading about Albert Ellis' teachings on "demands" or "musturbation." He wrote some interesting stuff.

4. You deserve a good future
It sounds like you are very disappointed in yourself. In your question, you say that you don't feel you "deserve a good future." You do deserve a good future. The future may not hold all you dream of, but it can be good, very good.

5. Things get better once depression recedes
You say you are recovering from depression. That's a significant detail. It sounds like you are still under the sway of depressive thinking to some degree, even if you aren't actually depressed anymore. Depression departs gradually and it leaves damage in its wake. But you are getting better! You will pick up the pieces and build something new. It may not be exactly what you planned for yourself before the depression, but it may well be very wonderful anyway.

Good luck!
posted by reren at 4:10 PM on April 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

The reality is that at every point in your life, no matter what your achievements, status or wealth, you will have the opportunity to either dwell in what's happening now or in your projections of reality and how it coulda/shoulda/must be different than it is. If you manage or had managed by now to achieve the same kind of success as the people you envy perhaps you would be in the same state of mind, envying other people and wishing things were different than they are. Perhaps the people you envy are also in that state, wishing their lives were different. Perhaps they envy you and your life of leisure and low stress. Who knows? The real existential question is how to live now and be effective and content with what is happening to you today. Good luck with that. Been working on this for quite a while now so can relate to your mental state of mind.
posted by diode at 4:11 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know a lot of people who appear wildly successful. They are high-powered lawyers and consultants and tech moguls or whatever, but like, their lives aren't better than mine. They spend a million hours at work while I get to hang out and watch Netflix and have hobbies. They have more money, but unlike me they feel obligated to spend it on expensive cars and tailored suits and designer drugs, so in practice they don't end up with much more savings than I do. They're hotter than me, but they're starving themselves and/or spending all their free time at the gym, and boy am I not interested in those things. In other words: they have all the trappings of success, but their lives sound terrible to me.

Also, I was talking to a friend recently about a mutual acquaintance who is extremely wealthy and also has a super terrible life. And what I realized - and said to my friend - was that I have never met a rich person I was jealous of. This is basically true. Rich people have their own crazy rich people problems that I would never want.

So anyway. All these fancy kids I went to college with, sure they get to be all "I work at Goldman Sachs" or whatever, but that stuff doesn't impress me anymore. I have a pretty low-prestige job, but I like it, and at least I'm not actively making the world a more terrible place. You get to decide what matters to you. That's the whole deal with being an adult. Nearing thirty, I am much more impressed by people who are happy than people who are conventionally successful, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of overlap.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:11 PM on April 7, 2015 [8 favorites]

I kind of have a brilliant future behind me and I try not to let it get me down. I focus on what I do have and what an incredible mystery and opportunity it is to be alive. I think about what someone in prison or old and sick would give to have my life, exactly as it is right now.
posted by thelonius at 4:19 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

The idea of "don't compare your insides to everyone else's outsides" really resonates for me - maybe it will for you, too.
posted by insectosaurus at 4:23 PM on April 7, 2015 [15 favorites]

There was once a farmer who owned a horse and had a son.

One day, his horse ran away. The neighbors came to express their concern: "Oh, that's too bad. How are you going to work the fields now?" The farmer replied: "Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?"

In a few days, his horse came back and brought another horse with her. Now, the neighbors were glad: "Oh, how lucky! Now you can do twice as much work as before!" The farmer replied: "Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?"

The next day, the farmer's son fell off the new horse and broke his leg. The neighbors were concerned again: "Now that he is incapacitated, he can't help you around, that's too bad." The farmer replied: "Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?"

Present MomentSoon, the news came that a war broke out, and all the young men were required to join the army. The villagers were sad because they knew that many of the young men will not come back. The farmer's son could not be drafted because of his broken leg. His neighbors were envious: "How lucky! You get to keep your only son."

The farmer replied: "Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?"

posted by nickrussell at 4:51 PM on April 7, 2015 [22 favorites]

It's the human condition to feel unfulfilled; just remember that those people have to work a hell of a lot harder to feel unfulfilled than you do.
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:54 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Read this and ponder the concept of acceptance. I'm about to ramble.

You're not inferior - you just made different choices. At the time that you made them, you either thought they were the right ones, didn't know all the possible outcomes, or wanted whatever you were choosing. Forgive yourself for not being able to read the future.

I could easily tell you all the ways in which I have failed to live up to my potential (a phrase that was on every single one of my report cards in school). I could also tell you all the ways in which my friends, acquaintances, and even that guy who lives a few houses down whose name I don't even know, are better than me. I have spent far too much time apologizing to people for the things that I (think I) lack. This serves absolutely no purpose other than to paralyse me and prevent me from attempting anything at all. It's a cop-out. For real. Talking shit to myself has never, not once, helped me.

How do you care less about what other people are doing + move past regrets of not doing well like them?

Step back from the comparisons and ask yourself what you really want in life. When I compare myself to other people, I have a completely different answer to that - I immediately focus on the university degree that I don't have, the paycheque that's too small, the fact that I drive a Kia and not a fancy car, and the fact that I'm not famous despite being almost 40 years old. All that shit looks SO GOOD to me!

When I step back and literally count my blessings, the answer to what I want in life is to have enough money to afford adequate shelter/food/clothing, a job that isn't too stressful but that I find fulfilling, ample books to read, unlimited internet, and time to spend with the people I love. I HAVE that right now.

I still have goals and dreams - but they are very much based in what I really want. Instead of working on my university degree (because everyone else has one and I don't), I've realized that I'm happier focusing on shorter certificate programs that are immediately applicable to what I'm doing in life. I've (mostly) stopped making decisions based on the fear that I won't be as successful in life as other people - because I'm defining success on a personal level. I've stopped lusting after other people's markers of success.

What has really, really helped me? Working with people who are homeless, marginalized, addicted, and infected with diseases like HIV and HCV. It hasn't helped me because I'm comparing myself to them and being all, "Whoah, look at me living all disease-free! I've got so much money compared to you! Whooo!" but because I've met people who have almost nothing to their name and who are happy. When you meet someone who is filled with incredible joy at simply having a roof over their head, it helps put some perspective on the whole game of life. I've been able to see how incredibly lucky I am. It makes me focus on the things that are really important in life - health, shelter, food, friends.

In the big picture of life, it doesn't matter how much money you have. It doesn't matter what your career is. It doesn't matter what you drive. Your peace has to come from somewhere else. If things are important to you, for real, you'll find a way to work toward them. You will have varying degrees of success with that. You might fail spectacularly even if you put forth your best effort. But it'll be okay.
posted by VioletU at 5:20 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

You care less about other people doing better than you by... getting off your ass, working hard, and achieving whatever success it is you want.

Look, everyone else has already told you that you're a special snowflake and that you should just redefine 'success' so that it fits whatever you already are. You know this isn't going to work because those feelings of inadequacy aren't imagined. They're real. You've wasted a bunch of time and opportunities.

You can either keep whining about this, or you can get off your ass and work hard-- like everyone else you're comparing yourself to already has. It's not too late to do what you want. You have something the average slacker doesn't: the inklings of motivation. Accept who you have been, and decide you're going to be better than that from now on. No more excuses.
posted by danny the boy at 5:27 PM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

My group of high school friends was/is pretty high-achieving, and one thing I'll say is that the people who are doing the "best" now by traditional rubrics (at 35ish) might not have been the ones you would have guessed would be successful at 15, or 25, or even 30 (we are talking incapacitating mental and physical illnesses, jail time, terrible marriages, along with more generic quarter life crises and just plain not finding their way for a while.) I assume that the folks doing best in 5 years will still not be predicted now. Don't assume the die is cast at any age.

Another thing that you don't specifically mention, but that is often a piece of this kind of question, is the worry that your successful friends are as disappointed in you as you are in yourself. I can just about guarantee that this isn't true*. I'm thinking of my childhood friends right now and thinking through who might feel like you, and it's ridiculous because I literally never think of the people I love in this way. The people who don't have impressive resumes have cool hobbies, live in beautiful places, have hilarious children, live lives fully in tune with their morals, or make me feel better just being around them. I'm proud of all my friends for being good people. I'm not proud of any of them for their salary.

*Unless, big "unless", you do nothing but complain. I have to admit that I pretty rapidly lose touch with old friends who are down on themselves, and this tendency has like zero correlation with external measures of success.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:22 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

The most successful people I know made some decisions I thought were too risky. They take chances on relationships, jobs, cities. They try, fail, repeat and ten years on they are just fine.

Maybe you'll feel less inferior if you just try more things. You'll have more opportunities for success.
posted by charlielxxv at 6:36 PM on April 7, 2015

You're 21? Sorry, you are not qualified to have this problem. This is a problem for your early thirties.

Sorry if that sounds flip. I'm only half-joking. Honestly, very, very, very, very few people are actually successes in their early twenties. It's like, actors, some musicians, and Mark Zuckerberg. Everyone else is just doing well in school or internships/entry-level jobs. Which is great, but it's not success, even in the super-narrow terms our society quantifies success.

Maybe some of these people you feel inferior to will be extremely successful professionally. Many of them will have moderate success. Some will decide they don't want to pursue career success and will focus on other things. Some will come fast out of the gate and then flounder once they get some real responsibility, say in a management role. Some will decide to switch careers and go back to school in 10 years.

The truth is, if these folks are your age, you have no idea how any of them will end up. The same is true for you. You haven't finished undergrad? That sounds normal for a 21-year-old. You haven't done very well in school? Maybe school isn't where you shine. You feel like it's too late for you? That is objectively false. I have a friend who dropped out of school when she was 20, was arrested for selling drugs the next year, then bounced around from job to job for a few more years. By the time she was 30, she was working for a nonprofit and was being groomed to be their ED. But she decided instead she wanted to go back and finish her BA so she's doing that now. Life is long and you'll be surprised at how things work out.

I think you need to just go out and try some stuff. Get an internship. Get an off-campus job if you don't have one. Get involved in some extra-curriculars. Most employers won't look at your grades - they want to know what you studied, but they're going to be more interested in what you did outside the classroom.
posted by lunasol at 7:10 PM on April 7, 2015 [11 favorites]

I feel like this at times, with the provocations you do, and I have a little mantra for it 'I am enough, just as I am' - let that sink in, then if it feels wrong because it's unbelievable to you, take stock. Everyone feels they are not enough as they are right now. Some use it as a driver for ambition, goal setting. Some use it as a self flagellating whip to urge on their insecurities. I'm trying to use it as a tool for self acceptance.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:25 PM on April 7, 2015

I wanted to weigh in one more time to answer your specific question: " I'm upset at myself for not taking advantage of opportunities I had in the past and the fact that I am so far behind them and may not actually be able to ever get to a similar level. How do I get past this?... But I guess the crux of my question is how do I care less about what other people are doing + move past regrets of not doing well like them?"

I can't remember where I read/heard this (possibly on Metafilter!), but I have found it helpful to imagine what you would imagine yourself saying to your best friend who came to you with the problem that you describe. Imagine that your best friend came to you, in roughly the same situation that you're in, and told you about herself everything that you're currently telling yourself. Would you tell her that she was a hopeless loser and a failure, and that she deserved to wallow for all eternity in her shortcomings? Would you even think that about her at all? You wouldn't, right? Your approach to her problem would be gentle and constructive, I imagine. Rather than casting it all as some sort of moral scarlet letter for which she has to flagellate herself over and over, I imagine you'd focus on constructive concrete directions in which she could move to begin to solve the problem (goals for her grades for the next semester, internship goals, short-term professional goals, etc.). You'd also remind her that her moral worth is not tied to her successes (academic, professional, or whatever), and that you love her as she is because of who she is. And if you wouldn't treat your friend the way you're treating yourself now, why would you treat yourself that way?
posted by ClaireBear at 7:36 PM on April 7, 2015

When you're young, it feels like the only way to have a worthwhile life is to conquer the world. The truth is, it's accomplishment enough just to find a way to live in it and be happy.

You came out on the other side of depression and are getting a degree? FUCKIN' A, FRIEND: GOOD FOR YOU. That's plenty good enough.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:11 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the POVs. I'm not sure if more people will come back to this thread but jic, some follow-up info:

I'm actually (recently) 22 now, but that's almost semantics I guess. I barely have any college left, so not much time to cultivate extracurriculars and stuff. I'm not in school right now but I'll finish before the end of the year. I do have a job/internship right now but it's a little above my capacity.

re: the brand of advice that is "get off your ass and achieve like the people you're envious of!"

I definitely agree but I guess the crux of my question was that the envy is my most significant impediment to doing so? I get how that can read as an excuse but when I'm in isolated situations or can manage to ignore it, I don't really have a problem with doing well. But if I am inundated with this sort of thing it does get me out of sorts for a disproportionately long time and that is when I tend to get very ~give up what's the point~ and backslide really badly so I was looking for ways to cope with that.

re: comparing other's outsides to my insides

I'm aware that that doesn't make much sense/isn't rational but it's hard not to do. But tbh if you compare my outsides to my cohort's outsides, I still don't really stack up...but I am trying to stop doing that also (hence this question).

IDK. I have always been really, really prestige oriented and I really don't know where it came from (I don't think it was my parents) but I also was never prestigious either. But as a result things like self-acceptance seem alien to me, especially when I know I do have it in me to be more disciplined.
posted by hejrat at 8:45 PM on April 7, 2015

I'm sure everyone's answer is much more detailed and helpful, but I have to chime in with one thing: "Life is a journey, not a race." I actually have this hung above my desk to remind myself of it. I'm not usually one for platitudes, but it really helps.
posted by atinna at 9:19 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Gah. I had a prestige job of sorts for 20 years. The stress nearly killed me. I stepped down to a lower level and took a 30% pay cut. I'm much happier and and healthier by an order of magnitudes.

As you go through life, learn to define success as what YOU want, not what other have or are. I'm wildly successful at this point because I have my happiness back.
posted by harrietthespy at 9:26 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I totally get how comparing yourself to those who seem more successful can be paralyzing. I've been there (memail me if you want the details). At the time it was HORRIBLE, now that I've got my own thing going on, it seems funny that I was so caught up in that.

I think the thing here is not going out and becoming successful, because success is a moving target and you're pretty young anyway, but finding something that motivates you to work hard, ideally with other people who are in the same boat as you. Could be an internship in something you're interested in, or an activity (maybe not a campus group if you're about to graduate, but you could do something in the community). Just try things and see how they go. You really can't go wrong at this point just trying a bunch of stuff. Eventually you'll figure out what you're good at, what you want to learn more about, etc.
posted by lunasol at 9:35 PM on April 7, 2015

Best answer: I get where you are coming from. If your question is fundamentally about how to manage your emotions about failure so that you can actually succeed, then the approach you need to take has three parts.

First, you need to tackle the long term problem of developing more resilience toward setbacks. Keep talking to your therapists, journal, practice CBT, so that you can be more aware of how you feel and why you feel the way you do. Connect with your community and explore the world so you can gain more perspective and balance.

Second, you need a short term fix. You need to find some ways to trick yourself into working when you're in a funk or feeling discouraged. I personally find the Pomodoro method to be effective and easy to adopt. It is also amazingly helpful to start early, when the pressure to have a great finished product is low. There are tons of self-help books and articles out there on tactics for dealing with procrastination (yes, all this "why even bother" stuff IS procrastination). Try these different tactics out until you find one that works for you.

Third, you need definite, granular goals that contribute to your overall vision of what success looks like. In other words, you need a plan with steps that you can tick off to show that you are making real progress. This will help motivate you to move forward. For instance, say you want to improve your performance at work. You could break this down into: 1-write up a list of things you feel need improvement. 2-ask senior coworkers for feedback on what you could improve on and what you are doing well. 3-ask coworkers for suggestions on how to improve and gain deeper understanding. 4-review feedback and come up with a strategy for tackling the items on the list.

I'm 30. When I was 18, my definition of success was about redeeming my lack of academic achievement in high school. When I was 22, my definition of success was getting over my social anxiety and learning how to make friends with people. When I was 27, my definition of success was about getting back on track with the career I'd spent less time focusing on while figuring out the social side of my life. Now that I'm 30, my definition of success is about finding some way to have it all--a great career, a happy social/family life, and time for myself. The goalposts keep shifting, but the fundamental strategy for getting to success hasn't changed for me. You can do this. Good luck!
posted by rhythm and booze at 10:04 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Happiness doesn't come from achievement, it comes from being content with who we are, what we do, and how we think of ourselves in this particular moment. If your friends have accomplished things that you wish you had, try to be happy for them. They need it, too, because they aren't any happier than you are.
posted by Mr. Fig at 10:05 PM on April 7, 2015

Best answer: Hey there. I'm also 22 and dealing with this right now. I am one of the few in my group of my friends who is not heading immediately to a PhD program, despite the fact that I am just as smart and brilliant as any of them. Why? Because I let my GPA drop to a sub 3.0 while dealing with crazy amounts of trauma, leaving an abusive ex, having abusive professors, healing, avoidance, anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and a bunch of other stuff. I basically lost track of my priorities as a student due to fear and being naiive and hurt hard by the institutional university.

But the past year, after receiving back emails from graduate school that I probably won't get in and mourning for two weeks, I felt so free. Yes, I was terrified. Yes, I was annoyed as fuck that I wouldn't be in a PhD program for years. But then I realized that there were so many things that I kept overlooking about myself. During the months that I was terrified and constantly kept reading every AskMeFi thread about how to get into grad school with a low GPA, I made several breakthroughs with my therapist, impressed a lot of professors by my renewed work ethic to not squander my last few quarters, and did a lot of really intense emotional work to confront my traumas. I am rediscovering my agency, my spirituality, and most important of all, that I have a lot of joy being myself and a lot of possibilities.

I kept talking to my friends who were getting ready to go to PhD programs, and they are terrified. One of them is already dealing with a massive breakdown, while the others are in perpetual denial. I realize that even in their successes, there are new barriers. I have barriers. But am I making goals and dreams where I can overcome my own barriers and feel amazing after?

So now, I'm basking, working on my senior thesis and doing it because I love my topic and it is helping me grow as a person. Despite the fact it really isn't gonna raise my GPA, it will instead raise my vibrations as a person because I love this journey. Afterwards, I will just figure out what to do next. Become a web developer? Be a freelance writer? Start my drawing career? Be a professional activist? Who knows. Now I know now that I can just make a decision - as long as I am willing to commit and follow through with the work. That's something that took me years to learn, but I am so ready.
posted by yueliang at 11:00 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

The advice here is good. So much of this is about perspective, rather than actual raw/comparative achievement.

For instance, I feel like I'm failing because I won a bunch of writing prizes when I was a student, and I was supposed to have written and published eleventy books by this point, but I've been too mentally ill and all my energy has gone into getting and keeping what started out as an admin job and trying to keep my brain afloat.

Most of my friends from university went to work in creative fields related to what we studied, and I was super envious of them because it was clear during undergrad that that was What Success Looked Like. In the meantime, my job has become more interesting and rewarding - so now some of them are envious of me because I have a cool job that pays better than entry-level in publishing or whatever, even though I still think I'm failing because I've been too messed up to fulfil the does-more-harm-than-good idea that I think of as My Entire Potential.

Nobody is doing better than anyone else, no one "wins" at life - as everyone has said, people's lives aren't the Facebook highlights reel, they're messy and complicated no matter how perfect and together they might look on the outside. All you need to concentrate on you - what's the best outcome for you? What's going to make you happy in the long run? What do you want?

They're hard questions to answer, particularly because society seems to value pitting people against each other and trying to out-compete in terms of quality of life over actually achieving quality of life in all sorts of different (maybe non-traditional) ways on a person by person basis. It's hard to think about what you want outside of the framework of "what they've got, because that looks better", regardless of whether that lifestyle would actually make you-the-individual-person happy.

So my goals are stuff like "try to keep learning and enjoying my actually-pretty-enjoyable job" and "work hard in therapy to be less insane", and, fuck it, I can write eleventy books later if that turns out to be a meaningful and achievable goal, and it doesn't mean I'm failing if I'm not doing it now, especially when I'm busy prioritising what's right for the person I am today rather than some messed up aspirational version of that makes me miserable to think about.
posted by terretu at 12:28 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

My childhood "best friend" was the golden girl of theater in our high school when I was growing up. We were both gonna go into theater - we were both gonna be actresses, and if you met us when we were teenagers we would both swear up and down that we weren't gonna settle for anything but that.

She was always better than me and got all the good parts, which made me miserable because everyone was always raving about how great she was and I always compared myself to her and came up wanting. Even when we both went to the same college.

But I got caught up in stage managing instead of acting, and after graduation I did that instead - and she got into an office job at the college and then kept her job after graduation and sort of kept working her way up in academia.

And years later we friended each other on facebook again. And she looks like she's doing way better - she is now the assistant Dean of theater in an arts school in Philadelphia and is married and has two kids; meanwhile I'm single, seriously broke because theater pays for shit (and so does writing), and I have to have a day job to make ends meet. And so I started comparing myself to her again and feeling bad.

But then I realized - she never went into theater. I DID. We both may have sworn to wanting to be working in theater when we were in high school, but I was the only one that did; okay, yeah, she started this sort of theater group that toured high schools for like a year, but then chucked that, and I was the only one who stuck it out for ten years and actually had some success in it while she gave it up and went a safer route.

By some yardsticks I've failed (I am broke and have a day job), but by some I've succeeded (I stuck to my guns and actually DID what we both talked about doing, and still am not inclined to sell out).

Success doesn't always mean "you have an impressive job". Sometimes success means "you actually have the guts to do the shit job that is going to trash your finances but it's your passion and dream". And that's how this office-temp-who-does-other-stuff is actually more successful than an associate-dean-of-a-college.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:54 AM on April 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

I felt this way about myself and my friends when I finished my MA at 28 and still had no idea what to do with my life, while everyone else had it figured out, had jobs and even their own companies and stuff, and I was living from my parents' good will. And then, I was single and hadn't had a good relationship in years, and so many of them were getting married.

Long story short, by coincidence I was hanging out with people of various ages - but mostly mid 20-s - who were in that transition too. Lots of conversations about what we wanted to do in life, our dreams, reality, difficulties. Lots of parties too. And a lot of solidarity in supporting each other through the difficulties of learning to walk on our own two feet.

So from experience I recommend you find and cherish your actual life peers and concentrate on enjoying yourself and making the best of this period of your life. My mom always said life is a series of steps and "you have to burn this step", which I always felt was a great metaphor. You don't just step swiftly from one period to the next with your eyes fixed on that one trophy, that moment in the future you can "finally" say "I made it!". You consume each step, you sap it out, you take everything from the moment in which you are lucky enough to be living!

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and chances are many of your friends who are doing so well, have full time jobs and/or children, envy your relative freedom right now. And you have been lazy and missed oportunities precisely at the right moment, because there will be plenty of others. Just make sure to start making those changes, sowing those seeds RIGHT NOW so that you'll be able to look back to this step in life and say "Hell yeah! Burn baby burn!"

Just focus on growing, enjoying the process and having fun with people who are on the same boat as you. It could be the most enriching, most fun you will ever have!
posted by ipsative at 5:35 AM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Take a year off. Travel to the north east of Nigeria. Spend a year living within a local community. Change your perspective. Go home. Start feeling superior because you can actually tell of your African experience to others. Be happy.
posted by Kwadeng at 6:22 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're still young enough to start everything over again if that's what you decided to do.

Make a plan to finish your degree (or switch majors and finish that degree). Follow your plan.

Meanwhile, network closely and thoroughly (take notes for future conversations, remember birthdays and anniversaries, give thoughtful gifts, etc.) with all of these fantastic, enviable (and actually envied) acquaintances. Work on your professors so they are ready to be good references when the time comes. Put together a portfolio of work you're doing. Join and be active in a couple of organizations that will allow you to do good for others, feel better about yourself, and have more impressive stuff to add to a CV. Take up a healthy sport that you can practice for the rest of your life (low impact, good for the heart, etc.) and mention as a hobby on your CV. Improve your online presence from a prospective employer's point of view. Start a business on the side, even if it makes no money, but it is incorporated, it has a web site and P.O. box number, and you are theoretically ready to take on an actual client or two, all just so you can say you ran your own business but maybe also to make some cash. Help old ladies to cross the street. Double-check with the doctors to make sure you don't need some good drugs for that depression of yours. Learn how to sing or play an instrument. Plant flowers for bumblebees.

more like I'm just kicking myself for wasting opportunities

Be bold. Say yes. Try everything and see what pans out. Fail until you succeed.
posted by pracowity at 7:08 AM on April 8, 2015

"I don't really think I am depressed anymore, and therapists I've had thus far haven't been very helpful with this specific issue. It just doesn't seem like something mental-health related, more like related to circumstances and my own flaws."

I would check this assumption. Something about this Ask and your previous one from two months ago, where you call yourself ugly, absolutely read like untreated depression. Go get screened.
posted by hush at 8:05 AM on April 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Based on your questions, it seems like you tend to ruminate on things you don't have much control over or get fixated on "mistakes" or regrets. You might benefit from some exercises of mindfulness. Regular meditation is one of them, but you should read more about it. It's all about being in the moment and not letting your brain wonder into these unproductive thoughts.
posted by monologish at 8:13 AM on April 8, 2015

Hi there, you sound a lot like me on bad days, with some details shifted around. But I TOTALLY feel you on the huge regret of missed opportunities in the past and feeling like I'll basically never catch up to some super-successful peers. Although I will not claim to have completely solved this problematic way of thinking, I will say that the following practices have helped:

1. Having some affirmations handy, both written down and just knowing them to repeat in your head/under your breath. This feels super New Age-y and hokey, but honestly I am glad I gave it a try even though I was skeptical. Things like "I am enough." "I am loved." "My focus is on the future." etc. (You can find tons of these if you Google around.) Stick 'em on your mirror, write them down, use them to redirect your thoughts when you get into a bad spiral. You know and I know and everyone knows that time spent on regret without spurring action to future changes is basically wasted. Which will then lead to more regret for wasting time on regret. Which is a circle of badness. So as much as possible, come up with some trigger affirmations/thoughts to interrupt the cylce and let yourself focus on the present/future. Even if you REALLY regret the past (and sometimes I do), that regret isn't going to help you -- which you know -- so you gotta find a way to redirect.

2. Disconnect from social media, even temporarily. You don't have to firebomb your accounts if you're not ready. But especially when you're feeling crummy about everyone else's amazing expensive vacations and beautiful spouses, it can be good to take a vacation yourself from all of that! Focus on cultivating real-life relationships where all parties can be open and vulnerable -- this will both give you the opportunity to talk about your concerns with friends, AND give you a window into their lives which are almost certainly not perfect 100% of the time.

3. Practice really good self-care. I know that when I'm getting enough sleep and moving my body in ways that feel good and not overdosing on sugar, everything sort of just feels lighter even if my circumstances have not changed. Think about what it is for YOU that makes you feel really grounded, happy, taken care of, secure, etc. and then do those things for yourself rather than waiting on life to provide them for you.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:20 AM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

But if I am inundated with this sort of thing it does get me out of sorts for a disproportionately long time and that is when I tend to get very ~give up what's the point~ and backslide really badly so I was looking for ways to cope with that.

What I was talking about in terms of no longer spending your time being intimidated by the success of others is for you to stop backsliding like that. It is hard to change your patterns of thinking, but that's what things like CBT are for-- to change your patterns of thinking so that you no longer have you thought process go to those unproductive places. This is something you need to work on if you want to get what you want. It's about overcoming those "~give up what's the point~" thoughts and directing your energy elsewhere.

If you want to be successful, you have to be willing to do some things that other people aren't willing to do. You might have to be willing to do things that your more successful friends -- due to talent, resources, background, etc. -- didn't have to do. But you have to do it.
posted by deanc at 9:02 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I tend to get very ~give up what's the point~ and backslide really badly so I was looking for ways to cope with that.

I feel you on this. You need to re-frame your thinking a little bit. Here's what I do - think of someone who is pretty reprehensible, like say Newt Gingrich. That guy has cheated on every wife he's ever had, and got kicked out of the House of Representatives on ethics violations. Yet, year after year, he's still taken seriously as a political commentator and candidate for president.

If that smarmy, two-timing, beady eyed, garden troll is allowed to have success, then why aren't I ? or you ?

90% of being awesome is being convinced of your own awesomeness.

There is no law of the universe that says you are not allowed to be awesome. So, go forth and be awesome.

You'll have plenty of time for sulking and ruminating over failures and mistakes when you're dead.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:53 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

You're 21? Shit. I'm pushing 38 and just now putting myself through college... and there are 16 year olds in my classes this quarter. If I'm measuring myself by your own metrics for success vs. failure, then I'm a WAAAAAY bigger failure than you are.

Listen. You're not a failure until you're dead at the end of a life in which you never tried even once. Half of my high school classmates have been way more successful than me in the ways that you measure your own classmates' success above your own: more degrees, more prestigious jobs, more money, more everything, or that's how it's always seemed to me. And I get envious. I get super envious when I see their Facebook posts about their exotic vacations that they take every year, and the only vacation I've ever taken is flying to New Mexico a couple of weeks ago. I get envious when they buy expensive houses and cars and live their fabulous lives right in my face like that. How dare they?

Except that all that envy was just a really great way to keep myself low. I was so envious of their perceived higher value that I let myself believe that I would never be as successful as them, therefore I'd never be as good as them. Whatever that means. Extremely long story short, even getting a prestigious job and a salary that put me into a higher tax bracket did nothing to fix that "I'm not good enough" feeling deep inside... and having to quit that prestigious job a couple of years later because the stress was literally killing me made me feel even worse. But it was in the aftermath of that "failure" that I got some wake-up calls, the biggest of which is that all those successful people around you, the ones that you think are so much happier and wiser than you? Dude, so many of them are faking it. Sure, lots of successful people are pretty happy. But lots of successful people feel about as shitty about themselves as you do about yourself, despite their successes. Sometimes even because of their successes. I have a friend who's an extremely high achiever and she's very driven to go after huge goals and do impressive things... because without those things, she feels like she's the most boring person alive and that she has nothing to offer anyone, and so if she wasn't doing all these things, no one would want her around. How sad is that?

So look at it this way. Getting all mired down in worrying about other people's level of success as compared to your own? That's just a really easy way to talk yourself out of not even trying. And what's the only real, worthwhile measure of failing? Not trying. So... put it together, figure it out. You can do it.
posted by palomar at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In my experience, I got past it by simply training myself to not focus on others and using my feelings of "inferiority" as motivation to work towards my best self. Do a 6-month thorough social media cleanse and take the time to be brutally honest with yourself -- about what you really want your life to look like in, say, 5 years. Prestigious career? Artistic fulfillment? Lots of money? Unapologetically work towards that, every day non-stop, starting now. You can ponder what it all meant/if it made you happy after 5 years. Whatever happens, you will live and learn, and have something to show for it. Best of luck.
posted by tackypink at 7:11 PM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

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