Who am I?
March 11, 2016 3:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm 28 and my life is a mess and I don't know where to start fixing it. A big part of the problem is that I don't feel like I have any sense of who I am. How can I find out?

I'm stuck in a job that I hate because I don't know what kind of work I want to do. And I'm in a shitty relationship because I'm scared no one else will want me, my partner is my only friend and I don't want to lose the only human contact I have (plus sex is very important to me, but difficult to find, especially since I'm a big sack of mopiness as evidenced below). Even then they live 3 hours away and I only see them every couple of weeks. I have no friends. I was never especially sociable, but I seem to have lost the few friends I had over the last few years. None of this is helped by the fact that I moved for this poorly paid, unrewarding job from my home country of England to a country where I don't speak the language (this is an excuse though really, as I work at a large American multinational and there is a huge international community in this city - around 50% of the population are immigrants; but there is definitely a sense of alienation tied into being here for me).

I know where these problems come from: I don't know who I am. I find it impossible to make friends because I have nothing to contribute (and in a self-perpetuating cycle, I am relentlessly negative, which is obviously not very attractive), nothing to talk about and no way to click with people. I have no hobbies or interests at all. When I get home from work I am mostly tired. And I waste hours just collapsed on the sofa drinking and watching Netflix. I go through phases where I cut out the drinking (and I have already cut out the weed for a long time now) but even then I remain sofa-bound. The closest thing I have to an interest is reading, but most of the time I feel too tired to do it. Oh, and listening to podcasts. Neither of those are exactly social though. I also go to 2 different beginners' dance classes in the week, but I never really talk to anyone there (or we talk but never really click, and I don't see anyone outside of class).

What can I do to discover who I am and what I should do with my life? I'll preempt the most obvious answer by saying, yes, I have suffered from depression in the past (all my life, I guess) and sought treatment, both meds and mind-shrinkers. This is a part of what's going on here, but it's not the whole story. I actually feel more capable than I ever did to get shit done, it's just that I don't know what to do and where to start. Or to put it another way, I'm depressed but it's situational, and I want to know how to fix the situation.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to share with you some well-worn advice that has been passed down in my family:

It doesn't really matter so much what you do. Just pick something that seems alright and run with it! Action precedes motivation.
posted by aniola at 3:29 PM on March 11, 2016 [23 favorites]

Hey there. I went through a similar feeling around your age too. I think it's really common and what a lot of people refer to as a quarter-life crisis. You have this sense that by this age you should have figured out who you are, what you're good at, what you like to do, etc and it's stressful when you haven't! But the truth is, it's totally normal and okay -- your life changes so much in your 20s that it's kind of important to let yourself realize that you don't know who you are anymore, so that you can go find yourself out.

And you've hit the nail on the head- letting this weigh you down makes it damn hard to socialize because you just won't understand how anybody else could give a shit about you if you don't even feel like you know who you are. It's like you're nothingness.

Something that really helped me a lot with getting out of this funk was to just go out and try new things. I bought a camera and took lots of photos on walks around my city (which also helped me get some exercise and meet some people). I bought some hiking boots and went on some hikes in the forest. I went skiing, snowboarding, and snorkeling for the first time in my life just to try it. I tried training for a 5k (and failed, but hey, at least I tried). I took cooking classes. I traveled.

Note: I didn't do any of these things in some forced effort to exercise or socialize. I just wanted to expose myself to different stuff. I told myself I have to try something once before I decide it's not for me, and if I hated it then I didn't have to do it again. I did it all just to expose myself to new stuff.

The outcome is that I became more comfortable with unfamiliar situations and environments, and I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I'm actually really good at skiing despite not growing up doing it, I learned that snorkeling is beautiful but I'm still afraid of water, I learned that I'm actually really strong and like physical labor. Seriously, I never would have known that I like lifting heavy things. I learned that I can go to a foreign country and not speak the language and still somehow survive. Suddenly, I knew a lot about who I was!

All of this was also a major confidence booster, even though I didn't necessarily become GOOD at anything in particular. Just doing things and pushing myself to try new stuff was enough. Having confidence meant that socializing, friendships, and relationships became a lot more approachable. It also meant I became comfortable with the notion that it's okay to not fully know who I am, and that I'll survive anyway. Most importantly, I learned that there is more to life than having it all figured out.
posted by joan_holloway at 3:34 PM on March 11, 2016 [9 favorites]

Hi Younger Me! I was a dull depressed young person but I sought out other people who were interesting and hung out with them. I didn't have to talk about much, just listen. Other people who have an interest in something, love to talk about their thing. Ask questions and let them tell you about what they love to do.

You may or may not catch on to the same interest but you can be exposed to new things I picked up photography from a boyfriend, tried caving and rock climbing with a friend, went hiking and camping with enthusiasts. Played games with friends. I found that that I too love photograghy and nature but that I'd rather look at caves on the internet.Gaming was not fun. But I never would have tried any of these things unless someone else let me ride their coattails.

Eventually I did develop my own interests after trying other people's dreams. Even the things I didn't take up like caving and rope-climbing are experiences I can talk about.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 3:42 PM on March 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Hey! Are you me? Whenever I start feeling like this I make a schedule for myself and stick to it. A huge thing that I make a priority in my schedule is yoga, but for you it can be different. Just find a hobby that makes you feel good and that you are passionate about getting better at and I promise it will make your life feel so much more engaging. When I do my hobby I feel re-engaged and motivated. If you're in Utah come with me! If not, look for Meet-Ups in your area and put yourself out there. I also really like this book of 52 Lists. Stuff like this is super good for me and reminds me of the good things in my life when I get down on myself.
posted by Marinara at 3:47 PM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I still feel like this some times. I now recognize it as depression. I know that it diminishes when my life is full of friendship and things I love, the thoughts of "What is my life for? Why am I even here? Oh it's all so pointless.." recede into the background. Right now I'm answering the question "What is my life for?" with "To love and to help."

When I was your age, I stumbled across places and groups that provided me with meaningful activity and connections - jobs, churches, coffee shops, volunteer gigs, classes, even online dating. I tried a lot of things that didn't work, too, and looking back that's okay.

The dance classes sound neat. I think if you stick with it and progress to levels beyond beginner, you'll start to develop more connections. You might consider also volunteering, Toastmasters, joining a chorus, improv, or a softball team if that's your kind of thing.

Be patient with yourself and keep trying. You're going to be okay.
posted by bunderful at 3:51 PM on March 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I agree with aniola, and I will add, "deciding who I was" or whatever never really worked for me. Maybe a lack of imagination, maybe a practical streak, or maybe it's the same for most people, I don't know. But I did like 1,000x better when I just went out in the world, discovered a need, and filled it. This applies to work but also to friends to a lesser extent. There are a whole bunch of jobs I didn't even know existed and couldn't have "imagined my way into" no matter how hard I tried. I really enjoy just finding out what other people have a need for, employment-wise or friendship-wise, and stepping up. That way you're less about fitting the world to your pre-conceived notion of yourself and more about becoming and growing. Eventually you will be a collection of experiences. Which can be way better than "having a calling" anyway!

It's a numbers game. Just keep showing up and throwing yourself at the world with interest. Say yes to everything. This is how I ended up playing D&D, learning how to knit, learning how to dance, learning random crafts, etc. None of those things did I seek out and some I thought I wouldn't like.
posted by quincunx at 4:02 PM on March 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

Also, I really like wildflower's answer here: http://ask.metafilter.com/246452/What-use-am-I-if-I-am-always-to-be-average-or-mediocre#3579495

Sorry for crappy link, I'm on my phone. But I think you may find this useful because it sounds like you're having feelings of negative self-worth right now.

"A person's worth is not about their usefulness, or utility. it is about their being. it is ontological. you are valuable for being human not for what you do. we are all valuable and no one is any better than anyone else. keep reading that last sentence until you believe it. of course that isn't what our culture teaches us. some people are more accomplished but that absolutely does not make them more valuable or worthy, just more accomplished. it is not possible to earn what is freely given to us but we do need to realize our inherent worth at times. also, relationships are far more important in the long run that any work or hobby one can accomplish. when on one's death bed people don't tend to regret spending more time at their jobs earning their six figures but more time with their loved ones."
posted by quincunx at 4:18 PM on March 11, 2016 [12 favorites]

Marelisa Fabrega has two ebooks, Guidebook of Dreams and Guidebook of Possibilities, that have exercises and thought-provoking questions to help you think about you value and what you would like your life to be like. You won't have all the answers, of course, but I find having prompts like these helpful. Otherwise I don't really know what questions to ask myself.

Also, our culture denigrates Netflix binge-watching as some kind of brainless exercise, but I disagree. What appeals to you about the shows and movies you watch? How do they speak to budding interests you might have? My current intellectual passions were launched by watching The Tudors on Netflix.
posted by delight at 5:29 PM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hey younger me! It sounds like you have a few needs that aren't met that would help you answer this question.

I'm seeing that your only touch-friendly friend is 3 hours away. No good! Double bad that this is your sexual connection. Maybe try OkCupid? Craigslist? Make it clear you don't need romance, just someone to cuddle on the couch with and watch a movie once a week. Expect it to feel like romantic/sexual intimacy at first, but if you can take a deep breath and ask yourself "are those feelings are for that actual person or your idea of what that person could do for your life," it'll be way easier to build those kinds of friendships. They're awesome. I promise, life is way better - even the shittiest life - if you have a friend who will curl up next to you and talk about the powerful, humanizing things.

I'm seeing that you feel like your job is a gigantic weight on your life. This is trickier, but still possible to navigate with care. Think about the emotional pieces you're bringing home with you after work. A lack of fulfillment was for me, not being able to see the results of 8 hours of work at the end of the day. Maybe that helps? The more important piece is to look at the emotional components that aren't the thing you just stated. Our emotions are rarely cut and dry, especially about the really deeply troubling things in our life.

Feeling alienated from your environment is powerful and keeps you from discovering yourself. When we have that feeling of alienation, the pieces of us that are focused on personal growth and understanding are limited - we don't want to follow our dream of being a musician when we live in a place where we aren't welcome, because doing something like that requires us to be in that place.

Above all, go find a good therapist to talk to. It's really common advice on metafilter, but these emotions are really powerful for you - you talk about feeling completely lost with your entire life because you don't know what you want or need. A good therapist will have the questions that will help you find the answers you're looking for.

Keep your chin up. MeMail me if you want someone to chat with.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 5:35 PM on March 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

1. Join a faith group. You can get some inner peace and meet folks.
2. See a doc and get back to dealing with your depression. It's one of those things where you've got to check in periodically to tweak your doses.
3. Join a gym, work out, get your endorphins firing, and meet people.
4. Figure out where happy hour is. Go, don't drink, but stick around and meet people.
5. Ask one person to lunch per week at work. Interview them to see what brings them to your location, what do they think of it, get interested in their lives for 45 minutes.
6. Mindfully change your outlook. Being dour and a downer is not recommending you to others. Actively do things that are positive. At first you'll have to think about it, after a while it will be second nature. (I did this, I promise it works.) So say hi to your security person when you get to work, compliment someone on their outfit. Ask questions about someone's pets or kids. Fake it till you make it.
7. Make an effort with your appearance. Nice clothes, decent hair, make up if you like.

What was in the past doesn't have to be your present or your future. You will feel like the biggest fraud in the world at first, but it will feel better and better and more authentic as time goes on. You'll have folks to pal around with. You'll have places to go.

So to distill it, be interested in others, be nice to others.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:18 PM on March 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I 100% do not believe in astrology, but boy does the concept of the Saturn Return sum up the fucking shitbog of one's late 20s. Identity falls apart/comes back together, you FINALLY finish puberty and go through your next decade's metabolic shift (your best one, though - you've got the best 10 years of your physical health ahead of you...though, as a millennial, you may very well have your cyborg renaissance at 68 to look forward to).

Here's the good news: it gets better from here, it really really does. You stop being driven entirely by hormones and drama, as do your friends and peers, everyone starts finding interesting shit to do - YOU find interesting shit to do. You start to care about things that connect with your soul.

My advice: read yourself a book on Impostor Syndrome, put some Brene Brown under your belt, and then go out and find some interesting stuff to do. It doesn't have to be forever - take a cooking class for 7 weeks and then get super into board games and then volunteer doing something that breaks your heart and then volunteer for something super cool. Experiment with sports you can do to stay fit for a while - run or row or tae kwon do or salsa dancing.

If you want to be interested and interesting, just do more stuff. Some of it will stick, some of it will introduce you to fantastic friends, and it will make you a person who engages in the world. Keep your eyes and ears open, as you do this, for interesting things you can do as a career for 5-7 years (the market will shift by the time you get out of that phase, so just get some skills in something and figure out what to do with them later). Opportunities will present, and the more you put yourself out there the more opportunities will jump in your way.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:32 PM on March 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

I don't like the word "should". It implies some kind of Final Arbiter that doles out the rules for everyone instead of letting people make their own choices.

That said, what you should be doing are the things you want to do. What do you want to do? If that's too hard to figure out, what do you want to avoid? For example, lets say you want to avoid loneliness. The antidote to that is to be around people. More specifically, you want to avoid having no close friends. Go out there, meet some people and make some friends. More specifically still, you want a friend you can call on a Tuesday night for pizza and drinks. Ask one of those people you're now friends with if they'd like to come over on Tuesday.

Or, since nothing appeals, it doesn't matter what you do. Just do something. Take a new class, the fourth on the list at the local college. Even if it doesn't interest you at first, go anyway and see what it's about. If you find it doesn't appeal to you after trying it, at least you have some results from your experiment. Try something else instead. Again, it doesn't matter what. Either you'll dislike it, in which case you don't have to do it again, or you will, in which case keep doing it.

Sitting about at home isn't working to make you happy, and what's worse is that it's limiting your potential options. Those college classes aren't going to knock on your door. You have to go out there and find them. You might get lucky and land on something that really interests you with the first class you take, or you might have to try and try and keep trying until you find something (just like dating). But if you don't put the effort in, you're not going to get anywhere.

I went through a similar thing, and had to try a lot of things before I landed on something. To this day, I still have to sometimes fight off the nihilistic attitude that life is ultimately meaningless and that eventually, the universe will experience heat death, contract and the cycle will repeat. But in the meantime, I enjoy walking, reading scifi and fantasy books, feeding wild birds, meeting people's dogs, cooking epic bacon, egg, mushroom and black pudding sandwiches and hot baths. And a multitude of other things besides. Action precedes motivation, which is kind of silly on the face of it. There has to be some kind of motivation for an action to happen, that's just physics. Right now, though, you don't have to climb Everest. All you have to do is look up a Wikipedia article about. That's it, that small amount of effort. There are a lot of steps between looking up that article and reaching the summit, and you'll perhaps find along the way that you just don't enjoy climbing mountains. So stop climbing the mountain, and take up marquetry instead. Substitute your own activities as you see fit. As you start doing more and more towards getting to the summit, you'll find you have more and more motivation and energy towards achieving that goal. Every step gets you closer, but you can't jump the whole distance in one go.

Another thing that helped me is the idea that "I" don't exist, not as a solid unchanging unit, anyway. There's me right now, and there's was me, and if I'm lucky, there will also be a future me. Those are three different people, even though I haven't consciously tried to reinvent myself. Me right now is just a collection of the things I do, which will influence future me in some way - if I eat forty seven cream cakes, future me is going to be overweight. Future me will appreciate the things I did today, like tidying up, when that person actually arrives into reality. Future me gets to reap the benefits of me right now, even though only one of us exists at any one time.

Ultimately, you are responsible for future you. What are you going to do, right now, and how will that affect future you? Moping and whining are fantastic ways to avoid doing something - you don't have the energy and it won't work anyway. They're both fantastic ways to rationalise the situation, or as I once heard it put, rational lies. Get off the sofa, go do a thing, and then keep doing it for as long as it works. That's pretty much human existence for you. Naff, eh? Only if you make it naff. You have the ability to completely change your life if you're willing to step outside of your comfort zone. It's all on you to do it, or not, as you see fit.
posted by Solomon at 4:51 AM on March 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

to discover who I am and what I should do with my life?

To Discover Who You Are

To discover who you are, I would recommend a couple of things. First, make lists of things you know you like and dislike (knowing what you dislike is sometimes as instructive as knowing what you like). Be really careful to write down only what you know you like, not what everyone around you likes or what seems wildly popular; it's easy to say casually (for example), "Oh, of course I love the Simpsons" because everyone else does and then when you think about it, you realise well, actually, no, the show gets on your nerves and you just watch it because you have nothing else going on.

So make those lists in all the areas you can think of: food, music, TV/movies if you watch them, books, hobbies, pop culture interests, sports (participating and watching), politics, spirituality, etc.

Next, it can be useful to figure out whether you're an introvert or an extrovert. Knowing the answer to that can really change how you live your life. There are other tests, but that is just one that sprang up when I googled it.

After that I would recommend working through the exercises in The Artist's Way. This book alone is life-changing if you really follow through with it. It's a 12 week course and not only will it help you figure out who you are, it can help you work your way through your daily ongoing issues. Or at least it did for me and many others I know.

There are many other books that you could read to learn about yourself, but that would give you a good beginning without being overwhelming.

What You Should Do With Your Life

As to what you should do with your life, I have two suggestions. First, read grumblebee's excellent comment on finding your passion.

Secondly, I strongly recommend a book called Callings: Finding And Following An Authentic Life by Gregg Levoy. That really helped me.

I hope these suggestions are of some help.

Good luck! You can do this.
posted by purplesludge at 5:40 AM on March 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Make a commitment to building a life and self that you can be proud of. Start small. Spend two weeks hyper-focused on evaluating/improving/re-inventing one aspect of your life--whether it's indulging in a literature binge (read all the books you've been too tired to crack open), or exploring spirituality, or making friends (by forgetting the fear of awkwardness/rejection and initiating conversations). It's up to you, just focus on one at a time, because the "big picture" at this point will overwhelm you. Stick to a concrete timeline. If you get sidetracked, don't be too hard on yourself; instead, give yourself the opportunity to re-focus and begin again. Life is a gift, and didn't Kurt Vonnegut once say "We are put on this earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different."?

The world is yours. Good luck!!
posted by tackypink at 10:30 AM on March 12, 2016

You are asking a huge existential question that I believe we all ponder over in our lives. I am not sure I can improve on anything said here. But my two cents: You don't discover yourself. You create yourself. Yes, try things. If you like them great if not discard them. And move on. Don't worry about what anyone else thinks of your life. It is yours and no one else's. That was a big one for me.
I will nthing quincunx: You have value by being here, by being born.
What I think is true for most of us, me included, is that there is no shining beacon that suddenly pierces the unknowing and says "this is it, this is who you are and what you are to do"
We have to plod along and just keeping moving. Working to create meaning and happiness in ourselves and our lives.
Everything else, while it has a place like money to pay the bills and challenges to keep growing, is ultimately bs.
What happens for most of us is we keep moving, trying, taking chances, learning what works and what doesn't. And then at some point you turn around and say to yourself "all of those things were very meaningful in some way" You just don't get to know that ahead of time.
So get moving.

In peace.
posted by jtexman1 at 12:53 PM on March 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Quite a few people make a big deal out of this question, "who am I?", and some even make it into a kind of quasi-religion, which may or may not be your cup of tea. I've never been convinced that anyone actually finds any meaningful answer to the question... mostly, it seems to be kind of ultimately misguided, and perhaps the "answer" lies in forgetting about the question entirely... because, um, whatever you are, you can't really help being that, so the whole thing is already basically settled.

Imagine one of these signs at the airport or whatever, with the red dot that says "YOU ARE HERE." Life is the airport and you woke up this morning and found yourself in this situation. There's this song by Sharon van Etten that starts "I woke up, I was already me..." Obviously there is a problem in this situation, but as you say, the situation and the problem are kind of tied up together, and this whole question of "who am I?" is possibly a kind of metaphysical red herring.

I lived in a foreign city and didn't know anyone outside work. Sometimes I was very depressed. The city was Amsterdam, and indeed it has many expats and anyway everyone speaks perfect English, so I had no real excuse, but it's not easy to make friends if you're introverted or awkward or just haven't learned how, so, I was lonely. But I wasn't interested in being depressed anymore, and so I invented some strategies for making my life into something worth living.

For example, I decided to go to some museums. There was a "Museumkaart" that granted access to all the city's museums for a year, and I decided to get one, and then start going through as many as I could, one per week.

I think museums can also expose this question "who am I?" in interesting ways. Like, you see all these historical artifacts, and somehow you came out of all this, and how am I related to the history of European nationalism, and where did my family come from, and what am I supposed to feel about all this, and why don't I know more about art, etc. You stand there in front of a big canvas and feel confused.

One of the museums in Amsterdam is of course the Van Gogh Museum. Since I didn't know anything about Van Gogh, I decided to check out his book of letters to his brother Theo. So I spent a weekend at home doing nothing except reading this book and drinking coffee and smoking something or another. It was spring. Van Gogh had some confusions of his own. There were some nice quotes in the book.
"Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you like some imbecile. [...] The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerises some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. […] Life itself, too, is forever turning an infinitely vacant, disheartening, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears, any more than it does on a blank canvas. But no matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily."
So yeah, existential confusion and depressive misery and self-consciousness and all this blah blah is kind of fascinating, kind of terrible, kind of an impossible Moebius strip labyrinth that you can't think your way out of, and I think you should use a lazy day to sit and look inside your life for some kind of secret little door that's maybe slightly ajar, and then let whatever you are deep down knock on this door and ask a different question, a question whose subject takes its own existence as axiomatically self-sufficient, yearning not for self-definition but for a way to just look out through its own eyeballs and see the world as curiously interesting and entirely possible to start exploring.
posted by mbrock at 8:11 AM on March 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

Starting over in a new city can be tough, and making new friends can be even tougher. I definitely feel you there! I'm afraid I'm going to have to second a lot of the advice I'm seeing above: look for things to do in your city and then go to them. If you don't like it, stop doing that and find something else to do.

Sociologists say the best time/place to meet people is in college because of that trifecta that is deemed essential for forming lasting bonds: proximity, repeated and unplanned interactions, and an environment that encourages letting your guard down and sharing. That is a lot harder to get as an adult, but you can still try to approximate some of these conditions and see how it goes.

Try to look for things in your city that happen on a recurring schedule, like a game night or a themed MeetUp or a hiking group. The more niche it is, the better--folks with very specific interests tend to be interesting people! Like P.G. Wodehouse? Think it'd be cool to learn how to use a weaving loom? Always wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons? Try and find a group and test it out!

If you go to the same type of events repeatedly, you're likely to see some more of the same folks there. I know you say you're already going to dance classes, but that's a tough sell as far as interactivity goes, and you already know you're not clicking with those folks. (Data point of one: I've never made a friend at an exercise or dance class.) Something with more of an essential interactive component might make it easier to reach out to folks.

I know this answer only just scratches the surface of everything you've touched on above, but it is amazing what a difference having a social circle and confidants to bounce ideas and fears off of can make. If you're interested in a more formal sounding board, therapy or counseling can also work wonders for clearing out some of the clutter from your head and making things make sense.

MeMail me if you want to chat more--I was a Navy kid, so I've gotten pretty good at moving and starting over! :)

You can do it! Good luck!
posted by helloimjennsco at 10:18 AM on March 15, 2016

I have nothing to add, except that I'm in the exact situation as you are right now. If you'd like to talk/commiserate, feel free to memail me.
posted by ThatSox at 8:56 AM on March 16, 2016

« Older Toys for a five-year-old boy : road trip edition   |   How do I get over this friend breakup? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.