How to stop being my own worst enemy
April 16, 2006 4:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I control and/or fix my consistent, internal, self-inflicted judgment & comparison torture? I need advice on how to stop beating myself up in my work, my social and my personal life with my own head!

Basically I'm 26. I'm in a grad program doing comp.sci in a good university in the UK, I enjoy the area of computer science, and I'm bright and intelligent (according to most ppl).

I have had a normal upbringing and childhood. Perhaps a bit strict but nothing out of the ordinary. My problem is that I consistenly keep on torturing myself from waking to sleep. I keep on doing the following:

1. Comparing myself and my abilities with others around me (I'm always worse off in these).
2. Berating myself for not being as good as or as competant/accomplished as I want to be.
3. Feeling inadequate and generally like a big waste of space and time and energy in the world.
4. Feeling like I'm going nowhere.
5. Engaging in self-destructive behaviour (eg binging on food, getting angry or ODing on television)
6. Generally feeling like giving up and running away where nobody can find me.
7. Feeling like my life will be a failure -- financially, emotionally and spiritually
8. Always looking at the worst case scenario
9. Feeling I'm a fraud and a failure
10. Feeling others will recognize this about me and look down on me.

I spend so much of my time keeping tabs on and being aware of others that I hurt myself. I DON'T want to be like this. I want to be able to get up, do my bit and go to sleep without this internal turmoil that is self-inflicted.

I REALISE that different people have different strengths and weaknesses yet I still continue to do this. When it all becomes too much I escape into a world of television or morbidity. I can spend whole days asleep. I constantly judge and hammer myself from how witty I am, to the quality of code I write to how I dress.

I WANT TO BE FREE OF THIS. I need it now and I need it to be successful in life. I am CONVINCED that I am my own worst enemy, I hurt my performance the most and by constantly doing this I get no joy at all, and hurt the work I do. I realise that if the worst-case scenario is true -- and all of this is indeed true (all the points listed above) I can still make my life a lot more liveable by just accepting it and being happy.

The funny thing about this is that I really honestly feel if I could kick this internal turmoil not only would I be much happier and enjoy life more, but I would also be better than most at what I do, because it would stop being a self-critical task to one of pure love and enjoyment.

I go through phases of ups and downs, but even the ups are low. So please MeFI, help me or give me advice on how I can become more +ve and happy with myself without the constant baseball bat over my head. Any pointers appreciated
posted by gadha to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I suggest you read the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Either it will resonate with you or it won't. If it does it could be transformational. It was for me.
posted by dclawyer at 4:19 PM on April 16, 2006

I think there's two parts -- stopping the criticism, and replacing it with something better. So, first, when you find yourself doing it, stop.

It's a matter of habit, so you'll only change it by practice. Even while you still have the bad habit, you practice by imagining you have the new habit. Imagine you uncritically love yourself, see how it feels -- that's practice. Fake it till you make it. Baby steps. Do little nice things for yourself (make your bed? get yourself flowers?) It might be easier than you think.

(Also, look back for the "I feel like I'm evil" thread -- good advice there.)
posted by salvia at 4:25 PM on April 16, 2006

Do you enjoy doing your course at your good university? Does it satisfy you?

My advice would be to get a hobby that you can excel at. Try a few things and find something you can work on, you enjoy, and that you are good at - outwith your education.
posted by fire&wings at 4:49 PM on April 16, 2006

Some good suggestions here.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:01 PM on April 16, 2006

A couple of thoughts. . .first, from the intensity of the posts, it is possible that you are suffering from moderate to severe depression. It is normal to have doubts, to second-guess ourselves, etc. It is not normal to be so obsessive about it that we beat ourselves silly. Consider seeing a doctor and describing the problem. Don't be afraid if he suggests some antidepressant medication. The choice to take it is up to you, of course. I was prescribed antidepressants at the end of December, and I must say that the past few months have been a nice warming of myself into something much more relaxed and less dark and self-critical.

Cognitive therapy is the other side of the coin. Think about this - your goal in life is to be happy. What behaviors and thoughts will lead you to be more happy? Is it really writing more efficient code? Or being somewhat more witty? You can spend more time optimizing those areas of your life, but you probably write better code than 95% of the US population and are wittier than most. Are there areas of your life that you could invest in that are not related to intelligence/success that would make you happy? I'm not saying you should be a complete slacker, but it could help to dial it back a few notches.

I'm a fairly driven person and try to make good use of time. A friend of mine spends about 9 hours a day watching television and playing World of Warcraft. Looking at our lives from the outside, one might conclude that he should grow a whole lot more ambition and become more like me. However, I've learned and grown a lot from watching HIM. He is happy and relaxed while I am often anxious and overwhelmed, even though outwardly successful. Shoot for HAPPINESS first, and then see where doing what makes you happy lands you on life's ladder of "success". Do you really want to be better than all the people around you, even if it makes your life miserable?

Here's a funny suggestion - listen to gangsta rap music. Find the most ridiculously self-promoting, over the top, full of themselves artists who sing that they are the kings of their world. Rap along with their songs. Put all your heart into it. Fake the arrogant persona when you listen. After a while, the images of self-confidence might seep into your subconscious and rub off on you a little.
posted by sherlockt at 5:21 PM on April 16, 2006

I know someone like you - your name's not Richard is it? :-) I like him. You, me and Rich are geeks, which means that we by nature don't quite play by the same rules as everyone else. Stop trying to conform, do what you feel, and BAM, you're a cool geek.

To put it another way, I also reckon that being your own worst enemy and being your own best friend are quite similar. So your worst enemy is comparing you with other people, beat it at its own game, and compare you with yourself. Just be you, and try to do things better than you already do. This is usually possible.

Also, by nature of your position, you are probably already in the top 10% most brilliant computer scientists in the world, and are amongst many other equally brilliant people. It's very hard to be better than you are, or better than all of them (except in your field of expertise). Effort spent trying to improve your CS might be more productively directed elsewhere. Improve your politics knowledge, or something where you have a long way to go before you're in the top tier.

Re. fire&wings' comment. I found that becoming active in my student union was helpful. Or basically, volunteer for anything. Teach disadvantaged kids web design. Fix Greenpeace's computers. Doing good deeds for the day makes it hard to hate yourself.
posted by cogat at 5:23 PM on April 16, 2006

Does your university have a student counseling office, and if so have you been there? A decent counselor can help you develop strategies to counteract your negative behavior. Furthermore, I am concerned that your comment about "even the ups are low" might indicate a depression problem. If so, it should be diagnosed and dealt with.
posted by ilsa at 5:25 PM on April 16, 2006

It sounds to me like you understand yourself very well, and that the problem is you don't catch yourself getting lost in negative thoughts early enough - if you're not too deep in, they probably disappear as soon as you realize that "Oh, I'm doing that thing again", right?

What you need is a mental background task that every five minutes puts the thought in your head "Gadha, are you engaging in negative thinking right now?" so that you can catch it early. A more general question, "What am I doing right now?" would work just as well. As soon as you name it - "I'm watching TV", "I'm telling myself I'll never be a success", "I'm feeling angry" - you gain a great deal of extra power over the situation. Don't make a judgement on the answer you get, but use it as the basis for further questions. "OK, why am I watching TV?" This kind of non-judgemental enquiry brings you back into the present moment and causes negative emotions to almost magically evaporate.

If these ideas are appealing to you at all, I suggest you read "The Miracle of Mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Hanh.
posted by teleskiving at 5:45 PM on April 16, 2006

Being a student is weird. We tend to have tons of free time - but many of us are constantly oppressed by the work we *should* be doing. For me, not having a realistic work plan led to excessive procrastination and ensuing depression and a mental state similar to yours. What I really needed were time management skills and a way to realistically look at my skills, abilities, and time and figure out how to approach a project.

What helped me:
going for counselling, both personal and relating to learning skills
eating regularly, exercising regularly
having regularly scheduled recreational time - ie, between 5-7, watch movie, rather than compuslively doing enjoyable things to put off work
engaging in extra curriculars that met regularly and had deadlines to be followed, so I woulnd't neglect them
Taking time every day to think about what I've done and how i've improved myself.

Basically - FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE. it takes small steps, but you can recognize to appreciate yourself. It really helped me to get counselling to work on this part.
posted by lemur at 6:17 PM on April 16, 2006 [2 favorites]

also - both negative thought loops and fantasy sequences (what if I had done *that* instead of what I did in real life... my life would be so much better) can be squelched if you see them coming and distract yourself... "hey look at that squirrel, self! so much nicer than obsessing about how I could have gotten 2 more points on that quiz"
posted by lemur at 6:19 PM on April 16, 2006

Oh man, this all sounds so familiar. Been there. Am there. Every single one of your points. Exactly. It may help slightly to know that this is a basket of thought patterns that is not at all unique. Lots of people go through this exact same thing. And therefore this not some hopeless unique curse you've been saddled with, which no one will understand enough to help you with, but rather it's a well-trodden path with plenty of people to learn from, and plenty of examples of people coming out of the end of the tunnel. And you articulate it very well, so you're ahead of the game in some respects.

I agree about the probability of depression. Whether you have that or not, these are classic symptoms that often accompany it. In fact, speaking of cognitive therapy as someone upthread did, this sounds exactly like the list of things that Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy helps people overcome. This is perhaps the premier book for cognitive used by therapists and self-helpers alike.

Basically it confronts the irrational thoughts with logic and proof, and gives you ways to recognize what is happening when you're having those thoughts, and tools to counteract them. It helps you logically confirm the parts of you that are worthy and good, and redefine and redirect some of the fierce criticism of yourself. It's techniques are like a muscle that you have to develop over time, but it ends up making a surprising difference, even if you feel up front like it's going to be a big waste of time or a self-con. I've read about a number of studies that demonstrate cognitive/behaviora to be statistically as effective as antidepressants. It's definitely worth a look, whether on your own or with someone. Odds are if you go see someone, they'll start having you do some of the kinds of things that are in this book anyway. (keep a log of your "self talk," parse it, analyze it, etc.)

The other one I've seen recommended a lot, which is along the same lines, is Mind Over Mood.

Lastly this part may not apply to you, because it sounds like you're enjoying what you're doing, but I'm wondering if in addition to whatever kind of mood problems and irrational thinking you may be encountering, you might also be having a bit of ye olde life angst. If so, there's a book and a website called Quarterlife Crisis, which is very helpful for people in their 20s who are having the "is this it?" problem and the "what's wrong with me, I thought I was talented?" problem and feeling worthless about where they are going in life. Like I say, that might not be you, but if you are feeling that way, the forums on that site can be very helpful. Just hearing all the people going through the exact same kind of thing can be very comforting and strengthening. You can tell your own story like you've done here and people can respond with advice and comfort and stories from the warzone.

Good luck, buddy! Hang in there. You've got a ways to go, but the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. With that cliche and one other under your arm ("one foot in front of the other") you'll eventually get where you're going.
posted by kookoobirdz at 6:45 PM on April 16, 2006

I second Thich Nhat Hanh and meditation in general. Jack Kornfield is great too. You can work towards a point where you can kind of step back and say, "here I am judging and criticizing myself," and be back in the present moment. The goal is to be able to be aware of what is going on in your body and mind, and cultivate a feeling of benevolence and compassion for yourself (and eventually, others!) Meditation can go through phases of boring, irritating, intensely emotional, but keep it up.
posted by overanxious ducksqueezer at 7:42 PM on April 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Similar difficulties myself, with a little OCD on top . . .

One thing that helps me is so simple that it seems almost like nothing.

Whenever you notice that you're beating yourself up, make a mental note of it. Just say to yourself, "I'm beating myself up right now."

The more you do this, the more aware of the behavior you'll become -- and the better chance you'll have consciously shifting your thoughts in another direction.
posted by treepour at 8:26 PM on April 16, 2006

here's a more geeky suggestion (to go along with all the self-improvement books, which we all need): get a PDA and download ebooks off NNTP. When you wake in the middle of the night tearing yourself to pieces, take up the PDA and read. Really, it distracts the monkeymind that picks you to pieces.

There are loads and loads of free books out there (project gutenberg) has 18,000 and Plucker converts them for Palm), and it's a simple way to escape from persecuting yourself.
posted by anadem at 8:41 PM on April 16, 2006

Try antidepressants.
posted by delmoi at 8:57 PM on April 16, 2006

I'm a grad student and a former all-Canadian distance runner - your basic Type A, in other words. I've been getting slower with the running over the years (I'm turning 31 next month) and, like lemur posted above, I'm constantly beating myself up for either not training hard enough or for not doing work that I think I should be doing - that, currently, being the thesis.

This may sound weird, but I catch myself comparing my actions to this semi-manufactured image of this superacheiving, superfast person who's really an amalgamation of friends, acquaintances, personalities I've never met, and nothing but a total fabrication of ideals I uphold.

In other words, I'm comparing my own actions to someone who doesn't exist. You have to realize that, even if you do have something or someone concrete to compare yourself to, you're

a. looking at someone at their (outward) best, and not necessarily a complete view of them, and

b. comparing yourself to someone who is likely as miserable than yourself, and who probably looks back at you in the same way you look at them.

The key to happiness is really just to plan and take steps to realize incremental, realistic goals for yourself. I agree that you may be depressed, and might want to see someone about that, but, for me, realizing that beating myself up over something that doesn't even exist is much more liberating.

I also agree with treepour. When you find that you're giving yourself a hard time, say out loud 'I'm beating myself up, I need to stop' is very, very cathartic. recognizing that this is counterproductive, damaging behavior is enlightening.

Living by a set schedule and having time when you are supposed to be doing work and, most importantly, time for yourself, is very important. Scheduling time where you don't need to do anything is very liberating.

Good luck.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:20 PM on April 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Another vote for antidepressants. Based on experience.
posted by bingo at 10:22 PM on April 16, 2006

You're depressed.

Antidepressants and therapy together have an 80% cure rate.

Go to it and have fun.
posted by tkolar at 10:40 AM on April 17, 2006

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