I sometimes think I'm more other people than I am myself
July 31, 2006 3:49 PM   Subscribe

I often seem to confuse what other people want or think for what I want or think. I'm fearful this has led to me making a number of decisions I'll ultimately be unhappy with, and may make more in the future. I'm also afraid I'll hurt others as well.

This is kind of difficult to explain. I think I like my job, I think I love my fiance, I think I like where I live... but I'm not sure. I constantly feel detached from everything I do, almost as if I'm living someone else's life. I'm not sure I actually want any of it, or what it feels like to "really want" something.

It's impossible to write about this without contradicting myself. I rarely feel like I'm doing a good job at my place of work, but everyone tells me I'm doing a good job (and I've been promoted a number of times), so I believe them. I have a wonderful fiance, who I can tell really loves me, and who I think I love, but I'm not completely sure what that means.

I don't know how else to explain this. I just feel really detached from everything. The idea of being who one wants to be doesn't really make any sense to me, and I'm not sure why.

I'm assuming this isn't normal. Has anyone else experienced something like this? Is there a formal name or condition for what I've written about? What can be done about it?

(I created a temp email address at askmefi123@yahoo.com if anyone has any questions. I realize this question is probably incoherent.)

Thanks in advance for any comments...
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
I was just thinking of this in terms of myself yesterday, as I perused the self-help books in Chapters trying to find one with 'confidence' in the title, since that's what I think is the missing component. Perhaps it's telling that you don't use this word in your question?
posted by Kickstart70 at 4:03 PM on July 31, 2006

I don't have any help for you on this. You are not the only one who feels like this. The older i get (and I'm only 23) the more I feel this way, and this feeling is becoming stronger by the minute. You did a good job of describing it as "detached."

I first realized it when I was towards the later years of high school, then a lot more in college. Now that I am doing a 9 - 5 thing it is getting a lot harder to just make excuses for it in my head. I could accept feeling like this if it was for myself, but I worry about pleasing other and it makes me a nervous wreck. If I a so damn disconnected why am I worrying about this stuff?

I think most people have this feeling at points in there life, but I doubt all the time.
posted by buzbomb at 4:15 PM on July 31, 2006

I've felt this way to varying degrees and near as I can figure out via self-analysis it has a lot to do with the way I was brought up. Not anything intentional that my parents (more specifically my single Mom) did, but more in that I feel that I am sometimes modelling her sort of passive, make-everyone-happy demeanor. So I'd suggest maybe thinking about that sort of thing, not even with your parents necessarily, but with other people in your upbringing that you may take after. As for what to do about it, I've found that simply being aware of it, and it's effects on other people has helped (i.e. being overly passive can be pretty infuriating to some people [especially those who are sort of that way themselves!], and since I don't want to make *them* unhappy, I try to keep it in check. Sure this is kind of recursive, but it does actually work). Also, I've found that moving away from where I was born/raised/went to college has helped to sever at least some of those family ties, although not in a bad way. (i.e. I still visit and keep in touch with and have a great relationship with parents and siblings, but the feeling of doing things "for" them are less so.) Of course, this isn't always possible. Just sayin' what my experience was. Anyway, best of luck with your situation. Not that it's too much consolation, but many of the other people I've know who are sorta like this are some of the most compassionate and intelligent people that I know.
posted by idontlikewords at 4:48 PM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've been there, and am possibly currently there. The feeling that my job is good enough, that my relationship was pretty good and not worth changing, and that while I think my living space has faults, it's good enough for now. I've made a few small moves and have questioned other things, but it's still an ongoing process.

Like buzbomb said, I think many people have this issue at some point. If anything, I've noticed that I tend to bury my actual feelings on things by thinking "Oh, this is trivial" and it eventually builds up. I think that's what hurts in the end, the fact that floating by means giving up some choices that may actually mean something to you.

My workplace ended up getting a little upheaval lately but I'm still there, for now. I broke up with my girlfriend. I'm looking around at the various things in my life, and making some longer-term plans and goals -- I think that's a large portion of it, do you feel like you have a sense of "self" and the confidence to determine what you want and what your goals are? Not everyone has a strong personal sense of priority; I have friends who really only got their plans together once they got married, while others are very independent and self-motivated. I think I'm pretty firmly in the middle, for now.

You'll know you really want something when there's a change you can't predict or an event that challenges your perception of your circumstances. The only other thing I can recommend is to go to your friends, your family: is there someone you trust to know you better than you know yourself? Sometimes an outside view helps.
posted by mikeh at 4:53 PM on July 31, 2006

The first thing that I thought of is that you are living someone else's life..., although that someone else is a construct that you have been holding yourself up to.

In other words, you are reaching all the goals you have set for yourself (most likely unconsciously) and have all the trappings of a good life. Deep down you have felt that if you get the girl, the good job, and the lifestyle, all will be well with the world.

So now you have it and you feel like something is missing. What is missing is your real desire. You could be holding yourself up to a standard that your parent(s) had for you, or coworkers have, and your fiancé. Your needs never come into play as they were never up for discussion to begin with.

I would guess that you may have some esteem issues that could use some attention. You need to determine what your true desires are, not those of the people around you, and then pursue them. Could be what you already have, but you won't know until you take a deep look at things.

I doubt you will be able to do this by yourself and would suggest talking to a therapist. They'll be able to help you determine when you are motivated by your own needs, or the needs of others.

I think this sort of problem is fairly common, especially if you came from a family where making sure everyone else's needs were met made your world work all that much better.

It's good that you are asking yourself these questions now. I really hope you get a chance to speak with a professional and follow through on some of your concerns. I think it will help you a great deal.
posted by qwip at 5:06 PM on July 31, 2006

Interestingly, I found this quote in an article currently posted on the front page of the blue:

"Life is planned out for us," says Elise Kramer, a Cornell University junior. "But we don't know what to want."
posted by idontlikewords at 5:13 PM on July 31, 2006

Life is a compromise between the utter selfishness our primal heart desires, the inconvenient reality of other people, and our finer instincts. You're wrestling with that compromise. Good luck.
posted by Decani at 5:18 PM on July 31, 2006 [2 favorites]

I dunno if the compromise between selfishness and reality is the issue here, rather it's the question of whether the lack of selfish feelings is "normal."

The self is defined in large part by failure i.e. through learning what we are not, we learn who we are and in cases like mine or in the article that I linked above, the fear of failure often leads to "safe" choices and the ultimate realization that one doesn't really know themself.

Maybe the answer is as simple as putting yourself in more situations where failure is a possibility?

I'm not saying you should be masochistic, but it could help to learn that the occasional fuck-up is no big deal and also, if there is anything that you find yourself continuing to attempt some particular effort through adversity, then it might help you find the spark of true, personal desire.
posted by idontlikewords at 5:29 PM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Sorry, that last sentence came out sort of weird. What I meant was: "Maybe a way to find out if you really feel strongly about something is to see how doggedly you'll pursue it, even after failure" or something like that.
posted by idontlikewords at 5:31 PM on July 31, 2006

Mm. I used to feel this way about my [now ex-]fiancé. When people would ask me if I was happy about being engaged, being with him, etc., I'd always say, "I think so." I figured I should be happy, and I couldn't really find anything wrong with the situation. He was pretty much a dream come true, come to lift me out of my depressing upbringing—a 6'8", nationally ranked fencer, admitted to a prestigious computer science honor society, a music composer, a brilliant piano player, the owner of a up-and-coming humor Web site...pretty much the best at everything he did. And yet...I guessed I was happy, but was never sure. And I worried from time to time that I was making the decision to get married too hastily (we were set to marry right after college graduation) and that I'd regret it later.

As it turned out, I'd originally thought he was adventurous and open-minded, but it turned out that he was fairly conservative in politics and in mindset. I was coming to the realization that I might be bisexual, and he didn't even believe gay people were truly, internally gay—he thought it was always a choice. The situation with his parents was awkward—they're well-to-do fundamentalist Christians who never really accepted me. And I couldn't figure out what I'd do about this whole wedding thing, given that my parents raised me agnostic, and his parents expected a church wedding, and I was expected to convert to be a Christian, because he wanted to marry a Christian...

When it came down to it, I realized that there were problems with the arrangement, and I got out. And y'know, I never really felt much at all when it all went down—a sign, I think, that it just wasn't something I was all that invested in, despite the ring and history as a couple and all other evidence to the contrary.

If you don't feel personally connected to/invested in your life as is...maybe you need to shake things up a bit, to make sure that this is really what you want.
posted by limeonaire at 5:51 PM on July 31, 2006

Shoulda previewed—I think idontlikewords has made a key point. Because I know that's what I was doing and have sometimes continued to do—make choices that are safe, rather than put myself out there where I could flounder and fail. My relationship with my ex-fiancé was very much a safety net—no one could say I was unsuccessful in finding a talented, impressive guy who could support me in my various endeavors.

Likewise, I continue to undermine myself at times by making "safe" choices—I recently turned down a job offer that I probably should have taken, and am only now realizing it.

In my case, I think it stems from my upbringing—I've been clinging to objects and people and situations that can provide me with stability and control, since historically I lacked control over things at home. It's a hard habit to break—but it's one that must be broken to really accomplish anything.
posted by limeonaire at 5:57 PM on July 31, 2006

Ever hear the Talking Heads track "Once in a Lifetime"? Lots of people feel that way when they get older.

The important question here, given that life is OK by conventional measure but curiously unfulfilling, may be "what *did* I want?" Someone once wrote that happiness is the fulfillment of childhood dreams -- perhaps it was Freud, perhaps it was Vonnegut, perhaps it's a common enough sentiment that it gets misattributed all of the time. Regardless, if there was something you felt passionate about, or just plain loved doing when you were young -- let's say 10 years old, before puberty, obligations and responsibilities started playing with your head -- chances are that somewhere deep inside, there's still an appreciation of that thing.

When I was a kid, I loved computers (but didn't have access to all the cool gear). I loved big cities (but didn't live in one). I loved subways (but not being in a big city, there wasn't one there). Sure, I was a nerd, but that's who I *was*. Now that I'm older, I have a perfectly respectable job as an IT Manager at a technologically savvy and socially responsible place in downtown San Francisco that I take the BART to every day. Part of me's just being a responsible adult, getting the money to pay the bills and holding down an acceptable job with a good company -- but another, important part of me, the one that's been around since I was a little kid, thinks that my current daily routine is *awesome*. And it's that feeling, deep in my psyche, that gives me a well-rounded sense of personal fulfillment; a hint of immature glee that coexists perfectly well with my adult concerns. It's certainly possible that you don't feel like you're doing well at your job because you're "going through the motions" -- which is enough at many jobs -- instead of doing something which you find fulfilling or exciting.

My fiancee is the person I've had the biggest crush on in my life. I first had met her many years ago. She was the culmination of everything I wanted in a girl, and we were compatible in so many uncommon ways -- but I felt so strongly, I could barely control my feelings around her, and I ended up botching the relationship. Years went by, and I didn't feel quite that same way about any other woman I met, feeling that same kind of detachment. But we had stayed in touch, and after she divorced the man she had since married, we got back together. With a bit of experience and maturity under our belts, we've established a truly wonderful, loving, conventional relationship. But the boy in me, each morning when I wake up next to her, still thinks that being with her is just plain *kick ass*. Both the adult and the boy in me are happy with the relationship, and that's what makes me know that what I have is what I really want, if that makes sense.

Think about the way you used to feel the night before Christmas, or your birthday, or before getting something you (and you alone) wanted. Think about what you were doing when you felt most proud as a child -- not when other people were proud of you, but what made you personally feel accomplished. Think of those moments where, even when they were inappropriate, you got *excited*. Try to tap into that spark of naive youthful glee. If you can't remember, ask your parents what made you most excited, or people who knew you when you were younger. Without that spark, without whatever bubbles up from the bottom of your psyche, even if everything is fine and you're living a "perfectly decent life," it just kind of seems like you're playing along, not getting what it is you *really* want.

The problem as we get older is that we tend to get an idea of what we can't do. Sometimes this is a good thing, where someone makes a mistake many times and realizes the error of their ways, but many other times, it's just the realization of how much effect you can have by making other changes, how much you can screw things up. The obligations and the responsibilities pile up, and you start to feel trapped and distant from whatever it is you once loved. And often, it's hard to just admit to yourself that you just want to do -- enough that you just completely forget about it.

It sounds like you're tired of living a life where you just don't feel passion or fulfillment. That's reasonable. You think that a new job, a new lover, a new city will provide those things. It may, and it may not. But if your new plans coincide with the things you've loved in the past, and your current engagements don't, then you may do well to try something new. The trick is to do it responsibly -- to try and satisfy both the adult and the child in you -- and once you feel that combination (not logically, but instinctively), chances are you're heading in the right path. To make the right changes, you may need to come up with creative solutions that don't make sense to the people around you, or take certain risks. But that's what life is about.

posted by I EAT TAPAS at 6:57 PM on July 31, 2006 [8 favorites]

Distraction is our enemy. Music, tv, cellphones, magazines, portable media players and video games coax us away from ourselves and our own thoughts. Turn off the tv for awhile, put the ipod away and turn off all the other voices around you - and listen.

You haven't found the answers yet, but you are looking, so they will come. Just be sure you're in a quiet place in your heart and mind, with no competing voices around you vying for your attention, so when the answers appears, you'll know it's right for you.
posted by rinkjustice at 8:19 PM on July 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

You can only do what you want to do. Everything you are doing, you want to do because you are doing them. Nearly all of our wants come from other people and depend on where and when we were born and grow up. Your detachment can be the result of anxiety and depression ( disassociation) or it could be a spiritual break through. Either way its not dangerous and all you have to do is accept it until it goes away.
posted by zackdog at 11:51 PM on July 31, 2006

I've been here, and it kind of sucks. The first thing I'll mention is that my feelings of detachment correlate highly with my depression. Before I started taking prozac, and during my long-term breaks from the prozac, I feel exactly like how you described it. I do what I'm told to at work, and it's fine. I get back home, and waste time. I never get anything creative done and in the end, I don't care. At least for me, that's linked to my depression.

I recommend talking to a psychologist about this, it can't hurt. If you go to a psychologist who's trying to tell you exactly how to live your life, you should go somewhere else, because that's not what you need. If you're currently on any sort of medication, that could also be the culprit for this, and I recommend talking to another psychologist.

The other thing I did that I think helped me out of this was searching for new, and useless, sensations and experiences. So, I'd sit outside during the winter and just FEEL the cold. Or, I'd go park my car in a vacant lot and yell randomly. Learn the correct way to punch things without injuring yourself, and then do that. Breaking things is great. This kind of thing gave me an immediacy that I was missing from my day to day life, and doing random, pointless things was pretty liberating. Eventually, this started migrating into more generally creative activities. What I thought was happiness before just wasn't. It was just a very constant neutrality. My life now has more ups and downs, and I think it's worth it.
posted by JZig at 3:27 AM on August 1, 2006

I feel exactly the same way a lot of the time. Disillusioned, confused and slightly depressed even though I know I have good things going for me. Then I don't feel like I deserve those things and oh, it is a vicious cycle!

I don't know who I want to be either... Well I guess I've tried to find myself in a way, by putting myself outside my normal comfort zone and trying new things. I just got back from a 2 week jungle trek in Borneo - hikes with full packs and battling with leeches, no water or electricity for days... and it did me wonders. I thought I would hate that kind of stuff, but I loved it. It was part of finding myself and I learnt that extreme travel makes me happy and I don't have chance to think too much about crappy self doubt - I had no choice to wade through some river or whether I was ok to climb this mountain.....
I also signed up for a poetry course. I have found that I despise writing poetry a lot... I think it's easier to take some 'good' experiences or skills and try them, just to test who you don't want to be.

If you think you don't/do like something, hey at least get something to compare to.... (except for maybe fiances - that's a rather make or break situation).

I do worry about being detatched, and I worry about getting worse as I get older, so I'm definitely going to have a think about I EAT TAPAS advice. I think there is something there.

(Right, I rambled. But I signed up to MeFi after lurking for ages, just because I wanted to say - you're not alone!)
posted by teststrip at 3:31 AM on August 1, 2006

Let me throw in my own current experience here. I have been a lifelong seeker of something that makes me feel something, something beyond that lingering neutrality that you speak of.

I am currently employed in an internship at perhaps one of the most prestigious scientific environments for my field that currently exists right now. So if I want to pursue this, I can, easily. That's the key, easily. But the more time I spend here, the more I find out that I am having exactly the same problems as you.

I shuffle off to work every day, and I shuffle back to my apartment, and I do some exercise and hang out with a wonderful girl I met, and all the while, I feel no spark to life. Food tastes bland, my sleep is unfulfilling, I constantly need some stimulus (music, TV, internet) to keep myself from going crazy. I know though that this is not how it has to be. There have been times in my life where every meal was the greatest I had ever eaten, every night I hit the bed and fell asleep instantly, and I could sit with my own thoughts and be truly satisfied with that.

For me, that just happens to be when my job involved riding extremely dangerous animals every day. But to echo what I EAT TAPAS has said, this is what my inner-child thought was "cool." Every day I was going to work and doing something that I thought was freakin' awesome. It was what I used to sit around daydreaming about, being in danger and having that adrenaline rush... I'm not saying this is right for you. But what made you really feel something as a child? What did you dream about? How can you go and incorporate some measure of that in your life?

I think maybe at this point you do need a shakeup, just to wake yourself up from the deep sleep you are in. I know lots of people are going to bemoan this as bad advice, but if you are this numb right now, how do you see yourself after 10 more years of this numbness? Do you think you will be any happier? It may be time to take life by the horns, so to speak, and go after something completely crazy, something you really want. I know you can find something like that, even if you don't realize it yet. It may just be completely insane and it may ruin your life for a while, but in the end you will feel alive.

When I graduate, I'm going back to what I love, while I develop some side-businesses having to do with my field to keep myself financially stable even through the inevitable injuries that come with my chosen line of work. I'm not going to live life as a zombie, no matter what my parents think I should be doing, no matter what the cost is to my 401k. To me I'm willing to pay these prices, because life is so much sweeter when actively pursued.
posted by zhivota at 7:28 AM on August 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

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