How do I figure things out?
January 23, 2008 10:10 PM   Subscribe

I need some advice/encouragement/something. Am I really burning out at age 21? Big, melodramatic details follow.

Dear Metafilter,

I'm lost. I can't seem to find motivation to get up in the morning or make sense of things. I know I'm probably being a touch melodramatic (well, y'know, because I guess I am. Maybe it's that whole 'being in my early 20s thing.), but I feel like I'm lacking direction.

I go to a pretty good university (one of the top 10 in the country, oh what a feather in my cap) where I study languages. I was originally going to make a special major combining several, but long story short, I kind of got screwed over by the administration and now I'm a German major who happens to take some other stuff on the side. It's starting to lose its charm to say the least (tonight I kind of realized that I don't want to be doing hardly _any_ of the stuff I'm currently studying. I've been in language classrooms since 7th grade. I feel like it's been something of a placeholder until I find something that I actually want to do -- I've just been doing it because I'm pretty ok at it.)

My long term-girlfriend is going abroad. (I really wanted to go abroad, too, but that's not panning out because of that whole administration thing -- in short, I overextended myself my first couple of years but didn't fill out enough area requirements.) I feel kind of abandoned with her going (though, in my head I realize this isn't the case -- I would do the same thing if I were her, seize the opportunity while I have the chance. At least, that's what I tell myself) and am having a pretty hard time getting settled back here at school now that she's not around. We've sort of broken up and are going to "see how things go" when she gets back in town in August. In the meantime, I find myself complaining about school all the time, especially when we're on the phone. I just waste time on the internet and avoid my schoolwork because, as I said, I can't seem to find the same interest I used to have in it. I'm probably just depressed, right? I've felt like this before (and the GF has always managed to help me through it), and depression seems to run in the family. I don't want to see a counselor (that's a warning sign, right?) because I feel like I'd be giving up on myself (a trait that, imho, is one of the things that's screwing me over right now -- I don't want to drop any of the languages because I'd feel as though I'm giving up, despite the fact that I hate the classes. (Don't get me wrong, though, I still totally dig communicating with people from other countries.)) Secretly, I know that I would love nothing more than to drop a bunch (most) of the classes I'm currently taking, sit, and do nothing. This goes doubly for Arabic, especially because I know I'd hate any kind of job that would land me in the future. Of course, I'd feel massively guilty about having wasted so much time so that's not really an option. Not to mention how disappointed the parents would be. Giving up and all. (The father's a _really_ educated prof, the mother used to be some kind of molecular biologist/botonist... basically the whole family's got a master's or phd.)

I have some hobbies (Juggling in particular, if you're really all that interested), but I sort of threw my shoulder out and can't do it as well/seriously as I'd like to. I've been going to physical therapy and have been getting better. In a perfect world, I think I'd perform for a living. I guess the whole school thing is supposed to be a backup, but I feel as though it's getting in the way of the things I'd _really_ like to do with my life sometimes.

I need to find an internship soon (don't even get me started on that), but I can't seem to figure out what I'm interested in. I feel that this is a common problem and that I'm just getting all wrapped up in myself and forgetting the big picture or something. I just don't want to waste inordinate amounts of time on something I don't care about. In being this discriminating, though, I'm probably effectively wasting my time even more, since I won't be able to find whatever it is I'm actually looking for.

Maybe I'm just looking for reassurance that everything's going to be ok? Maybe acadamia just isn't my cup of tea? Dropping out of school is hardly an option (y'know, that whole "degree for the future" thing), plus I'm on a really big scholorship, so it would be a HUGE waste not to go ahead and finish it all off (just a year and a half of classes I hate to go!) That also rules transferring out as an option.

I guess my question is, how do I figure out what I want to do?

If any of you have similar experiences or advice, I would really appreciate hearing them. Really.

Sorry if this is a little incoherent, I'm having a pretty rough day.
posted by ThomThomThomThom to Education (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Ya walid, your school has counselors exactly for this reason. It happens. To people your age, level of intellect and gender. More than others, if I'm not mistaken. Talking to a professional is not giving up on yourself fer goshshakes, rather it's just about the only responsible action that you could take right now in reaction to the circumstances you describe. If you don't see a counselor, I'd say you're giving up on yourself, because that's the thing you do when you feel the way you feel.
posted by mumkin at 10:31 PM on January 23, 2008

Everything's going to be ok.
posted by asuprenant at 10:31 PM on January 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Hey, welcome to your 20s. There are many lost people here - we have a club. You can join it!

So (1) I know it's hard, but try not to blame the administration here. I mean, there's some stuff that's probably their fault, but taking ownership of your problems is going to make you feel better about life as a whole. Nothing gets me down more than knowing I'm not in control of the direction of my life. So instead just try to embrace whatever it is you choose to study. Your major doesn't matter so much once you're actually out of school anyway, it's more what you actually know and what you can do, and your attitude towards whatever you're tasked with doing.

(2) You say you want to drop a bunch of stuff you're taking. Presumably if you've got a year and a half to go, you're into upper level classes. If the classes that bore you aren't graduation requirements, then drop them, and do stuff that doesn't bore you; you'll probably be better at stuff you like anyway.

(3) Yeah, I know you need to figure out what you're interested in. While I'd suggest treating any depression you might have first, the only way to figure it out is to try a bunch of stuff. So pick a random internship that sounds cool. This is what your twenties, and nay, what college are for. You sure as hell can't dick around as easily once you've graduated.

(4) Remember that you're actually super lucky. You apparently don't have to pay much for college, and your school has an awesome academic pedigree. There are worse problems to have.

I double-majored in engineering and the humanities in what is also a "pretty good university" because one is practical, the other is not, and they're both interesting in different ways. I work the former, but wish I could use the latter. I used to worry about finding what I wanted to do. I think I came to accept over the past few years that there was a lot I wanted to do, and I wasn't going to do it all at once. So, cool your heels and enjoy the trip, life expectancy's pretty long in the industrialized Western world.
posted by universal_qlc at 10:32 PM on January 23, 2008

Doh. I hit post instead of preview. Still, the above stands: your one best option is to speak to a professional therapist for about 50 minutes a session at regular intervals... that's gonna be way more effective at helping you sort things out than anything AskMe can offer you. But I'll tell you this: nothing you've said leads me to believe that in the end, everything won't be ok.
posted by mumkin at 10:40 PM on January 23, 2008

You are giving up on yourself by not going to see a counselor. You don't want to go because it's hard to face it, that you're not perfect, that you do have a hard time sometimes. It's scary to admit it, but once you do, you feel braver, tougher, and more in charge of yourself. Go on and do it!

Perfectionism will put you right where you are - because dude, nobody's perfect, for serious, and you feel defeated when you realize it logically, but not emotionally. A therapist or counselor will help you to get past that: but the key word here is help. You'll be doing all the work.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:45 PM on January 23, 2008

I just turned 30. Eating a few prunes usually helps in times like this. For me, anyhow ;D Depression runs in my family, but I've found that frankly after dropping a major shart I feel way better. Good enough to laugh at myself that I could have really taken myself that seriously =D
posted by vanoakenfold at 10:47 PM on January 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

You will be ok.
It will all be ok.
It is normal to be worried and uncertain at this point in your life.

See a campus counselor, it's not giving up on yourself, just go talk in person to them. They can help you think about whether to drop one or two classes, for starters. It will just be a more-effective version of the conversation you can get here, right? That's not giving up on yourself, it's asking for advice. Maybe you're depressed, maybe not. Set up an appointment (ASAP, they fill up fast) and just go talk to them. Can't hurt, might help. Why not do it?

Maybe think about lining up a cool experience abroad for yourself this summer? If languages are your thing, you should go use them! Plus it would give you an adventure of your own to look forward to.

Don't drop out of school. That would be a waste, unless you really seriously can't handle it. Much better to gut it out now, if you are psychologically able to keep up with the work.

Switching your courseload around is a much better idea. Don't be tied down to subjects you've studied before -- if you hate Arabic and are going to do badly, drop it and take some other classes that will help you be ready to take on a wide range of jobs. Take some quantitative courses (math) if you haven't -- these will be useful in lots of interesting jobs.

Be honest with yourself about what academic load you can handle right now. If you're unable to keep up with several languages, drop the one you're least motivated in. Much better to do this in the beginning of the semester than toward the end of the semester. (I say this as a prof.)

As for an internship: your internship won't determine your future career. It will be one option, it will be interesting, you'll learn, great. That will be useful as you're trying to figure out your first job after graduation -- which, again, won't be your career, it will just be a first step. Don't be stressed out over the idea that you have to make the perfect choice -- there isn't one, and there are plenty of chances to change course as you go. Don't worry about "wasting time" -- as long as you're doing something marginally challenging you will be picking up skills and contacts etc that will help you in the next step.

Maybe you would be interested in a theater internship in some regional theater? Maybe you would like working for a hospital or municipal authority as a translator? Maybe you'd like to go be a park ranger, or wilderness guide, or work for a "team building" retreat center where corporate groups and school groups go? Maybe you'd like to be a travel writer or editor?

Go talk to your school's career services office. They will have the names of alumni who may be able to talk to you about their jobs. They will have advice about finding internships, advice about interviewing and so on. Talk to a professor you get along with, see if you can come up with anything by talking it over.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:51 PM on January 23, 2008

Seeing a psychologist at your school is a good idea.

Also, realize that school isn't like a kiln -- you can add stuff to your life after college, too. It's kinda surprising to a college student that, aside from cool party facts, 90% of what you study will be useless in a non-graduate studies environment (What! No employer will want to hear about my studies of ancient Greek texts?!). Maybe your language classes are slightly different because they focus more on a pre-professional skill rather than, say, evolutionary psychology or something. But the point is to resist the temptation to plan the rest of your life in your head based on the 16 credits you happen to be taking right now.

Find out what you like and don't like about the things you're doing and keep that in mind for down the road. Ex: I like languages because once I get a hang of the system, it's easy for me to extrapolate results and master new verb forms. I don't like my lab class because the experiments are too detail-oriented and seem worthless. Once you know this, you'll be equipped to evaluate opportunities post-college.

And heck, if you want to juggle once you graduate then do it. So many college grads do whatever for a while before falling into something they like.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 10:56 PM on January 23, 2008

Wow, English, Arabic & German. That's a solid basis for a write-your-own-ticket set of job-skills for the 21st century, should you choose to become more rounded than just juggling.

But I don't know how much you want to actually work for a living, and what your interests may be. At any rate, I found this guy's blog/journal to be highly informative, entertaining, and inspiring (in the sense that I had wished I had studied Arabic and not Japanese in school), since his story really demonstrates the power of being sharp and well-educated in finance, law, and Arabic in this day and age.
posted by panamax at 11:09 PM on January 23, 2008

Check out Zen and the art of making a living.

It sounds like you feel out of control, like what you're doing is no longer a choice. Why did you get interested in languages in the first place? Think about what made it so exciting back then - is there something you can do now to re-capture that feeling of fascination with what you're doing?

If things feel very abstract right now, how can you find a way to make them concrete? Are there specific skills (other than language) you'd like to learn?

I'm a firm believer that, in some ways, we're always alone no matter how many close relationships we may have. Maybe the absence of your girlfriend is an opportunity for you to dig more deeply into yourself and discover the strength you have for getting through tough times. Maybe it's a chance to find other resources to help you through a challenging period.

Finally, what would you do if you didn't have all these things you SHOULD do, these ideas you SHOULD hold onto?
posted by splendid animal at 1:06 AM on January 24, 2008

You sound like I did. I was halfway through architecture school, had some professors that rubbed me the wrong way, got burnt out, and had a long-distance girlfriend. I dropped the architecture program and became an English major with no idea what I wanted to do. I was depressed and felt like I was letting myself and everyone else down, and didn't want to admit that anything might be wrong.

See a therapist, or a school counselor. Be honest with them about everything. If you don't connect, find another one. If they suggest medication, don't be afraid of it. It doesn't mean you're not good enough the way you are right now. If you are depressed, it's better to deal with it effectively than to wallow in it and fuck yourself over in school and your relationships. (End of advice I wish I could give my younger self.)
posted by kyleg at 1:10 AM on January 24, 2008

Going to counseling for depression isn't "giving up on yourself". That's like saying going to the doctor to fix a broken leg is less manly than just "toughing it out".

In other words, it seems that you feel that if you go to a counselor, you will lose a sense of your self, but I would argue that the counselor can help you develop a stronger sense of that self.

He or she will provide basically the same thing you're looking for here on AskMeFi, but with comfy chairs and less snark.

Also, if you still want to learn a ton of languages, you don't have to do it in the context of a classroom. There are lots of resources online and in libraries, and you have the option of traveling (on your own, not with the study abroad program) to develop your language skills too (the best way to learn, in my opinion).
posted by chara at 6:15 AM on January 24, 2008

It definitely sounds like you are feeling trapped by expectations - yours and other people's. You wanted to study certain subjects, made plans accordingly, and now you've found out you're not enjoying them and a life of work you don't enjoy is stretching in front of you like a prison sentence. What was the point of all your hard work and ambition if it's just going to make your future dreary?

That's a perfectly reasonable way to feel, and happens to a lot of people. What you should realize is that you're lucky, extremely lucky - you are finding out you don't like your chosen path while you're still in college, and have a myriad paths and careers open to you! Career choices aren't irreversible, but it's a lot easier to change the direction of your life early on, to try new things and explore.

So: you feel shitty right now. But those shitty feelings are extremely useful. Find out exactly what's causing them, and stay away from it. And remember the way you feel now, in case you feel it again in a few years - that's how you know it's time to change something. So yes, speak to a counselor, speak with friends, change classes and explore careers. But also realize that burnout happens for a reason, and be harnessed to shape your life in the direction you want.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2008

You are giving up on yourself by not going to see a counselor. You don't want to go because it's hard to face it, that you're not perfect, that you do have a hard time sometimes. It's scary to admit it, but once you do, you feel braver, tougher, and more in charge of yourself. Go on and do it!

Perfectionism will put you right where you are - because dude, nobody's perfect, for serious, and you feel defeated when you realize it logically, but not emotionally. A therapist or counselor will help you to get past that: but the key word here is help. You'll be doing all the work.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:45 PM on January 23 [+] [!]

This really bears repeating. I had similar hang-ups my freshman year of college about seeing a therapist, but I knew I was very, very depressed (depression is a normal part of my life, but there are times when it assumes a richer, more stifling quality) and that I had to do something (due to repression I have a lot of trouble with my own cathartic release). Seeing a therapist at the university was one of the best choices I made. Sometimes it made it harder--bringing up things I don't think about and don't want to think about, finding yourself in a position where you are both condemning and defending loved ones, etc.--but all in all my mental outlook improved.

I will say that the therapist themselves can make a big difference, and if you don't feel comfortable after a session or two with a certain therapist ask for a different one. Seriously. They are NOT all made equal.
posted by nonmerci at 8:14 AM on January 24, 2008

You're putting way too much pressure on yourself. Your life doesn't have to be perfect and you don't have to have it "all together" at age 21. Or age 31, or 61. Don't be fooled into thinking that the decisions you make now are OMG PERMANENT. Relax and give yourself to completely fuck up. Unless you're robbing banks or stabbing puppies or shooting heroin, you're not fucking up bad enough that you can't prettily easily recover. Don't be afraid of boredom and mundaneness and other unpleasantries. I hate to tell ya, but life is mostly those things, until you shift your perspective.

It's so apropos, I'll repeat verbatim what I said in a previous thread (you guys ought to get together): You're chasing a feeling that doesn't exist. What you're looking for is to feel passionate about something. There is no magic something out there that will make you feel alive. Instead, feeling alive in each moment is what makes whatever's in front of you interesting again.

What a trite piece of crap, eh? It's absolutely true, but I don't think you can know it's true until you try a bunch of things. Don't wait around for The One Perfect Thing. Just do anything that seems moderately entertaining. Try photography, learn a foreign language, go to that new restaurant down the street. Be open to anything and everything, and pay attention. Soon enough you'll delight in the formerly mundane, "practical" things. Even folding laundry can make you happy.
posted by desjardins at 8:23 AM on January 24, 2008 [4 favorites]

should be "relax and give yourself permission to completely fuck up" (oh, the irony of fucking up that sentence)
posted by desjardins at 8:24 AM on January 24, 2008

Finance firms (investment bank trading desks, investment managers, and others) love multilingual people who are/were smart enough to go to top-ten schools. Are you numerate?
posted by Kwantsar at 9:23 AM on January 24, 2008

all the advice above is quite excellent. :) here's an extra $0.02 of my experience:

* therapy *
all the college therapists I saw were amazing. probably saved my life a couple of times. also, if there is a career counselor you can see, that's probably a good idea. I sort of wish I had.

I say this in all the depression-related questions: I recommend the book "Feeling Good."

* family *
sounds like you have quite the over-educated family; I gather their expectations and assumptions about life can be quite exhausting. (not a problem I've had, just one I've observed in others.) anything you can do to let that go will help.

* work *
I got work-study my junior year and ended up at a children's museum. that was the job that led to everything I've done since then, and it had pretty much nothing to do with my major. (English! creative writing emphasis!)

I worked at a community college for a few years and had an opportunity to work with interns. I'd say take it as an opportunity to see how things really work, regardless of the field. I'd like to think that my interns learned quite a bit that they wouldn't have gotten in class.

weird stuff happens. I graduated with absolutely ZERO idea what I wanted to do for a "career." I had a job (children's museum!), and a vague idea of maybe going to library school, because I loved my high school job in the library. then the internet happened, and I learned web design, programming, etc. I absolutely love what I do, which is something that didn't even exist when I started college.

* as for the GF.... My HS boyfriend moved with me when I went away to college, and we had a very intense relationship, where he did a lot of taking care of me when I was depressed. (I did a lot of taking care of him in other ways, but that's a long story.) Caring for someone who gets depression is difficult work. If you can take care of yourself better, then you can be a better BF, whether for her on the phone or when she gets back, or for someone else later.

Good luck. Yes, it will be ok, eventually.
posted by epersonae at 9:25 AM on January 24, 2008

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