Help me believe in myself
March 10, 2008 8:09 PM   Subscribe

I lack faith in myself and am convinced that if I undertake anything but the most menial tasks I will screw things up. As a result, I screw things up and give myself even more proof that I will always screw things up. How do I stop the cycle?

Due to a variety of issues, from depression and ADHD to procrastination and low willpower, I have generally failed at most complex projects I've tried up until now, especially if they require a long period of commitment and/or changing my habits. This includes homework, learning musical instruments, eating more healthfully, keeping in touch with friends, and on and on. This has led me to believe that no matter what I will always fail at everything.

Now, I've gotten over most of the insecurity issues that had me convinced I was simply too ugly and stupid and socially incapable to succeed at anything. I now know that's not true, and I do have the talents and skills to succeed at many things if I put my mind to it. But whenever I try something, there's a voice inside my head that yells "You're going to fuck it up!" I'll procrastinate, trip and drop something, slip into bad habits, some way, somehow, I become convinced I'm going to mess my latest undertaking up. And so, not surprisingly, 99% of the time I mess things up. For instance, in a class, if I find myself procrastinating instead of studying, instead of saying "Whoops, I better not mess this up!" and getting back on track, I say "Oh look, here I am, messing it up again" and resign myself to failure.

And the more I fail, the more I become convinced I'll always fail. I have no confidence in myself, and have no reason to have confidence in myself. There's nothing I can look back on as proof of my ability to succeed. There's only a long stretch of failures in the past. Adding to this is that in a couple of weeks I will be in a position where I have to take a huge amount of responsibility on myself as part of a class. And I'm terrified I'm going to fuck it up--and as this situation is literally life-or-death, I really can't afford to fuck it up. I'm on the verge of dropping the class just so I don't risk messing it up.

So what do I do? How do I start believing myself again? My constant failures have left me in a low-paying job with no benefits, so therapy is not an option (and it's never helped in the past, anyway).
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Well first of all, you aren't alone. I didn't find out I had ADD until I was 31, and it takes a long time to form a new identity on top of years of feeling like a stupid, lazy poser.

Are you being treated? Because the times I have felt the most on top of things and worthy was when I was taking a combo of meds including Adderall. It didn't change the past (I still have no university degree and no notable accomplishments) but it made me feel whole and thoughtful and hopeful and plan for the future in a way I never have. If you're not seeing a doctor for medical therapy I really hope you'll consider it. Good luck.
posted by loiseau at 8:29 PM on March 10, 2008

(PS. Procrastination and low willpower are a big part of what ADD is about.)
posted by loiseau at 8:31 PM on March 10, 2008

I think you have included the solution to your problem in the question. You say that you fail at complex tasks. However, every complex task is made of several simple tasks. I have had many of the same issues myself and I have found that taking each task as an individual item will take away several levels of panic. Especially if a failure on any one individual task is not an automatic failure for the complex task.

Try David Allen's Getting Things Done. I got a ton of help out of it.
posted by slavlin at 8:31 PM on March 10, 2008

A lot of people will recommend cognitive behavioral techniques to break out of the negative-thinking cycle. I'm just putting that out there right now. They may work for you if you haven't tried them already. They're nice because you can kind of roll your own without dealing with some therapist you can't afford.
posted by crinklebat at 8:32 PM on March 10, 2008

Not trying to diagnose you, but this kind of cyclical thought process can be characteristic of OCD, or other related diseases. Go talk to a therapist, and see if you can't work on some coping techniques with their assistance.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:05 PM on March 10, 2008

I have had the same problem for most of my life. I've broken down into tears it has so frustrated me. I found that writing, talking, and planning help. Please note that I had a much better explanation of this, but the connection was lost and with it all i typed. So I am working on memory and a tired brain.

This of big projects as a whole bunch of little projects that will be added together in the end. This advice was always given to me and does work for me. Use an outline technique, like the roman numeral one to break the project into phases, steps and actions. The more I use this technique the more second nature it becomes. Ask questions like who what when etc.

Regarding the depression side of things, of which I have also. Write out what you; each day if you can but don't get bummed if you can't. I use a mind dump, writing with no style or following the lines of grammar, as these just take me away from the task at hand. Then review it some time later. It helps me to understand my triggers. Since a counselor maybe hard to do, though do check your local clinic they may have some sliding scale, find a person [grandma for me] you can trust that can be objective. If you do find a counselor take these writings to them, I did and now my counselor really understands how deep this feeling is for me. Please mail me if want to talk.

Also Try take some skill refresher/study/help topics on areas that you feel are defiencet this helps me a ton. I do have to sometimes tell myself, you never know until you try, which is away i break out of negative thoughts. I also repeat to myself; worry for wasted time is more wasted time; knowing that I will reflect on the matter at a latter date [the writing] and will find through it why I procrastinated and try to prevent it in the future.
posted by redfusion at 9:23 PM on March 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

* I meant to say think of big projects as....
posted by redfusion at 9:24 PM on March 10, 2008

* and write out what you feel each day....
posted by redfusion at 9:25 PM on March 10, 2008

Yeah, CBT in the house. The book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, while billed as a depression book, deals a lot with the same kind of irrational thinking you're displaying and loops you're stuck in. They are intertwined. It will have you doing things like keeping track of the things you do do correctly. That'll serve as proof that when you say "I screw everything up," you are not being accurate or fair to yourself, which will allow you to relax a bit and give yourself a chance. That's an example of all-or-nothing thinking, by the way, as the book characterizes it. It'll also highlight other forms of irrational thought such as fortune telling: "I know I will fuck this class thing up." You don't know that. You can't. It helps you to recognize that as yet another unfounded statement. Likewise disqualifying the positive, filtering, minimizing and maximizing, overgeneralizing, should statements, etc. It helps you to see that thinking like that is not only not fair or accurate, but not helpful or productive if you want to move forward. It helps you change your inner monologue. You are your worst critic by far and changing the tone of that crippling inner commentary is a huge step. It's hard to see how key that is until you do it, but what a change.

What you need is self-esteem and self-confidence, because otherwise you have no foothold. This shows you how to build it. It also shows you how to directly combat the urge to do nothing. If there's perfectionism going on in there, it'll help you ease out of it a bit to give yourself some room to move. Guilt - relaxes and prunes it a bit. Pessimism and procrastination - gives you a practical roadmap out of them. Give it a try - cheap paperback available everywhere. You do have to stick with it though. And you have to want it to work, to allow it to work. As a practical step, you have to suspend any doubt, deserved or not, and play the game fully and willingly. This is exactly the kind of stuff therapists use, so while it's a real help to have someone to coach and guide you through it, the book is a good option for situations where you can't do therapy.

Another great book which does a bit more to explain why you behave this way, or maybe how you got here, is The Now Habit. The book is about beating procrastination and I really wasn't expecting all the great stuff in the first part of it that explains the root causes and how it's tied in with self esteem. Great stuff.

Good luck buddy!
posted by kookoobirdz at 9:37 PM on March 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

and as this situation is literally life-or-death

how is this possible? I'm trying to conceive of such a class. Maybe you're a soldier in Iraq and learning self-defense techniques? I'm not trying to be snarky here, really. But this has just got to be hyperbole. If it's a class you can drop, then it's not life-or-death. Therefore you need not put so much pressure on yourself. Drop the dramatics. Maybe your life is not as you envisioned. Almost no one's is. Maybe you are not living up to your potential. OK, lots of people aren't. Sure, you can do better. But to frame an accomplishment as LIFE OR DEATH OMG!!!!! is surely setting yourself up for failure.
posted by desjardins at 9:41 PM on March 10, 2008

Try David Allen's Getting Things Done. I got a ton of help out of it.


Another great book which does a bit more to explain why you behave this way, or maybe how you got here, is The Now Habit. The book is about beating procrastination and I really wasn't expecting all the great stuff in the first part of it that explains the root causes and how it's tied in with self esteem. Great stuff.

I got both of these books two years ago and have only read the first few pages. My reaction to books like this is that if you truly need them, you won't read them. It's silly, I'm sure, but that's my gut reaction. I'll second loisuea's inquiry/suggestion about medical treatment. I resisted for years and now regret the time I wasted hoping that I would snap out of it.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 9:58 PM on March 10, 2008

The voice lies to you.
posted by rhizome at 10:02 PM on March 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

Forgot to say, one thing I've learned lately is that the very first step before any of the above self-rebuilding stuff is self-compassion. You always hear that you're supposed to love yourself, but what does that really mean? How do you do it? Isn't that indulgent or vain? I never got it, never understood Whitney Houston's 1980s song about it. It sounded stupid and sappy. But it turns out it's fundamental. You have to treat yourself like you'd treat anyone else who was having a hard time. If they deserve it, why wouldn't you? You do. It's only logical. It's easy to think that you don't need or deserve that kind of forgiveness and compassion from yourself... because you are yourself. Shouldn't you instead be your own taskmaster, you ask? If not, who will whip your ass into shape? But you do need that forgiveness and compassion from yourself, more than you need it from anyone else. Review your history of self ass whipping and objectively judge the results. Hasn't been effective, has it. Not from the sound of your question it hasn't. So experiment with another technique for a while and then compare. It's not like you'll be losing anything if you already feel you fuck everything up.

Check out this site for simple overview. What it does in a practical sense is relieve a lot of the pressure you feel. The frenzied and anxiety-riddled, "You're going to fuck it up!" becomes a calm and measured, "I'm going to give this a shot. Doesn't have to be a home run. It's OK if it's not wonderful. Average is just fine. Even failure is OK. I've failed before and recovered and I'm still here and doing fine. And I can keep working at it. And failure, average, or home run, I remain a worthy person." With that kind of forgiveness and compassion loaded up in advance, you can feel a calmness and a balance going into things that actually helps you do better in addition to the main effect of decoupling the results from your self-worth.
posted by kookoobirdz at 10:11 PM on March 10, 2008 [6 favorites]

Try homeopathy, a therapist, and a coach.
posted by healthyliving at 10:35 PM on March 10, 2008

Missed the part about no therapy (though there are low cost options). Find a coaching school where they are looking for volunteers for their student coaches. You get fairly good, usually free, coaching that can help you stop listening to the lying voice in your head (we all have them, it just takes practice to change the radio station).
posted by healthyliving at 10:37 PM on March 10, 2008

Try thinking short term. Have a few goals (no more than two or three) like "read this chapter," "play this riff at half tempo," or "wash the dishes." Make the goals succinct and doable. If you have a big undertaking, list a small task that's part of that goal, not the undertaking. Write them down, and don't write more than those few.

Then, do them. Cross them off as you complete them, but don't erase them. After you've completed your 2-3 small goals, come up with new ones.

Eventually, you'll have a long list of things you've done. When you doubt yourself, you'll be able to tell yourself, well, I did all this.
posted by ignignokt at 1:42 AM on March 11, 2008

How about a coach specific to your problems? This site is for ADHD coaches. I know there are classes (in the coaching world) where the coaching students have to have live volunteers to coach. Perhaps you could start by finding a coach in your area and asking about being a volunteer to get free coaching. You could also email the organization and ask for further information.

I know coaches and therapists need to make money and it's frustrating to be poor and in need of help. A coach *might* be open to giving you a discount (if you can't find a class to become a volunteer) or might be open to some sort of trade or barter.

Another source for low-cost treatment might be a time bank. Here's one. I linked to the list of services exchanged so you can see there are a lot of things you could get and I'm sure at least one or two things you could give, which might give you an added feeling of accomplishment. One hour here or there instead of trying to accomplish huge tasks might be more doable for you. In return you could get treatment and meet lots of cool people.

Good luck and big hugs!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 4:37 AM on March 11, 2008

Yep, CBT is for you. Part of that should be a shift in your definition of "success".

It sounds like you have in your head a picture of the perfect you -- the way you play guitar, the frequency with which you contact your friends, the vitamin rich foods you will choose for yourself. If you don't meet this picture, you have failed.

Stop doing that. Think of success as being happy. Change that picture so that you see success as doing things that make you happy to be you. That might mean studying. That might mean calling up a friend or eating an apple. But it is always tied back to how you *actually* feel.

You want to learn to play a musical instrument? Great -- but that shouldn't mean you have to practice 2 hours a day and be able to play well within a few months. It should mean that you play with the guitar as much as makes you happy. And it shouldn't mean that if you put it down and don't play for a long time you have failed. You can always pick it up again.

You want to keep in touch with friends? Great -- but that shouldn't mean if you leave it longer than you planned you have failed.


Why? Because life, for the most part, isn't binary. It isn't
X = Success
Anything Else = Failure

You are not well. You are thinking illogically and being selective in your observations of yourself in order to support your underlying premise: you are a bad person/ failure.

So, until you are well, you should do what I said in another post:
When I was trying to change the way I was thinking about myself, I had to remind myself that I knew that I wasn't well, and that therefore my perspective on the reasons for my failures were not trustworthy. I didn't try to make myself believe it wasn't my fault, but I made myself agree to stop assuming it was and look at it like a scientific experiment. Start from a neutral position, and look at the evidence. It's hard to explain what I mean. But therapy will help.
posted by girlpublisher at 5:49 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

We all fail until we get it right. Failure is a learning process, whereas success is a momentary demonstration of a lesson learned.

Embrace failure. Without failure, you are either trying nothing or learning nothing.
posted by ewkpates at 7:01 AM on March 11, 2008

IN addition to CBT, there is something called schema therapy. Sort of CBT + .

Not one to pile on and recommend self-help books, but this book has been invaluable to me.
posted by xetere at 7:17 AM on March 11, 2008

This is all about self-esteem. Everything else is just a symptom.

People take action when the perceived benefits outweigh the perceived costs. Right now, you're pretty down on yourself, which gives you an attitude of "What's the point of anything?" When you lose that attitude, you'll notice that you live in a world where certain actions have great benefits. Then you'll have an incentive to take action. There's no such thing as willpower.
posted by mpls2 at 11:39 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

If the possibility of attention deficit disorder rings true to you, try You Mean I'm Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?! The Classic Self-Help Book for Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder and also ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life. I've benefitted from both.
posted by carmicha at 12:22 PM on March 11, 2008

States of motivation and self-esteem have a momentum to them. Small steps in any direction can lead to bigger steps in that direction, so don't obsess over the eventual goal, but rather focus on doing each little thing right moment-by-moment.

Sunlight and exercise also helps a great deal.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:23 PM on March 11, 2008

I'm sick and tired of you being sick and tired.
posted by tarvuz at 5:26 PM on March 11, 2008

FWIW, the following helped me change long-standing negative habits. I don't believe I have/had actual diagnosable disorders, so maybe my situation was less extreme, but anyway it's worth a shot. Start with little inconsequential things: I will get my ass off the couch and do my dishes tonight, and they will be f'ing spotless. Give yourself credit for getting things right, and whenever you feel yourself focusing on something negative remind yourself of something positive, even something small (the magnitude of the good vs. bad is less important than the fact that you remember to balance negative thoughts with positive). Keep the positive momentum from those little things and use it when you feel that negative vibe coming on; you can turn an "oh, here comes another screw-up" into "hey, I'm having a good day, maybe this'll work out" and even if it doesn't this time, you know that mistakes are part of the human condition and you're getting a little better every day. There's always tomorrow to look forward to.

Maybe that's similar to CBT; I'm not familiar with it. But the point is, you recognize that little voice, that lump of dread, that feeling of impending doom, and you have so much more control over it than you think you do. Learn the right way to frame a situation in a positive light, and even if it feels like faking it at first, it really will elevate your moods and make you stronger.
posted by Chris4d at 10:50 PM on March 11, 2008

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