ask polly

‘I’m a Pathetic Loser Who Can’t Stop Procrastinating!’

Photo: J & C Sohns/Getty Images/imageBROKER RF

Hi Polly,

I started writing you this letter, then thought, I’ll work on this some more tomorrow, and almost closed the email draft. Realizing the irony of that, I forced myself to plow through this letter in one sitting, knowing that if I didn’t finish it now, I never would.

I am an unemployed college dropout living with my boyfriend’s parents, and I can’t get my act together. My family back home is ashamed of me, but they still believe in me and are trying to help me. I wish they would just give up on me so that I don’t end up disappointing them again. I can’t accomplish anything, and I am living a parasitic existence, leeching off my partner’s family. When I was in college, I approached every new assignment with the complete and sincere intention to start early and make incremental progress so that I wouldn’t have to do it all at the last minute (again), but I would be filled with anxiety and confusion about how to go about accomplishing it and would procrastinate with mind-numbing distractions. Sophomore year, I finally “broke” and became unable to finish assignments even in the face of deadlines. I would skip classes just to lie in bed staring at the ceiling and hating myself. I went to counseling services and academic tutors but gave up when I didn’t get immediate results. I cried in professors’ office hours, begged for extensions, and even got the school to let me have the summer to finish my coursework with no negative impact to my GPA. Despite this generous policy, I still ended up failing three of the four classes and getting put on academic probation. As a result, my parents rescinded their offer to pay my tuition, and I decided to drop out rather than to try to pay $30,000 a semester, knowing that I most likely wouldn’t graduate in four years.

I have some talents and skills that could potentially be valuable, and I am only 20 years old, so I still have plenty of opportunities to get my life back in order, if I could just get off my ass for two seconds and pursue them. However, my lack of self-discipline is keeping me from accomplishing anything meaningful in my life. I used to have many creative hobbies and was a good student, but now I just spend my days wasting time on the internet, sleeping to procrastinate, wallowing in self-pity, and ingratiating myself on anyone sympathetic enough to listen to my whining. I keep wishing that someone else would take control of my life and “save me” from the problems that I created. Every time I try to apply for jobs or do something productive, I quickly become discouraged because it’s “hard” and “doesn’t feel good” to my stupid monkey brain that only cares about comfort and instant gratification. I can do simple household tasks such as cooking or laundry, but as soon as a goal becomes bigger and more amorphous, I become paralyzed and can’t move forward. I have tried breaking up my goals into smaller steps and setting up a timetable for when I want to complete what, but as soon as I get to work, I become overwhelmed by all the factors and complications that go into accomplishing the task and start ruminating on whether I divided it up in the wrong way.

I feel stupid, weak-willed, useless, and pathetic, and wonder if this is going to be the rest of my life. I naturally have low energy levels and am bad at taking action. I’ve given up on my hopes and ambitions and no longer want anything from life. My friends, partner, and my partner’s family have been very affirming to me and have reassured me that I am acceptable to them as I am now, but there is no way I can be acceptable to myself when I can’t even do anything (and I feel like I must have tricked them into thinking that I’m an okay person). How do I get over my chronic procrastination problem and actually become the person I want to be?

Pathetic Loser

Dear Depressed Person,

You’re not a pathetic loser. You’re a depressed, anxious person. But every time you feel depressed or anxious (or sad or angry or annoyed or tired) you tell yourself that you’re screwing everything up again, like the screwup that you are. “Why can’t you be like other, normal people?” you ask yourself. “Why can’t you charge ahead and make things happen? Why don’t you want anything anymore?”

The answer is that you’re severely depressed. When you’re depressed, you don’t want things. When you’re depressed, you can’t even consider big goals, let alone make progress toward them. You’re running scared all the time, from everything, so even thinking about a big goal is frightening. That’s not your fault. Your “stupid monkey brain” only cares about comfort and instant gratification because right now, those are the only things that make you feel better.

Plenty of other people are like you. You’re not alone. But you need to talk to a therapist and sort out what’s going on with you. Because you’re in a situation that’s making everything worse: Your life has no structure. You have support, but you don’t trust it. You don’t believe that anyone could love you the way you are right now. That’s your depression talking, too. But maybe part of you wants your boyfriend and his family to realize that you’re not doing fine like they say. It’s great that they’re so understanding and helpful, but they might be in denial about how bad things have gotten for you. You also feel the weight of your own family’s disappointment, so much so that you want them to “just give up” on you, releasing you from the enormous guilt you have about dropping out of school.

I would guess that you were taught, like so many of us, to suppress most of your so-called negative emotions and play up your positive emotions. You were cheerful, you handled your assignments, and when anything “negative” like worries or sadness or fear came up, you stuffed those feelings under your bed and moved forward. You were rewarded for doing this. You were successful! You were cheerful and responsible and kind!

Meanwhile, under the bed, a pile of worries and fears were growing. Eventually, they filled your whole room. But for a while, even that felt doable: You kept moving. “IT’S FINE!” you told people, so you wouldn’t look hesitant or insecure. You were good at seeming good. You never stopped to look at what was piling up around you, because looking for even a second would make you feel sad, and sadness was not allowed.

Slowly, though, it became harder to get things done, making it harder to smile or laugh, making it harder to breathe. And at the exact point when life got really, really hard, and you had to rally, and you had to get out the door and do some work, it felt completely impossible. You just … couldn’t.

Now you can’t move forward because your body and mind are telling you that they’re tired of obeying your orders and doing what you tell them to do. Your body and your mind miss being relaxed and optimistic, the way you were back when you could feel ALL of your emotions — the anger, the sadness, and also the joy. When someone tells you, over and over again, that you’re not allowed to be sad or angry, the joy goes away, too. Life becomes all work and no play.

It’s natural that your body and mind would rebel against that state of affairs. Your body says, “This is bullshit, I want to play!” Your mind says, “I’m tired of holding back your fears and worries. I want to relax and think about good things!” They refuse to work. You can’t focus. They just want a fix — something distracting, something relaxing, something tasty, something fun. You tell yourself this makes you lazy, but you’re the opposite of lazy. You’re constantly in hell — anxious, unhappy, your mind spinning in circles, your body feeling ill. It’s not your fault that your body and mind want a break wherever they can find it. They’ve been tortured for too long.

And your current depressed state might not be entirely determined by the messages you received when you were small about how to act and how to be. You might also be battling some chemical depression and anxiety. So even when things seem fine to everyone else, you feel terrible. This is true for me. Basically, if I don’t exercise almost every day, I feel worse and worse. I have trouble wanting things. As long as I can exercise, though, I’m pretty happy and ambitious. But if I ever found myself in a position where I couldn’t exercise, I might have to take psychotropic drugs in order to face the world without a lot of fear and heaviness and dread.

That’s not my fault. It’s just how I’m built. Even when I was a teenager, I experienced myself as having very little energy. And some people exercise constantly and they’re still unhappy. That’s not their fault, either. Some people try drugs and they don’t work, or they stop working at some point, so they have to try something else. The words “pathetic” and “loser” have nothing to do with any of that. Even when I’m exercising all the time, I go through periods when I’m struggling. Sometimes I feel like I have to reinvent the wheel every few days. I like solving problems, and writing about them, and I try to remember that it’s part of why I do what I do and also why I write in general. But it can be bewildering.

The most important thing I’ve learned, that I want you to learn, is that I’m built this way. I’m not a weak or shitty person. I don’t have a bad attitude. I just have this body and this mind. I have to work with what I have. I have to do the best I can with what I have.

So scrape those words — pathetic and loser — out of your brain permanently. You have a lot of shame around being who you are, which is normal, honestly — I do, too — but you have to start to notice how much your shame paralyzes you in concert with your already very low, depressed state. You have to look straight at the major hurdles in front of you and stop blaming yourself for their existence.

Your boyfriend and his family and your friends and family need to recognize that everything feels terrible for you right now. They can’t keep saying, “Everything is fine! You’re fine, you’re great!” straight to your face. They need to hear, directly from you, the words, “I am not doing well. I feel depressed. I don’t want anything. I need help.”

You need to ask your boyfriend and his family and your friends and your family for help.

I know that it’s going to be very, very hard for you to do this, because you’re already blaming yourself for everything. You blame yourself for everything because YOU’RE A RESPONSIBLE PERSON WHO IS DEPRESSED. Everything in your letter reaffirms that fact. You are accustomed to doing the work you need to do. You’ve fallen off track because your depression and anxiety are growing, but you’re blaming yourself for it instead of looking for outside help.

You say that you looked for help before but gave up when you didn’t see immediate results. That’s a common experience among responsible people who are accustomed to charging forward, tackling their problems, and being rewarded for it immediately. But therapy and self-awareness and the battle against shame don’t work that way. At first, everything looks grim. As you start to recognize how deep the damage goes, it can be absurdly overwhelming, particularly when you have a lifelong habit of avoiding big, heavy questions and dark emotions. I just want you to understand that if you can find a therapist who you trust and be patient with the process of treatment, the rewards of that process might outreach any immediate goals you have in mind now. Your whole relationship to yourself, the way you treat yourself, the satisfaction you find in hard work, the ways you notice when you’re hurting yourself — these are all fundamental dimensions of your life that will shift dramatically with good treatment. The point is to learn to feel your emotions again, without fear, so you can enjoy your days instead of freaking out about screwing up all the time.

You can’t really ask yourself to work hard right now because your story is that your depression is your fault and dropping out is your fault and anything you do from this point forward will still be a total failure and a sad compromise. You have to get help and feel better and tell a new story FIRST in order to finally stop avoiding the hard things in your life.

I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that now that you’re living with your boyfriend’s family, you’re struggling more than ever. I do very badly when I’m in circumstances where I’m not charging forward, where I feel like I’m leaning on other people for help. It’s sort of ironic, really, because looking for help from others without anger and fear was one of the hardest things for me to do. And even when I get help, that doesn’t change the fact that I need to feel capable and productive in order to feel good. I can slow down and give myself a rest, but there are limits to how much I can thrive when I’m not creating something that feels worthwhile.

I can’t tell you enough times how hard it is to be where you are right now. A life without structure, leaning on someone else’s family while very depressed and very anxious? I need for you to hear me when I say this to you: You are in a very difficult place and it’s not your fault. You need help.

Enlist your boyfriend and/or his family in this fight. You’ve got to look for a sliding-scale therapist or free clinic so you can sort through what’s happening to you and try to get some help in treating your depression and anxiety. Once you start to feel a little bit more human, once you start to want things a little bit more, believe me, procrastination won’t be an issue. Procrastination is a symptom of your depression, not a cause. The cause is much more complex and probably includes an interplay of biology, chemistry, upbringing, and current circumstances.

I know it’s hard, so hard. I remember how I used to feel: like nothing was worth doing, like nothing mattered or added up, and worst of all, I truly believed that my own inertia and bad attitude were to blame. My depression prevented me from looking back at the many, many times in my life I’d overcome inertia and had a great attitude. I want you to do that now. I want you to look back at your true, real self, hiding in the past, the one who was industrious, who had good intentions, who powered through the hard times. That girl is still here, still working really hard, but you can’t see her anymore. She’s waiting for you to acknowledge her. She wants you to feel joy again. She wants you to see her clearly for once. She wants you to see how hard she tries.

Can you see how hard she’s been trying? Have some empathy for this hardworking, overwhelmed, scared girl. She’s not a pathetic loser. She’s just a person who needs help. Help her. Forgive her. Give her your love.


Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

All letters to become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

‘I’m a Pathetic Loser Who Can’t Stop Procrastinating!’