Hi Dear Captain,
I’m an 18yr old just on the last legs of high school. I’ve got this Huge! Life! Affirming! Exam!(equivalent to SATs) coming up on April, and I am so not prepared.
So, I’ve got a family that’s lowkey hellish to live with.My siblings are all nearly a decade older. My mum is diagnosed with a mental illness that manisfests in instability and extreme anger.I rarely get to see my dad. Growing up in this household surely messed something up, because I have low esteem and anxiety. Pair that up with subtle put downs and remarks about my intelligence and vague body shaming from my sisters, my feelings for my family are mostly contemptous and distrustful now.A big part of my life plan is GET FAR FAR AWAY THIS IS NOT HEALTHY RUN.
Unfortunately, to fulfill my escape plan, I’ll need to study well enough to land a scholarship to uni. Or else it’s forevermore being stuck in this place. As it currently stands, I’m officially unable to give a crap. About anything. Being overly sensitive and fragile,I tend to shut down and be an unresponsive zombie in the face of conflict of any sort. In previous letters you’ve said you have never been as unhappy later on as once a kid, I’d genuinely like to get to that stage from where I am right now. But it’s either running away or uni for me.
It feels like I know the starting position, I know where the finish line is, but I can’t muster enough willpower to work towards my goals. It just doesn’t register in my numbed brain that I need to study my butt off. I just can’t care about anything. It took me six days just to write this email.
I don’t know how to get out of this funk.Time is running out,I can’t afford to be depressed or I’ll be in even of more a clusterf**k.
So in short,how do I stop being a zombie and care about my future and everything else?
Sorry to dampen your holiday spirits,Captain. Merry Christmas to you and your awesome cat.
Dear Fingers Crossed:
I believe that you are going to get out of your family home at some point whether or not you do amazingly on your exams & get a scholarship. A lot of people find ways to go to school (if that’s what they want to do) and to move out of the family home (if that’s what they want to do) even when the circumstances aren’t ideal. So, you’re most likely not stuck FOREVERMORE (even if it feels that way). But let’s agree that doing well on the exams sounds like it is both potentially within your control and the fastest way to achieve escape velocity, so it’s worth focusing your energies there.
I think that you’ll do better at this exam stuff if you have a team on your side. To build that team:
First, does your school have a counselor or counselors? Sometimes one person handles the “talking to students about feelings & brain stuff” and “helping students prepare for future education and/or career stuff” functions, sometimes it’s split. You need both of these functions on your team. You need adults who have information about the steps you need to take in applying to schools, which universities are a good fit, where you have the best chance of getting in, etc. You need someone who can help you develop a “what happens if I don’t get into school” action plan for moving out and getting started at some sort of work. And you need someone who can listen to you about shitty things at home and help you get control of your schedule and your momentum. If you don’t know who these people are, talk to your favorite teacher and see what they suggest.
Second, does your school offer tutoring, study support, or even dedicated study time for these exams? Since they are such a big deal, I bet there is something there. You may have thought whatever program exists was for students who are less academically advanced than you, but if you feel like you need some structure and support then these services are for you. Somebody has broken down what will be on the tests and the recommended material to cover, somebody is helping students tackle it. Again, if you’re not sure where to start, ask your favorite & most approachable teacher.
Third, you need study buddies. Who are the other students at your school who are prepping for the same exam? Which of them are nice to you? Who might want to form a club along the lines of “Ok, let’s make a schedule and also flash cards and we can read each other’s sample essays and divide up topics and research them” and meet weekly to make studying for the exam a little less lonely? You may have a hard time motivating on your own, but this can get a lot easier if you have solidarity and accountability to peers. It’s scary to admit to people that you are disorganized and that you need help, but I guarantee you aren’t the only one freaking out about these tests and thinking “MY WHOLE FUTURE DEPENDS ON THIS WHY CAN’T I FEEL ANYTHING” constantly in the background of their brains. Find some people and work together.
Fourth, you could talk to your doctor (general practitioner) about feeling anxious and unmotivated and investigate medical treatment. I would work the school angle first because it’s the most likely to have resources in place for you, but this is something you can do and your doctor can’t tell your mum.
Fifth, there are some non-therapy mental health things that are free or very inexpensive if you come up short at school or with your doctor.
Now let’s talk survival strategies for a yelling house. One way of dealing is to be Not At Home as much as possible. Ways to be Not Home:
- Clubs, sports, theater, choir, and other school-related or hobby-related activities that are parent-friendly. (“Where are you going?” “I’m playing ice hockey with my Hamlet study group” “Ok, be home by 9”)
- Studying (perhaps with your study group) at the library.
- Solo exercise, if you have the ability – Long walks & bike rides are especially good.
- Part-time jobs! Your #1 job is to be a student, but I think you need something outside of your house that pays money (money that can be squirreled away in an account that no one else in your family has access to, gotta build your fuck off fund). You need to build some skills and work experience as a plan B if university doesn’t happen. If you don’t have a job already, make a list of things you can do that you could charge money for and start looking for part-time gigs in your neighborhood. Walk dogs! Babysit kids! Restaurant/catering jobs have an advantage of feeding you (so you can skip awkward mealtimes). Try to find something close by so you can depend only on yourself for transport.
If you can structure your life so that you are out of the house as much as possible working or studying, the time you spend inside the house might go a little easier for you. Or it may still suck there, but your week will also be full of time with people who don’t belittle you.
You mention that you barely see your dad. Does he financially support you at all? Does he know what your plans are for after high school? Only you can judge whether it’s worth having a frank conversation with him along the lines of “Dad, I’m taking my exams this spring and I really want to get a scholarship to university to study ______. Are you able to help pay something towards my schooling? I need to know so I can make a good plan.” He might say no, he won’t or no, he can’t, or there might be strings that make it very much Not Worth It but you aren’t doing anything wrong by asking and it might help to have the information.
I wish you allllllllll the luck in moving past this temporary block, acing your exams, and finding your Small Quiet Room.
P.S. The cat says hi
141 thoughts on “#1068: “How do I snap out of this apathy?””
Hi, LW! As one of my favorite writers used to say: “This too shall pass”. Cap’s advice is very comprehensive buy you do you! And working is, based on my experience, the best way to put yourself through college/uni if there’s no extraneous economic support.
Lots of love, support and internet cookies!
Yes yes yes, start yourself a little escape fund (I like the term “fuck off fund!”) I moved to my current city when I was a 19-year-old college dropout, with a month’s rent and security deposit in my pocket. Every big city is full of young adults who came to the city in search of whatever they were searching for. Do those odd jobs and sock every penny away and by summer you’ll have enough for a room and a bus ticket, and in today’s connected world you can move there with some names of people to talk to. Knowing that you have another way out may take some of the life-or-death crushing pressure off this exam. Plus work will get you out of the house and moving, which will help with the inertia.
It isn’t as easy in every country, but I went back to school at 27 and graduated at 30, after five years of living with roommates and working odd jobs. My brother did the same. There’s a lot of life after high school!
I agree with the captain – you are likely to get out of this situation whether or not you ace this exam and get a uni scholarship. Nevertheless, it seems like escape to uni-land is something you want for yourself, and that is great! It is also really understandable that you feel numb – it is depressing to have people attacking your self-worth and to be living with someone whose emotions are hard to predict and be around. I also second the Captain’s advice to seek professional support, but sometimes that is easier said that done.
If you can’t access a counsellor, you might find the ACT companion helpful. It is a tool that I use with clients all the time to work on apathy, hopelessness and isolation. It has a mix of CBT and mindfulness activities that can quickly help people to move towards things that feel more positive and optimistic and work towards goals. I hope you find your way to uni.
I forgot to add the link to the app (can I even do that commenting here?). If so, it is:
Great app suggestion ! LW, there are a TON of free apps at the play store that help with relaxation, anxiety and panic, motivation, meditation, etc. There is a free app called “Calm” (has tons of ads which suck), but is very good otherwise. You can run it as long as you like, but its designed for the user to take 20 seconds out of their day to just chill, if 20 seconds is the most you can spare or if you need a brief “reset” from anxiety or panic. (I ran it for an hour last night) Also, I agree with Cap about seeing your dr. In this day and age, there is no reason to suffer when there are meds that can help reset your brain and bring its fucked up chemicals into balance. Self talk is another tool that can help adjust your brain chemistry and help you to feel better. (ex – I am a Divine Being. I am Worthy. I am Valuable. The path toward my goals is wide open and just waiting for me to walk it.) There are free affirmation apps at the play store to help you get started. Before you know it, you’ll be writing your own based on what you need. You deserve to feel better and be the best you can be. You are able to build the life you desire and deserve. You are not alone. Reach out for help from any and all resources available to you. You got this !
There is an Apple app called Brainwaves you can use for earbuds; there’s binaural brainswaves programs for relaxation, focus, sleep — I love them! It is a few bucks.
Also, this can be a time where we are using up our stress hormones and literally can’t think… because we are out of brain chemicals! So stoke up on plenty of protein and healthy fats instead of junk food that only makes us feel better temporarily.
I found my public library to be a wonderful haven. Or your high school library. If they have those study carrels, bring your study materials and have a little room of your own for a while.
Best of luck!
I have wonderful memories of the study carrels at the university library when I was getting my teaching certification (the teaching didn’t work out, but that’s another story). I’d go up on the 4th or 5th floor where there was no one around and (neatly!) eat my lunch because there was no one there to care, and do my studying by a window with a sunbeam…
Maybe consider using studying as a way of getting out of the house. Going to a coffee shop (if you have the money for a drink) or the local library for a few hours, a few evenings a week. Sitting in an environment specifically to study is a lot easier than trying to do it in your bedroom and means that evening if you do no studying at any other time, you’ll have these little pockets in your day when you can escape your house and use some me-time with a hot chocolate and your notes.
And it’s always worth reminding you that plenty of people lead fulfilling and financially stable lives with less than average grades. You want to do well in these exams but they are not the entire lynch-pin on which your future rests.
Best of luck lw
Seriously, trying to study when stressed and worried is absolutely awful. How are you studying? What areas do you need to improve on? How are you going to shore up those weaknessess? Having a plan like do 3 practice tests, figure out subject A by reading book X,Y and Z and talk to T about Z in particular sometimes can be really useful. On a related note, when writing big scary paper thing I had good luck with cycling through writing locations- i.e. write at home until I got stuck, then going to a coffee shop then cycling through the library and back home. Something about the change in scenery helped jog me out of ruts.
I think the public/private ambiance of a coffee shop or library or other similar space is very soothing. They are usually with people around, who are NOT bothering us! They are usually a clean, well-lighted, space 🙂 And there are zero expectations being laid on us beside a beverage, or being quiet, or other easily managed tasks. And bathrooms 🙂
My anxiety frequently manifests as apathy, and if you think they may be related for you, then here are a few approaches that have helped me:
1. Try to practice a growth mentality – the idea that you are continually learning and changing. This is anti-perfectionist training. Celebrate not understanding something. I am trying to embrace saying “Hurray! I don’t understand this! I’m actively learning!” which is hard, but worthwhile.
2. Give yourself permission to seek knowledge, not test passing ability. This test is important, and there is a big emphasis on test scores etc. but what if instead of saying “I need to study this for an hour”, you looked at all the topics and just read about something that interested you. Maybe you’re curious about the Large Hadron Collider, or how English grammar evolved from Latin and French and German and a lot of peasants. Take a step back from Important Test and see if you can tap into your curiosity instead. In the long run, this is about re-engaging with that learning process so when it comes to studying the sight of textbooks doesn’t make your stomach flip.
3. Talk or write through what is happening in your brain. There’s a formal-ish approach called a Thought Record you can google, or for me this often looks like this:
“I am on Twitter instead of working. When I think about working on that project I feel very high anxiety. Why? I don’t really know which approach to take next and I’m scared my boss will think I’m a failure. My boss likes it when I ask for help so I am going to ask her which of these two options she prefers.”
Clarifying the underlying fears helps me take small actions that support the bigger actions/goals.
Therapy, primarily CBT, helped me, and as well as the resources the Captain suggests, I found the “Mind over Mood” workbook helpful. It’s available on Amazon for about $25.
As someone with anxiety, these tips seem amazing, thank you!
Anxiety manifesting as apathy… I never thought of it that way before.
If you don’t care then you can’t fail! Ha! Take that overwhelming-need-to-overachieve!
catiecan, I love what you have written! Very clearly and well put in words! ❤ I am also a person who suffers from anxiety.
I just wanted to tell a small story about point 2 because seeking knowledge is always inspirational – and sometimes it so happens that in the right time you will suddenly realize you possess a piece of information which turns out to be of great use.
When I was studying for the end tests of high school (in my country there is a big emphasis on those) I was also stressed and anxious. Still, I have always loved reading and always been curious so every morning I read the newspaper thoroughly. On the morning of the biggest and most stressing test I woke up early after a night filled with nightmares. I was tired, but I sighed, fetched the newspaper and sat down to read it.
There was a large article on how the size of the population of moose had varied in my country through decades. To banish my anxiety I concentrated on the article. It helped somewhat and in the end when the time came to leave for school I felt better.
It was the test on the sciences (and also history, economy, religious studies…). I had decided to answer the questions on biology and chemistry – which I did. When I checked out the questions on biology I was very positively surprised: the most important question with most points was about – how the population of moose had varied through decades in my country.
So, dear LW, best of luck to you! ❤
I would like to second the recommendation for a CBT workbook. CBT is such an excellent tool. A general book like Mind over Mood is good, but for help overcoming motivation problems, it might also be worth looking at a book geared at perfectionism. Perfectionism (a subset of anxiety) can manifest as a lack of motivation if we are afraid the results of our work won’t be good enough.
Executive dysfunction can also feel like a lack of motivation. I love the youtube channel How To ADHD, and there’s no rule that says you must have an ADHD diagnosis to use those techniques. They can be useful for lots of people.
Do you have any suggestions on books geared toward perfectionism? I’m going to look on my own, but I like to look extra hard at ones people recommended directly.
Brené Brown has a book on embracing imperfection, I don’t have the title right now but it was incredibly helpful for me!
The Gifts of Imperfection, by any chance?
I did a group therapy thing, so I don’t have a book I’ve used. The facilitator recommended When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, but I can’t vouch for it myself.
I used one or two of the ones listed here http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/resources/consumers.cfm (hope the link works, if not Google “CCI workbooks”) – Perfectionism in Perspective and Put off Procrastination. I still remember the day when I realised that the reason I spent 30 minutes or more trying to figure out what clothes to wear that day wasn’t because I was spoiled, vain, or had way too many clothes, but because it was a ‘symptom’ of perfectionism. (I mean, okay, maybe it was because of those things a little, too, but ya know).
Thank you for that recommendation! I just watched a few “How to ADHD” videos and I think the series is going to be very helpful.
I wasn’t diagnosed til age 48, I have a lifetime of bad habits & poor coping methods to overcome.
“I am trying to embrace saying “Hurray! I don’t understand this! I’m actively learning!” which is hard, but worthwhile.”
Woah. I’m going to write this down and start incorporating it into my brain IMMEDIATELY.
As a teacher/scientist, I see people that are comfortable with uncertainty/not knowing while still plugging away at trying to understand it to be a trait that really leads to success.
Another suggestion I have for overcoming motivation problems is to give yourself permission to only do a very small amount at a time. Set your goal that you will be in your study spot, with materials available, at a certain time, and you must spend five minutes studying. If, after those five minutes, you are DONE then that’s fine. You met your goal. Good job! But if you find, once you’ve started, that you feel like you’re okay to do it for ten minutes, or thirty, or sixty, that’s fine too. You are allowed to keep studying.
Sometimes we forget that starting a task is, itself, a task and setting ourself the goal of just _doing_ the task feels overwhelming because we don’t take into account the effort required to start. Try setting yourself _just_ the goal of starting the task and see how you feel.
Awesome suggestions !
My goodness this is such great advice! Thank you for the advice esp about cultivating a growth mindset. ❤ As an anxious kid who mostly coasted through high school, it's still something I'm working on. (Am 27 now)
This is closely related to what I came to say, thanks catiecan! LW, I too have been in a situation where I knew I needed to step up my game academically or I’d lose my scholarship/flunk out/disappoint my family, and the stakes felt really high, and I felt failure (i.e. anything less than amazingness) was not an option. Naturally, my response to these circumstances was to sleep a lot and read mountains of fanfiction instead of doing my schoolwork. I was 19 and miserable.
When I finally went to a campus therapist in desperation, I learned that it wasn’t laziness or apathy holding me back. It was fear of failure. What if I tried as hard as I could in school, and I still couldn’t finish everything my professors expected me to do? What if I couldn’t get the grades I wanted no matter how hard I tried? What if my best wasn’t enough?
I don’t think you’re truly apathetic about your future. The first part of your letter makes it clear you do care. You clearly stated your goals. I don’t even think you lack willpower. I think your fear of failure is, at the moment, stronger than your willpower and your caring. Fear is what’s numbing your brain. After all, what if you study your butt off for the next few months and your scores still aren’t good enough to get you the scholarship you want?
You’ll learn from the experience, and you’ll find another way out, that’s what.
I especially like catiecan’s point #2 above. Accept that you might not be able to perform the perfect studying regimen the entire time leading up to the exam. That’s okay. Forget perfection. Just do SOMETHING that gets you a little closer to your goal and a little farther away from nothing at all. Something that feels doable, something that interests you. Start small and let the satisfaction of having done the small thing propel you forward.
CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is indeed a great idea; it’s what helped me at age 19. Also, if physical exercise is a thing you’re able to do, nowadays I find it’s the number one thing that helps me regain motivation in other areas of my life. I still struggle with feeling stuck even as an adult in my thirties, and when I see myself starting to avoid work, I go to the gym or go running or bring up a fitness video on YouTube. I feel really accomplished and proud of myself after exercising, and that feeling of success helps me push through my fear of falling short. This may not work for you–just one option to try.
It sounds like LW is assuming that the apathy is tied a lot to the anxiety. I would suggest that it might simply be senior (end of schooling) burnout. Going from being a near-graduate on the verge of adulthood – with all of the freedoms and decision making and pressure that comes with it is simply overwhelming. There’s a pull to start making all these adult lifestyle decisions while still meeting the last of your childhood obligations (like your ifnal exam). LW you are not alone – many, in fact most, people at the stage of life you’re in get burnt out and overwhelmed.
Captain is right. Focus on that exam. It’s a requirement to complete your schooling and a ticket to financial assistance for school. Give yourself permission to hold off on any other decision making in the meantime. In between studying, take yourself out for a coffee or for a sit on a park bench or a walk around the neighborhood and just get some thinking done. Let you mind wander to life after school……If the scholarship falls through, how could you still manage uni? Are there job options nearby? Does your uni offer night or weekend classes or online options that will give you the flexibility to work a job while in school? If you can’t afford to live in a school dorm, is it possible to rent a place with a roommate or two?
And if you have to put uni on hold for the time being, what would you like to do next (and what else might get you out of your current home)? Could you see yourself picking up stakes and moving to a whole new town? Is there a friend in your home town that you could share an apartment with? Could you consider a study-abroad option?
Just spend some time just thinking. Turn possibilities over in your head and see how you feel about them. Don’t make firm decisions until you’re officially done with school and exams. Just mentally test the waters and I bet much of your apathy will fade into excitement about what comes next. Good luck to you!
These are such good suggestions because so often we fall into a binary trap: it is this or nothing! This is my only chance! Etc
When this is truly not the case.
I have such strong memories of being an older teenager (16, 17, 18 years old) and feeling like if I didn’t work the Life Equation correctly the first time, I would be a failure forever. My ability to see the future was super binary: either I would go to college, major in something profitable, get a good paying job, and be All Set…or I would, say, get pregnant at 17 and fail at life. Forever. I think some of that is how my brain works, but some of that is how we set children on tracks, and some of it is the binary nature of school (either you pass, or you don’t).
LW, if any of that sounds like you, let me tell you that one of the greatest things I’ve learned about being an adult is that there are SO MANY WAYS to make a life for yourself that is successful. There are so many definitions of a successful life. There are so many more second chances out there than you think there are (as my high school friends who got pregnant when they were 17 can now tell you, 12 years later). It’s not uni or nothing. If you don’t get through the door you see, I promise you there’s a window to scrabble through, or a hedge that you can chainsaw a door through. Take care of yourself, and have faith in yourself. There’s so many ways to make a life that you can’t even see yet.
Ugh, so so true. I didn’t get out of this kind of thinking until I was in my mid-20s, and in the meantime I took basically zero risks during highschool, college and my first post-grad years because I was having an existential crisis about What I Was Going To Do, which obviously could only be decided once and must be decided perfectly. I’ve heard this called “analysis paralysis”, and gods know I certainly felt frozen.
If that sounds familiar LW, what I can say that’s easy is that the best thing you can do in this situation is not be afraid to try things that might not work out. It’s a hard balance but IME you have to work towards something while simultaneously not hanging literally all of your hopes and dreams on that thing. I got to that place in therapy, which is more of a long term project.
I got pregnant at 16 (just after getting a full scholarship and early graduation/college admission!), and it derailed my original life plans — but the life I built (after some really hard years of grinding poverty) wound up being rich and rewarding in all kinds of unexpected ways, including achieving career success despite never going back and getting a degree.
There are LOTS of ways to have second chances, I promise you. And I also *desperately* had to get away from my abusive, narcissistic mother as a teenager, with college as my original escape plan.
You’re getting great advice here, and I think you can Do The Thing — but I’m here to tell you that you still have more options if you have to take a different path.
Off topic, but is your name Lorelai Gilmore???
(I’m referencing a TV show, in case you’re not aware, not actually asking your real name)
Agreed. One of the most important things that ever happened to me was when I was a junior in high school and starting on applying to colleges, reading a blog post called “Everybody’s on Plan C”. It made me realize that there was more than one way to succeed and that I was almost guaranteed to be unable to predict what way I would find.
LW, you got this.
I know you meant it as an example of the shitty things society tells us but the line
“get pregnant at 17 and fail at life”
really stung me. Mostly because, bar enormous amounts of privilege and some lucky intervention, teenage mothers end up marginalised and disenfranchised for the rest of their lives.
I was pregnant at 19, while at uni. I finished that degree a few years later and had my second child at 24. I was at home with two kids who had multiple challenges and so I studied online and finished a second degree. When I could I worked casual and part-time, doing shitty hours for shitty pay. Work in my field was highly competitive and I was passed over for people with “more experience” or who were more “flexible” ie people who had not been home with kids and who didn’t have complex family responsibilities.
Most people would look at my life as it is now (I’m 33) and say I have “failed”: I’ve never worked a full-time job. I live on a pension and have required welfare payments since forever. I have a huge student debt that I will likely never pay back because my chances of ever getting a decent paying job that meets the threshold for compulsory repayments is zero. I have $3000 in superannuation and will likely live in dire poverty when I am old. I oscillate between despair (because I’m poor and I can’t independently support myself and I’ll never achieve my dreams) and anger (because fuck you society for making it so hard to do *anything* when you have kids and especially when you have them young).
So yeah. I’m a failed teen mum. It sucks. Please keep that in mind in the future.
Oh gosh, you haven’t failed! For a start, you’re only 33! You sound like you’ve done so much. You’ve got two degrees that it sounds like you were really determined to get.
It’s OK to need welfare payments. As a society, we decided that we want to support people in your situation rather than throw them in the workhouse or have them die on the streets. It’s not some great shameful secret. You qualify, so you get the payments. No biggie. Because we as a society (as much as it sometimes seems like we don’t) DO value more things than productive economic value. Your worth as a human being is not measured by how much money you earn. A full-time job is not the goal of life. At most, it is a tool to get you towards the real goals of life, like human connection and autonomy. You have not failed. Life is not a race or a competition.
I can empathise with your fears about dying in penury, but you’re not old and decrepit yet. Hang in there.
I think the Captain’s advice is stellar as always. Breaking big “Study all the thiiiiings” ideas down into a series of more concrete steps might really help you find a road map. It sounds overwhelming to ME when you describe it like a race. Really the amount of pressure you are putting on yourself in this e-mail has ME ready to go back to bed.
Try to focus not on studying as much as you possibly can and shoving it all in your brain because omg, but studying in the most effective ways you can. That means focusing on topics where you’re going to get the most return on your time spent. It also means still getting sleep, and letting your brain do things also that are fun or important so it can store the information you are learning. Hopefully you can find some good resources to help you!
My suggestion also is to pick up a good book. Something that interests you, that you’re excited to read, and read it. Maybe do it at the library where it is quiet. Why? Because reading is a great way to pick up vocabulary and grammar rules in a native way that can help you with writing and handling any language based sections of your test! Plus, it can be fun when you are reading something you like. It doesn’t have to be any specific book to benefit you, reading for pleasure is good for your brain. I don’t think this is the only studying you should do, but if it sounds like a small step you can handle, it might be a place to start.
As you’re going through this time, if it helps you can also try to think of some of this as it’s own science experiment. Learning the science of you. What things seem to help you motivate, focus, get things done? What things make you feel more overwhelmed?
Learn about how YOU work, and then use your findings to help you progress. We all have different things that work for us. For me it is starting with one small task, and another small task. It’s also giving myself concrete time limits and making sure I get enough to eat and sleep. Sometimes a change of scenery is really necessary for me to fully focus. (I did a lot of my best studying at Denny’s in college…. I know, so weird.) How are you handling distractions like social media? And what kinds of rewards after study do you find most motivating?
You can do this! I know it’s scary, but you have already taken one step, hopefully the next steps will get easier and easier!
I love the advice about reading. I used to use reading for pleasure as an incentive to get through a big bunch of tedious reading for class, like, 45 minutes of economics and then I can read the next chapter in Fun Book.
Also, Can Vouch that my ridiculously good, almost-perfect-verbal-score on SATs came from my vast Fun Reading Time, a thing I see clearly replicated in both my kids now (the 14yo who we let have a zero-writing homeschool year at age 11 [to address her major writing anxiety/loathing instilled by her elementary school] now writes wayyyyy above her peers, and not from any studying – just that, like everyone in the family, she reads for fun alllllllll the time…and is consistently surprised/mildly disappointed that so many of her peers don’t know words she considers pretty basic!).
Gonna third this one. Aced (as in, not one question wrong) the verbal portion of the ACT–twice. I never memorized a grammar rule or vocabulary word in my life, but I am the kind of person who reads all. the. time. It’s common for me to pull out a novel in the grocery store line. Thank goodness for books on my phone… I’m not talking Literature with a capital L, either; just fun books that interest me. This is working the same way for my kids, too.
Same here! Also in professional editing job now despite no direct experience in editing. Practice in any kind of reading and writing translates really well into reading and writing in other situations.
Yeah! I read an article a few years ago that said that basically learning grammar rules has much less impact on someone’s language abilities than just reading literally any books. So reading!
I thought I blew my SATs (decades ago) because I am really weak in math, and couldn’t remember any grammar rules to save my life. But I was reading for pleasure since I could read, and always way above my age level as a kid. Which must be what saved me, because I ended up getting one of the top scores in my HS, right up there with all the well known ‘brains’ & scholars. I remember every head in class swiveling around to stare at me, goggle-eyed (the girl with the weird hair is SMART?!?), but for real, no one was more surprised than I was.
Yes, and this goes for second (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) language skills as much as it does for your native language! Most of the research in second-language acquisition shows that comprehensible and compelling input (that is, reading or listening to things that you understand and are interested in) is the best way to gain proficiency in a new language, much more so than grammar learning, speaking practice, etc.
Sometimes with a language you don’t yet know very well, it’s hard to find things you both like and want to read, but there are a number of books published specifically for beginning students with storylines that are actually interesting and not babyish, and children’s books and TV shows are also good if you’re into that kind of thing.
(Sorry for a somewhat off-topic comment, just had to do a bit of a language teacher nerd infodump!)
I’m 2nding (3rding? Hundredthing?) the “small steps” approach. Many times I’ve had to call in sick at work because everything I had to do that day became an insurmountable obstacle requiring superhuman effort to overcome, and what’s the point of it all, I’d rather sleep (“anxiety manifesting as apathy” is a really, really apt way to describe it!). I’ve learned that usually, what it takes to save the day isn’t a superhuman effort at all, but telling myself that all I have to do is get out of bed and go to the bathroom. That is manageable (and eventually, pretty necessary anyway). And once I’ve done that, I focus on the next thing – getting dressed. Etc. Eventually I get enough momentum going that the rest of the day doesn’t seem that bad.
So, too, with studying (back in the day…way back). “I need to learn all the things, ever, so I can ace this single exam that will determine my entire future and whether I am happy or miserable forever” would actually turn me into a zombie, I think. Or some sort of salt pillar. But “make some cue cards” is achievable. Or even “make a list of subjects for which I will need to make cue cards.”
I work with high school students, and I’ve been a high school student, and there are many, many more options for happiness out there than you can see right now, LW. You are capable of writing this exam well, and if that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, you are capable of finding another way out.
> I’ve learned that usually, what it takes to save the day isn’t a superhuman effort at all, but telling myself that all I have to do is get out of bed and go to the bathroom. That is manageable (and eventually, pretty necessary anyway). And once I’ve done that, I focus on the next thing – getting dressed. Etc. Eventually I get enough momentum going that the rest of the day doesn’t seem that bad.
Seconded. I also found that it helps to have something you really look forward to to overcome that initial inertia. When it comes to getting up, for example, for me its the fact that once I get up, I get to feed my cats, which makes them happy, and seeing that my cats are happy makes me happy, too. Getting up may still suck, but at least I get something positive out of it.
S – this is so spot on! A great addendum to The Captain’s brilliant advice.
I suffer from anxiety related to certain subjects in my studies (like statistics – I have always thought that I am not that great in math, though it is clearly not true but still my jerkbrain believes that). So, whenever I study statistics my brain freezes over.
The pomodoro technique has helped me somewhat: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique
In short it is a technique to manage time during studying: study for 25 minutes, take a short break (3-5 minutes), study 25 minutes again, then short break again… After four 25 minute periods take a longer break.
I have understood that one’s brain is actually not that great in maintaining focus for long periods of time. If you have problems with that, this might help. Of course this is not the right solution to everyone.
I love animals and I volunteer with homeless cats and kittens. With them I follow the positive reinforcement theory: that reward is the right way to go to help learning; punishing is counter productive and unnecessary. I believe this also applies to humans.
The suggestion of a good book is fantastic: it is a great reward! Still, there are so many other possible rewards – and I believe in changing rewards once in a while. So, what do you like? For me it is good tea, books, music and taking a soothing walk – and occasionally video games. I always have a big cup of tea with me while I study and after studying diligently for a time (or after completing another task, like a difficult chemistry equation) I allow myself to read, or to play Skyrim for 30 minutes or I go for a walk – just like S suggested.
Then there is the question of your favourite learning environment. What kind of environment would you prefer? Silent? Or do you prefer to listen to music? Do you like being outdoors, in a cafe, in a library or in a friend’s house? I completely agree with The Captain: being at home does not sound very comfortable.
I also strongly support starting a study group unless there is not one already. Again, I am going to tell a story of myself. I grew up believing that I am talented and that needing to do a lot of work to learn was a mark of inability – which is completely screwed up. So, every time I had to study I felt like a failure. I was lucky, my high school was fantastic in understanding my needs – but when I entered the university things changed. We had a chemistry course which was so difficult that usually over half of the students failed it the first time. For me it was very hard to admit that I was failing. It took a very honest and friendly fellow student and him admitting that he did not understand anything for me to realize that I was not the only one.
We decided to form a small study group to go through the material and do all the calculations two times a week. It helped, it really did: we all passed – and we also became friends.
So, dear LW, indeed you are not the only one. I am sure even the student who seems to pass all the tests with ridiculously high grades without doing any work for it and who is absent most of the time (that would have been me) would really appreciate a study group.
You can do it! I know you can!
Regarding the pomodoro technique, it is definitely not for everyone. Admittedly I haven’t tried it, but experience says that I need at least half an hour of focused work just to get my brain into working at full capacity. And a lot of time before that is wasted on trying to focus and getting distracted… it can take ages till I managed to concentrate for long enough to finally reach full brain capacity. Then, when I got there, the key is to follow through for as long as possible. Any break I take means that I will have to start all over again. I can usually go for several hours, until my concentration crashes down rather suddenly, which is my sign to take a break.
I would advise people to plan on working at least for about half an hour, and from that point on stop whenever their concentration noticeable dwindles. The key point really is to remember that the level of concentration has a HUGE influence on productivity. I have often made the mistake to keep working/learning despite feeling tired and unfocused, because I felt that I HAD to be productive and make best use of the time, and I’ve regretted it every single time. Working without concentration means needing ages for tasks that would be quick and simple for a rested brain. The efficient way is to take a break whenever there is a concentration dip.
I also recommend to take into account that different levels of concentration are possible on different days. It can be wise to divide everyday tasks accordingly – drowsy days are best used for housework, shopping, putting things into order, writing summaries etc – simple, dull tasks that require little intelligence but need to be done nonetheless; alert days should be used for maximum amount of learning and understanding difficult concepts.
Also, I would advice the LW to put some thought into their sleeping rhythm. If possible, LW might want to be up at more unusual times, i.e. get up very late or very early, such that the time they spent awake with their awake family is minimized.
Also, I found that the sleeping rhythm can have a huge impact on ones overall attitude. Myself, I’m a morning person. That doesn’t stop me from being unmotivated to leave my warm, comfy bed, but whenever I do so very early in the morning, I’m better for it. I’m wired such that I’m happy and optimistic in the morning and get more pessimistic and anxious over the course of the day. A later sleeping rhythm means that I miss that morning high and and have trouble falling asleep in the evening – partly because my feeling-very-sleepy time is over already, and partly because my anxiety has had yet more time to increase. The sleeping rhythm can definitely have an impact on attitude.
And yet another advice: If life seems awful, little daily treats can help. I’m sure everybody has small, relatively inexpensive or even free things that yet never fail to cheer them up. Chocolate. HOT chocolate. Cat videos. Using body lotion with an amazing scent right before going to bed. Having a vase of self-plucked flowers into the room. Preparing and eating a favorite dish. Listening to a funny/interesting podcast in the morning. Doing a bit of “sightseeing” in odd and curios shops. Whatever… anything goes. Anything that makes you comfortable and happy and/or reminds you of how strange and wonderful and weird life can be.
I have to second these marvelous suggestions. As a lifelong night owl, it was weird to go to bed at 10 PM and wake up at 6 AM… but that turned out to give me the most restful sleep, so it turned out to be worth it.
I learned differently… in a difficult household where the only way I got some time to myself was to stay up late. But that can be counterproductive when needing a rested brain.
Someone, anyone, I agree – the Pomodoro technique is definetely not for everyone nor does it work for every subject. I used it when studying subjects which needed periods of very hard focusing, for example when learning statistics and the equations of chemistry. For me it worked well when I needed to repeat something over and over in order to learn it, besides chemistry for example the vocabulary of a foreign language. Learning languages is very important here in Northern Europe; not many people speak any of the languages here. When studying pedagogy I found out that an average person often needs 17 repetitions in order to learn a new word or concept.
Then again, the Pomodoro technique does not work that well (at least for me) for subjects which I find very interesting and immersive; for me that means most areas of biology, my main subject. When studying something compelling the interruptions would only be a nuisance. The point on different levels of alertness on different days is spot on: it would be ideal if one could take ones mood and energy level in account when planning which subjects to study and with which methods.
Also the point about the sleep rhythm is great. Very good observations! I am myself a night owl but my brain is also overly alert almost all the time. It makes falling to sleep hard, only lots of creative work or exhausting excercising makes it easier for me.
I love your examples of treats. Those would work well for me. I do hope LW finds the ones that motivate them. ❤
Oh, I didn’t even think of using the pomodoro technique only for a subset of learning tasks. Currently I have to do a lot of programming and GOOD LORD does that sound like an inefficient of doing that! But now I can see that it would work on a subset of tasks even for me, like e.g. summarizing for an exam.
With the little treats, I find that it is beneficial to not just cater to the hearing sense with e.g. music, but to cater to the other senses too… nice smells, tasty foods, pretty things to look at.
Movies are often recommended for cheering up, but when the problem is not a sharp bout of being upset, but a constant underlying feeling of “life sucks and all is useless”, you’d have to watch movies all the damn time… which you can’t or at least should not do if there is future to take care of (I speak from experience here >.< ).
For a constant low mood, it is better to create an environment that engages one's senses in a positive way (like e.g. decorating the room very nicely and turning on nice music), and use things you'd do anyway (or which require only little time) in ways that cheer you up (good-smelling body lotion and other nicely scented cosmetic products, tasty meals and snacks… it's amazing what effect taste and smell can have on the mood!). These don't interfere with your general schedule but give a constant input of "hey, life can be nice at least in some ways!".
When things are pretty bad, though, there can be a considerable lag between taking measures to improve one's mood, and them making an actual effect. The key is to just follow through and hang in there till the mood improves again.
Btw. wearing nice clothing also works for me. I often wear favorite pieces of clothing and jewelry for exams – makes me feel more confident and comfortable in my skin.
Forgot to comment on your “do something exhausting during the day to feel tired in the evening”.
That is definitely important! I often make the mistake of doing nothing much after a night of little sleep, or wanting to do some learning and just end up staring at the page with no comprehension. Which is why I added that bit about using those days for duller tasks.
Doing those tasks means that at least SOME tasks get done – and that the brain, or at least the body, gets exhausted. Ever tried getting a good night’s sleep after a sleepy day of doing nothing much? It’s nigh impossible! Only serves to perpetuate the cycle.
Now, if only I had the wisdom to consistently implement my own advice…
I use Pomodoro for tasks that feel overwhelming or complicated, like housecleaning. I also learned– totally to my surprise– that when I have several big tasks (nearly always), it is better to switch around in some way, to avoid hyperfocus. Turns out that when I just go-go-go until I am done, and feel that high of hyperdrive and completion, I end up needing 2 or 3 days to recuperate energetically.
So now, if my house is overwhelmingly messy (hello, household of ADHDers), I spend 20 minutes on kitchen, 20 minutes on bathroom, etc. This also has the effect of me being willing to start a cleaning project that I don’t have time or energy to do until completion — in fact, I have to stop at 20 minutes. It’s been very liberatory for me.
Usually I spend the morning using Pomodoro for cleaning and administrative tasks, then after lunch with down to longer work sessions. And here is the magic — I still use the time-chunk approach, to help me not destroy my body by sitting hunched over my keyboars for hours. Because here’s the thing, you can do 50-minute chunks. (I try not to do more than 1.5 hours at a stretch). This approach also helps me think more about how to chunk my work process, instesd of just facing an insurmountable blob of Work.
I am not arguing that Pomodoro has to work for everyone, but nobody should be put off from trying it out if they have things they want yo chsnge about the way they approach tasks and projects. (And as an aside, I also thought the method sounded stupid and/or so obvious that it really shouldn’t be named after someone. But I learned so much using the basic principles. I highly recommend it for people with executive function challenges.
I have several friends who had the same issue with math. I used to think I hated math, but I actually got my degree in statistics and have been doing analytics for about 12 years.
Statistics to me is more numbers that give you information about other large groups of numbers. And yes, there is math that helps you do that, but knowing that math isn’t as important as understanding what the statistics are telling you.
But I also understand how that is not an easy thing to trick your brain into, and many statistics professors are terrible at conveying this. Weirdly the hardest thing about statistics is actually the vocabulary, in my opinion, because the words have very specific meanings anyway… I have opinions, is what I”m saying.
I have nothing else to add i just wanted to go on at length uselessly about statistics lol.
Oh, S, I would love to hear all your opinions on statistics! I used to think that I am not that good at math, too, until I went to the mandatory test in the beginning of my studies. Still, I need more repetitions than with languages, for example. I am only slowly learning how useful and interesting statistics can be.
But to get back to LW’s situation I hope they do not hold the same beliefs of talent as I did when I was younger (and still sometimes my jerkbrain holds on to those beliefs). Doing all the hard work is the key and if obstacles and failures come on the way, those belong in the process of learning.
Oh, and statistics is very cool, just like S said. I kind of regret not realizing that sooner.
Statistics can be fun!
I myself study a subject that also covers/can cover quite complex mathematical concepts. I found that I CAN understand it if I give it a bit of patience… I say of myself that I have a “long wire” regarding mathematics (as in, the information needs to travel some time before I make any connections). But it does require that I’m not overtired and consciously switch my brain on.
(And oh so many explanations of math are just lots of mathematical equations, rather than using more words and pictures for those whose brains tend to shut down when overwhelmed with numbers and variables… I definitely have to make that blog with a section of math concepts simplified reality one of these days…)
Writing things down also helps – I often overlook some small but crucial piece of information that keeps me from understanding the rest; if I write down in my own words what I read, sentence for sentence paraphrased, carefully looking at every word, my learning is much more efficient.
One other learning/reading comprehension trick I learned during my studies:
Reading a chapter of a course book just as nonchalantly as I would read some fun work of fiction, only over and over again.
I usually don’t understand all that much on the first run except for some very general idea and some small pieces of information here and there. Reading it a second time, I have some general idea of where it goes which enables me to understand a bit more. That new information means that the third time, I can finally understand one of the more complex ideas. Then I read it a fourth time, understanding still more… a fifth…. a sixth… Until I’m finally satisfied with the amount I have understood.
It’s much more relaxing, and much less frustrating, than trying to understand everything from the start and getting stuck at every paragraph.
Oh, and I second your statement of not getting hung up on talent, but concentrating on doing the actual learning and work. Talent and intelligence are overrated. In order to learn things and get things done, you still need to do actual work!
Intelligence is just the ABILITY to understand new concepts more quickly – it does NOT mean that someone actually does learn new concepts, or even tries to do so, or has the open mind to get rid of old and wrong concepts, or has the humility to admit they have to learn something at all, or has the patience and focus to learn something.
Intelligence can make you understand more complex things, and it can get you there faster, but within a certain range patience and determination can even out differences in intelligence.
Seconding this especially for foreign language learning – nothing works better for absorbing vocabulary!
Reading an old favourite in a new language (assuming good quality translation…) is both educational and a lot of fun!
I have heard reading harry potter is an amazing way to learn vocabulary in another language!
Or reading a new favorite in its original language! I discovered so many great books by doing this with Spanish and French, plus you get to read it “in the original” which to me seems worthwhile on its own. 🙂
Thirding (is that a word?) this about learning languages. Choosing an own favourite which has been translated to the language in question (Harry Potter works well, indeed, because it has been translated to so many languages; some of my friends have been using Lord of The Rings) – or which was originally written in the desired language. Yay for stories!
In terms of studying:
1. Bribe yourself. Half an hour of successful concentrated effort = 1 youtube video (or whatever else you actually want to be doing with your time, your prize is up to you).
2. Lie to yourself. Sit down to do one small task–maybe 15 minutes of studying, or creating an outline for what you need to study for a topic, or reading five pages. I find that once I get over the hump of getting started, it’s a lot easier to continue; it’s starting that’s the hard part. If I tell myself it’s going to be one little easy thing, then it’s easier to start, and once I’m going, it’s easier to continue.
3. If interruptions are a problem at home, find ways to eliminate them. Maybe you study with headphones on, so you can’t hear your mom arguing with someone two rooms over. Maybe you study at the library so you’re not around to be interrupted. Maybe you adjust your schedule, e.g. get up an hour early or stay up after everyone’s gone to bed, so you get some quiet uninterrupted time.
4. Prioritize your studying. You don’t need to know everything! Focus on the big things first, only go to the details once you have the core material down. If you have the core material down, you can at least make an educated guess at the details; that will get you a good chunk of the way there even if you don’t have time/motivation to get all the details down pat.
In terms of life:
I know it’s hard to imagine right now, but no matter what happens, you will be able to find ways to get away from your family. Maybe that will end up being uni! But maybe it will be a part-time job and way too many roommates in some city halfway across the country. Maybe it will be an apprenticeship to a sheep farmer in the middle of nowhere. Who knows where life will take you–the only consistent thing about life is that change is always just around the corner, after all.
Related to # 1, if you aren’t familiar with the pomodoro technique (also popularized as the 20/10 on UfYH), I find them super helpful when I am struggling with concentration. It’s fairly simple – you decide on a length of time for focus work and then a length of time for breaks, and then you alternate. You can find free pomodoro timer apps (I like Tide but there are a bunch) or just use your alarm clock.
When I’m really struggling to focus I might even set myself 10 minute focuses and 10 minute or longer breaks. It seems like it would be worthless, but I’m getting 100% more work done than I would have without it.
UfYH has been an absolute miracle for me, with my issues about cleaning. But then, I don’t WANT to think about cleaning! As referenced above, things that need concentration might be differently handled.
I found it helpful still but might need to change the amount of work to amount of rest time. It helps me get over the inertia of starting a task. It only works for me if I do take the breaks as setup. If i know I might skip the break, then I still have the same inertia. My inertia comes from feeling if I start the task than I must do everything perfectly without a break so I never want to start
Hey Fingers Crossed – your self-awareness, and your ability to see your family situation objectively and put it into a proper perspective (ie. you know that their behavior is unkind and that you deserve to be free of it) is totally amazing and your skill in these areas will serve you your entire life. Lots of people, when put in this kind of situation, “drink the koolaid” as it were, fail to see things objectively, internalize the unhealthy messages they receive and maintain a skewed perception of their worth and of relationships forever. While you no doubt have internalized the unhealthy messages somewhat–we all do this to an extent, it is unavoidable–you also have a strong enough sense of self to know that their behavior is not ok and that you deserve better! PAT YOURSELF ON THE BACK FOR THIS!!!! Whether you are depressed, unmotivated, or whatever–you are also a thoughtful and wise person. Kudos to you.
What you lack at this stage, because you are so young, is the ability to see your…not sure how to describe this as I am rather tired at the moment…to be able to put the passage of time, and life stages, in proper perspective. There’s no way you could do this at age 18 without someone older to mentor you, which I don’t think you have. And probably your depression is contributing to your misapprehensions as well. Right now all you can see is the immediate future, and I bet a part of you feels like you will always be stuck in this circumstance. I get a sense of learned helplessness from you, which I imagine is where your lack of motivation to study comes from–a part of you thinks that you can’t really get yourself out, no matter what you do, so studying feels futile.
What I want you to understand is that getting a scholarship, as the Captain has pointed out, is NOT the only way for you to “escape.” Please have faith that there are many paths you can take that will enable you to leave your family behind and live your own life. Everything does NOT ride on that one test. That idea comes from a kind of absolute, black-and-white thinking that people engage in when they revert to their child selves. When it happens (and it happens to everyone) we lack the ability to be resourceful in our thinking. If you were to take a minute and mentally call upon your wisest, most adult self, perhaps in a kind of visualization exercise, choosing to leave your child self in the past (at least for the moment) and then jot down some ideas for how you could improve your life, do you think you could come up with a list of possibilities? As introspective as you are, you clearly have a rich inner life and thus, a rich imagination. I’d be shocked if you weren’t creative enough to come up with some ideas, even if they were not immediately implementable. This is what you want to draw on–your own resourcefulness. The more you do that, the more you will see that you have the power to change your life. Don’t believe the voice of depression that makes you think there is no hope. You will most definitely rise above your circumstances–of this I am confident.
Two resources you might like to check out are–EFT tapping (google for instructions–it’s free, easy, and effective), and the podcasts and authors of Hayhouseradio.com. In particular I recommend Alan Cohen, Dr. Robert Holden, and Michael Neill.
EFT is an amazing and effective tool – great suggestion !
Hi LW. Good on you for being so systematic in identifying a bad environment, a good way out, and what’s holding you back. That is so much labor and self-reflection already, so I think you can keep going, even if the way forward seems far away.
The captain, as usual, has great practical advice for moving forward, and I won’t add to that. But it sounds like you’re in that mental gap where you know what you need to do and have zero inner incentive to take those steps. I have BEEN there, LW. The goal is in sight but I give zero fucks. I’ve felt ashamed of some of the run up I’ve needed to some actions. And I’ve hollowly contemplated steps I know I should take.
I have been there. And forcing yourself to keep moving forward in that mechanical way is hard. So fucking hard. Because it often seems so pointless and dead. I just want to reaffirm that that effort is never wasted. It can be one of the most empowering efforts you make. If you need a base to work from, take of those “I need to do xyz” moments and write down why you aspire to them. Take down the benefits of doing well on your exam. Take down the clawing feelings that make you want to get OUT OUT OUT. Take down the clearest and smallest steps you can take toward achieving that goal. Make those moments of clarity work for you, so that you can look back later and remind yourself how you feel when you’re not stuck in the zone of I give zero fucks. Pick the strongest incentives you have and hold them close for when you lose sight of your goal.
Six days to write an email is a victory. You clawed your way over your obstacles and you wrote it. When you did, you were feeling that impulse forward, the power of a step taken. You recognized and fed the emotions that are driving you out into the world. You need to trust that those feelings are there–even when you can’t access them. This is exam may well not be the only way to achieve your goals, and it’s okay need more time to spring lose. But this IS a good time to plot out what you want and need, to establish why you’re aiming for the goals you’ve chosen. More importantly, it’s a chance to uncover and strengthen the you that you see, the you that you are fighting for. So yes. enlist other trusted people to remind you where you’re going. Give yourself reasons to be outside of a toxin environment. But also pull, pull, pull on the cords of your goals whenever they ring. Write down the notes they’re singing. They will be there for you later.
Believe your past self.
This is so beautiful and so true, eternal teapot. Thank you.
I recommend a book called The Art of Taking Action (USD $4.99 on kindle https://www.amazon.com/Art-Taking-Action-Japanese-Psychology-ebook/dp/B00PR814K0)
“Accept that you’ll probably never feel like doing [the thing]. The fundamental change we need is a shift from a feeling-centered approach to decisions to a purpose-centered approach. The question isn’t “[how can I feel like doing the thing?]” but, rather, “what needs to be done?” . . . We [can] learn that we can coexist with our feelings and take them along for the ride. We don’t fight them. We don’t fix them. We don’t transform them. We coexist with them, while we move forward and take appropriate action . . . Actions matter . . . Talking won’t make any difference . . . Only new behavior, even when you don’t feel like doing it, will make changes start to happen . . .you will never feel your way to a new way of acting, but you can absolutely act your way to a new way of feeling.”
I have found this very helpful in getting stuff done despite my ongoing, chronic, multi-decade depression. Taking action is definitely a skill one needs to learn, so this isn’t going to be a quick fix, but it’s an approach that acknowledges we can feel like a zombie and still do the thing.
M. Caspian, thank you so much for the recommendation! This book looks very helpful. Just like you, I, too, struggle with getting things done, especially taking the first step. My husband calls it static friction: even in physics objects resist starting to move harder than moving.
This sounds very similar to the behavioural activation approach to treating depression with CBT! I recommend googling ‘CCI behavioural activation’ to anyone interested.
I’m not trying to diagnose anyone here, so please don’t take this as any sort of psychological advice, but when I experienced utter apathy in my final year of schooling, it was a combination of anxiety, depression, negative self-image thanks to a lot of negging from family, and (probably the biggest one) untreated ADHD. Knowing this at the time would have saved me from repeating my final year, so if you have access to psychological care it might be worth picking at the apathy to see if there’s any underlying causes.
The good news in my story is that completely bombing out the first time galvanised me to do better the second time around, and I got into university on my second try the following year!
I want to chime in here — a lot of people don’t realize things like depression (or ADHD) can manifest symptoms like apathy. I have Major Depressive Disorder and even when it’s “under control”/mild enough to live with I deal with a lot of apathy and difficulty focusing and prioritizing tasks. My SO has ADHD and OCD and he can get similar symptoms, plus hyper-stressing over very specific things. He actually just finished up his degree and this last semester was total hell for him. Looking past the final day of his exams was IMPOSSIBLE. He was an inconsolable ball of stress, convinced that if he didn’t do well our lives would fall apart and he was a complete failure.
Internet diagnosing = bad, but I do want to encourage you to look into your mental health as a possible player in this current funk you’re stuck in. ❤ Getting a proper diagnosis can change your life.
I would also encourage you to take a little bit sometime and do some research on job opportunities you could apply for after school that may not be the jobs you would want, but would 110% let you get paid enough money to GTFO and save up to do something more specifically suited to you. What’s the company or industry near you that is ALWAYS hiring, forever posting increasingly desperate want ads? What’s their application process like? (Mine was working customer service for a cell phone company. I did it for a summer and it sucked out every little bit of my soul, but I knew they were desperate for people who were even a little bit competent and would pay me lots of money and health insurance if I needed it badly enough.)
When I was a young person and desperately needed to Run Away, knowing I had a plan for a big, red escape button if my rosier life plans didn’t work out helped me keep it together in a big way.
You will get out. If you want to go to school, you will get a scholarship or you will work your way through or you will take some time off and find an employer who will help you pay for it. It doesn’t feel like it now, but you’ve got this!
I really have nothing to say except for this: well done on writing in! You say it took you six days to write this email. But the fact is that you didn’t give up! You did it! Things are hard when you have a numb brain so taking this step, however long it takes, is an amazing achievement. I don’t know you but I am proud of you 🙂
LW, you clearly set very high standards for yourself. It only took you six days to write an insightful synthesis of the challenges you’re facing, in a way that was clear and engaging to read. That’s hard to do. In a better place, you might have been able to do it quicker, but many people wouldn’t.
So don’t worry too much about failure. You might find that you do well on less study time than you think you need. While this may sound like irresponsible advice, I’ve found it’s easier to study effectively when you don’t feel things are quite so stacked against you. You have a lot going for you, OP.
People have very good advice about assembling a “team you” and working on your study group. And you will be surprised about how much having a plan and are working towards it will help even out a little bit of that anxiety (pro-tip, make sure that you limit the “how scary is the future” talk at study group. Set a timer if it keeps coming up).
But I want to focus on the “how to not feel like zombie and care about my future” part.
Part the first- feeling like a zombie. Get as much sleep as you can. Try to shut down as much screen light (tv/ computers/ cell phone) as you can before bed. If you stay awake at night because you’re brain decides this is the perfect time to fixate on the billions of things you can’t do anything about, get up, write them down with your hand (it doesn’t need to be legible) and throw it away (burn it if that feels better). Cut caffeine to the mornings. If you have some of your own space at home, isolate it and neaten it to the best of your abilities. People are remarkably sensitive to their environment on an unconscious level. If you are like me, this will take time. Give yourself this time. Sleep is hard for teenagers because we are expecting them to have a schedule that is ridiculous. This is not your fault if you can’t, but whatever you do to get enough sleep is a good thing.
As for “care about your future” make your future closer. The ultimate goal is “Get out of the house” but focus on close goals. This week I’m going to X. This month I’m going to Y. Tomorrow I’m going to Z. Next hour I’m going to A. The future is far away and huge. Tomorrow is tomorrow. Give yourself time to write these goals out and schedule. Do them in your most boring class that you don’t have to pay attention to. The idea is to make it close and small that builds to the far away and big.
Good luck. These are not the best years of your life. Escape is possible.
Breaking down the long-term goal into short-term goals is BRILLIANT! I second this suggestion as a way to care about the future (and also make it seem more reachable/achievable).
This advise is all lovely! I second the idea of reading for fun– I credit voracious childhood reading of fantasy novels and science fiction for giving me all of the tools I needed to eventually finish a PhD. Studying is great, but there are many ways to learn, and focusing on one to the exclusion of others can be more harmful than good.
Along with all of this advice, remember that there are a lot of scholarships for students who come from difficult circumstances. So acing the test offers one possible avenue of escape. But so, too, does writing a compelling essay about your life in a way that captures your distinct personality and context. Kind of like what you have started to do here! And if you think of this letter as the kernel for some future personal statement, then you won’t have to suffer that fear of starting something new– look, here it is, ready for revision!
Are there a couple of schools that you are interested in? If so, it wouldn’t hurt to spend a bit of down time looking over the kinds of financial support packages they offer. Take a few notes about them, and see what kinds of things you might be eligible for. Then, if you suffer some bout of test anxiety that throws you off course, you won’t feel as though all is lost.
Is there a decent community college in your area? I have many students who first get their associate degree before they transfer to my university. For many of them, this gave them the chance to work and save money, pay much lower tuition rates, and work on getting high GPAs for more scholarship opportunities. That might be an additional option to look into, as you are plotting out your escape from your home.
Good luck! I’m rooting for you.
As an addendum: I didn’t start college until I was 23, and after that I zoomed right through the BA to the PhD. If you need to prioritize getting out of your house first, and starting college later, that is a perfectly fine option.
I will add to the chorus of those who have Beem There. For me it wasn’t high school, but the final year of college. I was fortunate enough to have a supportive team who got me through it, but boy it wasn’t easy. At times the mere act of standing up to go to the bathroom seemed to be impossible – all the brain bits were there, but they just would. not. connect. to my muscles.
Since then I also have gotten treatment for depression, ADHD, and anxiety, plus a whole warehouse full of coping techniques; the one I think would have helped me most in that situation (and I’m hoping will also be helpful to you) is asking this question, repeatedly:
“Self, what is the one single action I can take right now to make the biggest difference to my well-being?” (Tweak phrasing as desired to suit your own needs and quirks)
Sometimes it will be “go to the bathroom”. Sometimes it will be “eat something”, or “go for a walk” or “take a nap”. But for some reason, even when I am paralyzed by The Giant Mountain of Stuff to Do, looking for just one thing that will shift the pile helps me jump that gap between thoughts and action. And as others have noted, once you get started, it’s much easier to keep going.
+100 to everything the Captain and other commenters have said, as well. You’re not alone, and you’ve got this!
If drastic change sounds like it might work for you, countries who use the word uni often overlap with countries that are culturally permissive of the gap year and who have work/travel visa agreements with other countries who use the word uni. Or, the American uni system has a much more holistic admissions process to go along with its much higher price tag. So it’s not small-town or nothing. It might be small town OR uni with scholarship OR struggles in big city while you figure things out OR 6 months working to buy a plane ticket for a year spent backpacking around a different country and eating a lot of ramen working minimum wage jobs OR going to another country to do uni with more debt but which will be a better fit for your life circumstances as they currently are.
On studying: reward yourself for studying by lots of positive thoughts. If you study for an hour, finish, and just berate yourself for everything you didn’t get done, you’re going to make studying that much more unpleasant and you’ll want to avoid it more because it was an unpleasant experience with an unpleasant outcome. if you study for ten minutes and think, All right! I finally understand derivatives!! then studying is a thing that ends with a positive outcome and you’re less likely to avoid it. Think positive even if it’s forced and you have to argue with yourself in your head – positive feedback is a really powerful thing, even if it’s faked a tiny bit.
It won’t fix everything, but if you associate something with stressful outcomes, you’re more likely to avoid it even if you’re having a super-awesome motivated day (why ruin a good day?). If you associate it with positive outcomes, you’re more likely to do it with even a small bit of motivation, because you’ll start with the assumption that you will feel better after finishing. So you’re setting yourself up for success – you might not always have the motivation to do something but when you do have it, you’ll be in a position to take advantage of it in a meaningful way.
Public libraries are a great place for a kid in an unhappy home to retreat to and study in.
One thing to be aware of is that medical privacy laws are not the same for minors in some states. In Wisconsin minors seeking medical help for AODA, STI’s and pregnancy (not contraception) can keep their medical records private. All other treatment/office visit records Ares available if the guardian asks. Many providers won’t see minors without a parent/guardian or a signed permission to treat letter.
This is not to dissuade someone from seeking help – your doctor can be an excellent resource here – but I don’t want there to be any surprises!
Good info! The Letter Writer is 18 and I don’t think they are in the US.
I got a Ph.D., which means that I got to be very skilled at studying for Big Scary Exams, including ones I had zero motivation to study for. Here are some ways I’ve found to work around your reluctant brain.
First off, you need to find a place to study which is not your home, because boy does your house have some bad juju. When you go to this place, the one and only thing you do there is study. That way, you condition your reluctant brain to the idea of Study Time as soon as you walk in the door.
Second, the first X times you go, you will not want to study. So, show up, sit at a desk, and set a timer for yourself. (I start with one hour, but if that seems like too much, try half an hour.) No matter how blah or unmotivated you feel, your job is to sit there and try to study until the timer is up. I find that for a while, it takes 15-20 minutes to settle down enough to be productive, but with practice, you will come to be a machine.
(to be continued)
Some other resources that can help you are music, exercise, little exploration trips, , and creating something,.Listening to upbeat music, singing along with it, or playing an instrument (even an empty Solo cup as a percussion instrument, bopping along with music) works, which is why The Gypsy Kings CDs are my housecleaning music.
Any kind of exercise (you don’t need to go to a gym) will help get rid of tension, and build endorphins and resilience. A walk or run in the outdoors is especially beneficial. It’s winter; so soak up the sunshine when you can by finding a sunny window area for studying. You may want a Vitamin D supplement, or more Vitamin D-containing foods.
By little exploration trips, I mean going to see people and places that interest you. If time and energy don’t allow personal contact, this can be done online, in researching colleges, leaders in fields in which you are interested, etc.. You might choose to read biographies of people who have overcome obstacles and inspire people.
Creating something can be as simple as a vision collage of pictures clipped from magazines, sayings , etc. that can point the way to your success. Handwork, like simple knitting (a scarf?) is relaxing as well as creating something to wear or to give. Baking bread (focaccia is easy, fun and allows for fun toppings) is my favorite way of working out stress . Kneading the dough requires to slap it around and get rid of tension , resulting in a bonus: delicious thing to eat and share .
If you have the time and the interest, doing a helpful service with a community organization is also mood-lifting. Most organizations have short-term or one-time commitments , like stuffing envelopes, serving food, delivering flyers, etc. that can be enjoyable, as well as build experience and contacts for the future .
I have been where you are, when I was a young woman, and made an escape. I have a grandchild who successfully Got The F*** Out of a dysfunctional relationship. We all help each other , with encouragement and resources . As the Captain said, and other posters here have shown, you aren’t alone. The right people and help are there for you. Congratulations for reaching out!
My heart goes out to you, with the strongest possible wishes for your success !
Tw: past suicidal thoughts, only mentioned in passing.
Hi, Fingers Crossed. I’m writing from the ‘unable to give a fuck’ zone right now, so apologies if I’m not as coherent as I could, but I wanted to chime in with my support.
So, I’m not that much older than you: 23 right now. I grew up in a screaming home. In my town, you don’t move away for uni because it’s a college town, so if you’re local you stay at home while studying. On top of that, my high-school was a Catholic-there-is-no-such-thing-as-bullying-here hellhole, and I’m a queer sassy smart-mouth who loves learning and reading, so guess who got bullied a lot. I spent all junior year wanting to kill myself, all senior year actively trying *not* to kill myself, four lovely years of college, though still at the screaming home, one GLORIOUS year working abroad, and now I’m back to the screaming home “to get my master’s deegree” (actually I’m using what I saved up last year to get some much-needed therapy without my family’s knowledge AND working on my master’s as camouflage).
What’s helped me survive and play my cards as well as I could:
– Books. When I had no friends and no reason to get up in the morning, being able to look forward to my allocated half an hour of quiet, safe reading really helped (probably saved my life, to be honest). Look up some public, quiet, safe spaces near you, like libraries, churches, community centers, parks… Also consider finding or building a hidey-hole where you can escape to if it all gets to be too much. Mine was a bathroom stall in a deserted corridor in my high-school, in which I shut myself with a book when I needed to (in my case, every day for a fucking year, so don’t feel bad for giving yourself what you need, ok?)
– Friends. Specifically, making new friends at uni, but you can also find friends at jobs, volunteering gigs, concerts, free activities, etc. The important thing about friends is, they are people who love you and make you happy, and they can tell you that yeah, your family are being jerks again and you deserve better. You also learn a lot from them, just by being by their side while making big mistakes and/or awesome crazy things together.
– Money. The fuck-off fund is really, really fucking useful. Get yourself paid in some way (before working abroad, mine was tutoring) and squirrel away all the money you can into a bank account that no-one in your family knows the existence of.
You can do this, Fingers Crossed. Maybe you’ll need some more time, maybe you’ll need to go back at some point, but you can and you will get the fuck out of that house, depression or no depression. You can do this.
Dear LW, I am also from a yell-y household (and one that regularly undercut my self-confidence).
You’re getting a lot of good advice about finding quiet spaces to work and/or just hide out when you need a break from family chaos– I support that suggestion! A thing that worked for me:
I found thinking about my family at all, and the urgency of escaping, to be exhausting and anxiety spiral-provoking. For me, it was much easier to motivate myself to run *toward* a thing I wanted than away from a family life I knew I didn’t want. When I was about 7, my grandfather, who was dear to me, took me into the library at the university where he’d studied. It was magical: I’d never seen so many books in one place. It was quiet. People were sitting and reading and writing. It felt like a place where work happened. I felt tugged at, deeply. When I felt discouraged in studying, I imagined running toward that library, or one like it. I imagined running toward the dorm room I stayed in when I visited an older friend who was away at college.
And I’d cosign the sentiment that you have more than one opportunity to achieve escape velocity. I missed a school-related deadline my senior year. I have no recollection of what it was. I do recall my father yelling about it forever, and telling me this was it, I’d never get into school now, I might as well give up. I recall feeling like my life was over. But he was wrong. I did get into school. And when I was in school, I made more mistakes, and slowly discovered that I could learn from mistakes instead of thinking my life was over when I made one.
Jedi hugs and encouragement coming your way, if you’d like them. You’ve got this.
There are other ways to escape besides getting a scholarship, although it would certainly be great if you could do that. University isn’t the only path to a job that pays enough for independence, there are also community colleges, even trade apprenticeships (if you like working with your hands and making things.) Part time jobs and student loans are also there for the kids who don’t quite get the scholarships.
I had terrible study skills during almost the whole time I was in school, until I finally figured out what worked for in my last year of college. I’ll share what that was, in case it might also help you:
What I did was basically to treat studying like a job with set hours. That meant I made a routine of going to the library with my study materials every day from X-o’clock to Y-o’clock. I wouldn’t bring anything that might distract me. If I needed my computer to work on, I used a browser extention called LeechBlock to block my access to any non-academic sites.
I wouldn’t even necessarily have a set task in mind for every day. I just made myself sit down in the library every day at that time and eventually I’d start studying out of sheer lack of anything better to do. Maybe that meant I didn’t always prioritize the most important work, but I always got SOMETHING done, which was way better than getting nothing done.
For me, the best studying comes from doing some kind of creative work with the material. I don’t necessarily mean anything fancy, though it can be if that actually motivates you, but things like imagining diologues where I have to explain the thing to someone I enjoy talking to (or imagine I would enjoy talking to) complete with jokes and imaginary situations for why I’m getting this cool chance to show off, finding allllll the imperfections in the ways the material was presented to me and coming up with ideas to do it better, explaining real experiences to myself through the lens of what I’m learning, really help me internalize material and don’t set off my study-resistance so much. Plus I can do those things while I take a walk, which for me reeeeeaaaaly helps keep my brain from falling into dread and lethargy. Then when I get back, I can look up any details I wanted and couldn’t remember when I was fantasizing. Maybe these things work for me because of my weird and specific brain, but we’ve all got one of those, and I really recommend anything that helps you live in a space where your study materials are not the boss of you, they’re just things you can use to help yourself become the boss of all the knowledge.
For the more traditional studying, break it up as small as you need to to realistically be able to start. Sometimes for me that has been as tiny and pointless seeming as “look at the page and extract one piece of information from it and then watch a YouTube video and then extract one more piece of information.” It is tiny, but it’s not pointless, and for me it very quickly took the work from a scary shameful symbol of a whole lot of work I expected myself to fail at to something I could engage with in a sustained way and give myself lots and lots of credit for doing more between breaks than I was requiring of myself—which I did, because actually switching my atttentiion that frequently was annoying. You may not need to break it up anything like that small, but however you do it, try to set things up so that you can win your own pride in ways you know you can achieve.
These big life transitions are really hard to navigate. Anxiety and depression really messed one of them up for me and it was horrible. There are still big challenges in my life because of that, but it’s not horrible anymore. I hope you don’t need any of the things I learned about how to survive and recover from that, but just in case… I have every hope that you get through this with great grades and a scholarship, but if you don’t, if your reality is that you can’t right now, that is sad but not shameful. It will probably feel like it is, I know it did to me, but try to hold onto a layer of knowledge, on top of the shame, that it is okay to be who and how you are. It is okay to not be able to do the things you want, for awhile. Do try, of course, but if you find your trying is achieving nothing but damage to yourself, it is okay to give yourself credit for the effort and stop that particular kind of trying. Whatever kind help you can find, it is good and right to reach for it if you can, to help you find new ways of trying that can actually work for you.
This is some of the best advice I have ever heard.
I just want to chime in and say: I’ve been there, too. My hometown situation was Bad, and I desperately wanted to escape. And – I did! Like you’re hoping to, I used university as my ticket out of there, but several of my friends got out via other means. (Jobs, saving up enough to move to other places and then fucking off, living with other relatives in new cities for a while, etc.)
The Captain and others have given you great advice for tactics. I just want to commend you on your self-awareness, your determination, and your drive. Your letter was really thoughtful. Best of luck to you.
Hey, sending hugs your way. My home was also an abusive and distressing space, and it can be hard to focus when you’re continually walking on egg shells trying not to set anyone off. Before I get into the studying advice, I wanted to mention that when I was abruptly kicked out of my house, I was fortunate enough to find a seasonal job in a National Park. I’m not sure if exactly the same kinds of positions are available outside of the US, but these jobs make a great place to land: they house you and feed you in exchange for a small daily fee, and you can work and save up money for the next step in a beautiful and often socially supportive space. A cursory search of UK parks suggests there may be similar opportunities there, and I’m know there are across the rest of the world (several friends of mine worked in New Zealand). WWOOFing might be another good temporary option for getting you out of your house.
Everyone copes with stress differently, but building in structure definitely helps manage overwhelming tasks. Break a big project–studying for exams–into medium, small, and tiny goals. Make these goals concrete: By the end of this week, I will have worked through 1 chapter in this study guide; by the end of today, I will have completed 20 practice problems; during week 6, I will take a practice exam. This may not work for everyone, but I also like to make very detailed maps of my day. Your schedule may look something like this:
4:15-4:30 Get my study supplies set out, check in with my goals
4:30-5:15 Take notes on pages 10-25
5:15-5:20 Stretch out, move around, snack, etc
5:20-6:05 Take practice quiz…etc
Make sure to build in breaks, snacks, etc! You’re not a machine!! And if you don’t quite manage to complete everything on your schedule, THAT’S OKAY! It takes time to learn what achievable goals look like. At least if you’ve mapped it out, you can focus on the task at hand. Periodically touch base with yourself and re-prioritize if you need to. And if you have time, it’s great to leave some space at the end of your study period to check in with yourself about the exams as a whole; if you don’t, though, trust yourself and your preparation!
Some other thoughts, in no particular order:
-When I’m working on a big project without a physical support network, I like to have virtual work times with my friends! We call each other before we get started and establish our goals, we work for the same period of time, and then we check in afterward to see how we did. The accountability and solidarity really helps.
-Sometimes I feel physically repulsed by work, and it helps to break it into tiny chunks. I tell myself that all I have to do is work for 35 minutes without distractions (I set a timer on my phone), and then if I’m still not feeling it, I can quit. Usually I build up enough momentum to keep going.
Sending so much love your way!
Just one more quick note re: seasonal work–these aren’t necessarily skilled positions. I worked in a hotel restaurant (at Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park, in case you want an example of a workplace), and friends worked as housekeepers, groundskeepers, front desk assistants, etc.
Hi! I’m a college instructor who works with students on large-scale projects and also deals with work-related apathy! I want to speak to the importance of structure/ working through apathy Shoshona beautiful addresses above!
Most studies show that student apathy comes from fear, not laziness. One of the helpful tools I use in my work is to make an outrageously detailed list of things to do. You know what’s too daunting to even think about? STUDYING EVERYTHING YOU’VE EVER LEARNED FOR A HIGH STAKES TEST! That is staring into the void and will frighten anyone. You know what you can do?? Take out your book. Read the table of contents and list out where you’re confident and where you’re confused. Take a ten minute practice quiz. Summarize a big idea in your own words and check it against the book to see if you’re on track. Break down the small components that we lump together into “studying” and it often seems much more approachable.
One of the many oppressive narratives of academia is that mastery means complete, total recall of every detail in a subject. The fact of the matter is that understanding SOME or MOST of the details while seeing the bigger connections, parallels, theories and big ideas can help you adapt to new information much better. Translating this into concrete study skills, I’d suggest:
1) Make sure you know a little about each part of what you’re studying (the big key terms, etc)
2) Make sure you know a LOT about 2-4 parts
3) Pause your studying to reflect on how the parts connect (Does something you understand less actually fit in with something you understand more? What bigger contexts in the world connect to this subject?)
TL;DR–> When the forest becomes scary, focus on the trees. When there are too many trees, pull back and look at the forest.
“TL;DR–> When the forest becomes scary, focus on the trees. When there are too many trees, pull back and look at the forest.”
‘The woods are just trees, the trees are just wood…’
“No need to be afraid there…”
So many people have said good things about feelings and studying and getting out, I’m going to focus on one, little thing in your letter, where you call yourself fragile and over sensitive. It stuck out to me because I was also the fragile, over sensitive child of my family, and it’s taken me years to learn that I’m not really. And you might not be either.
Families have roles you get cast into. You’ve head about “black sheep” and “golden child” and “scapegoat”? Well, I was over sensitive. Because, as the stories go, things would be fine and then I’d explode and throw a fit, over something meaningless. But those stories were from the family perspective, a neglectful, narcissistic family, where asking for help was ignored or belittled until it was an Emergency! And then Emergencies! were dealt with by the heroic and long suffering parents. It turns out I’m not actually that fragile, and I’m not actually over sensitive, I just have human needs.
I’m not convinced that it’s oversensitive to shut down or avoid being yelled at (or even near). You may just be having human reactions to a rough situation. You may be what you sound like from here, a bright, strong, capable human who has seen their world and is making plans and taking steps to make it better. Family stories are only sometimes true, and only for the world created within the family. It doesn’t have to be the rest of the world.
Apathy is hard, be kind to yourself while you’re working against a hill of not caring.
Yeah, I also grew up in an angry house of yelling, and was also labeled “overly sensitive” and fragile because I didn’t like it. How conveeeeeeeeenient that I was “the problem”. Nobody else needs to change a thing then! It’s very possible you’re not “too sensitive” or “fragile” at all, just not into being yelled at.
Dear Fingers Crossed,
Oh how much I would love to give you a Jedi hug (if you want one)! According to your description we share many similarities: I am sensitive, too and it sounds like we both share traumatic experiences. I wish I could take yours and carry them for you so that you could put your whole energy to studying – or to house you so that you would have a peaceful room of your own to study in, though possibly with rescue kittens.
Are you able to get access to mental health help or possibly a support group of some kind? How about a study support group? It sounds like you need some place safe to study and Team You to give you support and energy for studying. No matter how long it took to write to The Captain, you still did it – and in my opinion a letter to The Captain is more than just a letter: in it you also admit to yourself that you need help. That is a big thing.
So, where you live, getting to an university with a scholarship is the only way to get out? In case that does not work out (even though I hope it will) are there any other options? Any other educational or work related possiblities? A charity offering volunteer work far away? To me it sounds like the priority would be your safety and a safe way out. Do you have any friends or relatives who could help you to find out more and help you planning your escape?
I am rooting for you, dear Fingers Crossed! Take care!
When I was preparing for my Bacalaureate exam (age 18, as well) I used to really like taking my study to the park when the weather was nice. I packed some books, some markers and highlighters (my favourite study method involved big bold colourful schemes) and then I would do like : cover one topic – ten minutes of walking ; one more topic – ten minutes of walking. Worked really well for my brain.
LW, the best of luck to you. You will get through this, and you will thrive. You really will.
To add to what others have suggested about fun reading, can I suggest a book? Maybe you’ve read it already, but in case you haven’t: Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.” Technically, it’s about writing, so the chapters are dedicated to things like plots and characters. But overall, what she talks about and the feelings that she discusses can apply to any project, writing, creative, or not. And it’s extremely funny, and the chapters are just long enough to give you a break but concise enough to not tear you away from studying for too long. Even if you have no interest in writing, this may be one of those “fun” books for you.
As a side note, and I don’t mean to derail, thank you to everyone who has answered and provided suggestions. I have a similar issue where I have a big task ahead and, though I totally see the way to get to it, am already at the “argh” stage where everything just seems too big. I’m going to put more than a few of these suggestions to work.
Love this book! I have reread it a number of times.
Hi LW. I also had a family that I wanted, really needed, to run away from when I was a late teen/young adult. I did escape, first 4 hours away at college for a couple years, then I moved across the country (usa). I remain across the country.
What I needed most in that moment was headspace. You need to survive this moment before you can get to the next. If you go to uni, it will be freeing and you may have many changes in store, but that is for if and later. I remember feeling like I was at the bottom of the sea without a suit, with the pressure of the ocean crushing my skull. I needed some protection to allow my thoughts to float freely around me, as anyone else’s do. To allow me to process my emotions, to allow me to put in order the day’s events, to allow me – more important than anything else – to learn.
The Captain has excellent suggestions for this. Get out of the house on walks, if you are able and it is safe to do so. I started walking around that point and I cherished this time I had all for myself. Sometimes I would just walk out the door and as far away as I could manage, knowing I had to turn back around and make it back home. Other times, I would get in the car (after I had one) and drive to a park far away from the home, so no chance of anyone passing me, and just walk myself silly in circles on the path.
Music was also a huge release for me. I tend to get on kicks. There’s one CD in particular I remember being on repeat during this time period. It helped me stay connected and grounded. It also allowed me to drown out whatever was going on in the house. (Earbuds are a wonderful thing.)
I was also pursuing anxiety treatment for the first time around that time. Both medication and CBT. Both were truly helpful.
Try to remember this: even if you don’t achieve what you think is success in this moment, you can still have amazing success in life. Life changes by the moment. You really just need to get from one to the next, to see what it’s like. Ask 18yo me what field 30yo me would be working in and give her a hundred guesses, and my current field would never have been on the list. But there I was, doing the hell out of success (and still doing it). That’s after my two(!) failed attempts at college – never finished. But it gave me what I needed at the time, and got me where I needed to be.
For now, just try to get yourself some space to survive until you reach that beautiful moment of freedom. Then comes a different plan. But that’s for later.
I wish you the very best.
Hi, LW. Hugs if you want them.
One of the best things that my high school has ever done for me was when they invited a group of people in and let them tell us their stories. Now, those were all people around thirty, who were happy where they were and what they were doing. But another thing they had in common was that they did not get there straight away. They had tried studying different things and working in different fields, and along the way they all discovered something they actually wanted to do, something they often hadn’t even known existed before. This is of course much easier to do if you have money and a family that supports you, it’s not as easy to go and try stuff out if you’re primary concern is to support yourself. But… I often think back to those stories, especially when I question my choices and wonder if I could have done things better. And they always help me relax. They give me confidence that there are more paths than just one perfect one.
So here is my story – a happy one, but not the one I imagined for myself.
I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to a great high school. And then in my final year I got a conditional offer from a university I liked – full tuition and living costs covered. The day I heard about the scholarship, I screamed and jumped, and rolled around on the floor in happiness. I had it all sorted, I just needed to do well on my final exams.
LW, I messed up those exams. Not very badly, I still got decent grades – but badly enough that the uni took away the offer.
So I spent a month or two that summer crying and feeling like a failure, and being terrified about what to do next, because uni has always been the goal for me, it never even occurred to me that I could do something else after school.
And then I remembered a website I bookmarked months earlier, as my plan B – one I never thought I’d actually use. It was a volunteering programme that would offer me a place to live and pocket money in exchange for work – a fairly good deal, I gotta say, but definitely not what I imagined myself doing when I was in high school.
So I went and spent nine months there, and then reapplied to uni. I didn’t get to study the subject I initially wanted, my grades were too low for that. But I ended up studying something else, something I love now, something that gave me an opportunity to travel and meet amazing people, and meet the man I’m in love with, in a country I never might have visited otherwise. And, guess what, I even got a scholarship!
And that year of volunteering? That experience opened the doors to many other amazing opportunities, to summer and part-time jobs.
I’m about to graduate from uni now and I’m terrified again – in the midst of applying for jobs and graduate programmes, with the final exams looming ahead and the knowledge that my flat lease runs out in the summer and there will be no more scholarship to support me, so I’ll need to find a way to support myself and find a place to live. It is the scariest thing and sometimes I lay awake at night and wonder what will happen if i don’t do well enough, and wonder if I’d have an easier time finding a job if I had studied the thing I initially intended to. Job applications still ask about my high school results and that exam I messed up still comes to bite me in the ass sometimes.
But you know what? I have already failed once and it worked out okay. More than okay – the years since the end of high school have been the best years of my life. I hope that the next few years work out the way I’m planning, but even if they don’t, I’m sure I’ll find a way around it. And maybe end up somewhere wonderful that I never would have thought of otherwise.
So… I don’t know if this is helpful to you. But it made me feel better to hear stories of people whose path wasn’t what they’d imagined. You can think that you have it all planned out and it’s absolutely terrifying when that doesn’t work out. But the way you’ve planned is not the only way and sometimes plan B turns out pretty damn amazing, and sometimes just knowing that you have a plan B means that you can breathe freely enough to focus on working towards your plan A.
Whenever my mum is stressed out, she says: a year from now, I’ll know how it all worked out. I don’t know how I’ll tackle this and whether I’ll succeed, but there’s a version of me a year from now that knows. And chances are, she’s okay.
I hope a year from now you can look back at this letter and smile, and think of yourself fondly. And that every time you’re stressed, anxious and afraid afterwards, you can look back to this and think: I’ve survived it, I can survive the next thing, too.
Sorry if this is too long, I know you don’t need my entire life story. I guess it’s just resonated. I hope it can still be helpful.
LW, all the advice has been really good; I hope it helps you.
I just wanted you to know I really feel for you, but I think you are stronger than you realise. You have an inner strength that you are already using.
Sometimes when we live with people who spend their lives treading on us so they can feel a little taller we start to believe what they are saying about us and it can have an effect on how we think of ourselves and how we deal with the world. Believe me; I have the t-shirt on this one. However, you are streets ahead of where I was at 18; miles ahead. First of all you know your family is abusive; I didn’t have a clue; I thought mine was normal. Secondly you know you want to leave these people and make your own life. Again, I was without a clue and all these years later I live just 2 miles from my mother. Thirdly, you respond to abuse with very natural contempt and distrust. I thought (and still think) that I deserve it. I still don’t know how to stop trusting my extended familly. But this isn’t about me; this is about you; strong, resourceful, adaptable, resilient you!
So full marks for all of those achievements; and you have a life plan at 18; that doesn’t sound at all fragile or zombie-like to me; it sounds amazing. Life plans are the way forward. You say that you know where the start and finish lines are; I suspect you regard the upcoming exam as the start line; it isn’t. The start line was your first day of school, and everything you have learned up to now has been preparing for this exam. You are not starting from a blank page; the page is already pretty full. And there is no finish line; there are just a series of hills and valleys, reaching into a beautiful distance; your future.
The problem is that your coping strategies for stress within your family work well in your family, but are not so good when facing an exam. Those coping strategies absolutely rock because they have got you to where you are today; they are survival strategies and they are wonderful. There is nothing at all fragile about them or you. If you can’t actually escape abuse then unresponsive zombie (aka grey rock) is a great tactic to use. http://lindenclinicalpsychology.com.au/how-to-use-the-grey-rock-method-for-toxic-behaviours/
These family survival strategies are less useful in relation to an exam so you have recognised that it is time to bring all that inner resilence and resourcefulness into play and find some new coping strategies. I don’t think you need massive cramming (although I may be wrong; only you can really know). I think you may just need a little bit, several times a day, and in between some seriously good reading, walking, meeting friends and, as rightly advised, getting out of the house as much as you can.
If you want an easy way into studying then try the advert break revision method. Choose your favourite tv programme, watch it, and when the ad breaks come on turn down the sound and read a few paragraphs. When the programme starts then watch the programme. At the next break see how much you remember. Carry on for as long as you like.
It isn’t about if you leave home; if you succeed; if you thrive. It is only about when. You get to choose for your life, and when you choose to leave you will succeed at building a life for yourself, because you have everything you need within you. Your family knows this already; why else would they work so very hard to prevent you from finding it out for yourself? Every time they put you down, every snide remark says, ‘We know you can do it, but we don’t want you to know.’
How I got out: I was a musician, and rented tiny rooms from older bandmates until I got on my own feet. I was able to move out slightly before high school graduation. Do you have any friends who are already living on their own? Mine were happy to have a little extra each month even if it meant having their bassist on their couch/laundry room floor.
Good luck, and remember that you are awesome and get to decide what your individual awesome life will be like. College, career, or couch surfing are all fine options. Jedi hugs!
LW – I really hope that the advice helps you.
Just to add in, if you can. do see your own doctor to see whether there are any medical issues which may be adding to the current situation, and if there are, then consider speaking to your school to see whether there is anything you can do to have those issues documented, and whether the exam boards / scholarship boards have any discretion to make adjustments if needed . It might be that the scholarships would have the discretion to accept you with slightly lower exam results, if thy were aware that there was a medical reason you hadn’t performed as well as predicted, for instance. (And of course, if you get appropriate support and treatment you may then not *need* any adjustments!)
I think this is all part of the Captain’s ‘assemble Team You’ advice,
LW, your apathy may be a symptom of depression. If you can do so, please get a screening to rule out possible mental health issues.
Hey, I just wanted to add my two cents and let you know that you sound like a pretty typical teenager to me. What stuck out to me is that you referred to yourself as “overly-emotional” and “fragile”. I just wanted to say that that sounds like classic jerkbrain. Please don’t frame yourself that way – don’t think about yourself that way.
First of all, teenagers have tons of roiling chemicals that typically mellow out a bit for older people. You feel things acutely, and that’s 100% normal. And if people are being insensitive to you and making crappy comments…and if the comments are mostly harmless alone, but collectively become an avalanche of little cuts – it’s going to hurt your feelings. And it would hurt anyone’s feelings. And it’s okay for you to feel hurt because you’re not a robot. That doesn’t make you fragile. It makes you human.
As for being a zombie, dealing with conflict is hard: it’s a skill. Many people don’t have that skill. That’s why Capt offers scripts. In short, please be easier on yourself mentally. It may be easier said than done, but you’re not broken and your responses to situations are not dysfunctional or weird.
And apathy? I never knew anyone who wasn’t apathetic as a teenager. The pressure to “decide the rest of your life” while you’re still living at home with a structured life (school, homework, chores, dinner, sleep, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, WEEKEND!, school…). You haven’t had the chance to experience much of the world. The Captain’s advice is awesome and helpful, as usual. I’m not trying to be dismissive of how you feel. On the contrary, I just want to point out that it’s not just you. It’s not some innate inability to deal with life or some flaw of character. You are completely natural. Please don’t forget it.
I KNOW you will find a way. Random internet stranger has 100% confidence in you. =)
I think you’re amazing. You have a clear idea of what you want and what needs to change and you are asking for help months in advance. There are many possible roads ahead for you and the Captain has given you a really good game plan for figuring out which ones to steer toward.
If it’s not presumptuous to have a wish for you, I’ll hope you remain sensitive, in a tough kind of way.
The part of your letter that struck me particularly was the bit where you said you couldn’t afford to be depressed. Well, let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’ve been clinically depressed since I was a little younger than you, my early high school years. My depression is not the kind of depression that you see on TV: I don’t feel down, or blue, or unhappy when I’m depressed. I feel apathetic, I become unable to care about things, and my brain feels like it’s forcing its way through fog. Concentration gets hard, and my depression gets exponentially worse when I get stressed out. So towards the end of high school, when I was up to my ears in college aps and AP tests and financial aid coordination and leadership positions in clubs and organizations, I pretty much shut down. It was a tough three months just before I graduated.
Now, obviously you’re not me, and I really hope that you don’t have the same thing I did, but it might be worth talking to a psychiatrist and looking into meds, particularly if you can get mental health care through your school or if medical care in your country is free. If you do happen to have a similar flavor of brain worms, antidepressants really really will improve your quality of life.
Even if you aren’t depressed, some of the de-stressing techniques for depression might still help you. Try to concentrate on just the moment that you’re in and on just the task that you’re doing. Don’t let your brain wander away into thinking about the future: do your best to become a creature of the here-and-now, focussed solely on whatever task your fingers are presently occupied with and nothing else. No future, no past, no mom waiting at home who may or may not erupt tonight, just now. This is called mindfulness, and you can find a ton of 5-minute exercises online to help you develop the skill. It’s great for reducing stress and feeling better about yourself because you feel a sense of accomplishment when you get your little this-moment task finished. Look into 4-7-8 breathing, and make that a part of your daily life as well. Be kind to yourself, forgive yourself if you don’t accomplish things perfectly, and make the deliberate choice to prioritize your own sense of happiness over the things you only do out of obligation. Stay out of toxic environments as much as possible (yes, even your house. Develop a habit of sleeping over with friends if necessary). Do small favors for yourself, like bubble baths or a page of stickers with smiley faces on them. These kinds of things help me keep my stress under control, maybe you’ll find some good in them too.
LW – I’m a world class procrastinator. What works for me is timed tasks a la Unf*ck your Habitat:
eg: Study for 20 minutes. When 20 minutes is up then I’m done for 10 and so on for a pre-set period (eg: two hours, or one hour or whatever). The only goal is hack at whatever for 20 minutes and then I have to take that 10 minute break. That is the only real requirement – the 10 minute break.
As I get into the habit of the 20/10 it flows really well and I can get so much done. Once the two hours are done I stop and don’t think about it until the next day.
What you’re talking about is the pomodoro method, and is one of the most useful methods I have found for working towards my goals. There are also plenty of free apps that let you use this system.
LW, know that you are not alone in feeling panicked, and unprepared to take a test that requires SO MUCH preparation. And it’s not because you’re young, or incapable, or weak.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that relying on willpower and motivation for the completion of long term goals is idealistic, but stupid. And for me, it just becomes a self-destructive cycle. When willpower and motivation are, inevitably, not enough, the mental self-flagellation commences [“why can’t I better?””I should be able to accomplish more.” etc….] And then I try again to exert willpower and motivation, except this time with less energy and increased despair…. Rinse. Repeat.
That’s why its important to build up your mental toolkit for tasks such as this.
Every time I contemplate a large, multifaceted project, it’s as if my brain starts off my saying “Wow, that’s a big mountain we need to climb to reach our goal, but if we put time and effort into it, we can probably make it…”
Then, I try to start the project, and a second part of my brain goes “Silly human, that’s not the mountain you need to climb. THIS is the mountain you need to climb to reach your goal!” **Cue to a cartoonish zoom out, showing that the initial ‘big mountain’ was just first ledge of a mountain SO TALL that the top is shrouded in layers of clouds, punctuated by screech of an eagle in the background** Then the blind panic starts, and even the thought of starting to climb is so paralyzing, that the act of procrastinating becomes a physical relief.
The trick is to create a framework that breaks down the act of climbing the mountain into small, manageable chunks. And this is where someone at your school comes in. They can help you put together a climbing plan. Similarly, the social support of climbing with schoolmates, who are also trying to reach the top of the mountain, helps.
This is also where the pomodoro timer method comes in. Instead thinking about climbing the WHOLE mountain, you just need to concentrate on climbing for 20min. And then you get a break. So if you start panicking, all you need to do is glance at the timer and say to yourself “I just need to hang on an work for ‘x’ min.
Finally, be kind and forgiving to yourself during this process. If you take a night off, or mess up, that’s FINE. You can always start again tomorrow.
I’ve used this method recently for cleaning my entire house after a bout of illness. I was still recovering and didn’t have a lot of energy, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t exhaust myself and relapse. But I also really, really wanted a clean home after being sick for weeks. So… 20/10/20/10 and repeat. I was able to get it done, I took lots of rests so I didn’t wear myself out, and I HIGHLY recommend it.
Hi LW! I hope your exam goes well. For what it’s worth, sometimes we emotionally shut down BECAUSE something is so important to us, not because it isn’t important at all. Caring that much when you already struggling with anxiety and are in a situation where your vulnerability or caring-about-things is abused is scary, and our brains usually try to protect us. Sometimes our brains misfire or follow unhealthy patterns in this attempt, but that’s why the advice in this thread about seeking help is awesome and I won’t bother repeating it.
I just wanted you to know that this doesn’t mean you don’t care, or that your goals are wrong. It might mean that your brain is reading “THIS IS SO IMPORTANT TO ME” as a stressor that you must be rescued from, rather than as a motivation you can use.
Also, and this is not meant to freak you out more, but you have had 16, 17, 18 years of learning the stuff that will be on the exam, so you don’t need to cram knowledge. You mostly need to figure out what the test will be like, and areas you might be weaker in, and how the schedule of the testing will go, and that you need a bunch of #2 pencils and a good hi-polymer eraser and comfortable clothes, including a hoodie if the room is cold or you need to huddle into yourself. Maybe earplugs. And start working out now what a good breakfast for you looks like – biscuits and gravy makes you fall asleep? not a good idea. Coffee make you pee a lot? not a good idea. Comfort with the testing set-up can take away one area of anxiety for you.
I am a youth worker in Australia. I work with a lot of young people in Australia in a similar boat. I don’t know if you’re here or in a country with a similar structure based on some things you say, but I wanted to flag there are also community resources if your school is a deadend. Look for youth resource centres, youth community centres, and youth homelessness prevention services. I know you’re not homeless now but “in an abusive home” and “thinking of running away” is a risk factor for being homeless–you won’t be on a high priority list for transitional housing or anything, but a lot of groups also work in prevention and should be able to point you towards resources. If you think it may get bad enough to run, find out where you’re running to now while you have the spoons rather than ending up sleeping rough in a panic.
It sounds like you are not in the US so there may be government support getting out also. In Australia, this would be CentreLink. Talk to CentreLink or your local equivilant. I would suggest asking if your local youth centre has a CentreLink worker and seeing them instead of going into an office, if you can. These workers have extra training for folks in your situation and are more likely to be extra supportive.
You got this. Even if you don’t pass that test, you got this. You’ll be out soon. All our love and support.
I don’t know where you live, but just in case you are in Australia, check out if you’re eligible for any bonus points. I know when I was doing my final exams, the knowledge that I had a solid 8 bonus marks under my belt, no matter what, helped take just enough of the pressure off that I could actually study without the paralyzing fear that stopped me from doing anything.
And if you’re not in Australia, maybe see if there’s a program similar for you out there.
LW, I want to focus on one word, which might seem a tiny issue, but can be life changing.
When you say you can’t “muster enough willpower to work towards my goals,” you are selling yourself short.
The word “will power” is so charged I think it’s damaging to use. “Will power” is seen as being part of character, part of what makes someone a “good” person, or a “bad” person. “Will power” is seen as a positive trait, so lack of “will power” is a character flaw and makes one less worthy. It’s not something that is much recognized but saying someone does or does not have “will power” carries judgment on them as a person.
“I don’t have the will power” carries undertones of I Am A Failure As A Human Being.
“Lack of will power” does several harmful things: It internalizes lack of success as Failure Because You Are Not As Good As You Should Be. And it puts success out of your reach because until you magically become a Better Person, you’ll never be able to do it.
Thing is, most of the time when someone does not achieve their goal for “lack of will power” it’s not because they lack will power, but because their goals are damn hard and they don’t have the tools they need to succeed.
People who struggled for years to kept their home clean and then adopt the Unf*ck your Habitat method and are able to clean their home and keep it clean, didn’t somehow gain will power. They gained tools to help them tackle a difficult task.
The Awkward Army has posted a lot of good suggestions here that could be the tools you need to overcome the very real obstacles in your path.
I think we should all jettison the concept of “will power” and realize that what we need are skills and habits. The difference is that “will power” is part of what you *are*, while a skill is something you *learn* and a habit is something you *do.* Good skills and habits are hard to build, but when you recognize that you need to learn and practice them to succeed, you remove the element of judgment on your character.
So, thinking habit, not “will power,” is a way to re-frame the issue to focus on what will actually help you succeed, while eliminating damaging thoughts.
I hope this makes sense. It seems a small point, but you have enough to deal with without the burden of “will power.”
You can do it, LW. You have so much going for you, I don’t doubt you’ll get where you need to be.
Hugs if you want them.
tl:dr- finding it hard to do something because you’re overwhelmed/exhausted/depressed/confused/frightened is not a character flaw!
No one does it perfectly, LW.
It is “sold” to us that way: as a series of stepping stones, each one of which requires higher and higher dedication and effort and ability. And if you miss one… you fall into a deep canyon and never get out.
That is Perfectionism talking. Show it the door and live your life, instead.
This is a very common response in a home where we think, “Oh, if only I was perfect, I wouldn’t get yelled at.” But even if you managed that, it would annoy the dysfunctional person so much they would yell at you for that, would they not?
So just, always — do the best you can. That is all the Universe ever asks of us.
Oh…the little black spot on your cat’s nose is adorable. This is the first time I’ve commented here, and it was your cat photo that motivated me to do it.
LW, forgive me if this is a bad guess, but you sound Australian to me. (Although the exams in April don’t quite fit with that). Maybe I’m projecting – rather like you I grew up in Australia with a mentally ill mother given to put-downs, an absent father, a sometimes violent older sibling and an extraordinary level of pressure to do well in my final school exams.
One thing which can be quite insidious about an environment like that is how you absorb your family’s account of who you are, your capabilities etc as truth. It’s hard not to – they are your family, the people who nominally know and care about you most, and while you physically share a space their opinions will diffuse into the atmosphere until you’re hardly aware of what you’re breathing. I think I see some of this in your letter. On the one hand, you’re clever and independent enough to identify your mother’s instability, but then you echo her cruel and inaccurate criticisms in your assessment of yourself. (Eg, being ‘overly sensitive’ as opposed to stuck in a toxic place where you’re being hurt by the adults who should be caring for you).
I have no perfect solution except to say that for me, moving out of home changed everything. Physically escaping that environment allowed me to see that my mother’s view of me wasn’t truth, it was a narrative which she’d made up which came into conflict with many other, far more truthful and less infantilising narratives about who I was and what I was capable of.
I understand that finances and logistics may prevent you from moving out for some time, but I would encourage you to view this as a goal and an opportunity quite distinct from getting into the perfect university course. You can do one, you can do the other, you can do both at the same or at different times. I don’t want to get out of my lane, but if you do live in Australia, I have lots of more specific advice, tips and tricks on how to plan for this and make it easier.
In the meantime I hope you find the academic and personal support that you need. We are on your team!
I had to pass some exams as an anxious and tired teen, and I did it even after I couldn’t get away with cramming, so I present to you the Official Briar Guide to Passing Exams When You Don’t Really Care About Anything:
1) remember how horrible cramming is. Remember that if you put 5 minutes in now that’s five minutes less you have to put in at 3am when you’re caffeinated to the gills.
2) find out what “studying” or “revising” actually looks like. I had no success sitting down to “study”, but lots of success sitting down to “answer the questions on the Poisson distribution”
3) Be efficient. Your peers might be creating beautiful colour-coordinated study notes. You are either memorising formulae/definitions/dates or answering questions from a textbook or past exams. The way you make notes is that every time you get stuck on a question and need to look something up, write down the bit you needed to look up. If you have time and motivation afterwards, sure, make them colour-coded.
4) you’ll likely have to do some last minute revision, so make yourself lots of cups of tea while doing it and go to bed on time
5) work out what the absolute minimum requirement is to get some form of scholarship. Any work you do to get a higher score than that is a bonus. Even if you don’t get the ones you apply to you can reapply next year with known grades, and spend the year working or backpacking.
And some advice for answering exam questions:
1) write down the most important parts of the question before you begin, or rewrite it in your own words
2) if stuck, write down everything you know and see if anything falls out
Hope this helps. Good luck, buckaroo
In response to “I just can’t care about anything”, here’s a thought experiment that some people find useful:
You don’t have to care about the stuff. You just have to do the stuff.
Rather than spending time and energy worrying about not caring or trying to bring yourself to care, or wasting time waiting for a time you do care, see if the mindset “I don’t care about studying for my exam. So I’m not going to care about studying for the exam. But now is time to spend half an hour studying, so I’m going to spend half an hour studying.”
Obvs if you’re worried your not caring might be a symptom of depression or anxiety or something else that would benefit from medical/therapeutical help, seeking that help would also be a good idea. But you can *also* give yourself permission not to care as long as you get stuff done, and then if caring ends up happening as a result of seeking medical help, that’s a bonus.
This is great advice.
When working on developing healthy habits, I focused on turning off the “I need to”, “I should”, “I don’t want to”, “I can’t make myself” etc thoughts and just said “now is when I wash the dishes.”
I think of it as meta-thinking: instead of getting into a back-and-forth with myself about should/shouldn’t/why/don’t wanna and trying to talk myself into doing something, I take it up a mental level and tell the squabbling siblings in my brain to shut up and go to their respective corners, we’re going to do it.
Lifting my thinking up a level from arguing with myself takes control away from the brain weasels.
It’s the same principle as refusing to argue a subject with someone because they have no right to any input on your decision.
Not sure if it’s been mentioned or if it works in LW’s case, but older siblings with their own flats and an extra couch can be lifesavers, too, for long-term or short-term escapes.
I love that CA noticed how LW spelled “mum” and used the same spelling – it’s a tiny, thoughtful touch
I searched the comments for “compassion” and got no results. Huh. It’s an important skill, up there with CBT and mindfulness. It’s more of a long-term goal, since it takes a lot of practice, but now that I’m starting to love myself (a concept I didn’t really understand even a few years ago), it seems to be actually helping me with that inability to do things. When everything is overwhelming and too much and my brain wants to shut down, compassion helps make the unbearable a little more bearable, helps me get into pain-management mode and use it to lessen the emotional pain (or physical pain too, but that part you hopefully won’t need!)
I found that when compassion practice was too uncomfortable, it helped to work on boundaries for a while instead.
Also, a warning – when I was young I picked up my mum’s habit of using emotional abuse and fear as motivation. That can do a lot of long-term damage. So, uh, try not to do that 🙂
Oh, I remembered another thing! There’s a game called Best Fiends that rewards effort, and it seems to have helped my motivation too! It got me to win so many impossible-seeming levels that now when something looks impossible in the real world, it’s not nearly so intimidating. 🙂
I hated my life at home and joined every club at school so I would be there from 8am – 7pm each weekday… Following sports on Saturday afternoon so I didn’t have to go home after morning school… Even joined the chapel choir so I had to be there on Sunday mornings (and I’m an atheist, who hates mornings!) so yeah! Join groups that get you out of the house. Doesn’t have to relate to your education (though that was the easiest way to get my mother to accept it and not try to spy on me) – does your area have a local community film night? Could you volunteer at a food bank? In fact things like that will look good and add character when you apply to university.
But what really got me through the years of mother-related misery was to have a plan. A hidden backpack with 48 hrs of clothes and food. Maps. And later, a friend who was in on it with me and knew a secret code that, if given, told her to get going and where to meet me.
I never used this plan (too scared?) but knowing that I had it – and that I had a friend in the same boat – made me feel stronger and get through some horrible teenage years.
Good luck, OP. If it helps, plan how you’d leave in a hurry, and the way you’d cope for the first 48 hours. Knowing you could escape will probably bring a sense of confidence and a bit of peace – “I can rise over this” – and you probably won’t need the plan in the end.
+1 to the general consensus that this is not, in fact, your one and only chance to change your life. Not gonna lie, it seems like a good one. But if it doesn’t work out, there are plenty of other things you can do within a year or so that don’t involve running away and living on the streets. You may wish to cautiously check out Reddit’s “Raised by Narcissists”. I’m warning you, it’s a bit of a wormhole, but there are lots of people on there giving and receiving practical advice on how to escape oppressive and controlling home situations. (Like, keep your passport and other documents at work, get a job and lie about how much you make so you can divert the “extra” to a secret bank account…)
For studying, I’d recommend Cal Newport. The website has got way intense and it’ll take you forever to burrow through it, but the books (despite their clickbaity titles) are excellent and accessible summaries of different ways of doing effective in-depth studying. I think the one you want is probably “How to be a High School Superstar” but I may have misremembered so do read the Amazon descriptions of all of them. It’s basically about not just sitting there re-reading stuff and calling it studying, but actively re-engaging with the material. Depending on your kind of apathy, that will either be really hard or will kick-start you into feeling like you’re doing something new and exciting and motivating. I’d definitely give it a go! It helped me a lot when I had serious end-of-school burnout and couldn’t believe I had to slog through ANOTHER set of exams before I was allowed to leave home and go to university and burst out of my chrysalis.
Something that helps me make decisions is throwing away the concept of “should”. I stop saying “I should study instead of hanging out with my friend”, and instead I say “If I start studying now, I’ll get this thing done, but I’m really tired and might not focus well. If I keep hanging out with my friend, I have a chance to relax and have fun, but I’ll also be anxious about not having done as much as I wanted.” Both choices have upsides and downsides, and there isn’t a clear answer which one is “correct”. And maybe you can do something about some of the downsides – I might try studying anyway and see if I can concentrate, I might revise my plans and check if I’ll be able to catch up on my studying.
Things will get SO MUCH better once you’re out of there. I’m so glad you’re trying to get yourself out of this miserable situation.
Or looking at the ‘if…then’ and letting it sit for a minute can point you toward another possibility, i.e. if I study, I’m tired and unfocused, and if I hang with a friend I’ll be anxious, so maybe I’ll go to bed early, get up early, and study”.
As a college professor I want to second Captain’s statement that “whether or not you do amazingly on your exams & get a scholarship” you will go to college if you want to.
For example, in many states you can do your first two years at a community college. Academic advisors will tell you what classes you need to transfer. Four year colleges support this because they are so crowded. You do not need amazing test scores to be admitted to community college, and the cost is lower. So you could move out, go to community college on whatever scholarships you can get, get great grades (because your life is less horrible), apply for scholarships to uni, and there you go. Some community colleges have low-cost programs for area residents.
Alternatively, you could get a community college certificate, a job that pays for further education, and get your bachelors and masters while you are working.
Or you could leave home and work for a couple years so you can decompress, then start thinking about college.
There are also careers that do not require college, such as construction and sanitation (it is important to be union). They are good jobs with good salaries, lots of time outdoors, no suits, and nothing to look askance at.
High school students get so much pressure to do amazingly in classes and tests. It is not as big a deal as people make it out to be. Whatever happens now, college will be attainable in the future. I hope this lets you relax a bit.
I’d like to leave two thoughts:
First, the definition of success as defined by our communities is whacked out, materialistic, not flexible, one-dimensional, etc. Mother Nature’s definition of success is “survival”. I like Mother Nature’s definition, and maybe you should, too. You are a tremendous success! I am a tremendous success! All the people on the earth are successes! ’cause we are all survivors…
Second, your plan is not going to work out. It will not work out because nobody’s plan works out. You could be the most well-adjusted, rich kid with an emotionally and financially supportive family and your plan would not work out. So you do not need the perfect plan. You need a plan, and if you use any or all these great suggestions, you’ll get one, because you are a survivor, already. And then you’re on your way…..
Also, listen to Dr. Seuss:
“So be sure when you step
Step with care and great tact.
And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed)
Kid, you’ll move mountains.
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”
Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
He ain’t just for kids…
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