DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’ve been struggling with getting through a transitory period in my life and was wondering if you had any advice. Over the past year, most of my long-term friends from college and earlier have moved far away from the town I’ve lived in and it has been kind of rough. Most have graduated and found jobs – I’m happy about the progress they’ve made. I would have done the same, but COVID and other complications pushed back the study abroad opportunity I wanted to take by over a year. I’m still a few months out from getting to finally take my plunge, but I’m struggling with buckling down and keeping myself running in the meantime.
These friends were genuinely supportive to me and allowed me to open up and be vulnerable as a guy in ways I see a lot of others hungering for today. I can’t state how great they’ve been to me, so it’s been hard without them. I have done my best to keep in touch- we do video chats and play games online semi-regularly, but it’s just not the same. It’s gotten to where I feel lonely in my town, and all my recent attempts to socialize and get involved haven’t really helped or led to new connections.
The complications in plans have left me spinning my wheels for about a year now and being in this environment without my old friends has made me constantly think about all the things I dislike about my current life and the ways I wish I could improve at the moment. Still putting in the effort to change, but preparing and making sure I have enough money to support myself overseas has taken precedence. I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it doesn’t feel like it’s getting any closer. What advice do you have for being stuck in transitory, stagnant-feeling stages like this?
Stuck On Pause
DEAR STUCK ON PAUSE: This is a great question, SOP, and I think it’s one that more people are dealing with than you realize.
You, like a lot of folks, are at a frustrating point in life. On the one hand, there’s a new life waiting for you out there (hopefully not in the offworld colonies, though) and you can’t wait to begin it. But on the other hand, you’re watching all the rest of your friends out on their own adventures while you’re still where you started. So on the one hand, you know there’s something bright and beautiful on the horizon, but on the other hand, that horizon doesn’t seem like it’s getting any closer. As a result, you’re caught in this liminal space of a future that hasn’t happened yet and feeling like you’re pressing your nose against the glass while all your friends are on the other side.
This leads to a lot of really frustrating moments because, well… what do you do? Your forward progress seems to be stalled out, but you also don’t want to invest too much in your current living situation because you’ve got a foot out the door. And to make matters worse, you don’t have the support network you used to have. Certainly not in the way that you used to, and not in the way you need right now.
Here’s the thing: yes, the future is ahead of you, and the more you put towards that future – resources, time, effort – means the faster you can reach that future. But the problem is, you don’t live in the future. You live in the present, and the present as it currently stands makes it really damn hard to look forward to that future. How do you balance that need between “prepare for the future” and “stuck living in the here and now?” Which do you prioritize?
The tricky thing about this liminal space you’re stuck in is that it’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and in the exact right ratio that means that you are intimately familiar with all the things that get you down in the here and now but without the benefits of your old life. As a result, you’re in a headspace where all the possibility and hope has been shunted off elsewhere and what you have is just the desiccated remains of your past, where there’s simply no point in trying to do anything other than get out as fast as you can. And that headspace is a problem. Much moreso than the inherent difficulties of preparing for a future oft delayed.
After all, it does you no good to reach that future if you’ve drained yourself of everything that makes life worth living in order to get there. You’ll be dealing with so much burnout and depression that it’ll feel like you can’t even enjoy this new life you’d been looking forward to. And let me tell you, there are few things as corrosive to one’s soul as having the hope of years… not dashed, per se, but drained of life and color. You get there and it’s what you dreamed, but muted somehow. Duller, grayer, less vibrant and far less exciting. And not because you focused on the wrong things, but because you gave so much to get there that you had nothing left once you arrived.
So what do you do? Well, as the man once said: is it too much to ask for both?
The first thing you want to do to break out of that feeling of stagnation is to find the areas where you are making forward momentum and surface them so that they’re more readily apparent. I don’t just mean setting things up for preparing for your future – kicking an automatic percentage of your take-home pay to a savings account, for example – but a way of measuring that progress. Think of advent calendars, counting down the days until the holidays, or the fundraising graphics that show how much money a popular cause has raised thus far. Having a visual representation of your progress – even if it’s as cheesy as an image of a graph in the shape of a thermometer marking off your savings goals – keeps your progress in view. Seeing that you’re making headway is vital for maintaining your motivation. It breaks the illusion that you’re stuck; instead you can see that you’re forging ahead. It may be a battle of inches, literal and metaphorical, but even an inch or a dollar is progress.
Now, while this may make you want to throw more resources towards your GTFO fund, you really shouldn’t. Not so much so, at least, that you sacrifice everything else. There’s value in self-indulgence too, and in giving yourself the gift of the present as much as the future. Those little things that make you feel good now are what help you build your strength to take advantage of your future. Self-denial isn’t the absolute virtue that folks would tell you. Little moments of joy and camaraderie aren’t unnecessary extravagances to expunge, they’re part of what keep you in the game. They’re the moments of rest that let you recoup your energy, soothe your aching muscles and catch your breath. Without them, you don’t finish faster; if anything, you’re more likely to not finish at all.
But, as you said: your home ain’t what it once was, not with everyone gone. Now you’re left with nothing but the ghosts of all the places you used to go and all the people you used to be. What do you do?
Well, you shift your mindset. This isn’t your home anymore, not the way it used to be. So treat it like a new place. This is a rest stop on your journey to the future. You may be here for an indeterminate amount of time, so you may as well get to know it while you’re here. And when I say “get to know it,” I mean precisely that. However long you’ve lived in this town, I can guarantee you haven’t seen its full width and breadth. You, like most people, have likely gotten into ruts; you go to the same places, see the same people, do the same things. The fact that the people aren’t there any more is part of what makes it feel so strange. It robs the things you used to do of their potency, saps the vitality of the places you used to go.
So instead of living life like you used to, you want to break out of that rut. Start treating this like a new city, with new people and new options. When is the last time you’ve gone out of your way to explore the nooks and crannies of your home town? When have you gotten deep in the weeds of what’s on offer, especially things that are outside your usual routine? Now is the perfect time to start, especially since you’re going to have to repeat the process when you do move.
Start by just finding out what’s around you that you may not have seen before. Get on the subreddit for your town, find the Facebook groups for events in your area, hit up the local alt-weekly and find out what’s happening this week. Go to literally anything that seems half-way interesting that you’ve never done before. Expand your horizons and experiment with new stuff. Stretch muscles that haven’t been used for a while and see where they take you.
Just as importantly, make new friends while you’re at these new events. As you’ve said: you’re terminally lonely right now. Well, I hate to tell you this, but unless you already have a pre-existing social network in wherever you’re planning on studying abroad, you’re going to be facing the same loneliness there. Except you’re also going to be dealing with culture shock and homesickness and that sense of unfamiliarity will be exponential to what you’re feeling now. But getting in the habit now of talking to folks, building connections and forging new networks is what will make your new living situation (both in the near future and after your study abroad session) go from a place where you keep your stuff to a home.
By starting now, you’ll be creating new patterns in your brain, turning being social and meeting new people into muscle memory. It’ll stop being something you have to work at to accomplish and become something you do. And while you’re practicing and entrenching those skills into your brain, you’ll also be building a social network that you need now.
Will this mean diverting some of your time, energy and resources away from your future life fund? Yeah, of course; that’s a literal zero sum game. But rather than seeing this as wasting money or slowing your progress down, look at it as investing in yourself for a payoff in the future. The things you do now will not only make it possible for you to start your new life, but they’ll ensure that you hit the ground running when you do. You’ll have built up skills and learned more about yourself than you realized, all the while remembering that your happiness should be a priority too. It will be an investment in feeding your soul and supporting your sense of well-being. And this way, when you do finally go on your study abroad program – or just start your new life and new career in a new city – you aren’t going to have to spend precious days, weeks and months recovering from all of the damage you may have done to yourself in your rush to get there in the first place.
Slow and steady doesn’t just win the race; it means you don’t collapse at the finish line, unable to ascend the winner’s podium.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com