Tough Problems: Chronic Sadness, Resentment


This is the latest in the Tough Problems series. In each post, I present two composite questions that my clients face and my response to each.

Dear Dr. Marty: I’ve always been kind of a sad person. Somehow, I was hoping that when I became a grown-up, things would be better, but no.

Tough

I have a college degree but the best job I’ve been able to get is as a reservationist at a rental car company, swing shift. And I’m not even good at that—I’m just not chatty like the good reservationists, and it doesn’t feel right to be up-selling. So I never make “my number.”

I have a few sort-of friends but when we go out, I’m not bubbly or even perky. I usually just sit there while they party hearty. A drink or joint doesn’t help—it just eats brain cells.

I’m a stick in the mud. I feel self-conscious and, honestly, sometimes hate myself. I sooo don’t fit in this world. Can you help, at all?

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Marty Nemko: You’re correct that most people present as perky. But for some of them, it’s an act. A recent Gallup survey found that almost half of Americans report that they worry a lot; almost two thirds often feel stressed. Quietly, some people, perhaps those most compatible with you, respect that you’re authentic rather than a phony.

Many people spend years reading self-help books or do psychotherapy trying to get happier, but often, the best answer lies in self-acceptance. But if you’d like to go beyond that, perhaps one or more of these will be helpful:

  • Working hard to find a job in which you’ll spend a larger percentage of your time successful and, if not downright happy, content. After all, you spend more hours of your life at work than at anything else. So it’s worth the one-time effort to try to optimize it. Here are my thoughts on how to do that.
  • Spending more time in after-work activities that you find rewarding, for example, something in sports or in the arts: writing, painting, singing, joining a band, dancing, if only taking classes? Some people feel happier doing volunteer work that they’re good at. A few examples: being on the team that’s preparing for a fundraising auction, painting over a graffitied wall with an inspiring mural, or answering the phone at a crisis hotline.
  • Might it help to take on a mission? Maybe it’s to invent something, fight to get some law passed. tutor or mentor someone, or help your dying relative to live last days as well as possible.

Dear Dr. Marty: I give and give but don’t get back: I ask about people but they rarely ask about me; I help people at work but they rarely help me; I donate money and time to charity, hoping the good karma would come back to me—As the saying goes, what goes around comes around, but it hasn’t come around to me. I know they say it’s better to give than to receive and that giving need be its own reward but I can’t help but feeling resentful and wanting to be more selfish. That said, everyone from politicians to my minister insists that selfishness is bad. Any thoughts?

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Marty Nemko: It’s only human that you’d want your generosity to yield some reciprocity. Alas, many generous people don’t get it. But perhaps if you look for friends and colleagues that seem more generous of spirit and who are in more of a position to give you what you want, you can get enough payback that you won’t feel the need to be unduly selfish.