Why you can’t study

Here you are again. You know you should do it. In fact, you even want to do it. You’ve become so bored just floating along and not challenging yourself that it makes you sick and even spiteful towards yourself. Yes, scrubs is a fantastic sitcom, and yes, beer really does taste good and give you that momentary feeling of contentment, but goddam that’s a sad life and you know it. Every move you make is a defensive one because to act in any other way hurts.

And, although dying slowly in that fashion doesn’t hurt at all, it is extremely painful. You know it. No amount of alcohol can make you forget that you could be doing more and you could be doing better.

That knowledge makes you guilty. Look at yourself. You’re a complete failure. Look how pathetic you’ve become, just searching for a way to retreat and avoid the suffering of life. You could be doing better, you could be working on projects and bettering yourself and proving to yourself and everyone around you that you are worth the air you breathe. But for the past few weeks you haven’t been doing that. You’ve been hiding.

Since you’ve been hiding, you feel like you’re living a bit of a lie. It’s something that embarrasses you and you’d really rather others not know about it. The guilt builds up.

You haven’t been competitive with your peers for the past few weeks, and for the first time you see most of the people around you being more successful than you are. And really, it is your fault. There’s nobody else to blame. The guilt builds up.

You are so guilty and ashamed of yourself that you avoid even being in the presence of others; what if they find out your dirty secret? What if they realize how utterly pathetic and unskilled you are? The guilt builds up.

You end up trapped in your own prison. For fear of judgement, everything you do becomes painful and more difficult. You are so embarrassed about the whole embargo that you are paralyzed, unable to ask for help while the parasite that is this thought pattern continues to eat away at your motivation and intelligence. You can’t escape it.

You stare at your math homework once more. This used to be so easy. And this content doesn’t look that much harder than what I’ve already done, but getting going once more feels as easy as pushing against a moving train in hopes of not getting plowed. The wall you’ve built between you and the work is just too thick.

Does this sound like you?

More abstractly:

Here is the model: once upon a time, your frontal cortex had a pretty good connection with cognitively heavy content. As challenging as the concept was, you had your full arsenal of attention to throw at it. But, as you start to run away, your fear system wraps around your cognition. It learns to become the mediator, or the guard, between your actions and your executive functioning.

So, the difficulty studying isn’t really about the math at all. The math is simple. It always was, it always will be. Math never gets harder or easier, it just exists. It has a constant runtime O(1).

But, instead of making calls to your frontal cortex object directly, your intelligence has become a nested class inside of your fear object. This design is really unideal as the fear calls are quite expensive and exhausting, AND the complexity scales with the strength of the prison you’ve constructed. I think fear calls are at least O(n), or maybe even O(n^2) depending on the person.

Thanks to the fear wrapper, the only way to get to your intelligence is to go through the middle man.

How to Forgive

It’s time to do some refactoring. The above pattern occurs because we have instantiated a recursive negative affect style towards studying. The loop will continue until you reach full self-forgiveness, accepting your faults, and thus being liberated by them [See related article and study].

Here are some tools to free yourself:

  1. Write about yourself
  2. Practice “active CBT”
  3. Remember that this experience is commonplace
  4. Perfectionism is death
  5. You can’t brute force this

1. Write about yourself

The first step is to admit that this is a problem for you. Write or talk to a friend about it, I don’t care, but you have to get it out there. It’s impossible to work on a solution if you don’t define the problem.

Outline all the times you have fallen in this trap. Mention all of them. This might feel embarrassing for you, but in fact that is a good thing. To absolve your sins, you must lay them out and admit your errors. This takes vulnerability and strength.

Check: have you really forgiven yourself? Think of the time you have failed once more. Focus on it. What sensations surface? If you still feel guilt, embarrassment, or shame, maybe it’s time to restructure those narratives using a CBT strategy. There is no need to feel guilty about having these feelings resurface: retraining your brain takes time for everybody, and you will likely need to provide multiple iterations of restructuring before you can expect any changes to stick.

You have to put in the work with this. It takes time. But, because this activity is a source of forgiveness and not one of guilt, it should be the opposite of stressful.

2. Practice “active CBT”

While and after you write about yourself, you will still likely run into emotional barriers while working. It might give you a hit of anxiety. Once again, this is expected. Relax.

In addition to writing and practicing forgiveness outside of your study time, you will also have to restructure your emotional blockages while studying. Yes, this will cut into the amount of time you spend actually working, but compound payoff of this investment is worth it. Forgive yourself while studying. Give out forgiveness like the stuff grows like trees.

The difficult thing to get right here is how to differentiate cognitive restructuring and avoidant affect. This takes practice to get right, but it comes down to this: is your thinking focused on the material, or is it not? Are you trying to focus inwards for a distraction or are you maintaining an outward focus, looking for forgiveness and acceptance?

You should have an end goal here, and it’s to actively look at your homework page without feeling dread, guilt, or fear. During this exercise, don’t look for those emotions (as you tend to find what you’re looking for). Instead, actively look for peace. The important thing is to do so without escaping inwards or turning off. In time, you will find it.

3. Remember that this experience is commonplace

Loneliness is one of the most common emotions that we share. In the same paradoxical way, without your knowledge, many people around you are going through the exact same emotional trough.

4. Perfectionism is death

A lot of this guilt and dread comes from an overactive ego and the denial or subsequent hate of one’s imperfections. This is not to say that this trend is specifically narcissistic [in thinking that one is perfect], but rather that it is extremely dangerous to hold one’s self-standards of progress too high as one seeks perfection.

Once again: forgive yourself. You are far from perfect, and that’s perfectly okay. Your friends, colleagues, and parents are also far from perfect, but somehow the world hasn’t fallen apart yet.

Freeing yourself from perfectionism is NOT the same thing as rejecting the aim of self-improvement.
Do not fall into either end of the trap.

In the same vein:

  1. Accept that you’re not a machine. You’re a human with emotional and physical needs. Make sure that those needs are a priority for you, as they provide the foundation for your life and abilities.
  2. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Don’t be afraid to do so.

5. You can’t brute force this

Aggression is a powerful tool, but it must be used sparingly. It sometimes seems that a simple fix to the problem I’ve outlined is to push harder and be tougher on yourself.

This is an effective method for squeezing the last bit of juice out of one’s faculties, but unfortunately it is self destructive and not sustainable. While it may give you the motivation to hand in that assignment today, you are doing it at the expense of your effectiveness tomorrow.

You are throwing yourself at each wall, successfully breaking through it, but one can not do this unscathed. As you get weaker, the walls remain the same strength.

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