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Ask Dr. NerdLove: Why Can't I Take Control Over My Life?

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Hello all you bags of Internet horror meat, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only outlaw dating advice column north of the Rio Bravo.

This week, we’re talking about power and influence. There are times we all feel like we’re just pawns in the game of life. But how can we use what little influence we might have to change our lives for the better and force a different outcome? Is there a way to quit feeling like you’re playing in someone else’s game and start living in your own?

One reader wrote in to ask about why he feels stuck going nowhere fast. He feels like he’s not the protagonist, more like he’s the background extra in someone else’s game. But is that the case? His letter was long enough for a more involved response, so it’s time to scrub up with the Doc and get ready to some corrective surgery… with some careful applications of The Chair Leg of Truth. It’s never pretty, rarely pleasant, but sometimes it’s necessary. Let’s do this.

Hi Dr. NerdLove,

So i think i figured out why im having such trouble gaining motivation for anything, and this includes dating.


Is it because you’re suffering from depression? I’m going to go with “you’re suffering from depression.

I think that i may be a background character in someone else’s story, TV show, video game, anime, movie, comic book, D&D game whatever.


Well… yeah. I mean, you are. So am I. So’s everyone reading this. Contrary to popular belief, the rest of the world isn’t a figment of your imagination, disappearing as soon as your attention is directed elsewhere. Everyone out there is living their own story, and when we appear in those stories, it’s often tangentially. We might not be noticed at all.

The cute barista at your local Starbucks may be someone you just see every day when you go for your daily latte, but she’s got a life and a story all of her own. You’re as much of an extra in her life’s story as she is in yours.


The problem here isn’t that you’re a background character in someone else’s story. It’s that you don’t like your own. But we’ll get to that.

I honestly believe that most people don’t have control of their lives and it is all prewritten for them, with the exception of the powerful, rich or influential (i.e. the only people who actually matter in this world).

The rich, powerful or influential are the true main characters of this world, and the few background characters who actually achieve any measure of success are secondary characters at best.


Yeah, I’m gonna call bullshit. This is a bunch of self-serving rationalization; you’re justifying your own inaction. Yes, the rich and powerful can have freedoms that people with less often don’t. But the fact that Elon Musk can get high and talk about Evangelion on Twitter doesn’t mean that you don’t have control or influence over your own life.

They have resources that you don’t, but that doesn’t actually stop you from influencing your own life. It just means that shit’s easier for them than it is for other people. Yes, you may not have the money to say “screw it, I do what I want”, but that doesn’t mean that you have no control or influence. It means that things are more difficult for you than it would be for someone with a lot of money. Difficult isn’t the same as impossible.

Background characters don’t have happy lives.

Sez you.

They are either deluded into thinking their lives have any meaning by the Ad Executives, voting in puppets and their personal joy is obtained by getting the next material item OR: they are embittered because they realise nothing they do will ever matter.


I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’re leaning toward that last option.

They cannot change anything, help anyone or make anything better as the random number generator will fuck everything up when their back is turned.


Called it!

Or even worse, when you show weakness to someone, they use it to damage thine life.


Or maybe they don’t, and life just goes on as it normally does. Yes, there are assholes out there who will confuse vulnerability with weakness, but not only is that not a guarantee, it’s just another way to justify a shitty attitude to yourself. Yeah, assholes are gonna ass, but — and this is key — most people aren’t assholes.

I know that I’m gonna be forgotten very easily. I’m a wraith. I’m a cog in the machine, where all that is to me is that I’m ‘nice’ and a ‘good worker’.


Well with that attitude, you will be.

That’s the footnote a very dull character gets, i mean good grief imagine a tv show about me! A man who does nothing, goes nowhere, is nothing and has no value whatsoever.


I don’t have to. They already made it. It was called Seinfeld. Or King of Queens. Or Everybody Loves Raymond. Or Roseanne. Or...

I’m a fucking commoner, one of the unwashed hordes who doesn’t have any hope for the future. I don’t want a normal life, I want a life of lasers, mad science, intrigue, danger and not this crippling depression.


OK cool. So… what are you doing to build that life? Because I’m hearing a whole lot of “I can’t” and not a lot of “I will”. You’ve spent several paragraphs talking about how everything has no meaning and only certain people get to actually have lives but not a single word about what it is that you’re doing or going to do that will make your life better, more interesting or more fulfilling.


And that includes going to get help for your depression. Depression isn’t something you just have to live with, it’s something that can be treated with therapy, with lifestyle changes and with medication. You can’t “cure” depression, but you sure as hell can manage it, get it under control or even stare it down until it’s not something you live with every single minute of every single day. But you have to be the one to make that happen, and so far, you’ve chosen not to.

How long will I have to play at actually being intelligent with a fading memory of university, of hope until I actually become intelligent, or at least think I am?

I can respect the higher-ups in life, the managers, the CEOs, the scientists, the doctors, and even the common man working a crappy job, such as I am. But I hate myself for being so god-damned insignificant.


Ok, hold the phone. So what makes the other common people working crappy jobs respectable in a way that you aren’t? Why do they get respect — despite, presumably, being in the same boat as you, with the same pre-written destinies — and you don’t?

Right now, in the theology of the world you’ve presented, those regular workers are stuck in the same eternal loop as you are. They’re just as screwed by the RNGenie as you. So what makes them worthy of respect that you won’t afford to yourself?

Thing is, after failing out of university and working a crappy minimum wage job, it’s killed my confidence stone dead, and this is where I feel like I’ll spend the rest of my life, as a worthless serf or peasant.


Hey, guess what? You’re right! That’s exactly how you will spend the rest of your life. If, y’know, you don’t make different choices.

This is squandering my potential.


I understand I have very little potential as I was not born into wealth or power, but I could at least get some books published, as it’s all i’ve ever dreamed of.


First of all, wealth and power have nothing to do with potential. They can help make it easier to go from “potential” to “actual”. But whether you were born into money doesn’t define the amount of potential you have.

As for getting published, ok. So what steps are you taking? Have you written any manuscripts? Have you joined some writers’ groups, workshopped some pieces you have, refined them, edited them? Have you sent out query letters to literary agents or looked to the submission guidelines of various publishers? Have you tried submitting short stories to anthologies, magazines or fiction websites? Have you looked into self-publishing and investing the time and effort into marketing your book so it actually reaches the audience you want to reach?


Are you writing? Are you writing for blogs and websites, honing your craft and making vital contacts that will create a network that will help you when you’re ready to start submitting your work to publishers? Those are all things you could be doing right now.

Will I be forgotten and my hard work passed over for the biography of some worthless, no-talent reality star? Probably, but at least I could say I did it, damnit.


Maybe, maybe not. Most books don’t get the marketing push that the easy-money-flash-in-the-pan trend chasers do. Welcome to the publishing industry. But that doesn’t mean that something you write won’t hook and find its audience. Unless, y’know, you never actually write the damn thing.

Bear in mind, i do not think that I am some type of tragic hero, I believe that I am so beneath notice that I just will not be noticed at all.


Here’s a free hint: the self-deprication thing doesn’t become anyone and it doesn’t fool anyone. The person who makes the most fuss about how he’s the lowest of the low, he’s scum, he’s the worst? They’re trying to get someone else to notice and tell them that they’re not.

I mean, holy hell, at least the guy who realises he’s a main character in a work of fiction gets an entire story, TV show, movie etc made about him, that’s something to be proud of!


No, it isn’t. Because, leaning on the fourth-wall or not, those fictional characters are not people. Deadpool, Gwenpool, The Joker, Animal Man, Mr. Mxyzptlk… none of those characters have actual agency. They’re the creations of other people, and their every move, including the awareness that they’re fictional is dictated by other people.

So they have done nothing. Because they can’t do anything.

I need to find out more about this fictional universe that i may be part of, to notice patterns so that i can raise my standing to ‘Extra who speaks to the main character’, or even ‘Guest Star’ at the absolute best. Thing is, I think everyone’s life sucks as bad as mine as its piss-boring at best. I’ve got a few friends, an unsatisfying job, crushed dreams of being an important figure in tech, and not much else.


I’m going to say it again: what are you doing to change this? What are you doing with your life to make things better? Are you actively looking for a better job or advancement within your own job in the meantime? Are you saving money in order to start being able to pursue some of those dreams?

Are you studying coding and engineering in order to be able to get a job in the tech industry? Are you looking to go back to school and finish your education? Are you trying to make more friends? Are you networking, making valuable contacts, building a life that is full of value and meaning?


Cuz from my end of things, it sure seems like you aren’t.

Not gonna lie, i’m also pretty disconnected from the world as my life is go to work, go home, procrastinate on off-days etc. I mean, who actually goes outside on the regular anymore? Suckers thats what.


AKA people who are actually doing something with their lives.

Alright, im also pretty bitter about my background character lifestyle.

You think?

Thing is, who is the Author?


It’s clear no-one will ever be able to talk to him, so I can only hope he has good intentions (or wants to write a boring book full of a world of hope and prosperity instead of the crap we have.)


I dunno. Do you have intentions of writing a better life for yourself?

My life could be a lot worse, i could be starving in North Korea or starving in Venezuala instead of grappling with existential dread.


My response to this is basically:

I just have to keep hold of my dreams of writing, as I’m sure as hell not gonna be an engineer or inventor, or anyone who will actually make any change for the world.


You should definitely keep hold of your dreams, but it doesn’t matter what they are if you never actually do anything about them.

I just hope i don’t write such poor-quality work that it disgraces the names of Terry Pratchett, Ernest Hemingway, Douglas Adams, the lot of them. Too many people are turning away from reading as it is, i don’t want to encourage more of them to leave the hobby.


I think you’re safe. If A Handbook For Mortals, The Eye of Argon, Atlas Shrugged or Those Who Trespass didn’t kill reading, nothing will.

Thing is, I think this situation is worse than ‘Man discovers the fourth wall’, as I cannot be certain if the fourth wall even exists or not.


SPOILER ALERT: It doesn’t.

This is not a Deadpool thing, not even Squirrel Girl, this is ‘A failure of a man hates the fact that he is such a sucker and ever had the erroneous thought that he could ever succeed in anything, so from now on he should have the lowest fucking expectations in life, then his goals are even slightly achievable.’

Who knows, maybe one day i’ll meet someone i care about moderately enough to marry, we’ll have some children and live in the vain hope that happiness will ever come.


Sweet Jesus, I hope not, especially not as you are right now. Misery shared is misery squared, my dude. Trying to pursue a relationship while you’re in this state is basically dooming yourself to failure and/or an incredibly awful and toxic relationship.

Then the main character, whoever he is, can come to my town or something and i can give him directions to the local convenience store. That will be my entire purpose in life it seems like.

Anyway, thanks for reading Doc.
Sleeping Labourer

Right, so. Want to know what you should be doing about this? First and foremost: quit talking to me and go to a therapist. By your own admission, you’re dealing with massive depression and whether we’re talking about the diagnosed chronic health condition or just the fact that you’ve been in a shitty, shitty mood for the last several years, you need to be talking to a mental health professional.


Maybe you need Zoloft. Maybe you need cognitive behavioral therapy. Maybe you just need someone to nod and go “uh-huh” before smacking you upside the head and telling you what to do. But regardless: this is a job for a therapist or health care professional, not a loudmouth with an advice column.

Second: quit griping to me and the universe in general and fucking DO SOMETHING. Your biggest problem here isn’t how “insignificant” you are, it’s not that you’re not to the manor born, and it’s not that you’re some bit player in somebody else’s life. It’s that you’ve chosen to be a bit player in your own life.


You have completely and totally abdicated responsibility for your own future. You’ve crafted a weltanshauung to absolve yourself of any reason to bother trying because Elon Musk and the Kardashians exist and, since you can’t be one of them, what’s the fucking point?

You’ve decided that nothing matters, so why bother even trying. Which, ok sure, if that’s how you want to live, then you do you. But that’s clearly not how you want to live, because you’ve spent all this time complaining about it.


So it’s put up or shut up time. You want to stop being a supporting player in your own life? Then fucking commit. Get off your ass, assume that you have actual agency and control, and take some goddamn responsibility for where you are now. There may be things in your life that are outside of your control but by God, you can choose how you respond to them.

You’ve complained a lot about these things you want, but I’m not convinced you actually want them. You seem to want them handed to you. You’ve thrown a lot of words around to explain why shit’s fucked up, but you haven’t said a thing about how you’re going to make it better.


If you want it that badly, then you have to go out and make it happen, not wait for it to just show up. You’ve got to put in the blood, sweat and tears, and be willing to sacrifice. But you haven’t, at least not yet. You’ve decided that whatever it is that you’re doing right now is more important than those dreams you have.


So prove me wrong. If you want the right to complain that everything is bullshit and nothing matters, fine. I’ll give you a challenge. You have a year. You have a year to actually put rubber to road and start making a difference in your life. You can write a novel. You can find another job. You can develop some hobbies, make more friends, go back to university and start auditing classes. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but you have to make a real, good-faith effort to move your life forward in some direction.

Start with talking to a therapist, though. That part’s non-negotiable.

Now, you don’t have to have achieved your goals and dreams in a year. You just have to have made real, notable progress. No bullshit “I’m not Minecraft rich, therefore I have failed” cop-outs. And yes, that’s a cop-out. If you’re going to set absurd, one-in-a-million standards as the only measure of success then you’re choosing to set yourself up for failure. You just need to be able to point to something that is measurably better than it was a year ago. A finished draft, a savings account, a class at university, even just being a little happier than you were a year before. Something that moves the needle.


If, at the end of that year of therapy and actual, 100% commitment to progress, nothing has improved? Then fine, you can assume that the world is against you. But before you do that, you have to take responsibility for your life. If you want to go from feeling like a background character to feeling like a star, then you have to make that choice. You have to decide to make it happen.

Only you can do that. Nobody else.

Good luck.

Did you turn your life around? Have you pulled yourself out of a seemingly hopeless situation? Share your story in the comments below and we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.


Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.


Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog, Paging Dr. NerdLove, and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is on Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.