Dear Thelma: I'm feeling lost, and have no motivation in life

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Dear Thelma,

I am 18 years old and have just completed my Form Five studies. I am not a bright or motivated student and I don't expect good results in my SPM.

I currently live with my grandparents after my mother passed away. My father and sisters send me pocket money and they visit me regularly even though we live in different states.

My grandparents are busy running a rice stall and I help them sometimes. They generally leave me to do my own things.

Next year, I plan to study in an arts college in Kuala Lumpur where I will be living with my maternal grandmother and uncle. They are good to me and have even offered to pay for my school fees. My family loves me and treats me well.

I feel like I am adrift and do not know what I am doing and where I am heading. Life is not horrible or especially stressful but I feel so unsure of everything. I don't feel like I am good at anything and can't summon the will to improve my life.

I am also socially awkward although I try. I am overweight and not the best-looking but I did get up onstage and sang at my sister's wedding.

When I look ahead, I don't seem to have goals or motivation. I am worried that I will go through college like I did my entire childhood and schooldays – just floating from day to day, but still OK.

Is this all there is to life? Can I continue to be like this?

My grandmother said my uncle will leave me their apartment, and my father has a house to leave to me too.

Small town boy

Dear Small town boy,

Thanks for writing such a very clear letter. I'm sorry your mum passed away. My condolences.

I can't tell how long ago this happened, or how long you've been parted from your dad and sisters. If this happened within the last year, you may still be grieving. Losing someone is traumatic, and mourning loss is natural.

Some people become a little stuck when grieving. It's also possible to sink into depression. In addition, the pandemic won't have helped.

Therefore, it you feel you have been grieving for too long, or you are also having some other issues like your sleep is off, or you have suicidal thoughts, do see a mental health professional for a chat, OK?

Otherwise, if you think you are overall OK, here are some thoughts.

If you didn't do well at school exams, don't worry. Lots of us are not so terrific at school and we do very well as we grow up. Also, with the pandemic, many kids haven't done so well. As long as you do your best, and are kind and honest, you will have lots of opportunities.

At 18, not having a clear purpose and wanting more focus is a thoroughly normal attitude. A few of us know what we want to do at that age. Most of us don't because school subjects don't relate well to careers. Also, we don't really know what kind of work different jobs involve.

Frankly, all that will change wildly as you study at college, meet lots of different people and widen your world.

In 18 months time, you will have a much clearer idea of what you might want to do in terms of work. As you will likely also date, you will also have a clearer idea of what kind of lifestyle and partner would make you happy.

You can't rush experience, so you'll have to be patient and wait until that happens. But there is something you can do right now to give you a bit of focus and that is behavioural activation or happiness scheduling.

Here's the theory: we tend to schedule stuff that we don't like (dental appointments and exams) and forget about the activities that make life sweet. So, over the next two months, schedule activities you love.

This should come in two parts. First, list five-minute activities that you enjoy. For example, singing your favourite song, dancing to your best song, talking to your pet, etc. Also list one-hour activities that you enjoy. For example, seeing a friend, going for a bicycle ride, swimming, cooking a meal for your family etc.

On your phone calendar, schedule a daily five-minute activity and a weekly one-hour activity. Stick to your schedule, even if you're feeling low. Doing this will help push happy time into your life. Also, it will make you more mindful of enjoying yourself. This is an overall exercise that can help anyone suffering from low mood.

In addition, you're a bit socially awkward and somewhat shy about your body. These issues are both rooted in self-esteem.

As you're changing from a teen to a young adult, you will notice changes in your body and your responsibilities, and people will be treating you differently too because of these issues. While changing from a child into a man may be exciting, it can also be stressful.

Again, it's a normal part of growing up. I suggest you ask your father and grandparents to share stories of how they felt. It will cheer you up to know we all go through it. In addition, here's a nice little exercise to boost your self-esteem so that you can weather the changes a bit more easily.

Write down four qualities you like about yourself. For example, honest, artistic, adventurous, caring, etc. Twice a week, journal about how you have shown two or more of these qualities in your day.

By writing very specifically where you have shown caring for others in your day, for example, you remind yourself of your good qualities, and you will also be more likely to explore them. This will help you become more appreciative of yourself and that will boost your confidence.

If it helps, when I read your letter I saw you as a thoughtful person, thankful for the good things in your life, with an excellent attitude at wanting to be responsible, and also brave – because getting on a stage and singing is just WOW!

Those are all excellent qualities and I foresee a lot of happiness for you.

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