Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of HarleyTherapy.com, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t get into any hobbies. It makes me worried that I'm lazy or boring. When everyone was getting into baking and crochet and rollerblading in the pandemic, I just watched TV. I’d try some things but then drop them in favour of doing nothing outside of work. All I want to do is sit down or see my friends at the pub.
Why can’t I commit to these things? I want to have a life outside of work that feels fulfilling. I wanna be the girl who knows another language, plays an instrument, reads loads, perhaps makes pottery. I feel like it would make me happier because I’d be doing more for myself and be a more well-rounded person. I’d meet people outside of work and uni, which I want to be pushed to do. I’d have something else to talk about at the pub! But nothing I’ve tried is interesting to me. Where does this pressure come from? Is there something wrong with me for being unable to make anything stick?
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with you. Hobbies not sticking is common and it's something we hear about in therapy a lot because it's troubling to people. The reason why we feel this is a kind of failure is the 'should' statements: 'wanting to be the girl' who does all these things is a pressure you’re putting on yourself and an example of your high expectations. But whenever there is a 'should' or 'must' or 'ought' statement, that often sets us up for difficulty in achieving something. It adds an extra layer of pressure, which just makes everything harder to fulfil.
The high expectations are paired with a lack of self-compassion, too – assuming that dropping a hobby is a sign you are 'lazy and boring'. These are the kinds of thoughts we challenge in cognitive behavioural therapy where we often work to improve our moods by balancing the thoughts that we have about ourselves and other people. If we were to instead hold a self-compassionate mindset where we are more tolerant, and more realistic, we’re less likely to beat ourselves up or drop everything we try. For example: 'It's hard for me to pick up a new hobby but I can try my best and see how I like it.' That's very different from: 'I should do this because everyone else is and I'm too lazy and I find it boring.' You should focus on flipping those automatic thoughts to something that is more gentle on yourself. That's a big key to getting on with engaging with activities and hobbies.
We confuse the enjoyment people get from hobbies with how we should feel when we start something new
It’s worth looking at why we’re drawn to hobbies in the first place. We see how they bring joy to a lot of people and think that it’s something we want to share in. And it's true that hobbies do often add an important dimension to our wellbeing. You can lose yourself to them, whether it’s rollerblading or knitting or rock climbing — you lose track of time, you’re completely engaged and it's a healthy pursuit that contributes to more improved mood and sometimes physical health, too. We’ve seen more people than ever in the past 18 months either pick up a new pursuit or dedicate more time to something.
But the idea that you need these hobbies to be an interesting person is flawed. That is guided by what we think we should be and what we think other people would want us to be. The fact is, we can create our own way of living that is healthy and a positive force in society without being the epitome of perfection. And even if it is spending time in a pub with friends, that could be a hobby! It doesn't need to be baking perfect cakes, running a number of marathons per year, speaking a new language perfectly, rollerblading... For some people that works, but not everyone. It should be something that challenges us but it could involve a conversation with a friend because we'd be intellectually and emotionally stimulated. As long as you enjoy it and it engages you in a healthy way, it works.
The other important thing is we confuse the enjoyment people get from hobbies with how we should feel when we start something new. Learning something new is hard! It takes effort and it takes time and it will involve mistakes and accidents and stumbles, and that's all part of it. If we can embrace the bumpiness, put in the time and the effort, stretch ourselves (but not beyond what's realistic!), then we can find the sweet spot. Ironically, the one thing that's going to prevent us from getting there is this self-judgement that we can't do it, we're lazy, we're not like other people. So, starting with self-compassion and self-acceptance are key parts to it. The other is moderating our expectations and appreciating that the process is difficult. It requires effort and it requires patience and embracing failure, embracing imperfection and embracing the challenges.
If you do want to try something new, try and avoid going too hard, too soon. When you're attempting a new hobby it's better to space it out, dip your toe in and see whether it's something that captures your interest rather than going for total immersion. You should also minimise distractions where possible. If you have the distraction of a smartphone and your mind is flitting from what you're doing to another notification, that interrupts the state of flow that we can get into, which goes against what you want with a hobby.
Ultimately you’ve got to experiment a bit, try things out and embrace what you really want to do, no matter how it looks to other people. Although hobbies contribute to our wellbeing, it’s not the end goal that makes us happy — it’s the pursuit itself. Finding the rhythm of what you enjoy can take time but the goal should be to find something you enjoy for the sake of it, not for how it looks to others.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity