When toxic loser syndrome impacts your life and creativity
Words by Madeleine Dore
Art by Amelia Goss featuring photography by Margaret Burin
There are times in our personal and professional lives where we feel like a loser. The roots of this heavy-hearted feeling may stem from varied directions – from feeling like you are falling behind, from a perceived rejection, failure or mistake, from a circumstance outside your control, or an internal existential storm.
However this feeling has formed and placed itself within us, there are times it can grow toxic.
Writer Honor Eastly describes this feeling at its most heightened as ‘toxic loser syndrome’. The term is borrowed from Angus Hervey of Future Crunch, and puts into words what happens when we believe our creative work and ourselves to be “absolute garbage”.
“I’m always trying to find language that feels more human – playful even – for dark times and when Angus described toxic loser syndrome, I thought yes!” explained Honor.
There is a lightness to naming our dark feelings as toxic loser syndrome, or as Honor uses interchangeably, ‘sabbatical to Doom Town’, the ‘Forest of Doom’, or ‘major hangs with Doomey Dave from Doom Town’.
But for some, the tongue-and-cheek terms are also a way to speak about serious mental health challenges.
“For me, toxic loser syndrome and mental health stuff are the same thing – I use the term to talk about periods in my life that I’ve been feeling hopeless and suicidal,” admits Honor.
Toxic loser syndrome is when our thoughts tip over from a general anxiety or sadness into something much more grave.
“Generally I can be a bit of an anxious person, but for me toxic loser syndrome is significantly different to that. It’s usually a period of two to six months of feeling like I might have maybe totally ruined my life and I’m a complete failure. It’s not a fun time.”
In her new podcast series No Feeling Is Final, Honor invites the listener into that dark time through a six-part narrative memoir about her experience of being suicidal.
It’s confronting to hear Honor’s self-critic be brought to life, but perhaps what’s more revealing is how it drives you to reflect on the own harsh words you tell yourself and your own experience of toxic loser syndrome – how it hurts you, and your creativity.
How toxic loser syndrome both holds you back, and spurs you on
For some, creative work offers a solace during difficult and emotional times, but when you feel a sense of hopelessness, it can be near impossible to find the motivation or energy for creative work.
This may be especially true for creatives whoses work is tied to their own personal desire, inner-most thoughts, and life aspirations.
In Honor’s experience, these dark periods have simultaneously held her back and driven her forward in her creative work.
“Obviously when you’re going through a period of feeling like you’ve ruined your life it can make it hard to do lots of things, particularly creative work.”
Creative work requires a mental discipline and ability to push through resistance and quieten the internal self-critic.
Experiencing toxic loser syndrome makes that critic a lot harder to ignore.
“It’s as if the self-critic has holed herself up on the couch for three weeks, and is currently wrapped in a body suit made of doona, surrounded by hundreds of discarded paper UberEats bags. I can’t get her away for long enough to actually get anything done,” says Honor.
While it can difficult to shake toxic loser syndrome – and may require support from a mental health professional – for Honor, spending a lot of time with her self-critic on the metaphorical couch has brought a silver lining.
“I’ve found that when I’m experiencing toxic loser syndrome, it’s usually a very fruitful thinking period, and if I’m lucky, I can turn all the fear into a tailwind instead of a headwind,” she adds.
A stretch of toxic loser syndrome is where a lot of her ideas for creative projects form. “No Feeling is Final came out of being in that place. It came from wanting to voice the complexities of that experience that I rarely heard in media around it,” she says.
The idea was chosen as part of their $1 million podcast fund, which required a rigorous application process. “Trying to pitch a podcast series to a national broadcaster about your experience of suicide is a bloody hard thing to do when you’re in that place yourself. That was definitely a headwind moment.”
Another of Honor’s podcast projects Starving Artist, also stemmed from a similar crisis.
“I was feeling quite trapped in terms of my career opportunities. I felt confused and like I was the only person who didn’t “get it” in terms of making money creatively. Starving Artist was an excuse to ask other creatives I admired questions about their finances that I didn’t know how else to ask.”
Advice for dealing with toxic loser syndrome
For some, toxic loser syndrome requires professional support and what works for one individual won’t necessarily work for everyone.
In No Feeling is Final, Honor shares details of her experience with the mental health system. After spending fifteen years in and out of therapy, hospital programs and intensive group therapy, Honor comes back to two things: skills and people.
Skills or ‘the practical stuff’ is a recipe or list personalised to the individual. Honor says her personal recipe is always evolving, but some helpful ingredients include:
Doing things that foster compassion
“I got really hardcore into Tara Brach’s podcast this time round, and spent many a morning, evening, sleepless night crying by how much she helped me nurture my little spirit.”
Hanging out with “high win ratio” friends
“With toxic loser syndrome I get super anxious around people, and then get really anxious that maybe I’m terrible with people. And then that maybe I’ll never be able to speak to a human being again! So I try to be conscious of hanging out with folks who are “easy wins” aka, a high likelihood that I’ll leave feeling like I am good at humans and that life isn’t a flaming pile of dog poop.”
Pursuing ‘easy life wins’
“Things I can be like ‘I’m going to do that thing’ and then I go and do it and then I get the opportunity to be like ‘see I’m not a pile of garbage, I did that thing’.”
Routine planning, reflecting and cheerleading
“To get those ‘easy life wins’ you have to plan them so that you can later do them. This sets me up for success. I would do an A4 page each morning of “good things in my life”. I’d reflect in the evening on what’s going well.
Seeking person-centered approaches
“One thing that took me ages to figure out is that I am very sensitive to shame when I’m in that space, so I try to avoid approaches that I feel can add to that shame. That means that overly medical treatments or professionals can exacerbate my feelings of hopelessness. I much prefer humanistic, person-centred approaches, and my current therapist is really good in this respect.”
“Makes you feel good and strong, even if it’s just walking.”
“This sounds basic but is so important. Last time round with toxic loser syndrome, most days I would wake up in the middle of the night or early morning with a panic attacks. Prioritising sleep and finding ways of managing my anxious brain so that I could get enough sleep was super difficult, but also super effective!
Even when you have a recipe to follow, sometimes things just don't turn out as you would have expected and you still wind up feeling like a piece of burnt toast.
That's where the second things comes in – people who ‘get it.’
“I think one of the most painful parts of toxic loser syndrome is that it can just be really isolating. So for me it’s super important to have access to ideas and people, who, even if I’m feeling like a useless mouldy potato of a human, don’t see me as such.”
This second factor – being understood by others – is also what drove Honor and her partner Graham Panther to create The Big Feels Club, a “feel-osophy club for people who are sad or scared a bunch of the time.”
“This has been such a big and useful thing for us, which was why we wanted more people to be able to access the sacred feelings space,” adds Honor.
It’s important to find the people who support you, no matter the mood or season. As the saying goes, “those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
You are not your thoughts
If it weren’t for Honor’s candour and openness about her own struggles with mental health, from the outside looking in, it would be difficult to imagine someone who has created such inspiring projects would view themselves as a toxic loser.
But mental health challenges don’t discriminate, and our mind and thoughts can play tricks on any one of us.
Sometimes, it can be helpful not to compare your inner toxic loser to the shiny, curated version of someone else’s life. Honor is particular aware of the role social media can play on making you feel like a toxic loser – when using it, and also when you’re taking a break from it.
“I took a big break from social media – about 10 months – and in the beginning I kept feeling like I was just pissing my career down the toilet because so much of what I do is orientated around social media,” she says.
“But then I realised that there’s been a bunch of people that I love and follow that have taken big amounts of time off and I don’t think they suck. I think ‘good on them for looking after themselves and doing what they need to’.”
A final – but not conclusive – word on stigma
While No Feeling Is Final is about the experience of toxic loser syndrome, it’s also about how society responds to people when they’re in that place, says Honor.
“Often the message is ‘just ask for help”’ but the reality is so, so different to that, to the point that often that message can feel painfully ignorant to people who’ve gone through the system.”
No Feeling Is Final pushes the conversation around mental health beyond the common catchphrase of “just ask for help”, to show that it’s not always that simple.
“I couldn’t see anything that reflected my experiences, and that held up a flag for seeing these experiences as something other than an illness.”
Whether you choose to name it toxic loser syndrome, mental illness, or choose no label at all, these experiences are much more common than we might think, with studies showing up to 17% of people will experience suicidal thoughts and eight people die by suicide in Australia each day.
There are no universal experiences of toxic loser syndrome, or universal solutions to devastating rates of suicide.
Hearing Honor’s heartbreaking experience is comforting for anyone who has felt like a toxic loser, and a reminder that we can still find hope and creativity in our darkest hour. That’s sometimes enough to pull us through to a new day.
“Look after yourself like you were a little baby thing. Lots of nourishment and compassion and niceness,” concludes Honor.
Listen to No Feeling Is Final on ABC Radio
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If you or anyone you know needs help, here are some places to reach out and talk to somebody:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36