Much of my early life was guided by what I seemingly NEEDED to do. When you can only see one path for yourself, you don’t agonize over decisions because The Most Important Decision has already been made for you. Going to college seemed right for me, so it became my only path. Proceeding next to law school also seemed right at the time. And eventually I knew I wanted to marry my husband, and so I did.
The career question has always been a bit different for me. I did have my moments of clear-headedness, and when they came along, I seized them. Moving out of state just for a job seemed to make sense, so that’s what I did. Looking back, however, I’ll admit that was the first time I questioned whether the path that lay ahead was truly the only one in sight. For the first time, there were trails wandering around in other directions, but they were consumed with fog — and so I ignored them in favor of the one that looked bright, clear of brush and debris, and easy to traverse.
And so I stayed for over two years at a job I really didn’t like, because I failed to see any path other than the one I was already on. When I finally did leave, it wasn’t because I took the blinders off and saw a different way. Instead, I used the excuse of getting married to announce that I needed to move back to my home state of Connecticut, effectively forcing me to end the job.
Throughout my long and tortured legal career, I repeated this scenario over and over again. Every time I made another choice, usually involving another job, I convinced myself that the choice had already been made for me. In other words, I could only move forward to the next destination, because there was no other place to which I could meander.
Sometime after having children, the decision-making process became more colorful, because for the first time I allowed myself to see options. With the added pressure of knowing that my life choices impacted not only myself but my children, I considered each new set of a decisions carefully, and painfully. Everything started to feel difficult, and the anxiety I felt over possibly making the wrong decision was overwhelming.
If you’re still with me, chances are good that you’re similarly struggling to make a decision you believe has serious consequences. I can’t make the decision for you, but I can share some unconventional tactics that have helped me feel less anxious about choosing one course of action over another:
1. Stop mulling over the positive versus negative factors.
You are probably expecting me to advise you to make a list with two columns, under which you will respectively list all the good reasons to pursue one option and all the reasons why might want to avoid it, and then to repeat that process for option #2, and so on. If so, you’re wrong. Let’s face it: you’ve already tried making these lists, if not actually written out, then over and over again in your head, countless time. Do you really need to dwell on what could go right versus what could go wrong? You know what these factors are, and it’s unlikely at this point that spending more time thinking about them will lead you to a sudden revelation.
So what should you do instead?
2. Value emotional response over logical analysis.
The next step is to stop thinking and start feeling. Contrary to popular belief, our emotional response to the prospect of pursuing an exciting new direction in life can be a very, very good indicator about whether it’s the “right” one for us. I put the word right in quotation marks there because, when you consider it, what the hell is a “right” decision anyway? Nothing is right or wrong, it just is. What’s right for me will not necessarily be right for you, and that’s a good thing, because society can only function with us all doing different stuff. If we all had the same kind of life doing the same kinds of things, we wouldn’t get anywhere at all.
If this just seems like common sense, consider that “common sense” is not always common.
3. Don’t give AF about what anyone else thinks.
Are you asking your spouse, therapist, boss, mentor, mom, BFF, doctor, mail carrier and barista what they think about a looming decision? Did you get everyone’s opinions and analysis and make careful note of each person’s thoughts? You did? Good. Now throw that shit in the trash, literally and/or metaphorically if it’s stuck in your brain as a negative feedback loop of anxiety (see #1 above).
It’s one thing to run an important career or relationship decision past one or two trusted advisors who are knowledgeable in those areas and who care enough about you to give you some solid feedback to consider. But beyond that, everyone else’s opinion is garbage. Why? Because everything is subjective, and you receive someone’s opinion, you’re receiving along with it the emotional baggage and unique experiences that person has lived through, whether they’re relevant to your own decision-making process or not (hint: they’re not relevant).
Caveat: If you react particularly strongly to certain advice, ask yourself why. You probably talked to ten different people about the same thing, but if one person’s opinion seemed to rub you the wrong way, you need to reflect on where that negative reaction is coming from. By that, I don’t mean that you should pick apart what that person said and judge whether it’s right or wrong. Instead, I mean that you should look inward to the source of the strong emotion. Again, our guts are very good at telling us what’s uniquely right for each of us in our own situations.
Bonus: What Happens If You Fail to Make a Decision?
I spent most of 2017 (and probably further back than that, if I’m being completely honest) agonizing over whether to tell my now former employer that I wanted to resign in order to pursue other adventures, while still doing work on a contract basis from time to time. And while I did finally decide to do just that, I’ll admit that I once again allowed my life circumstances to push me gently toward that path. It just so happened that my husband was deployed for six months last year, so I got to experience what it felt like to prioritize his career over mine so that I could be more present for our kids. As I got used to being home more during that period, I found out that I had the option of pursuing work I could do from home, on my own terms.
The first time I felt like I made a really difficult decision, however, is when I said no to taking on new cases at work. I would get a brief summary of a situation with a new client, and feel that lurch in my stomach telling me that this was not a case I was going to enjoy working on. And so I said no, and when I did, a bunch of lights came on to show me a way through the fog for the first time. I moved forward onto the most welcoming path among many, and while that was scary, it led me to a place where I could finally say that I wanted to start working for myself again. But more importantly, I looked back and realized that switching paths had not blocked me off from my original destination forever. All this time I’ve avoided taking a single step off the main road, because I was so scared of not being able to find my way back if I wanted to. And now that I’ve taken not one step, but a few, I can now clearly see that the paths run parallel, not away from each other, and in fact, at times they merge. So wherever I’m headed, I’ll be where I want to go.