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3 Essential Truths About Making Life’s Big Choices

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One of the most common things I hear in my therapy practice goes something along the lines of this:

“I feel stuck. I just don’t know what to do or how to make choices about [fill in the blank about career, relationships, life choices in general…]. What do I do? How do I get unstuck?”

Does this feel familiar? Maybe you’ve been wrestling with a question for a few weeks or a few years now, turning choices over and over and over like:

“Is he the one?” “Do I really want to stay in this career field?” or “Do I really want to settle in the Bay Area? I can’t move back to the Midwest, can I?”

I have huge compassion for feeling stuck and not able to make a choice about something you dearly — maybe even urgently — want or need to. I’ve been there many times myself.

Feeling stuck is an often painful, vulnerable, frustrating and vitality-draining place to be in. So I particularly love working with therapy and coaching clients when they’re in this place, gently holding them through the pain and struggle and helping them to shift their stuckness and arrive at choices, insights and decisions that feel true, tolerable and enlivening for each of them.

I want to share some of these same nitty-gritty realities, reframes and inquires I use with my clients when they’re feeling stuck (the very things I wish someone had shared with me a few years back!) to help you if you’ve been feeling stuck/torn/on-the-fence/indecisive/resistant to making choices somewhere in your own life. So pour yourself a cup of tea and read on…

Nitty Gritty Truth #1 About Choices: Making life’s big decisions actually *is* tricky business.

“Personal identity is always in the process of being formed by the very business of making these endless choices. We are, so to speak, constructing the vehicle even as we attempt to ride in it and steer it. And moreover, we must construct it of materials we pick up as we go along.”
— Jim Bugental, PhD

The ability to notice our impulses, imagine them into possible choices and act on them intentionally and decisively is what gives color, shape and form to the very identity of our lives.

Every single part of this statement — from noticing to birthing to acting — requires self-awareness, sensitivity and courage. No part of this process is necessarily easy and particularly not so when it comes to the biggest choices of our lives — how to shape our careers, who we want to partner with, how we want to live out our legacy and so forth.

And yet, we’re called upon to do this Every. Single. Day. Moreover, as the quote above from famed psychotherapist Jim Bugental, Ph.D. suggests, we’re often forced to do this on the fly, basically making choices (and our lives) up as we bump along the road of life. If you’ve ever felt like you were making it all up as you went along, you basically are.

So can we please just all have some compassion for the fact that making choices often isn’t exactly easy? It’s actually supposed to be hard sometimes. Making choices about the big-ticket items in our lives is nothing less than the action of identity-formation.

And to top it all off, the process is harder still if we — for whatever reason — haven’t learned how to notice, name and honor our deepest needs and wants. For instance, if you were raised in a home where it wasn’t safe or supported for you to have needs and wants, this may add a whole other layer of complexity and challenge to your current ability to make life’s big choices.

So if you’re feeling stuck with some area of your life right now, torn between options, sitting on the fence waiting for a sign, please be gentle with yourself. You’re not alone. Not in the least. This decision making stuff is challenging for many of us, but seeking out skilled support can be a big help.

So let me ask you:

  • Which part of the decision-making process feels hardest for you? Noticing your needs and wants? Imagining them into possible choices? Acting on them?
  • Do you feel like you’re waiting for some external sign to help you decide what to do? What do you know about that?
  • When you’re feeling stuck, do you practice patience and compassion with yourself? Or do you tend to beat yourself up for not knowing the answer to your decision?

Nitty Gritty Truth #2 About Choices: Loss is simply inevitable.

“Choosing a path meant having to miss out on others. She had a whole life to live, and she was always thinking that, in the future, she might regret the choices she made now. “I’m afraid of committing myself,” she thought to herself. She wanted to follow all possible paths and so ended up following none. Even in that most important area of her life, love, she had failed to commit herself.”
― Paulo Coelho, Brida

“Every choice is a thousand relinquishments. 
 Jim Bugental, Ph.D.

In other words, when you make a decision about anything, loss is simply inevitable. As much as we all dearly want to, sometimes in life we just can’t have our cake and eat it too.

Indeed, what can keep many of us feeling stuck in making big life decisions is the fact that we’re just not willing to give anything up. We’re resistant to the idea of losing anything if we have to make a choice. But that’s not realistic. We must be willing and able to relinquish some things in order to have that other thing.

While this is vital to accept, it’s definitely not easy to accept the idea that killing off some choices gives us the opportunity to give full birth to others. I referenced this idea in my post about goal setting and overwhelm: sometimes we need to ruthlessly prune (i.e. choose) in order to move something, anything forward in our lives.

For instance, when we commit ourselves to marrying one person, there are thousands more we will not partner with. When we commit to one career path, there are, at least for some time, endless others we will not pursue. When we choose to become a parent, there is a loss of the life we held previously. With each choice, doors close. And on and on and on go the losses.

It is vital to acknowledge that along with choice-making comes loss because let’s face it, grief goes hand-in-hand with loss and the fear of this can sometimes unconsciously block us from making decisions. So if you’ve been struggling with a decision in your life lately, let me ask you:

  • What are you faced with having to relinquish with this choice you’re sitting with?
  • How do you feel when you notice and name what you might lose in making the choice you’re facing?
  • What were you taught (if at all) about how to make decisions and evaluate loss when you were growing up?

Nitty Gritty Truth #3 About Choices: The Fantasy of Perfect vs. The Most Tolerable Side-Effects of Crap.

“The problem, simply put, is that we cannot choose everything simultaneously. So we live in danger of becoming paralyzed by indecision, terrified that every choice might be the wrong choice.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

Another reality that can keep many of my clients feeling stuck and on the fence is the “Fantasy of Perfect” when it comes to choice-making. The Fantasy of Perfect drives us to endlessly evaluate whether or not a person, place, thing, behavior or other choice is the right choice, the perfect choice, the choice our heart and soul is most longing for.

What may look like self-care, self-reflection and self-preservation can easily turn into decision self-sabotage thanks to the Fantasy of Perfect. Which is just what it sounds like: an illusion that keeps us second-guessing.

The reality is (and I know this isn’t news to any of you), there’s no such thing as perfect. Instead, when it comes to the choices we make about our partners, careers or the places we live, there is only the question of which side effects of crap are we most willing to tolerate.

Every job — even if it’s the best possible for you — will have it’s truly terrible hard days and dull moments unique to it. Same thing for marrying the love of your life. I promise you that person will uniquely drive you crazy at some point. Or moving away from the Bay back to your home state. Pros and cons will inevitably abound… I guarantee you that each choice you make has unique trade-offs and side-effects of crap.  Yet sometimes in our decision-making difficulties we forget this idea and keep sitting on the fence of indecision until we can really, truly be sure we will make The Best decision which is side-effect of crap-free.

Well, that’s just not realistic. So if you’ve been feeling stuck recently because you’re endlessly evaluating what’s going to be The Perfect Decision let me ask you this:

  • Are you willing or unwilling to believe or tolerate that your choice — even if it is the best choice — could still have crappy side-effects?
  • What would you need to know, see, feel, hear, have or experience to get clear on which side-effects of your choice you’re most able to tolerate?

Moving forward.

“There are no safe choices. Only other choices.”
― Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty

Believe me, I know indecision can be painful, frustrating and vitality-draining. But let’s face it: not all decisions are easy to make and sometimes it takes as long as it needs to before we can arrive at clarity on what we most want and need from any given choice.

Along the way in our wrestle with indecision, two of the most common unconscious saboteurs may show up in the form of loss avoidance and the Fantasy of Perfection. If this happens for you, I hope the above inquiries and insights will help you reflect on what you’re currently sitting with and bring some subtle movement to what otherwise feels like a stuck, challenging time.

But above all else, I want to invite compassion around decision-making. Decisions are powerful and important as they craft the shape our lives and if making a decision in a certain area feels particularly hard for you right now, trust the process and know that it may need to feel foggy for a while until you can arrive at clarity. If you would like help with whatever it is you may be feeling stuck with, I’d love to work with you personally.

Now I’d love to hear from you: Please leave me a message in the comments below about what in this article felt new for you, or what you do to support yourself when you feel stuck in your own choice-making. I look forward to hearing from you!

Warmly, Annie

Getty image by SyhinStas

Originally published: May 17, 2020
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