Among the long list of things I conveniently blame my parents for is the fact that I fully believed that when I became an “adult,” decisions would be a breeze. I specifically remember the middle-school recess where I wished in some 13 Going On 30 plot twist that I could skip my teen years altogether and fast forward to the good stuff. Their example definitely didn’t help. Highschool sweethearts, they avoided the stage where you approach your 30s in a state of panic about finding love—they never went through horrible breakups, awkward friend-zone experiences or the realization that everyone on Tinder is a little bit strange. My dad worked for the same company for more than 30 years and I never once heard him second guess his career path or if he should move on to move up. I assumed that the confidence that comes with age and experience (and a million mistakes) would help me navigate any murky waters ahead. Making decisions about career moves, having kids, finding a new place to live or even whether or not to buy organic versus regular old strawberries turned into agonizing uncertainties. In a world of limitless options, I couldn’t have been more wrong about knowing what I wanted and figuring things out.
In Neil Pasricha’s latest book, You Are Awesome, the self-help guru extolls the virtues of navigating change, wrestling with failure and living an intentional life. (It says so right on the cover.) In it, he quotes The Paradox of Choice author, Barry Schwartz, who posited, “though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.” Truth Barry, truth. So why is it that having this many options at our disposal is tripping us up?
According to Karen Schafer, a family therapist based in Toronto, “I think we’re just, to a large degree, kids grown up. What’s often recommended when parenting little kids is not to give children too many choices.” Which makes perfect sense when you’re trying to get a kid dressed and out the door. What about choosing a life partner amid thousands of options on an app? Or diverting from a steady career path towards something unknown? Schafer cuts to the core: “It really is about fear of missing out, fear of letting go and fear of making the wrong decision. Most of us don’t look forward to planning on grieving and mourning [what might have been], so we stay stuck.” FOMO is for real.
But in the name of getting ourselves unstuck, what tools can we turn to? Pros-and-cons lists, polling friends, or simply going with your gut?
“I think the most powerful tool we can cultivate in the decision-making process is positive self-talk, a healthy inner-dialogue that coaches us to commit to our plans and keep going,” says Rebecca Perrin, a career strategist and coach, and founder of a new podcast called Women Talk Shop. She recommends focusing on your own core values to help steer you in the direction of a decision. “Ask yourself, ‘will this decision move me toward my goal or away from it?’” says Perrin.
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When I give Schafer my personal list of hacks, which mostly consists of calling up everyone I know, she’s quick to quip, “Consulting all your friends is too much. As much as it’s wonderful to have a tribe and a support system to be able to go to, sometimes we have such a mix up of voices that they just compound the dizziness around what choice I’m going to make.” Instead, she suggests leaning on one or two people who you really trust, which leaves enough brain space to consider other facets like timing (does this fit into my 10-year plan?), context and how your decision will affect those closest to you.
If you need to turn up the volume on your own instincts, Schafer recommends taking some time alone to quiet the familiar noises and distractions around you. “For some people, that’s meditation and mindfulness, for others it’s having a day off or escaping to a movie and emptying your head for a while. Sometimes it’s about talking to a total stranger on a park bench.” Similarly, Perrin also advocates for down time. “Sit and visualize yourself making both decisions, one right after the next,” she says. “Choose the one that feels sunny, brighter and better in your meditation.”
Ultimately though, all the pros-and-cons lists in the world won’t help if you can’t learn to let go, which as a diehard perfectionist, is the toughest part of all. Nine months after having my daughter, the choice to leave my frenzied freelance set-up in favour of returning to an office 9 to 5 tore me apart. On a cerebral level, it made sense to have a steady income and reliable benefits, but the idea of anyone other than me caring for my baby after I returned to work brought on the most intense version of mom guilt. I kept returning to the idea that ultimately, my choice would be best for both of us. She would have a chance to expand her social skills and I could grow in my career. I gave myself the space to mourn the things I would miss—first steps, naptime cuddles, toothy grins.
“The reality is that the only way we can avoid [letting go] is putting ourselves in a freezer and staying there in complete total frozen paralysis. And even then, freezers get old and you’ll probably thaw out and you’ll still be screwed!” jokes Schafer about the difficulty in getting on with it. In the same vein, Perrin chalks it up to setting expectations too high. We’re bound to be disappointed. “As humans, we tend to busy ourselves thinking about all the attractive features of the options we didn’t choose, feeding self-loathing and stealing the joy from the thing we did choose,” she says. Coming at it from the perspective that you’ll never 100% know what the right move is frees us from searching for the perfect answer (and finding a walk-in freezer with a lifetime warranty).
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Before we hang up the phone, I ask Schafer about waffling even once you’ve finally decided on something. I shared that months into my new job, I contemplated almost daily whether I’d made the right choice about returning to work. Why aren’t we confident about our decisions after we’ve signed on the dotted line or chatted to strangers on a park bench? “Aiming for confidence is way too much!” she reassures me. “Not only to have to make a choice, now you’re also supposed to be confident about it? Oh my gosh, way too much work!” she says. Schafer lets us off the hook because, let’s face it, most of us are insecure until we get our bearings at something, or at least find out where the bathroom is at a new office. As Perrin puts it, “if you stop judging yourself for the goals you really want to achieve, you’ll create so much space for doing the things you want in life.” And who doesn’t want that?