In my last post, I spoke about what makes young adulthood so difficult, and how hard it is to meet societal expectations as to what one is supposed to accomplish by this age. One reason we get so caught up by what we “should” be doing is because of how painful it is to sit with the unknown. What will happen if I end this long-term relationship? What will happen if I commit to this relationship- will I be settling? Will moving cities to work at a new job be worth leaving my friends behind? Unfortunately, we don’t have a crystal ball to know the outcome of any given choice. Sometimes, we just have to live with the choice to see how it turns out. When it comes to decision making we are often told to “go with our gut.” But what if there is no gut reaction? That is a normal response too! It is normal to make a decision and still have some doubt.
When I decided to go to social work school I got into schools in different parts of the country. People told me to go to whichever school gave me the best “feeling” but there were a lot of factors besides my gut to consider. I had my friends, my partner, finances, and a whole slew of other factors to consider. By recognizing there would be both good and bad components of any school I attended, I was able to learn to accept this uncertainty and really embrace my choice to move to a new city, even when I missed New York. While it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of choices, there is no such thing as the “right decision.” The goal is not to alleviate all doubt, but rather, to learn to tolerate feelings of uncertainty. Having some degree of doubt, like cold feet before a wedding or first day jitters at a new job, does not mean that our decision was the wrong one.
One of my friends regularly goes rock climbing, and she recently convinced me to come along. At first, I didn’t want to because I was scared of not knowing how it would be: would I embarrass myself? Would people judge me? Would I judge myself? I went anyway because I knew that no matter what I was attached to equipment that would keep me safe. Therefore, while being unable to get to the top of a particular wall was frustrating, it was tolerable. When I did make it to the top, it was the fact I wasn’t sure if I could do it that made it all the more rewarding.
This got me thinking that the same can be true of making bigger difficult decisions. Not knowing how a new relationship or job will go can be very exciting; however, if you only focus on the idea things have to go a certain way, uncertainty will feel intolerable. But if you remember that no matter the outcome, you have the equipment (in this case, your resilience or support system) to keep yourself safe, uncertainty can become a thrilling motivator instead of something holding you back.
Ruminating vs. Reflecting:
It is normal to think a lot about difficult decisions. It may seem counterintuitive to hear a therapist tell you to reflect less, but there’s a fine line between reflecting and rumination. We aren’t going to be happy with all of our decisions and it is normal to have regrets. Sometimes we think that by continuously analyzing our mistakes, we are doing some sort of positive reflection that will ensure we don’t make those same errors again. That is great in theory, but when reflection morphs into rumination, we end up in Quarter Life Crisis territory!
Reflection leads to constructive solutions, whereas rumination involves not just thinking about the negatives experiences, but continuously reliving corresponding emotions. Whether it be quitting a job or an awkward interaction on the subway, continuously replaying the situation ensures that you not only obsess about these moments of weakness, but also that you are likely to internalize that you are a weak person.
Don’t start ruminating on your rumination just yet. Some degree of reflection is necessary; however, when you are fighting a mistake that you can’t undo or change, you are now in rumination land. To figure out whether your thoughts are healthy ask yourself: Are you figuring out ways to avoid bad experiences in the future, or just reliving negative ones? Are you allowing negative self-talk to lead you to compare yourself to others? When you notice that you are engaging in negative thinking patterns it’s always good to ask: How are these thoughts serving me? If they’re just making you feel down on yourself, you deserve to let those thoughts go.
A major component of navigating this tricky stage of life means practicing acceptance. If you find yourself saying things like “I can’t take this,” or “How could this happen to me?” these might be signs you’re fighting against the reality of your life as it is now. Sometimes we have to work with what we have in the present moment and recognize that our emotions are not permanent. This may feel like someone is telling you to be passive or ignore an aspect of your life you don’t like; however, practicing acceptance works more readily to dial down your stress level. Once you are calmer, you’ll be better able to think about things from a more rational, logical perspective.
One way to practice acceptance is with a quick, easy exercise. Take a slow breath, try to relax any tension in your muscles, and check for an “open” body posture: shoulders back, chin up, spine straight. Continue to breath slowly and fully. As you inhale, say to yourself “everything is” and as you exhale, “as it should be.”
Above all, Be Kind to Yourself:
It can be tough not to question your choices when your great Aunt asks “Why aren’t you engaged yet?” or “What on earth are you going to do with a degree in writing?”
Still, try not to take it too personally. Your inability to provide adequate small talk at Thanksgiving is not representative of the big picture. This time of life is hard enough without letting the opinions of others feed your inner critic. At any age, we are all works in progress. As Maya Angelou wisely put it, “We find our path by walking it.”