by Bernadette Healy
Recently I shared a conversation with a young, very bright, well-educated young professional with highly-developed social skills. During the course of this conversation it became clear that they were experiencing anxiety around how they could optimize themselves career-wise in a world of exciting but baffling choice. A nice dilemma to be in of course – and one which sadly is not likely to be experienced by increasingly large numbers of young people world-wide – but nevertheless, it is a potentially anxiety-provoking one for many amongst those fortunate enough to have such choice. It is likely that if you have read this far, you may be one such person!
A high achievement-orientation is implicit in the dilemma described above and this orientation – which is a combination of innate ability, family of origin training and cohort influences – is often accompanied by fear around decision-making. The achievement –orientation may also be associated with perfectionism. Anxiety around decision-making including career choice, is particularly problematic early in one’s career as there is, by definition, a lack of experiential evidence of having overcome mistakes in the past or of having analysed the impacts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ decisions (and the realization that many decisions are just different rather than good or bad). This natural state of affairs is exacerbated for perfectionists as they tend to avoid situations in which they think that they will not excel, thereby limiting the opportunity to collect data about themselves which is crucial for anxiety-reduction in future situations.
Or, they have done so well in the past following what has routinely been an obvious path, that they find the experience of feeling confused and unsure about future direction to be both frightening and one for which they are ill-equipped. Critical parenting is also a common factor in high-achievers – and although to be aware of the harsh inner critic that such parenting promotes. Decision-making opportunities can easily be sabotaged by such cruel, internal forces.
So how can you help yourself during times of confusion about where you are heading?
1. Be patient with yourself and have a little faith
2. Allow yourself to remain open to options for as long as possible
3. Ask questions of those who actually work or study or are involved in your potential interest areas
4. Ask the opinion of those who know and respect you
5. Keep your questions in mind while going about your everyday life and reflect on them regularly
6. Trust your own reactions
7. Seek support
1 First of all be patient with yourself and have a little faith. Just because you are not clear today about what direction to take and are feeling confused or discouraged or worried, does not mean either that you will remain unclear, or that you will continue to feel the way you are feeling now. Feelings constantly change – the optimum strategy for managing them, paradoxically, is to just notice and accept them.
2 Allow yourself to remain open to options for as long as possible. That is, even though it is very uncomfortable to feel unclear and indecisive and not sure about what you want, it is preferable to accept this position- while taking non-limiting actions at the same time – than it is to make a hasty decision just to end the frustration. Non-limiting actions refers to anything that is enriching the decision-making process while still actually refraining from making the decision. That is, although obviously making a decision is a desired goal, it is important to give yourself every opportunity to collect ‘good-fit ‘data to inform your decision. This data could include moments such as: ‘yes this fits with me, with where I see myself’; I am not equipped to pursue that direction, I need to do more study; these are the kinds of people I want to work with, how can I make that happen; this job is a good fit for me in terms of: task-structure, organisational size, vision, client profile, routine day to day tasks, opportunity to get to x within this much time etc.
3 Ask questions of those who actually work or study or are involved in areas of interest. Most people are more than happy to give you their opinion. Be clear, tell people that you are not asking for a job but that you are potentially interested in the kind of work / study / experience that they have expertise in and would like to find out more. If you are interested in a particular kind of role, make sure that you ask people what they do on a routine basis as you need to find out what the job involves day-to-day, not the occasional exciting aspect as it is the everyday that will give you the most realistic basis for decision-making. Prepare well for such meetings.
4 Ask the opinion of those who know and respect you. Sometimes others can have a better idea of who we are than we know ourselves!
5 Keep your questions in mind while going about your everyday life and regularly reflect. For example you might like to set aside a weekly time where you reflect on how you are going with your decision-making process: what action you have taken; who you have spoken with; what gaps still remain in your knowledge; and what experience you might be able to pursue to assist.
6 Trust your own reactions. While considering any or all of the above, and in general, pay attention to yourself and notice when you are feeling most in sync with yourself. Sometimes this is hard to recognise and it may help if you ask yourself what times in the past do you look back on with pride and pleasure? Analyse those situations and pull out the themes. This will provide important data which will help inform your decision-making.
7 Seek support.i Talk about your situation with family and friends. Read material about life transitions. Ask trusted people to recommend books, films, websites etc that they found helpful at similar times. We have all been there.
i Of course if after seeking support in the ways suggested, you still feel troubled in a way that interferes with your everyday life, then make sure you access professional help.