I have had trouble deciding which career to pursue since I was about 15. Whenever I choose something it is always quite arbitrary and generally fades after the initial excitement wears off. I was training to be a grade school teacher but I left the course because I became very anxious and unhappy. I doubted my ability to organize the work and convinced myself it was not for me. I still believe this.
I had the summer months to decide what I would do next. I had two options: a two-subject arts modership or a diploma course in Design at my local Institute of Technology. I chose the latter because it meant I could stay at home with my parents (whom I missed very much while I was away) and because I would be able to buy a computer with the money I saved, even though I never had a specific interest in design and always hoped to attend a University. I now find the course too practical and I feel I have made the wrong decision again. I have stopped doing my work and feel hopeless and unable to catch up even though I am not far behind.
I have always had a strong belief that I had an important purpose in life and I have fixed ideals about what I will and will not pursue as a career. Sometimes I feel the world is too rough for me, as if I need to be wrapped in cotton wool. I am the first to admit that I am indecisive in all areas of life, easily influenced and unsure of my own feelings and opinions. I wouldn't be asking a complete stranger for advice otherwise!
Do you think I am trapped in a cycle of repeating events until I buckle down and complete a course? Am I avoiding something? Or do you think I am just easily led and willing to please? I'd like to think I am following my intuition (which I have been told is quite strong) but does it seem that I am making foolish decisions?
Audra (21 year-old woman)
It's hard to make decisions when you are so filled with uncertainty and ambivalence. You succinctly summarized the root of the problem when you acknowledged: "I am the first to admit that I am indecisive in all areas of life, easily influenced and unsure of my own feelings and opinions." Why is that? How did you become someone who is so easily influenced by others?
Very young children generally know exactly what they want because they haven't yet learned how to let other people's opinions influence them. At some point though, and you mention the age of 15 as a marker, you learned how to let other people's opinions - even about what you should do with your life - matter more than your own. This is something that happens quite frequently - because of a desire to please parents or other important people, because of a desire to fit in, because teachers, parents, society and the media tell us in many ways that there is one "right" way to do things, and that we must be like everyone else. At some point, you started believing that other people had the answers and you didn't. It's essential that you learn to make the choices and decisions that are right for you, even if they don't make sense to other people such as family and friends.
I believe that deep inside, you already know what it is that you really want to do. It's probably what you dreamed as a little girl that you would do when you grew up. But you need to develop some confidence in your own instincts so you can bring those dreams to fruition. You mentioned a strong belief that you have an important purpose in life - what a wonderful starting point. Can you say more about what this important purpose is? Do you have any inkling at all about how it might be that you serve this purpose - even if it sounds crazy or far-fetched? If you're not sure, then think along more general lines: what do you enjoy doing? What are you good at? What do you seem to have a knack for, and find that you get caught up in easily because you enjoy it so? When you begin to make decisions from your heart instead of on the "arbitrary" basis you described, you'll experience joy and satisfaction in your endeavors.
One good technique that you can begin to utilize to help you become more skilled at knowing and articulating what you want is to practice on small, every day matters. Do you know what you like to eat? What you like to wear? How you want to spend your free time on a day off? What kind of music you want to listen to? What to do when you have a few free minutes between activities? Throughout the day, focus on all of the choices you make and begin to notice that yes, you do know what your preferences are, after all. Make choices even when you don't have to - look through magazines and go window shopping, noticing the things that you just know you like. Make a list of your likes and dislikes, in all the categories that you can think of - cars, television shows, music, items you own, colors, smells, flowers, foods, things you enjoy doing. Think about all of the other choices you've made in your life. How did you make those decisions? You're probably much more decisive than you realize. Being decisive is a skill, like any other, and you will get better at it as you practice more and more.
Spending quiet time alone is another good way to begin to hear your intuition more clearly. Some people like to meditate, others may just want to take some time to turn off outside influences (television, radio, other people) and simply be alone, whether taking a walk, soaking in a hot bath, or some other activity that you enjoy. When it is quieter, you can "hear" what you're thinking and feeling more clearly.
It is not necessarily a negative thing that you're having many stops and starts. It often takes some time of "trying on" different career paths before settling into the one that is right for you. Better to be honest and acknowledge when a path isn't right for you than to force yourself to stay on it and end up in a position that you do not enjoy. You are, however, in a cycle of repeated starts and stops which is discouraging for you, and it is important that you pay attention to this pattern and focus your attention on becoming clear about your next step so that you don't continue the cycle needlessly.
You may want to consider seeing a counselor or therapist to help you sort out your confusion and ambivalence. A good counselor will help you to explore what happened that led to your current difficulty in making choices. He or she will encourage you to make your own decisions and answer for yourself the questions you posed at the end of your letter.
Susan Maroto, LCSW