Dear Therapist:

Over the last few years, I have begun to realize that much of what I have done in life I did because other people told me to. I feel like I have never really made my decisions in life. The schools I went to, the career I chose, and even my marriage are all things that I asked others for advice and followed it. As I have realized this, I have become more and more confused as to what I really want and have started doubting everything that I do. I would like to become more decisive and find my own way but I am not sure where to begin? I am also scared that I will find that a lot of the life I have built for myself isn't really what I want, so that keeps me afraid of exploring and locked in to the cycle of not making my own choices. Can you offer any advice as to how to break out of this?



What you describe is not very uncommon. As adolescents and young adults, many of us lacked the courage and confidence that would allow us to plan our lives in a way that was truly self-directed. We often followed the advice of others—solicited or otherwise.

From the perspective of the young, unconfident person, there is sometimes a fear of doing the wrong thing, or of being judged by others. Other times, there is simply a lack of introspection, which leads to decisions that are not based on our own convictions.

To be fair, we all make decisions that are not in sync with our beliefs or emotional needs. Sometimes these decisions are made consciously, despite our knowledge that they conflict with our sense of what we want or need. This can be due to societal pressures or fear of consequences, real or imagined. There are times that we consciously make the decision to ignore our emotional needs for the sake of a logical advantage.

You speak of doubt arising from the sense that you never made your own decisions. Firstly, I wonder to what degree this is true, and to what degree it is simply a feeling. To what degree are your longings emotional, rather than truly indicative of a problem? It sounds as if you may be upset more by the sense that your life has not been controlled by you, rather than necessarily by the actual decisions and outcomes.

From a practical standpoint, if you had been the one calling the shots (but perhaps asked advice in order to obtain the advice of those with experience) would your decisions have been materially different? If not, the focus of your concerns should be simply on not feeling in control, not on the particular decisions that were made. Otherwise, you can get caught up in artificial angst about the decisions themselves.

If you would have made different decisions—at those points in your life—try and imagine the actuality of how things may have turned out. What might have changed for the better? For the worse? All in all, would you be happier with that life?

Of course, this all refers to the past, and to your perceptions of—and feelings toward—the past. Dwelling too much on the past may not be particularly helpful, unless there are feelings that continue to anchor you to the past. If you have constant regrets about past decisions, changing your perspective on these can be helpful. However, beginning to focus on the present and future can help you to start changing your feelings toward the past. This is especially so if your doubts and negative feelings are largely based on your perceived lack of control (rather than on the results of your decisions themselves).

It is not pleasant to live a life that you feel runs counter to what you need. It can also be unpleasant, however, to make changes that will rock the foundations of the life that you have. From a pragmatic perspective, the question is whether any changes that you contemplate are likely to make you and your family ultimately happier or less happy.

Although past decisions may have been made for the wrong reasons, these cannot be undone without collateral damage. Going forward, however, you can make decisions based on what you believe is right. Though it can feel like your current decisions are being forced on you by the results of previous “forced” decisions, realistically this is the case for us all. We followed others’ advice, made decisions based on societal influences, or made emotionally-based decisions or those based on lack of knowledge, experience, or maturity.

Regret is a normal part of life. Without it, we would not be able to learn from our mistakes and change for the better. However, feelings of guilt can be debilitating. I define regret as forward-looking, and as focused on actions (while guilt is backwards-looking and focused on the person). Regret acknowledges the past, but focuses on future change. This is our mandate—to make mistakes in youth, then to hopefully learn from these, thus making fewer and less costly mistakes as we grow older.  


-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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