“You never know what’s around the corner. It could be everything. Or it could be nothing. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you’ve climbed a mountain” – Tom Hiddleston
Her muscles scream in pain, telling her they desperately want to end this race right here right now. She feels a wave of anxiety creeping into her mind, wondering whether or not she’ll make it to the finish line. These thoughts set off a chain reaction of self-doubt, fear, powerlessness, and despair that brings her to the breaking point.
He’s at his wits end. Projects, deadlines, office politics, an understaffed team, and he is responsible for managing it all. He lies wide awake at night, wondering what chaos tomorrow will bring. He stares blankly into the darkness when the seed of fear over losing his job and failing his family and children penetrate his mind.
Both people in the above examples are in challenging and stressful positions, and both are facing a tough choice: “Do I tough it out and keep going, or do I give up”? I imagine many of you have been in equally troublesome situations requiring you to make a difficult decision. Some of you may be facing such a burdensome situation this very moment.
When you’re stuck in an overwhelmingly stressful situation, what do you do? Do you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or do you find another path? Do you keep pushing forward or do you give up?
Dilemmas like this pull us in a thousand different directions, usually leaving us feeling more overwhelmed, hopeless, and confused about what to do. We become stuck between a rock and a hard place, hating where we’re at and also afraid to let go of the security we’ve been use to for so long.
All of us have faced a crossroad in our lives when we’ve had to make a tough decision; especially one we know can change our life forever.
I know how you feel. I’ve been there a few times myself. I remember one particular experience quite vividly, and will never forget it.
It was shortly after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. I became dependent on the predictable structure school provided me for 18+ years of my life, and didn’t have to make many major life decisions up until this point, as most my decision-making was based around school.
But after I graduated, I no longer had the structure of school to make decisions for me. I started working at jobs I was overqualified for and not related to my degree simply because I needed money and these jobs were easy to attain.
I was satisfied doing this for a while. I was making some money, able to regularly see my girlfriend, met some cool people, and was having fun partying on the weekends. On the surface, I felt I was doing pretty well in my life, but deep down in the heart of my soul there was a deep stirring feeling of emptiness, dissatisfaction, and anxiety beginning to swell.
And then swelling erupted like a sleeping volcano. Call it a spiritual emergency or existential crisis, I was suddenly thrown into a hurricane of chaos like I’ve never experienced before. I was reading a book in bed when thoughts of what am I doing and where am I going in my life started pouring uncontrollably into my mind seemingly out of nowhere. The props I used to hold up a false identity of happiness eventually broke.
All the pent-up anxiety, anger, dissatisfaction, and sadness I stuffed deep down came flooding out in an unmanageable and turbulent manner. My entire body felt like it was on fire. I felt like I was going to explode like a nuclear bomb. My thoughts, racing like a speeding train filled me with terrible anxiety and immense self-doubt. I felt intense pain piercing my body as my muscles strained and tensed. My emotions were overwhelmingly powerful I felt like I was going to burst right out of my skin.
I could no longer pretend and ignore something significant was happening to me. I knew I had to get out of the house and go somewhere to give this experience my utmost attention.
I walked to a nearby lake. I sat on some rocks near the shore and started to reflect on what I was experiencing, desperate to figure out what was going on and understand how to fix it. It took me a few minutes to slow my mind down, but once I did I was finally able and willing to listen, like really listen.
I leaned in, listening intently to what my fear was trying to tell me. I opened my mind with genuine curiosity to hear the messages of my pain. But most importantly, I gently asked my heart why it hurt and what I can do to help.
I began to understand I was ignoring my pain, my fear, and my heart – drowning out their messages with daily doses of distractions: work, partying, video games, girlfriend, friends, TV, Facebook, etc. – hoping it would just go away until, out of desperation, they were screaming to be acknowledged. I started to understand these intense and overwhelming feelings weren’t trying to harm me (although it was most certainly painful), but in reality, trying wake me up and help me live a more authentic and fulfilling life.
My fear told me I need to take responsibility for my life and not depend on others to create it for me; that I was afraid to truly be my own person beyond the roles and labels given to me by others. I doubted myself, thinking I had nothing real to offer others or the world. I became willing to accept I was scared of this “life” thing, and didn’t really know what I was doing. I felt a lot of uncertainty about my future, but also reassured it is okay to be afraid because I was entering into a new stage in life.
My pain was begging me to not walk down an inauthentic and unfulfilling path; a path which would cause me great suffering in the future if I continued to follow it. My pain gave me insight on the costs would continue to pay for ignoring and avoiding my inner experiences.
My heart spoke softly, reminding me I have more to offer others than I am giving myself credit for; that I have great potential to serve others in deeper, more meaningful ways. It told me the universe gave me a special gift and needed me to help other people heal and discover their own greatness. My heart also said: “So long as you follow me everything will be okay, you will be protected by God”. My heart insisted I stop hurting myself by closing it off from others; that it takes great courage and strength to be vulnerable, and this is a requirement of love.
After my spiritual emergency, I was laid off from my cubical job working in data processing, and offered an opportunity to move to another department in the company. Despite a brief flutter of anxiety I felt from being unemployed and feeling uncertain about my financial future, I respectfully declined their offer and took a leap of faith into the unknown.
I applied and was accepted into graduate school to become a therapist, and found a new job helping others overcome and heal from the destructiveness of drug and alcohol addiction
6 Tips to Guide You When Making a Tough Decision:
1) Assess whether or not your current situation is workable: Reflect on what changes you can make to your present situation to help make it more manageable for you. Maybe there are changes you can make to yourself such as: learning time management skills, being more organized, or how to more effectively cope with stress to make your situation more workable. Reflect on certain environmental changes such as: reducing contact with toxic people, eliminating certain distractions, or cleaning environment to support you in your present situation.
It is important to keep these changes small, simple, and manageable.The woman in the above example can change her attitude towards her current predicament – “I want to finish this race no matter what” – which can drastically transform her desire and motivation to keep her legs moving and finish the race. In the example with the man: focusing more on how to effectively lead and delegate tasks to his employees instead of taking on everything himself, or changing how he manages stress can alter his ability to stay focused and grounded at work.
Use the table below to determine whether or not your current situation is workable. Using this table will give you clarity and guidance when assess the pros (benefits) and cons (costs) of continuing to try and the pros (benefits) and cons (costs) of giving up. Write down as many things you can think of. For additional benefit, rate each item on a scale of 1-100, adding up the total in each box to gain a clearer perspective on the quantified costs and benefits associated with your decision.
Finish the race (woman) (100)
Stay at my job (man) (75)
I’ll feel accomplished (W) (85)
I’ll gain leadership experience (M) (75)
My body really hurts (90)
Overwhelmed with stress (90)
Quit the race (W) (75)
Quit my job (M) (80)
I won’t have to do this (W) (75)
Less stress (M) (90)
Feel like I'm giving up on myself (W) (100)
2) Don’t be too quick to give up: Many people will give up too soon once the seeds of self-doubt, rejection, and failure take root in their mind – “I’m only going to fail anyways, so I shouldn’t even try” - start a chain reaction of fear-based judgments and self-criticisms. Our most powerful and transformative experiences always seem to occur in those moments of agony, when everything and everyone is screaming for us to quit, yet we refuse to give up. If Rocky Balboa gave up when fighting Apollo Creed in the movie Rocky, he would have never been crowned the heavy-weight champion, and he would have never been the Rocky we all know, love, and are inspired by; for his desire to push through the pain, fear, and doubt gave him the strength, dedication, and courage when he faced Apollo Creed in the championship arena.
Unfortunately giving up too easily is a common theme in many relationships today where couples avoid dealing with their problems, and instead give up on the relationship to move onto another one in hopes it will be better. Sometimes it is, sometimes the problems remain the same, and sometimes is much worse. So, when facing a tough decision, don’t be too quick to throw in the towel and call it quits.
3) Lean inward and turn towards: When deciding whether or not to give up or keep trying we usually try to avoid the problem by distracting ourselves, thinking this will magically resolve our dilemma and make it disappear; but in the end, it prolongs our suffering and never leads to a satisfactory resolution. Instead of pretending nothing’s wrong and your predicament will just go away, become proactive and turn towards the conflict.
Take a moment to consider how each decision makes you feel. What emotions come up as you reflect continuing to try? On giving up? If you’re experiencing fear and self-doubt, lean in and be curious about what your fear has to say. What sensations are you noticing in your body and where? Stay with the thoughts, emotions, and sensations by simply remaining open and curious. It may be helpful to give these emotions and sensations a voice to speak and be heard. Remain mindful of your thoughts – judgements, criticisms, attitudes, and beliefs – as they arise, without trying to change or avoid them. Turn towards your present experience and see if you can hear the underlying messages hidden within.
Brainstorm what is truly meaningful and important to you in your life. What do you value most in your work, intimate or social relationships, family, or faith? What do you value in terms of your personal growth, mental wellness, physical health, and spiritual development? Write down the values closest to your heart, and envision whether your decision – to keep trying or give up – aligns or contradicts with your deepest values?
4) Be decisive: By now you should have some clarity if you’ve spent some time reflecting on the costs and benefits, are starting to understand your mental and emotional patterns/reactions, and whether this decision aligns or contradicts with your values. Now it’s time to make a decision. Indecisiveness is a mind-killer. It will get you no where you want to be, and only perpetuate your suffering, so spare yourself undue pain and be decisive. Now I imagine many of you will still have a flutter of self-doubt whispering into your ear. If you’ve done the work and feel confident in your decision, then don’t listen to what it has to say. If you don’t feel confident, I recommend you spend some more time with tips 1 & 3 until you feel more secure to move forward.
5) Once you’ve made a decision it’s now time to be proactive: Assessing all the different variables, the challenge of facing our fears head on and being clear and confident in our decision is absolutely vital when we’ve reached an impasse between the desire to keep trying and knowing when to give up; however, deciding is only half the job. Now it is time to be proactive by putting our decision into action.
Determine what resources you’ll need to implement your decision. Who are persons in your life willing to support you? If you decide to leave an unfulfilling career, start applying for other jobs beforehand, update your resume, contact others in your professional network, create your own company, or go back to school to increase your marketable skills. Connecting to others who overcame similar dilemmas can provide valuable resources, information, insight, and strategy to execute your decision. I am a strong believer that when, in the heart-of-hearts, we are willing and committed to a decision, we’ll find the resources, persons, and guidance to help us achieve it.
6) Don’t attach to the outcomes: Too often we attach our self-worth and self-identity to the outcome of our decisions - “I failed so I’m a failure” – even to the point of rationalizing why we shouldn’t do something before we have even acted. Do your best to resist falling into this trap. You’re not a bad person if you make a poor decision; you just made a poor decision.
Maybe you had bad information. Maybe you were too impulsive. Maybe you didn’t see a certain barrier or challenge. Instead of attaching to the outcome, attach to the opportunity: the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, the opportunity to learn about yourself, the opportunity to learn different tactics and strategy, the opportunity to grow. When we attach only to the outcomes of our choices, we will miss the invaluable opportunities they bring.
Throughout our lives we’ll always be faced with challenging situations, and have to make life altering decisions. When we’re contemplating whether or not to give up or keep trying there are times we give up too soon when we should have kept pushing forward, and sometimes we keep going even though we’re absolutely miserable.
Regardless of what we choose, we’re the happiest when we’re productive and progressing towards anything that feeds our heart and soul.
We make the worst decisions when we’re desperate, angry, or afraid, stressed, or powerless; so, don’t allow overwhelming emotions to hijack your reasoning and decision-making.
Using the 6 Tips to Help You Make a Tough Decision encourages you to create a space to reflecting on your most important values influencing your decision, gain greater clarity and insight into your fear, resistance, and avoidance which cloud sound reasoning and judgment, develop an empowered character who is proactive and decisive, and grow from the opportunities life presents to us.
I have no idea where I would be in my life if I wasn’t willing to take the time and space to be open with my fear, my pain, and my heart, but I most certainly wouldn’t be where I am right now.