Can My Past Keep Me From Making Good Choices in Life?

People who struggle as adults with whether or not they are making good choices in life need to look to their past, such as childhood issues connected to their families. I provide several examples of these issues, with the details changed to protect confidentiality.

How Would You Categorize these Problems?

I would establish two broad categories for the kinds of problems I see that hinder my clients from making good choices in life. They are:

Category #1:  Parents Who Are Too Hands-Off

Many people feel directionless because they grew up in families in which their parents never gave them any guidance.  For example, I worked with a young man who decided to quit working at unfulfilling temp jobs so he could start his own business. Despite having a lot of initial enthusiasm, he ended up discouraged and confused because he lacked confidence that he could actually succeed.

Conclusion:  This man’s parents had a very hands-off parenting style. If he became interested in something—a new sport, for example—he would lose his enthusiasm for it if he wasn’t immediately successful at it. His parents never insisted that he stick with it to see if he could get better. Even more importantly, they didn’t give him any encouragement or help him figure out what he was good at. As a result of this lack of attention, he ended up feeling that he didn’t really matter to them or to anyone else. This severely affected his self-esteem and compromised his ability to find his direction in life.

Category #2:  Parents Who Are Too Hands-On

This is the opposite of Category #1. I’ve seen many people whose parents were overly invested in their children’s taking a particular career path, for example. One of my clients initially came to me feeling like a failure because she hadn’t gotten a Ph.D. Her parents and siblings all had doctorates and she felt like an outlier because she didn’t have an advanced degree.

Conclusion:  The more we talked, the more this client realized that she had chosen work that felt meaningful to her, even if it didn’t meet her family’s expectations. She had also consciously chosen a less demanding career in order to be able to spend more time with her young family. This client came to therapy thinking she needed help making good choices in life. She left feeling relieved that she could accept the life choices she had already made.

Which Category Have You Seen More Of?

I’ve seen a lot of both but, especially in recent years, I’ve seen more clients who fit the first category than the second.  These are bright, capable people who are lost and don’t know why.  Many are in their 20s, and 30s and just starting out in their working lives.  They know something is holding them back but they don’t know what it is.

What’s the Reason for This?

The main reason, in my experience, is that these people’s parents really weren’t engaged in their day-to-day lives in any meaningful way. Often, these parents experienced their own parents as too controlling. They didn’t want their children to have that experience, so they went to the opposite extreme. Sometimes, these parents experienced neglect themselves and didn’t really know how to take a more active role in their children’s lives. In either case, my clients end up feeling that they don’t really matter to their families and that what they do doesn’t make any difference to them or to anyone else.

What can Parents Do?

I think the most important thing is for parents to really get to know their children and to help them identify what matters to them. This isn’t always easy. Parents usually don’t get the children they wanted. It’s not easy to encourage a child whose personality and interests can differ so much from the parents’ own. But I’ve seen so many people whose parents’ hands-off attitudes left them feeling alone and adrift. I think the effort is always worth making.

Click here to learn more about treatment for finding your life path with Dr. Jane Rubin.

Jane Rubin, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Berkeley, California.  She works with individuals in Berkeley, Oakland, the East Bay and the greater San Francisco Bay Area who are struggling with depression and anxiety.  She also specializes in working with people who are trying to find meaning and direction in their lives.