How Do I Know if I’m on the Wrong Life Path? A Conversation with Jane Rubin

How do you define life path?

It’s the thing or things in a person’s life that really matter to them. I’m not thinking necessarily about a job, although for some people it’s that, but what gives a person’s life meaning. What do they care about, what really takes precedence in their lives?

Some people seem to just “know” what they’re meant to do. What’s their secret?

There are some people who for some reason just know but I think they’re in a minority and maybe a tiny minority. For most people it’s not like that; the path to finding it is more rocky and confusing.

How do you help clients find the path they really want?

It really varies from person to person. First of all is finding out what they think is missing. How long has it been missing? When did it become an acute problem? Once we do that it’s a process of coming to understand what’s getting in the way. It’s not usually a practical issue; it’s an emotional issue. Sometimes people think it’s selfish to try to find their own life path. For other people, the thing they might really want is something their family doesn’t agree with. They want to do something creative and their family thinks they should be doing something practical. I try to create a safe enough environment where people can explore these deeper feelings.

How much of your practice is related to this issue?

It’s a pretty large percentage when you think about all of the related issues. It may not be their presenting problem, they may be depressed or anxious or addicted to substances. Not everybody walks in with this issue, but a lot of times this issue comes up.

What if what they’re drawn to really is impractical?

It may be totally impractical for somebody with five children to think they can go become a professional dancer, but they can take dance classes, teach dance, become a nonprofessional dancer. Sometimes what is involved is helping the person see there are other ways of pursuing this.

Is our society getting in the way?

I think so. Reality does get in the way. We all have to earn a living. But there’s also usually some issue in their family growing up. It’s not as simple as, “I wanted to be a musician but my dad said I had to be a lawyer.” People can come to feel that who they are wasn’t validated by their family. They may feel they would be disappointing to their parents, or they may have an unconscious fear that they would be more successful than their parents. People tend to think, “If I’m not happy with my life there’s something wrong with me.” Those feelings follow us through life even without our being aware of them.

Is this a satisfying issue to tackle? Do you and your clients often succeed?

It’s very satisfying. If somebody can go from feeling lost or confused or self-critical to really feeling like they’ve come into their own, that is very satisfying to me.

Is there a way to avoid the angst?

I don’t think it is avoidable. No parent has control over what kids they get. Sometimes it’s just such a mismatch and parents are at a loss. If parents can try to stay attuned to who their child really is rather than who they wish they were, it’s a lot easier. It’s such a heavy burden to bear for a child to know they aren’t the person their parents wanted them to be.

How can I change my life?

This seems like such a huge question. How do you help clients narrow it down?

The first question I ask is, “What is it you want to change?” Sometimes it’s something very specific but sometimes people say, “I need to change my work, my relationships, everything.” I tell them we can talk about all of these things, but let’s start out with what bothers them most. If they start talking about a relationship, almost always their concerns about work will also come up and the issues will be similar. Narrowing it in the beginning helps broaden it out in the long run. Over time, it just ends up developing organically.

What do people most want to change in their lives?

The most common one sounds like a cliché, but they want to feel better about themselves. Even when the problem is the job or the relationship, and it’s true the person needs to get another job or change their relationship, there are reasons they are in this job or this relationship. If they don’t understand what led them into this dissatisfying place, they’re likely to get into another just as dissatisfying. The more people can understand themselves and why they make the decisions they do, the more likely they are to feel better about their choices.

A lot of us have tried the positive affirmation route. Does that approach actually help?

Most people have tried that and it didn’t work. If it did work, everybody would be walking around really happy with themselves because they just bombard themselves with affirmations. There’s some reason it doesn’t sink in. What’s getting in the way here? It’s not that they’re bad or stupid. It actually makes sense that they are where they are.

How does therapy help?

Since so many of the negative feelings people have about themselves develop in their families, it’s important to have a positive relationship where I’m treating them differently than a problematic parent treated them. If they had a critical parent and I’m not critical, or a neglectful parent and I’m paying attention to them, they can feel open to have any feelings with me that they need to have. They have had a different kind of experience in which they feel that they are competent and loveable.

Can’t a friend play that role?

People don’t want to burden their friends in that way. One real advantage of a therapy relationship is it’s all about the patient. The person doesn’t have to worry that they’re not giving me time to talk about myself. A lot of times, there are feelings of shame. With a therapy relationship, they can tell me but nobody else needs to know. Or, for example if a patient had parents who wouldn’t let them get angry, they may be afraid that they can’t do that with friends. They can feel safe testing that out in a therapy relationship.

Do we all need to change our lives?

It varies tremendously. We all do have to make changes because of life circumstances. Some people go on doing pretty much the same thing most of their lives. Some people feel more comfortable having a life that’s predictable, doing the same things and hanging out with the same people. Other people get really bored if feel they have to do the same things over and over. For them it’s an issue of stimulus seeking. Temperament does play a pretty large role in what we find satisfying and unsatisfying in life.