Obstacles to Finding Your Purpose

Are you struggling with finding your purpose in life? If you feel you always need to put other people’s needs ahead of your own, you may have trouble finding what you want in life.

We asked Dr. Jane Rubin about this issue and how you can get help.

What Are The Stumbling Blocks To Finding Your Purpose?

There are a lot of stumbling blocks, but, for many people, the biggest one is the belief that other people’s needs are always more important than their own. Sometimes this belief is based in fear. Some people worry that the only way they can be loved is to constantly make their needs subordinate to those of their partner or their friends.

For these people, even thinking about how they would like to live their lives feels dangerous because it endangers their sense of security in their most important relationships.

This Seems Like a Maladaptive Way Of Getting Your Needs Met

One thing that makes this issue so complicated is that, when we are young, subordinating our needs to those of our parents or other important adults may actually be adaptive. If I have an abusive parent and I’m able to figure out what that person wants and I do it, I can sometimes avoid being abused. In that situation, sacrificing my own needs can actually be a good survival strategy.

The same thing is true if I have a neglectful parent. I’ve had patients whose parents left their children pretty much on their own at a young age. My patients learned not to complain because that just made their parents leave them alone for longer periods of time or come home even more drunk and unavailable than they usually were.

The problem is that the very strategy that works to protect us when we’re children keeps us from finding our life purpose when we become adults.

Many of my patients feel that their lives are empty and meaningless because they never found their purpose in life. One of the major obstacles to thinking about what they want is that they feel it’s “selfish” (a word I hear all the time) to think about themselves and what they might want in life.

What’s an Extreme Example of This Kind of Thinking?

My patient grew up feeling that she was completely unlovable. As a result, she married the first man who took an interest in her. Throughout her marriage, she subordinated her needs to his. He did not ask her to, but, in her mind, it was the only way to keep his love. By the time she reached middle age and her children were out of the house, she felt completely adrift. Her life felt empty because she never allowed herself to think about what she wanted from life.

I had a patient whose single mother was seriously addicted to drugs from the time my patient was an infant.  From the time my patient was a very small child, she was responsible for taking care of her younger siblings. When my patient’s mother remarried, my patient’s new stepfather began sexually abusing her.  

How Do You Address These Issues? It Seems Really Overwhelming

People can feel very overwhelmed when they first begin to explore these issues. Thus, it’s important for therapists to proceed slowly and carefully. They should respect the strategies that their patients developed to protect themselves when they were young. It takes courage for people to confront the fears that keep them from asking what kind of life they want for themselves.

They may experience grief and regret when they think about the choices they’ve made. They may also experience shame and a vertiginous sense that they don’t know who they are. But if we take the time to explore these feelings in a way that feels safe, and if our patients experience us as wanting what’s best for them and not what’s best for us, they can find their purpose and go on to lead meaningful, fulfilling lives.

Click to learn more about finding your life path with Jane Rubin, Ph.D.

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.