Obstacles to Making Good Life Choices

People often have a sense of failure when they make important life decisions that don’t work out as they hoped they would. But blaming yourself often prevents you from recognizing the real obstacles that get in the way of good decision-making and taking appropriate steps to overcome them.

Have you been seeing this trend in your practice?

I wouldn’t call it a trend. I think there are always a fair number of people who are struggling with this issue. But the way they struggle with it varies from person to person. Some people set goals that are too inflexible and then feel like failures when they don’t meet them. Other people are perfectionists whose perfectionism either keeps them from reaching their goals or makes it difficult for them to feel a sense of accomplishment when they do. Still other people have trouble doing the less than glamorous work that is necessary to accomplish any goal. And so on.

Can you give me an example?

Yes. I can give you several. I do want to emphasize that none of the examples I’m using are actual people in my practice. The examples illustrate issues that come up with many people I see, but they aren’t actual individuals.

I had a client who dropped out of school to start an adventure travel company. Having this kind of company had been a dream of hers since high school. However, she had a pretty rigid idea of what the company needed to look like—who the clients would be, how much they would be able to pay, etc. She also tried to do everything herself when she had no experience running a business.

When the company didn’t get off the ground, my client felt like a failure and fell into a serious depression. A lot of our work involved helping her to broaden her idea of what her company could look like and how she could enlist others to help her. When she was ready to try again, she was much more willing to be flexible and much more able to deal with the ups and downs of starting a business.

Do you have another example?

I do. I have another client who is one of the most admired individuals in his academic field but who has never had a job that is commensurate with his talents. He’s a perfectionist who rarely publishes because he never thinks his work is good enough. He blames himself for not spending enough time working out his ideas, but the real problem is that he’s unable to get his ideas out into the world because he thinks they’re not good enough. When he talks with colleagues, they think his ideas are brilliant and that he should have a job at a major university, but he can’t agree to submit anything for publication because nothing he does ever meets his excessively high standards.

It sounds like rigid thinking is a big issue.

It is. I have another client who is a master carpenter. He who would like to expand his business to include larger and more interesting projects than he’s done to this point. He has a definite idea of what he’d like his business to look like, but he doesn’t want to do a lot of the work that he needs to do to get there. That work includes setting up a website, getting client testimonials, traveling to other cities to promote his work, etc.

This client is very talented, but he grew up in a family in which the parents had no expectations for their children. Unfortunately, they let my client drop out of high school and, even though they are both college graduates, they didn’t encourage him to go to college. As a result, my client has a hard time believing that doing things that are difficult or that he doesn’t like will get him where he wants to go. He knows he’s very talented, but he doesn’t believe that he can achieve his goals.

Do you have any advice?

I do. One thing I’ve noticed repeatedly over the years is that the kind of rigid thinking I’ve described often leaves people feeling a great deal of shame. They think there’s something wrong with them that’s preventing them from reaching their goals.

Some people are able to make poor choices in their lives and pick themselves up and resolve to do better next time. But, if a person who hasn’t achieved her goals feels that there’s something wrong with her, it’s very hard to pick herself up and move on. Psychotherapy not only helps people to think about their choices with more flexibility. It can also release people from the shame that leads to rigid, unproductive thinking.

Click here to learn more about making good life choices 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.