I have found that a major contributing factor/motivator to a therapy client’s decision to start counseling has been to get ahead of, or to prevent, something negative from happening. Often, these clients are worried that they have been hanging on too long to an unhealthy relationship, the wrong career, or even just an overall lifestyle that “doesn’t seem to fit the way it once did;” as a result, they are consistently bombarded with anxious thoughts about if/when they should stay or go, “before things get worse.”
Clients often start counseling when they have come to strong enough terms with the understanding and acceptance that things can no longer continue as they are. At this point, they are often experiencing a level of overwhelming clarity in their lives that they’ve never had before, a sense of strength and courage that outweighs their previous fears about “making waves,” and a fiery determination to finally achieve the lives they deserve. They have 9 toes out the door ready to charge out of that unhappy marriage, they have that resignation letter already completed, signed, and ready to hand into the boss, and they have a lengthy Google-search history of states and residential locations that will give them the instant fresh start they’re looking for anywhere but here…
Unfortunately, as good as this intense surge of motivation, desire, and emotion can be it can also be logically-deceptive. If every problem we’ve ever had in our lives could be resolved by simply doing the opposite of what we understand to have caused those problems, the world would certainly be a lot less complex. The reality though, as many of us have learned (and quite possibly the hard way) is that there are countless problems ready to be unleashed at both ends of any extreme. This means that impulsively running away from an unhappy situation can often be just as bad as staying in it! Of course, there are exceptions to this, like when it comes to leaving situations or people that are physically threatening /harmful to us, but for our purposes here, I am referring only to instances that are outside of our direct physical health/well-being.
Once we are feeling so strong and so ready to stand up to, change, or remove the problematic obstacles in our lives, it is often very difficult to want to slow down or to even care about how to do so in the most responsible and realistic ways. We often jump to our “all or nothing” mindsets and become almost willingly-blind to what life will look like on the other side because, let’s face it, whatever it is will be a whole hell of a lot better than remaining where we are for one second longer, right? Well, as stated before, this is not always the case and if we act too readily on our emotions of being “so done here,” we can actually stumble right into a whole new set of otherwise-avoidable problems elsewhere.
I have to give credit to those clients who slow down and reflect enough on the emotional shifts and transformations happening for them in these moments in order to make the decision to get counseling and help with processing it all before making any permanent moves. This right here is often the kind of decision-making that separates those who simply make a single change in their lives from those who make positive lasting changes that trigger other positive changes, leading to an overall enhancement in their quality of life. No matter what your circumstance (again, aside from that of physical threat/danger) there is a slower and more careful strategy to making necessary, successful change.
There’s a powerful thing that I often tell my clients (particularly those reporting dissatisfaction with a spouse and indecision about keeping or leaving the relationship) and that is: “You’re in it until you’re not.” This statement has been transformative for many clients as it seems to act as the reality check needed for re-grounding them in the “now” and bringing some clarity to what is in their direct/more immediate control. The fact of the matter is that if you’re wondering about leaving a situation or person, it means you haven’t left yet… you’re still committed…you’re still in it; the only way to figure out your next steps is to really question yourself about why that is.
If a decision is feeling too hard to make, it often means that you’re not ready to make it (well, at least not 100% of it). The level of struggle you’re experiencing in trying to decide should be an indicator that you’re looking to leap before learning to walk. You have to ask yourself, would you rather walk into unknown territory, or leap? If you think you’re only hope for movement is to leap into something you’re not 100% sure of or ready for (example: “I have to file for divorce NOW”), then guess what, you’ll most likely end up not moving at all. Sound familiar?
Outside of getting counseling, which I would consider the most valuable step toward making any difficult life transition, the process of “walking” into a decision can be broken down into 3 steps:
Identify obstacles (what’s keeping you stuck?)
Set small/attainable goals for removing obstacles
-Identify obstacles: We don’t remain stuck with people or in situations that are 100% bad for us; there is always something worth sticking around for, whether it’s considered a healthy reason or not. For example, you’re not going to as easily walk away from a verbally abusive spouse when they provide you with a stable/comfortable financial lifestyle that you could never afford on your own. Similarly, you couldn’t leave the misery of your family business when it has become so intertwined with your self-identity…a familiar-misery you can depend on. The obstacles in these examples would be financial limitation and self-doubt.
-Obstacle-removal goals: Once you identify what’s been holding you back from making healthier decisions for your life, you have to address it. For example, rather than looking for the quickest way out of your financially-comfortable life, it would be a much smarter and safer move for you to stay where you are for long enough to improve your financial situation (a smaller and likely much more attainable goal). Maybe you start working part-time and putting some extra money aside? Maybe you allow yourself a realistic time-frame for saving up a certain amount of money and start doing some research about cost of living on your own? You don’t deserve to leave one bad situation only to land yourself in another bad situation. And if you’re lacking self-esteem, or are so programmed to seek validation and happiness from the poisonous family business, maybe go get some counseling. Find ways outside of the business to define yourself and to feel good about yourself so that you can finally build trust in who you are separate from it.
-Stay/leave: Once you’ve been able to identify and get more control over the obstacles keeping you stuck, you’ll likely find that your level of being “in” the relationship/job/situation has dramatically changed. It’s possible that the improvements you’ve made (though solely individual) could have led to a much healthier and happier relationship/environment, OR that the improvements could have made it so that you are no longer fearful/as uncomfortable about walking away from it. At this point, the decision pretty much makes itself and your once severe uncertainty is now virtually non-existent.
“Being in it ‘til you’re not” is a method for allowing a relationship/job/situation to more-naturally run its course without interference from our inaccurate perceptions of the way it SHOULD happen and when. It’s often comforting to think that we know what’s best for ourselves when we’re finally feeling strong about making a decision, but the reality is that this strength must be carefully and intelligently applied if it is expected to really benefit us. Leaving a bad situation without a plan, without resources, and pretty much without anything other than our fed up pride, does not by any means guarantee us a better outcome; there are steps to take and paths to walk that guide a more direct and secure route to those places we so badly wish to leap to.