Last weekend I was at my friend Emily’s barbecue party. After we had our full share of sausages, kebabs, and salads, and settled down at the table with the drinks, Emily said she was facing a serious dilemma and needed advice.
“They won’t allow me to work part-time,” she said. “What do I do now?”
Emily works as a psychotherapist at an agency. This is a secure (albeit boring) place of work with great vacation and sick days. But Emily also has a small private practice that she’d like to grow. She was hoping to reduce her agency hours to part-time so that she could expand her private practice to a couple of days a week. The agency had agreed for her to do it for a while, and Emily successfully filled one day a week with private clients, but it proved impossible to continue that arrangement. Emily asked, negotiated, and pleaded, but was told she had to resume her full-time position.
Now, in between the sips of wine, Emily talked about her predicament and sounded mildly panicked. “But what do I do with all my clients if I go back to full-time? Should I just see them after work? But then I will never be home to see my kids!”
As the conversation went toward the option of leaving the agency, the panic seemed to grow. “But then I won’t have paid sick days! And vacation. Can I afford a disability insurance? And what about a mortgage? What if I need to reapply for a mortgage? And I will not have a pension!”
The thing is, Emily is a highly successful professional and is very good at what she does. Moreover, she already works at her business part time and has been doing it for years, gradually and steadily increasing the number of clients she sees every week.
But even though it was clear that she would like nothing more than to leave her unfulfilling agency job, Emily kept anticipating a catastrophe waiting for her around the corner.
“You know,” she told me, “every therapist I talk to tells me to just do it. They say they never regretted their decision. They say the only thing they regret is that they didn’t leave their jobs sooner.” I nod. I also left a boring and unfulfilling agency job that consisted mainly of excruciatingly mind-numbing back-to-back meetings years ago and felt the same way. “But,” Emily continued, “what if I am talking only to those successful people? What if this is a wrong sample of therapists that I am talking to? Maybe I should try to find therapists for whom it didn’t work out and they regretted it? They may tell me a different story.”
I knew better than to try and reassure my friend. I felt that for every argument I may come up with, there will be counter arguments about potential obstacles and dangers. And those counter arguments would definitely represent real possibilities.
Only later that day, on my way home, it finally dawned on me why it seemed like Emily and I were talking about two different things – with me being super excited for Emily finally taking such an amazing step forward in her career, and Emily feeling as if she was heading toward a disaster.
You see, we can make decisions either from a perspective of approach – moving toward our goals and desired outcomes, or from a perspective of avoidance – basically, out of fear.
(If you’d like to know why we all have a natural tendency to be negatively biased and to lean toward avoidance – please read this blog post: Meet Anxiety)
Having walked this path myself, it was easy for me to see Emily’s dilemma from the perspective of approach – I saw her preparing to take a leap of faith toward something that would change her life for the better. I envisioned her managing her time in the way that was best for her and her family, taking control of what she did on a daily basis, having freedom of making both short-term and long-term decisions, and setting the foundation for solid financial future. I was also already picturing us meeting for lunch and going to morning yoga classes – after all, those are the joys of being your own boss.
But Emily, as I realized after our barbecue talk, was evaluating her decision from the perspective of avoidance. She was trying hard to avoid the (potential) pain of giving up the (perceived) security and facing the unknown. She was desperately looking for ways to reduce the uncertainty and to avoid pain.
When we make decision based on avoidance – that is, out of fear, – we are consumed by doubts. We concentrate on avoiding pain at all costs. This leads to rumination, preoccupation with all kinds of possible stumbling blocks, and lack of commitment. It’s as if we attempt to walk forward while looking backward. Try that and see how it’s almost impossible to keep your course straight.
When we make decisions from the position of approach, we look excitedly ahead. We become focused on removing the obstacles to the desirable goal. We embrace change. The journey becomes meaningful. We feel enthusiastic and empowered. And, interestingly, the circumstances often almost magically align with our leap toward the welcome unknown.
This is true for most of life’s decisions and steps – big and small.
When you bring your child to a daycare for the first time, are you excited for her having new fun experiences, making friends, and learning to be independent, or are you dragging your feet overcome with the numbing horror of anticipating everything that will go wrong? Both your experience and your child’s will depend, among other things, on your approach or avoidance take on this situation.
When you contemplate going to a date, are you looking forward to meeting a new person, or are you debating whether it may be a disaster?
If you feel that you are making your decisions from a position of avoidance and would like to change that, you can try the following exercise:
Try to analyze a decision that you are currently facing. Then ask yourself the following questions:
1. What is it that I would like to achieve here? (As opposed to, what is it that I am trying so hard to prevent from happening?)
2. What were the other important decisions in my life that I made from an approach perspective? (Did you move out of your parents’ house to achieve independence? Did you finally apply to that college program later in life? Did you take that dream trip? Did you leave a boring job?) Do you remember how liberating it felt? How did it work for you?)
3. What will my life look like when I know that I am on my way to – approaching – my desired goal?
4. What is the first step that I can take right now toward my goal?
5. What is my next immediate step?
But wait, you may say, - what if it actually doesn’t work? How can I be sure that if I take the approach path, then the things will work out?
The answer is – you can’t be sure. Things may or may not work out. But if you keep the status quo because you make the decisions based on avoidance, you will never allow yourself a chance to move ahead. And only if you take a leap of faith and things do not work out, you can find out that you are way more resourceful and resilient than you ever knew. You will cope and you will remedy and – you know what – you will be more likely to face the next dilemma from an approach position. Because you will want to experience that exhilarating feeling again and you will feel more courage to pursue it. (You can learn more about coping with the fear of unknown in this article: Meet Your Best Friend: Uncertainty.)
As I was finishing writing this blog, I received a phone call from one of my associates who happily announced that she decided to rent an office at another location, in addition to her current office. I said that I loved that idea and asked if she was worried about paying additional rent. “Oh no,” she said, “I am not worried at all. Now I have another location and I know the clients will come.” I just had to smile. This young woman, who is just starting her career, is intuitively and happily taking the approach perspective.
Anna Prudovski is a Psychologist and the Clinical Director of Turning Point Psychological Services. She has a special interest in treating anxiety disorders and OCD, as well as working with parents.
Anna lives with her husband and children in Vaughan, Ontario. When she is not treating patients, supervising clinicians, teaching CBT, and attending professional workshops, Anna enjoys practicing yoga, going on hikes with her family, traveling, studying Ayurveda, and spending time with friends. Her favorite pastime is reading.