When You Don’t Know What to Do, Try Doing What’s Harder

5 min read

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Sam is on the fence about breaking up with Chloe. Maria’s son is talking about quitting soccer after playing it for several years, and she’s unsure how to respond. Simone knows she’s gay but hasn’t come out and is struggling about whether, when, and how to tell her conservative parents.

Life is filled with forks in the road—times of difficult decisions where your head and emotions swing back and forth. Sam thinks about breaking up with Chloe, but then they have a great date night, and he’s unsure. Maria waffles about how to respond to her son: Maybe she should say little and let him learn to experience making his own decisions, or maybe she should step up and see if there’s something he’s avoiding that he needs to face. Simone wants to tell her parents but is worried about their reaction and hyper alert to finding the right moment; she keeps kicking the can down the road. The challenge, of course, is sifting through these mixed emotions and sorting out what you feel and want.

But often there’s a strong, yet often unnoticed, undertow at work pulling you towards the familiar, the easier path. Perhaps Sam has been here before, on the fence in other relationships, and looking back his tendency has always been to do the breakup. Looking back, Maria tends to default towards being passive, not only with her children but in her larger life, letting others make their own decisions. Simone’s hesitation to talk with her parents is another case where she stays in her comfort zone of holding back to avoid upsetting others and avoiding potential conflict.

Changing relationship patterns

These default ways of coping with problems are often deeply ingrained, embedded in our lives from childhood, and become our go-to emotional responses as adults. We rely on them because they simplify life: You mentally and emotionally don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time a problem arises; you already have choices in your decision bank. But, like most childhood-ingrained coping skills, these patterns have limitations, a limited shelf life: The person who always cuts and runs from relationships, becomes passive under challenging situations, or avoids confrontation is often narrowing and handicapping themselves. These comfortable but limited responses to difficult decisions become your Achilles Heel that can sabotage your moving forward and getting what you desire.

Taking a different path: Why harder is better

If you’re facing a decision point, and have to pick a fork in the road, maybe consider taking the harder option. Why? Because of all the benefits: By doing the difficult thing, you stop running your life on autopilot or letting your life run you. You expand your coping skills and become more emotionally and behaviorally flexible. This, in turn, increases your ability to handle anxiety, builds your confidence, and improves your self-image.

The rewards are not only long-term but more immediate. By working on the relationship now rather than running, Sam experiences and learns the power of being assertive and saying what he needs. By finding that her son responds well to her advice, Maria learns to view herself as a parent in a new way. Simone talks with her parents and finds that they don’t blow up or disown her, which begins to change not only her view of her parents but the larger world; maybe the world and others are not as critical as she always thought.

But even in the worst-case scenario where none of this turns out this way—Sam and Chloe still break up, Maria’s son blows off her advice, and Simone’s parents are rejecting and unsupportive—this doesn’t mean that taking the harder route was wrong. The core issue here is not learning to change others but to change yourself. While we can’t control outcomes, we can control our actions, and new actions can still create new ways of seeing ourselves as less afraid and more empowered. We step out of those old childhood roles and fears and become the adults that we are.

Putting this into play

If any of this resonates and you’re ready to take the more difficult road and run your life differently, start by focusing on yourself. Lower your expectations about how others should and could be different. Adopt an attitude of curiosity—you’re experimenting and expanding rather than remaking or going on a forced march self-makeover. Start slow. Sam talks with Chloe about how he feels and sees what happens next. Maria encourages her son to stick with soccer and sees what he says. Simone decides she isn’t quite ready to talk with her parents, but she experiments with coming out to her acquaintances at work when they ask her how she is doing or what’s new. Baby steps are okay.

All this being said, don’t forget to listen to your gut. if you know what you want and how you feel on a gut level, lean on it. If Sam knows that he and Chloe are not a good fit, he needs to say it; if Maria has no strong opinions about her son’s soccer, that’s fine. If Simone believes in her heart of hearts that her parents now can’t handle knowing about her coming out, she needs to listen to herself. This, too, is part of feeling empowered.

The theme here isn’t about making the right or new decisions but looking at patterns, seeing where your default modes limit you, and deciding whether your old ways of thinking and coping still work. If you feel ready for a change and are willing to expand your world and experiences, be curious rather than critical, keep expectations low, and take those baby steps.

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