As I've started to write this blog just looking at the title brings up a blank for me. It's a big question. With unlimited possibilities as it's answer. And a question that I often hear asked by my clients in therapy.
Over on my Instagram (@katedickinsoncounselling) it was the most voted for option on some recent polls I put out asking for my community's thoughts on the challenges we face as young people today. So this is not new. This is not unheard of to be questioning our direction. We can take some comfort in the fact that it is very very normal. As well as a therapist, I'm a young person myself, so as a 29 year old these are things that I resonate with too in wanting to figure out.
When we think about why this is a challenging prospect to figure out, there are many reasons. Let's take it back to school. Most of us (but this can depend on culture) are in the education system from about 4 years old to at least 16 years old. In the UK you are now required from 16-18 years old to continue education in some format, whether this be sixth form or a local apprenticeship. So for at least 12 years you and your peers are all on pretty much the exact same path. It's normal. It's expected. But once we turn 16 this is where choice and decisions come into play. We are expected at such a young age to have everything figured out - choosing GCSE and A-level options, choosing what college or university to go to, or choosing what field of jobs to apply for. All of this when we haven't really experienced enough of life, nor have our brains fully developed to then be able to make such important decisions.
Side note - did you know your brain doesn't stop fully developing until around 25-27 years old? Meaning all that time our ability to make decisions, regulate our emotions and generally figure out life is still ongoing.
We are met at such a young age with endless possibilities. Hence the question - what should my path be in life? Often closely followed by comparing ourselves to others - for ideas on what we should do, to figure out what everyone else is doing and therefore what is the 'norm' and to start to see what is therefore 'successful' in our minds. But they don't help provide clues as to what is right for us, they only present information on what a collective of people are doing themselves.
So if we take this back to our human evolution, comparison was apparent then too. I often share with clients in their therapy sessions the following - comparison was a survival tool. Our ancestors would have compared themselves to those who were surviving and thriving in their environment, considering what are they doing and how are they doing it? Comparison has stuck with us through our evolution and a lot of us are lucky enough that we no longer need to use it as a survival tool. But we still compare, it's hard wired into us.
But when we compare our path in life to the paths of our peers, we are looking at a completely different route that is right for that person. Why would it necessarily be right for us then? Think about 5 people in your life. Look at their life trajectory so far. Imagine you living through all 5 of those lives one at a time. Would they be right for you? Maybe. They could possibly work. But would they be authentic and rewarding to you? Maybe not.
If we take it even further back, our parents and grandparents generation can often have a huge influence on us too. During my time working at a university for almost 5 years it may not come as a surprise to you that I worked with countless numbers of student clients who were desperately unhappy. When we dived into this it became apparent they were committed to a 3 or 4 year course that reflected their family's wishes. Often this was around training to become a doctor, dentist or lawyer. Interestingly, it was from these courses where we saw most of our students accessing therapy. Showing the influence that expectations from generations past can have on our life choices, in order to 'keep up tradition'. If that works for you great. If not, and again you can resonate with some of these people, then perhaps it's time to pause and reflect on what impact this may be having on you.
And this is why it is important to look at this topic. Because if we do not choose a path which is authentic to us - to what is right for our abilities, our personalities, our wants, our needs etc. we are living a life that is not representative of us. And this notion is one that I have seen so much in therapy with my clients over the years. Symptoms of anxiety, depression, loneliness, lack of achievement, crippling comparison - all boiling down essentially to living a life of / for someone else.
So what can we do about this?
It can start with getting to know yourself. Scheduling time into your week where you can perhaps sit down, grab a cuppa and a notebook and scribble away any ideas you have. Are these authentic to you? Do they spark excitement, curiosity or motivation in you? Or do you feel a sense of dread when you think about that prospect? What is important to you - what at the end of a busy week would leave you with a sense of fulfillment?
Sound daunting? You don't have to do this alone, counselling is a great space to explore with a therapist who can help you figure out what is right for. In my work, I would aim to break down any current pressures and unhelpful beliefs about what life 'should' look like that just aren't serving you. And help you explore aspects of your identity which may be tucked away and could be clues to discovering your next steps to choosing a path that could be right for you.
Ultimately it starts with slowing down, looking back on where you have come from and where you feel you 'have' to go and questioning - is this path for me?
And finally, sometimes it can also be helpful to use a visual. Imagine your path in life is a house. A house that you will have to live in until you change the course of your life path potentially. Wouldn't you want that house to be decorated and filled with things that represent you as much as possible, bring you joy and mean you are comfortable there and excited to come home? You wouldn't fill your house with someone else's belongings that don't suit your style and everyday needs. Fundamentally it is you who has to live there, no one else.
Want to explore this further in the safe space of therapy? Email me today: @firstname.lastname@example.org to start to uncover *your* path in life.
Look after yourself today,