Worrying about direction in life

While I will mainly focus on worrying about career and direction in life in this post, I’ll cover things that can apply to other kinds of worry as well. 

My experience of worrying began over spring break in grade 10. I had just learned that admissions averages for sciences at the U of A were in the mid to high 80s, which was way higher than any grade I had ever received. I had always assumed that I would go to university and do something in science, but needing marks in the mid to high 80s put my admissions chances near zero. I started to panic. 

But then, I saw that admission averages to education were in the low 70s (at the time). This was much more doable for me. I felt the sense of panic lift from me as I saw that I had a chance to go to university. I quickly started to love the idea of becoming a teacher, and I felt my panic lift as I envisioned this new future. I even planned to go to my gym teacher once the break was over and tell him what a role model he had been for me, and that I was inspired to go into education because of him. However, within a month or so, I realized that I had no actual desire to be a teacher. That same panic from before set in once I no longer wanted this path and I quickly jumped to some other potential career path. 

This pattern of latching on to a potential career, convincing myself that I loved it, then realizing it wasn’t as great as I thought it was would persist all the way into my fourth year at university. While I did find a few paths along the way which genuinely did interest me, I still saw them with rose coloured glasses, preventing me from viewing them realistically. Looking back, I can now see this pattern for what it was. It came from the belief that I had to get into university or be a failure, as well as the fear of uncertainty. Sprinkle in a lack of identity and it created the perfect recipe for worry. 

This is what I think causes worry. Feeling forced to pick a path, but not having a secure one to follow.

This excessive worry caused me to latch on to paths prematurely - as I was mainly drawn to them for the sense of certainty they gave me rather than what the path actually contained. When we feel we are in danger, we tend to opt for solutions that come with more immediate safety, but these options sacrifice the long term outcome for this short term security. 

A good example of this is a lizard detaching its tail to avoid getting eaten by a bird. It might be costly in the long term to live without a tail, but that was the sacrifice needed to survive. Worry can be very useful in this sense if it is appropriate to the issue. However, excessive worry causes our mind to over-value the issue and make us think we’re about to be eaten, so we end up cutting off some part of ourselves to try and survive when in reality we were just snagged on something small. For me, I always felt an existential dread if I didn’t have a direction in life, but in reality, I have always had plenty of time to figure things out and go at my own pace. 

The realization that I don’t need to worry so much allowed me to look back at the effects that my excessive worry had on my thoughts and behaviour. My worry was very convincing and it took several years for me to get past it, but I hope that after reading this article you may be able to examine some of your own worries and catch the effects they’re having on you. 

So how do we fix the issue of excessive worry - some things that I’ve found to help

The first step with any issue is to recognize that it’s an issue. Some ways to do this are to examine if the worry is at an appropriate degree for the problem (is the worry a 9/10 when the issue is a 3/10?) and distinguishing if the issue is something we can or can’t control (I can control my grades but not the admission committee’s decision). If we perceive the issue to be bigger than it actually is, it might cause us to cut off your tail when there’s no bird around. If the issue is something we can’t control, the worry is also something out of our control. I know this is much, much easier said than done, and I certainly have not mastered either of them, but just being able to recognize that our worry exceeds the issue or the issue is out of our control can help. 

Once we recognize it’s an issue, we can try to address what’s causing it. I believe the best way to do this is to examine the validity of these worries. Some ways that I’ve found to help address the cause of my excessive worry are examining my assumptions (if I fail this midterm, will I actually fail university?), examining social norms and pressures placed on me (will I actually be a failure if I don’t get into grad school right away?), and if these thoughts align with what I truly believe or want (do I even want to be an engineer?). By identifying the cause, we can better identify the effect. If we know why we are worried, we can see how it’s distorting our thoughts or behaviours, and then hopefully we can work to fix those distortions.

If we are able to find these issues and distortions in our thinking, we can start to uncover what we truly believe and feel. For me, this was a more difficult part of the process because it meant not giving in to the uncomfortableness of not having a set path. It required that I take time to do some soul searching, and accept that I didn’t know what I wanted to do quite yet. 

I’ve now been able to find a direction that suits my true desires after years of worrying, but I’m able to keep room for uncertainty and stay comfortable doing so now that I know I don’t need to have it all figured out. 

Of course, this was just my experience worrying about direction and yours might be very different. If I could leave you with a few takeaways, it would be that worry can distort our perception of things in convincing ways, that worrying is very normal, and sometimes it requires being okay with uncertainty to find your true direction. 

Author Bio
Evan Sawyer is a fifth year Honours Psychology student at the U of A, and started volunteering for the Peer Support Centre this fall. In his free time he enjoys playing chess, watching movies, and listening to music.