“Indecision, doubt and fear. The members of this unholy trio are closely related; where one is found, the other two are close at hand.”
― Napoleon Hill
A sincere thanks to all the awesome experts who shared their best tips, insights and strategies on what to do when you don't know what to do.
While living in Seattle I had the pleasure of driving over a draw bridge on my way to and from work each day.
At the base of the draw bridge about 100 feet below was a rowing club; every morning they would be out on the water training, building endurance and honing their technique. I looked forward to seeing them every time I drove by. They looked like big water skippers gliding over the surface, leaving the simplest trace of small dimples from each oar. It was a beautiful and majestic sight.
What really stood out to me, though, were the foggy mornings on the water.
There were some days I could barely see the long slender boats racing through the channel below. I pondered how they could see where they were going in such conditions, especially since they were moving backwards in the first place.
And then I considered that it’s not much different than what happens in each of our daily lives. We all go through our days with a plan in mind while having no idea what obstacles or treasures might lie around the next bend.
For most part, life follows a pattern.
We may go to work, pay our bills, buy groceries, run errands, fulfill obligations, and attend events. We’ve become accustomed to flexing with expected interruptions like getting a coffee to beat an afternoon slump, changing evening plans to meet an urgent demand at work, or altering our budget to offset an unforeseen expense.
However, when we enter into seasons with many or significant unwelcome changes we can easily find ourselves wondering what we can do differently.
The misconception behind this pondering what to do lies in its belief that we can do anything differently.
Just as the crew boat is being powered by oarsmen looking at where they’ve been, we walk into our days like a hallway that is illuminated only as far as each step is taken. Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard says “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
As humans we are driven to look forward, to try to predict what might happen so we can protect ourselves from being surprised, and to try to brace ourselves for the challenges we will face.
Yet we can’t make such predictions. We can influence certain outcomes by committing to the steps of attaining a goal and we also have no influence on all the possible factors that could materialize, delay, or block that same goal. When facing a reality we cannot change, and we can’t accept what is, we find ourselves not knowing what to do.
Strategies for Managing the Unknown
So, then, how can we move into the unknown without causing our own suffering? Here are a few ideas to consider.
Understand that when we encounter the fear and confusion of not knowing what to do we are face-to-face with the unknowable. This isn’t an abnormal experience or a signal that you have done something wrong; it’s an encounter millions of people are also experiencing at this very moment.
Don’t add suffering to the pain of the unknown. When we grasp for something, anything to fill the painful cavity of the unknown we confuse ourselves into a false security of control, because we know isn’t really true.
The paradox in attempting to outwit uncertainty and numb ourselves to our powerlessness is that we are also rendering ourselves into more debt of fear, insecurity, and resentment.
Work with what you have in front of you at this very moment. The only things we are able to influence are our responses to current circumstances. Worrying about what’s next takes us out of our current moment, which is where life happens, and out of the opportunity to experience the goodness of our lives.
It’s a double-edged sword; not only do we miss out on our precious moments but we add the fear of what might or might not happen. And then we’re usually wrong about our predictions anyway.
Ideas Include: Pay attention to your breath; notice how tension naturally leaves as you exhale. Notice the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, and tastes you are experiencing right now. Recognize that, for the most part, right now you have what you need. Engage in the activities around you wholeheartedly.
Try on a posture of acceptance, a resolve to work with whatever it is that presents itself next. See if you can develop the tolerance to face the demands of your reality at any given moment.
Allow yourself to grieve your losses. Grief is an emotion that sweeps over us when it explodes but it’s also one we must make the choice to enter into.
Practice gratitude for what you have while you have it. Because we are traveling into what we can’t know, enjoy your current blessings as fully as you can. Consider, too, that a lot of the blessings in your life didn’t come from your efforts; they showed up as unexpected gifts beyond what you could have planned for.
Practice self-compassion. None of this is easy, there is no arrival point, and because we are human we will always struggle with it in some capacity. Be gracious with yourself as you struggle & succeed while traveling into the unknown. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Erica R. Daudt Counselor, LMHC - www.sacredwisdomcounseling.com
As a trauma-informed psychologist and somatic-expressive practitioner, I guide many people who experience a sense of stuckness as a result of life transitions, awakenings, and losses.
Let’s face it, you’ve probably felt lost at some point in your life, in particular after ending a relationship, shifting out of a career, or experiencing a major illness. No one is exempt of unaffected by life’s surprises. And when you are dropped into the Valley of the Unknown without a rudder, it can get incredibly confusing and scary.
Two main errors people make when faced with not knowing what to do is that they 1) react from a place of fear; and 2) sidestep the discomfort with premature mental solutions.
Reacting from a place of fear means that we prioritize impulse without much thought. An example could be anything from engaging in reckless behavior (spending money, having sex, eating and drinking too much) to having emotional outbursts with people you love. While following impulses are important (I will get into that below), when you aren’t aware of what part of you the impulse is coming from, it can quickly become destructive.
Premature mental solutions are often preferred by those of us less willing to incorporate feelings into decision-making. Being in the Valley of the Unknown can be especially terrifying if you’ve derived pride in Knowing and always having a plan. You may try to escape the Valley by coming up with a rational solution that is not in line with your authentic self.
Reacting from fear and premature mental solutions are both ways of escaping discomfort and pain, but it is actually moving toward those emotions that will support you in aligning with a more grounded, intuitive knowing and healthy impulses. In the Valley, you are being called to sort things from the inside. Below are some somatic approaches for what to do when you don’t know what to do.
1. Slow Down.
Our lives are too fast, overstimulating, and ultimately support numbing instead of feeling. We need to slow down in order to feel, and we often intentionally keep ourselves busy in order not to. It may be time for some detox in the form of quiet time or solitude.
Get into the habit of setting aside time everyday to get still and check in with what you are feeling in your body, the content of your thoughts, and what your impulses are. Whether in stillness or motion, just BE with what arises.
Don’t necessarily DO anything with the thoughts or feelings, though you may choose to keep track of them in a journal or talk about them with people who know not to volunteer solutions. Notice patterns and themes, as they support you in getting to know yourself better.
2. Breathe and Feel.
We are not a society that honors the feeling and expression of emotion. However, in my practice I have found tremendous value in allowing all emotions--especially taboo ones--to arise and be moved through the body with movement (dancing, pounding on a mattress, or playing a sport) and voice (yelling, screaming, crying). This is a great way to move stuckness through the body, thus clearing a space for something new to emerge.
Emotions are portals to know yourself more deeply, but in order to feel, you must breathe into the feelings that you are experiencing in your body. Breathing creates more space and deepens the felt experiences of your emotions so that can identify them.
3. Be Gentle.
Whatever you’re going through, do your best not to judge yourself or punish yourself with guilt and shame. Harshness layers suffering on top of the terror of not knowing what to do. Your ability to be gentle and compassionate with yourself will actually increase the likelihood of a shorter stint in the Valley of the Unknown.
In the Valley, our tendency is to contract. We contract in our bodies and our thoughts go to fear and scarcity. I’m not enough, and there’s not enough money/resources/love/time. We go to these places because we fundamentally do not trust. Trust is a hard one, because it involves some form of faith. Allow yourself to feel the fear and also root yourself in something beyond yourself.
Whether you call it God, the Universe, or Allah is not important. Rooting in something greater can actually be a powerful internal navigation system that helps you better tolerate the unknown.
When I find myself in the Valley, prayer helps keep me sane and releases me from having to “figure it out” when I haven’t gathered all the internal information yet. You can try your own variation on the following:
I put my faith and trust in your plan for me, as you know better than I do what I need in order to purify and know my own soul. Give me the strength to feel what I need to feel and hold me gently. I ask to recognize and open to your guidance in this time of unknown.
5. Focus on Desire.
Desire can be another powerful internal navigation system. Start by breathing into your lower abdomen and come up with 5 core desired feelings you want to feel in your life on a consistent basis.
Is it freedom? Connection Independence? Joy? Take your time making your list. When you have your five, place them where they are visible. Anything you do in your life, from what you eat to who you hang out with (as well as bigger life decisions) should ultimately feed into one or more of these feelings.
Let things come to you naturally instead of being a forcing current. Trust that the next aligned move will come to you organically via an impulse that feels healthy and exciting. Pay attention to your longing and allow yourself to move toward it in small, incremental ways, if necessary. There is no race here, just your process, and ultimately, your blossoming into something new.
Isha Vela, Phd - www.embodiedquest.com
Life is filled with many choices.
Some are relatively easy to make like what to where, your favorite color, or what you want to eat for dinner (okay, maybe that last one isn’t so easy). Some choices, those life changing choices, are more difficult.
Choices like what you want to be when your grow up, who you want to marry, what job to take, or where to live. These harder topics require you to make a choice based on more than just personal preferences and gut feelings.
For some, making a pros and cons list is enough to find the answer.
However, at times you might feel backed into a corner, at a dead end or crossroads, or feel like your path is leading you nowhere. Pros and cons are not merely enough.
When preferences, facts, and gut feelings fail us in the decision making process, it's important to turn to our values.
Values are what we hold important in life that inform our principles or standards of living and guide our behavior. Values include ideas such a freedom, autonomy, justice, kindness, success, family time, fostering relationships, etc. When faced with difficult choices it is helpful to examine what you hold dear; that is, what is really important to you and your life.
Each individual will have different values with different levels of importance.
Asking the opinions of others may seem helpful, but as each person holds different values they will arrive at different answers. Therefore, look inward at what is truly important to you.
Once you have named your values, arrange your them into a hierarchy, with the most important at the top of the list. Finally, apply each value to your unique situation.
Naturally, the one at the top will hold more weight but the others are also important. There is no right way to make a decision based on your values. For example, one choice may align with your highest value but another may incorporate more values. You must weigh the options against what is best for your life, or how you wish to live your life.
Values are an important component in developing a philosophy of life.
Without knowing it, we all develop our own unique philosophy of living. A philosophy of life gives us guidance on how best to live the one precious life we have. It is a mixture of how (values) and what (a goal). Ask yourself, “what is my goal in life? What do I want out of life?”
Life goals might include: a connected family, financial stability, success at work, to be a good person, or to help people, to name a few.
Once you have this answer, ask yourself, “Which value-informed choice will get me closer to this goal?”
The answer on which path to choose becomes apparent by following your values toward an overriding life goal. A well developed philosophy of life can guide your way through any difficult situation.
Heather Gillam, MS, NCC, LMFTA - www.sisulumicounseling.com