Deciding When You’re Undecided

The older I get, the less my decisions feel like decisions and the more they feel like an uncovering and honoring of what I already know. I’m making the right moves when it feels like I’m returning to myself rather than becoming someone new.

I write a lot about my decision to withdraw from my Ph.D. program. That’s because it’s one of the most significant, life-altering decisions I’ve ever made.

And yet.

It didn’t feel much like a decision at all.

In my ideal world, I would have decided to stay and graduate. I would have found my rhythm, churned out publications and presentations, and wrote a groundbreaking dissertation. I was looking for every reason to override what I already knew in my gut for the comfort of remaining in place. I wanted to choose comfort over surrender. Certainty over uncertainty. Even though I was unhappy.

It wasn’t until I quieted my mind (doubts, what-ifs, pros-and-cons) and the outside noise (advice, suggestions, research) that my intuition finally had space to rise and make itself known. I firmly believe that everything we need to make a decision already lives inside of us. The problem isn’t knowing what to do; the problem is that we don’t trust ourselves.

To remedy this, I’ve starting giving my fear the floor. I sit with a pencil and paper and let all my anxieties, concerns, and self-doubts speak up. I acknowledge my fear and show it gratitude for just trying to keep me safe.

And then I let wisdom have a turn. For example, if my fear said: “What if you drop out and everyone thinks you’re not intelligent or hard-working and you can’t find a job?” then wisdom might say: “What if you withdraw and end up in a career that fulfills you?”

Another example is if fear said: “What if you move to a new city but it doesn’t meet your expectations and you end up lonely?” then wisdom might say: “What if you move and the city exceeds your expectations and you find the adventure and connection you crave?”

Both outcomes are equally possible. Not all fear is irrational; it might have some important points worth considering. But one thing I’ve learned is that making decisions from a place of fear does not work. With fear guiding us, we might think we have control, but it always leaves us broken-hearted, disillusioned, more anxious, unsatisfied, bored, lonely, or complacent. It either sends us straight into things that aren’t right for us or keeps us from the things that are.

This is not to say that our intuition always tells us what we want to hear. That inner voice, God, the universe—no matter what you call it—only promises to show you what you NEED, not necessarily what you want.

When I was a grad student at the University of Texas at Austin, I would walk past the famous tower on the way from class to my car every day. Engraved on the front of the tower reads: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. What I didn’t understand then is that first the truth will scare the living shit out of you. You’ll try to fight the truth, ignore it, or run from it. The truth might force you to admit wrongdoing, face your biggest fear, acknowledge failure, and run straight toward the unknown. And that’s precisely what it takes to become free.

The scariest part of the jump is the anticipatory walk to the ledge. After the jump, we revel in the exhilaration and courage it required of us. No, not every leap of faith leads to a soft landing. But I can’t think of a single one I’ve taken that wasn’t worth the scars sustained.

Do you know that feeling when you fall in love? It’s hard to put into words. I think it’s why artists, musicians, and writers spend their entire lives trying. The closest I’ve ever come to describing it is this:

It wasn’t a thought. It wasn’t a feeling. It was a landing. A homecoming. An unexpected knowing.

It didn’t seem like a peek into the future of what we would become. It seemed like a quiet, inner acceptance of what we already were. Perhaps what we had always been and would always be.

Love is a mysterious force because it doesn’t require logical decision-making skills. All it requires is the courage to jump without certainty of a soft landing.

So, how to decide when you’re undecided? Ask a different question if you want a new answer. Allow your fear to speak. Allow your wisdom to respond. Then take the prefrontal cortex out of it. Get still. Get quiet. Pay attention to your body. What does returning to yourself feel like?

I once heard Bob Goff say in a podcast interview: “We don’t need more information. What we need is a safer place to process the information we already have. Not being told what to do…but who we already are.”   

What’s the Difference Between Depression and Burnout?

I’m sitting at my desk on a Saturday trying to get work done. It’s November of 2019. But just like every day for the past three months, I can’t complete a single task. Just opening my email inbox has become painful. I have little to no motivation, energy, or joy.

When I describe this apathy and fatigue to a therapist, she says: “If we’re anxious for long enough, we’ll eventually become depressed.”

That must be itMaybe I’m depressedResearch shows that low to mild levels of anxiety can be normal and healthy; they keep us alert, safe, proactive, and productive. Manageable anxiety drives us to overcome challenges at work, propose effective solutions, and collaborate on shared goals.

But now my tank reads empty. I procrastinate on everything. I’m too tired to be anxious. Since anxiety no longer has a productive place to go, it disappears.

After a year of living this way, I decide to make a major career shift. I withdraw from my Ph.D. program. And for the first time, I have no concrete plans for the future. My sole focus becomes rediscovering what makes me happy. And then something amazing happens.

Healthy anxiety returns in the form of motivation. My passion to write and create is reignited. I’m inspired and excited about the future again. And from this excitement erupts a realization: I hadn’t been clinically depressed at all. I was burned out.

But what’s the difference? And why do we — including clinicians — often confuse the two?

What is depression?

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and impacts over 264 million people, according to the World Health Organization. Although depression can arise at any point in one’s lifetime (and more than once), it typically first occurs between ages 18–25.

Symptoms include depressed mood, anhedonia (i.e., diminished pleasure or interest in things), change in appetite, insomnia or hypersomnia, feeling worthless or guilty, fatigue, poor concentration, psychomotor agitation, and thoughts of suicide or death.

Although symptoms fall on a spectrum of severity like any clinical disorder, one must experience at least 5 symptoms for at least 2+ weeks to meet diagnostic criteria. Depression is pervasive; it makes it difficult for one to experience joy in nearly all areas of life for much (if not all) of the day on most days.

Some people can pinpoint exactly what they believe to be the cause of their depression such as a major life transition, stressful life event, or past abuse and trauma. It’s important to note that major depressive disorder is different from grief and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although these things can certainly coexist.

Others experience depression and have no idea why. This can lead to feelings of guilt. Maybe you’ve thought “I have everything I need. I shouldn’t feel this way” or “Others have it much worse than I do”. But discounting the reality of our mental health only worsens symptoms. There are often other factors at play beyond our control like genetics and biochemistry.

The good news is that depression is one of the most widely researched topics in mental health. It is also one of the most treatable. There are many scientifically validated interventions and strategies to improve daily functioning.

What can I do?

1. Self-employed strategies

In some cases, it’s possible to minimize or eradicate symptoms of depression through self-employed strategies.

Changes in diet have been shown to improve overall mood and alleviate depressive symptoms. Increasing one’s intake of selenium (e.g., Brazil nuts, whole grains), vitamin D (oily fish, eggs), Omega-3 fatty acids (e.g., flaxseed, walnuts), antioxidants (e.g., berries, vegetables), and protein (e.g., animal or plant-based like tofu, lentils, and chickpeas) can improve mood and sleep.

The benefits of exercise in treating depression are also well-established. For example, one study found that depressed adults who began walking for 20 to 40 minutes 3x per week for at least 6 weeks showed a significant reduction in symptoms compared to a group that did not exercise regularly.

If you’re not yet ready to consider psychotherapy or medication, implementing a healthier diet and regular exercise into your routine has shown significant benefits. Setting and accomplishing small goals is also helpful in alleviating depression.

2. Psychotherapy

None of these treatment approaches should be considered in isolation. Indeed, many doctors and clinicians recommend a combination of therapy, improved diet and exercise, and medication.

I’m a major advocate for the importance of therapy in treating mental health. Research shows that people who engage in therapy have better psychological outcomes compared to those who do not.

Although cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common modalities for treating depression and anxiety, there are additional approaches guiding therapeutic intervention.

No matter which approach works best for you and your therapist, the process is designed to be a collaborative effort to identify unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to your depression.

I’ve seen a handful of therapists throughout my lifetime and can personally attest to its immeasurable benefit to the quality of my life. No need to wait until you’re depressed either. There’s a reason we go to the doctor for check-ups, not just when we’re sick. It’s preventive. Here are some tips on beginning your search for a therapist.

3. Medication

Although there is still a stigma surrounding the use of medication in treating mental health, antidepressants can literally save lives. After consulting your doctor or psychotherapist, you may find it helpful, even imperative, to supplement treatment with an antidepressant. Others find their depression lifts over time without medication.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are among the most commonly prescribed medications worldwide. It’s always important to discuss potential side effects with your doctor and/or therapist. Since I am neither, this article won’t outline the pros and cons of antidepressant use. However, I encourage everyone to do their own research and advocate for their needs.

Ultimately, this decision should be between you and your healthcare professional(s). If you or someone you know is in crisis, here is the link to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

What is burnout?

The term “burnout” was first introduced in the 1940s but was not systematically analyzed until the 1970s by a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger.

Thanks to the research of psychologist Christina Maslach, three major clusters of burnout have since been identified.

1. Emotional and physical exhaustion

2. Cynicism and depersonalization (i.e., perception of observing oneself from outside one’s body)

3. Diminished sense of personal effectiveness

Other symptoms include fatigue, body aches, headaches, and gastrointestinal disorders. Cynicism may manifest through anger, frustration, or feelings of isolation. Changes in appetite and sleep may occur as well.

Unlike depression, burnout is not traditionally recognized as a medical diagnosis. Most countries, including the United States, describe burnout as an occupational condition. Indeed, this is a key difference; the cause of depression may be unclear or arise “out of the blue”, while burnout more clearly results from an occupational source or work stress.

One report argues the five main causes of burnout are: 1) unreasonable time pressure, 2) lack of managerial support, 3) lack of role clarity, 4) unmanageable workload, and 5) unfair treatment.

So, who is most likely to experience burnout?

Freudenberger (1974) argues it is primarily “the dedicated and the committed”. This is why those in the helping professions (e.g., physicians, nurses, social workers, counselors) are experience burnout at higher rates. These are roles marked by long hours and excessive demand of one’s energy, resources, and emotional capacity.

More women than men tend to experience burnout in their lifetime. Some studies suggest this is due to differences in work conditions; women make up more of the helping profession/human services job sector and have been shown to have, on average, less authority in the workplace.

My experience as a burned-out graduate student looked like cynicism, irritability, disillusionment, and dissatisfaction. I was emotionally exhausted and felt unable to focus on even the most mundane tasks. I had lost my sense of purpose, direction, and meaning in the work I was doing.

Of course, I didn’t attribute this to burnout at the time. I didn’t yet have the language for it. It seemed neither did my therapist.

What can I do?

Researcher and author Brené Brown shares she once heard a priest say: “If you don’t want to burn out, quit living like you’re on fire.”

We live in a culture that prioritizes hustle and productivity at the cost of employee or student wellbeing.

Unfortunately, because burnout is not considered a clinical mental health disorder like depression, it’s harder to obtain an accurate diagnosis and receive proper solutions.

When my exhaustion first arose, I thought the problem was me. I believed if I just pushed harder, worked more, and stuck it out things would magically improve. Or at least I would adjust to the pressure.

But I was wrong. Who wants apathy in place of misery? I wanted to feel alive again. So, after a year, instead of continuing to drown, I chose to get out of the water.

When I left the culture of academia, I regained my sense of clarity, purpose, and drive. I took my intellectual curiosity with me and utilized it in ways better suited to my values and goals.

It’s clear in retrospect that not only was I not the problem but neither was my burnout. The problem? A profession or work environment that doesn’t fit and leads to depletion.

Indeed, Freudenberger argued that since burnout is linked to undesirable job conditions, it should therefore be approached at an organizational level not just at an individual level. His suggestions include shorter working hours and more staff supervision, support, and training.

Quitting one’s job is not always the feasible — or even optimal — choice in many cases. There are other science-backed strategies to alleviate symptoms of burnout.

1. Prioritize self-care

This includes everything from improving our diet (i.e., meal planning over vending machine runs) and making time for exercise. We make time for things we prioritize. Those 20 minutes spent scrolling could be reallocated to a brisk walk outside the building. Five minutes of a lunch break could be spent practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, meditating or praying.

One thing I’ve started doing is tracking my daily activities in an Excel spreadsheet. In the evenings, I give the day an overall rating from -2, -1, 0, +1, +2. At the end of the month, I track how much time spent on which tasks were most likely to result in a higher rating for the day. Then I schedule my time accordingly.

2. Change your circumstances

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to put in a 2-week notice.

It starts with consideringwhich elements of my job are fixed, and which ones can I alter? Can you delegate certain tasks to others? What projects can you put on hold? Can you temporarily work from a new environment or at home? Sometimes implementing these changes requires advocating for your needs to a boss or supervisor. Don’t be afraid to do so. It will likely improve the quality of your work.

3. Seek support

One of the hardest parts of both depression and burnout is feeling like you’re in it alone. There can be shame wrapped up in our exhaustion, which inhibits us from reaching out for support.

Research shows that support systems help us better cope with stress and improve our motivation. Support can come from anywhere: friends, family, colleagues, or therapists. It can also provide us different but equally important things such as emotional support, comfort, advice, information, or a new perspective.

Much like depression, burnout leaves us feeling trapped and helpless. But we get to choose how we respond to our circumstances.

It’s important to a) name what we’re feeling, b) take steps to change/improve our circumstances where we can, and c) establish connections to those who can help in circumstances we cannot. Then we will be on the road to recovery.

If it feels like you’re drowning, look for a life raft nearby to catch your breath. And if that doesn’t help, it might be time to get out and swim in new waters as I did.

But That’s Not God

Like a lot of kids in the Midwest, I grew up going to church. My parents prayed over my younger brother and me every night before bed, read us stories from the Bible, and explained Jesus in a simplified way we could understand. This was a big part of my childhood, but it never felt like an overly religious household. And by all accounts, it wasn’t. There were no shame tactics, unattainable moral standards, or religious checklists to complete as the entry fee into Heaven. I didn’t have designated church dresses or know how to pray the rosary. All I knew is: God loves you. Jesus saved you. End of story.

The safest I ever felt was when my parents tucked me into bed and prayed for our health and safety. (When they closed their eyes, I usually looked up at the ceiling. I couldn’t be sure where God was hanging out since I couldn’t see him after all. I imagined Heaven must be something like Disney World in the sky).

“It’s in Jesus’ name we pray. We love you forever. Amen.”

For a child like I was—the timid, anxious kind—there is something magical and comforting about the existence of a supernatural being who’s looking out for you. Believing in God felt like believing in eternal safety and protection. This was indeed an appealing idea.

When my anxiety reached its peak in fourth grade, I’d excuse myself from class and scurry down the hallway to the bathroom. I sat in the middle stall and did the only thing I knew how to do to feel better: pray. And it worked. Every time. I learned when I asked God to show up, He did. Peace always arrived by the time I returned to the classroom.

As I got older, finding peace wouldn’t always be in the ways I expected or even wanted. I was no longer a worried child in a bathroom stall. I was becoming an adult who believed her ideas for the future were far better than whatever this God of Peace had in mind. My personal freedom was far too important to abandon in pursuit of a “religious identity” as I saw it. I was turned off by the so-called Bible thumpers on my college campus. They seemed self-righteous and judgmental and fun-sucking. Some were. Some weren’t. But who was I to judge their hangover-free Sunday mornings? We grew up in the same churches, didn’t we?

Just make me feel safe, God, that’s all I need from you right now. I got the rest covered.

And from the outside, it sure looked like I did. But on the inside, deep within my gut, I was restless and uncertain, never fully attaining the peace I so desperately craved. The general sense that “there has to be more than this” incessantly filled my mind. My prayers were full of requests and void of listening. I thought if I kept searching on my own I would eventually find “it”. Whatever “it” is. But all I ever found was a need to do more searching.

While I lived in Austin, this internal conflict became overwhelming. I began to operate from a social justice lens; the counselor-in-training part of me was acutely aware of the ways Christianity had wronged and shamed so many. I was increasingly disillusioned by what I saw as a religion that justified homophobia, misogyny, and other forms of oppression.

If Christians weren’t actively using division as a tactic, they were certainly silent when others were. Although I never abandoned my belief in the existence of God, the belief was undoubtedly strained. I stood on shaky ground, easily swayed by the slightest gust of doubt.

Frustration arose with the type of empty faith that runs on checklists, keeping score, and talking points without action. There were so many issues I couldn’t seem to reconcile. People close to me shared stories of being rejected by the Church and, subsequently, their own family for being gay. For being born how God created them. How could I defend an institution that used God as a veil to speak against equal human rights? How could they look at gay children and tell them we “love but don’t affirm you”? In no way could I picture Jesus treating people the way some religious leaders treated their congregations.

I noticed the many ways believers stayed silent so as not to rock the boat during instances of injustice. Very few of the Christians I knew were part of the conversations about racial discrimination in America. Why isn’t there more outrage at the police killings of unarmed Black men? Why aren’t there more people of color in our pews? How can we stand by politicians who spew hate, incite fear, and celebrate division while our pastors preach love and acceptance?

Why do religious leaders go on international mission trips but avoid addressing the poverty in their own cities? Why do so many pro-life advocates stay silent—and, in some cases, justify—when women and children who cross our southern border are separated and forced into detention camps? Why is the focus more on banning abortion than it is on the lives of the children who already struggle to survive in our communities? More on ensuring birth than ensuring equal access to contraceptives?

One afternoon, I’m sitting in a graduate school seminar. A classmate shares a story of overhearing a preacher angrily calling for damnation to hell for sexual sinners. Other classmates shake their heads, displaying a spectrum of anger and sadness.

“This is why Christianity is so dangerous,” someone says.

“It’s no wonder people don’t feel safe in churches,” another responds. “They’re full of outdated, discriminatory beliefs and practices.”

Before I can stop the words from exiting my mouth, I hear my own voice echo across the room. “But that’s not God.”

The room falls silent. I gulp, momentarily considering an exit strategy. Too late. Eyes are on me.

“That’s not God,” I repeat. “I know what it’s like to be frustrated—even outraged—by the Church as an institution. I know because I grew up in it. But thankfully, I had parents who encouraged me to ask hard questions. They were so confident that the answers would always point back to love and acceptance, not discrimination and fear. There were no shame or fear tactics. But I know that’s not universal, and it breaks my heart it’s not. It should be. Religion can be used for hate. But that’s because of hateful people. That’s not because of God.”

I’m met with some sympathetic looks. I don’t know where the words come from; I have no intention to speak up. But in this moment, it’s clear: I can’t base the validity of God’s existence on the actions (or inactions) of the people who claim to believe in God. That logic doesn’t add up. I’m spending so much time judging people who misread, misinterpret, and mistreat. But if I can find the Christians who don’t lead from love, surely I can find the ones who do. If my gut tells me what is wrong, surely it can also point to what is right. Instead of nodding along fervently at the criticisms of when Christians get it wrong, maybe I can look for the ways they are getting it right.

Political bias finds its way into our interpretation of God. None of us is an exception. Imperfect humans with imperfect agendas are destined to fail. And sometimes people even use religion to propel their own hateful ideologies. But that’s not a testament to God. That’s a testament to human bias, brokenness, and sometimes evil.

As I neared the end of graduate school, the ground on which I stood that had necessarily been shaken to its core began to solidify again. I understood that the true Jesus isn’t passive nor discriminatory. His life is defined by healing the hurt, sitting at the feet of the most marginalized and desecrated in society, and actively speaking out against all forms of injustice and evil. What breaks his heart should break mine. He cannot possibly side wholly with either conservatives or liberals. No party or belief structure has a monopoly on God; He transcends our broken, binary systems. He represents both unconditional love and restorative (not simply punitive) justice.

My heart inevitably softened for those who are well-intentioned but still get it wrong. If I want to receive grace when I slip up, I must learn how to give grace to others. If I’m calling for compassion for the oppressed, I must work toward compassion for the oppressor, whom too often has little to no awareness of the role they play in perpetuating shame. Although I may never find all the answers to all my questions (that’s why it’s called faith, after all), I did discover two that answer a lot of them.

Lead with love. Not doctrine.

Follow God. Not his followers.

This is not an easy pill to swallow. And it’s not a suggestion to sit back in silence and enable dangerous people to maintain power. If we listen well enough, God reveals to us when to act and when to be still. But fighting against blame and division with weapons of blame and division is not productive. As Audre Lorde so eloquently wrote, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We cannot simply hand our LGBTQ+ children a Bible after they share their stories of shame, rejection, and violence. We must listen. We cannot simply pray for racial healing as a hall pass out of tangible action. We must have hard conversations. The God I’ve come to know calls us to love even the ones with whom we vehemently disagree while standing up for what is right. Love is what is right. Always. I’d venture to say we all need more of it.

Building Bridges

Since I’m from Missouri and went to college in Texas, I’ve become accustomed to long solo road trips. I wanted to have my car over holiday and summer breaks, so I’d pack up the Tacoma and head 10 hours north a couple times a year. When I moved to Austin after graduation, I begrudgingly tacked on a couple more hours to the journey. If you can drive for 10 hours straight, what’s 12 right? 

Eventually my parents started spending more time at our house in South Carolina. Provided this would make the road trip distance home a whopping 1,00 miles and 15 hours from my new apartment in Houston, any sane person would buy a flight. But I recently adopted a Great Pyrenees, which means sanity took a backseat to my overwhelming need to be with this dog at all times. I’m not sure whose separation anxiety is worse. 

Anyway, it’s a couple weeks until Christmas amid the global pandemic of 2020 and I want to see my family. So completing this drive in one day seems like the only viable option. If you can drive for 12 hours straight, what’s 15 right?

I throw my suitcase in the truck bed and my polar bear in the backseat and hit the road. The first few and last few hours of the drive are in darkness. The route takes us along the southern coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama then through Georgia and finally to the finish line in South Carolina. This leaves plenty of time behind the wheel to get lost in thought between various podcast episodes. 

It’s still early in the trip, and I’m crossing the Horace Wilkinson Bridge into Baton Rouge as the orange light from the rising sun dances off the Mississippi River. It’s the tallest bridge in Louisiana and rises at what feels like a 45 degree angle. I pull down the visor to protect my eyes from the blinding light and grip the wheel.

I’ve had this one recurring dream for the last decade where I’m driving up a steep bridge over a body of water. The bridge is getting steeper and steeper until I’m driving almost vertically into the sky. I press down on the accelerator all the way, but it’s no match for this 90 degree angle. The car starts moving backward. I look behind me and the road has disappeared. There’s only water beneath me. The car continues stalling back, back, back until both the car and me inside it are free falling. That’s usually when I wake up. Heart pounding, fast breathing. 

So, it’s hard to ignore the real sight before me is eerily similar to this dream. But the sunrise is so beautiful that I forget to be afraid. And the clouds I’m driving toward are so peaceful that I forget to hold my breath. And the road beneath my tires is so sturdy that I forget to fear a free fall. And the river I’m crossing–the second-longest in North America and only one that would take me straight home to St. Louis–is so familiar that I forget to worry. And something dawns on me as clear as the dawn in my rearview mirrors: beauty only resides on the other side of fear. 

The rivers that divide us can be crossed only if we have the courage to build the bridge. We must travel the distance if we want to reach people, even if the journey is long and tiresome. But if we allow fear to impede us from crossing bridges into new territory, we’ll never have the life we were designed to live. A life of connection, celebration of differences, and recognition of equal humanity. Bridges are the ultimate connectors.

Too often we grow comfortable and complacent on our side of the river banks. We throw stones to the other side trying to get them to understand ours. Stones covered in facts or data, stones loaded with blame and name-calling, stones stained with self-righteousness. We don’t understand how the other side can’t understand ours and rush to join us.

Instead of throwing stones, why aren’t we building more bridges? Yes, it takes more effort and time and energy. But the rewards waiting on the other side of fear are too great to ignore. It doesn’t have to be to communities across the country. It can be a small bridge to the other side of town. Or the neighbor in our backyard. Or the person in our household we feel cut off from by an ocean’s worth distance. 

The first step in laying the foundation? Telling honest stories.

You’re more likely to tune me out if I start rattling off statistics about how many people worldwide suffer from anxiety. But if I tell you what it feels like to have a panic attack, the inability to get a good breath, the conviction that you’re going to die, you’re probably more compelled to listen. Maybe you can even relate. I stop becoming a statistic and start becoming a person. You’re more likely to hear me out if I tell you what it’s like loving someone addicted to alcohol than if I list off the criteria for alcohol use disorder.

The stone is the data used to persuade. The bridge is the story used to connect.

I’m not suggesting bridges–the way we connect to others–can’t also be made of research and scientific data. Plenty of them are. But it’s probably because the data are being used to tell a story, not win an argument. So the next time you find yourself sinking deeper into the mud on your side of the water, searching for stones, look for the nearest bridge instead. Look for connection. The view might just be so beautiful you’ll forget to be afraid.

The Antidote to Perfectionism-Based Excellence

When it comes to our professional lives, we all want to be taken seriously and be viewed as competent, efficient, and valuable to our team, colleagues, or company. This is a basic, universal human need.

But problems arise when you begin attaching our self-worth to your levels of competency and productivity. Sometimes it takes years before this is clear to you and those around you. 

For me? It took about 26 years and almost 3 degrees.

My self-worth was based on the quality of what I created, a strong work ethic, and “big” career goals. Specifically, these goals involved climbing the ladder of academic achievement by getting a Master’s degree and then pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology. 

There were plenty of respectable motivations for doing this; I wanted to teach at a university, mentor college students, and inform people through research. But for all the honorable motivations, there were plenty of inadequate ones to which I was consciously unaware.

I wanted to be viewed as highly intelligent and important, to be commended and rewarded for the quality of my work, and to feel that rush of pride when I told people what I did for a living. Mostly, I was afraid ofinadequacy and incompetence. 

 It was only after I left the doctoral program that I began to see how much these hidden, misguided motives were driving me. In fact, they drive many of us more than we know. 

The Negative Impacts of Perfectionism

Perfectionism shows up differently for different people. Perfectionists are often mistaken for just high-achievers, but there are critical distinctions. 

First, it leads to all-or-nothing thinking in which phrases like “never good enough” or “always procrastinating” are constantly echoing as self-criticisms in your head.

Perfectionists tend to be driven primarily by fear. Rather than a desire to achieve, you operate from a place of fear of failure. This fear is what propels you to achieve and obtain more and often leads to burn-out.

Perfectionism pushes you toward certain ambitions so that you can maintain a sense of worthiness. It leads you to believe you need more education or more expertise before you are credible enough.

As humans, we like to attach our identity to things we believe we can control. There is nothing fear loves more than convincing you that control is the key to life satisfaction. The irony is, of course, that we can never control outcomes.

There is wisdom in former NBA star Michael Jordan’s question, “Why would I think about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?” In other words, what is the point of worrying about failing at something you haven’t even tried yet?

But when you succumb to fear-based perfectionism, you stop paying attention to how you feel, what you want, and what makes you happy. When self-image takes precedence over creativity and joy, you allow perfectionism to triumph.

“You can’t stop here,” anxiety whispers.

“You must achieve more,” perfectionism adds.

And before you know it, some of your dreams no longer belong to you.

Another danger of perfectionism its sneaky, covert nature. It evolves into almost indiscernible forms; it is merely a form of anxiety dressed in fancy clothes, clipboard in hand, reprimanding you for not trying hard enough or producing enough.

Perfectionism disguises itself in big ambitions and pretends to be the superpower not the villain, like an unhealthy, codependent relationship with an addict whose drug of choice is constant approval.

It also tricks you into believing it’s valued in society. Unfortunately, in many ways, it is valued. At least on the surface. But the value of what you produce can be at the cost of your well-being, mental health, and relationships. In fact, research suggests that those higher in perfectionistic tendencies experience more anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation.

Some of the harmful beliefs we acquire over time are “I am worthy of respect only if I am smart” and “I am worthy of being taken seriously only if I consistently work hard”. These are dangerous lessons. They are lessons I am still unlearning.

The Antidote to Perfectionism

I’m sure you have a laundry list of reasons why you worry about failing or not meeting expectations (even the ones you set for yourself). I do too, most days.

But trust me when I say from experience: only in releasing the illusion of control do we find the freedom to be the most authentic version of ourselves.

You might be too busy asking “how do I want to be seen?” to stop and consider “how am I already best equipped to serve people?” It wasn’t until I withdrew from the Ph.D. program that I began to acknowledge the credentials and experience I already had.

When you are too focused on all the things you think you “should” do or “should” become, you miss out on finding what truly fulfills you.

Instead of frantically searching for purpose, what if you can find purpose in where you currently are? What skills do you already possess that you’re passionate about? What are you already qualified for? What would you do with your life if you believed that who you are right now is already enough?

Believing you are worthy without all the extra stuff like degrees, awards, resume lines, or job titles is the only way to move forward. This is a radical idea in our culture but, more importantly, it is our antidote to perfectionism.

26 Things I’ve Learned in 26 Years

1. Fear is never a good enough reason to do — or not do — anything.

It has taken 26 years of life experience to draw the conclusion: what we fear most rarely if ever, comes true. No amount of preparation can fully mitigate the risks of living the life we want. If fear of the unknown is the only reason I have for not doing something, then I better find some other reasons. 

2. The characteristics or hobbies that make you feel “weird” or “different” will end up being your superpowers.

As a child, I found solace from chronic anxiety through storytelling. It began by talking out loud to myself, making up stories, and playing different characters. Once I learned to write, these stories unfolded on paper. It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I began to see the skills/hobbies/passions that emerge in childhood are strengths to be shared, not aspects to be hidden. What makes you feel weird as a kid is usually what makes you admirable as an adult. 

3. You don’t always need to know where the path is going to know you’re on the right path.

There is something liberating about being present in the moment and surrendering control of the outcome. To quote Malcolm Gladwell, “Every option is open to you once you realize you can’t predict the future. It’s only our desire to predict the future that limits our choices.”

4. How to forgive others.

It’s easy to play the victim. Anyone can do that. But as Buddha taught, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Those who have wronged me rarely intended to cause harm, and ruminating on the ways I’ve been hurt only creates more pain. I feel physically and mentally lighter when I choose to forgive.

5. How to forgive myself.

One of the side effects of a life of hustling is an occasional lack of awareness of our impact on people. It’s important to take time to process and reflect on the ways we have unintentionally hurt others. Maybe these instances are romantic, platonic, racial, familial, or professional. Most of my interpersonal mistakes have been due to ignorance and selfishness, not malice. Although reflecting on mistakes makes me want to run and hide at first, diving deep into the places I’d rather avoid is the most meaningful experience. Self-awareness is the only way I can forgive myself for having hurt people.

6. When you show someone your vulnerabilities, they usually respond with empathy and vulnerability of their own.

I used to be afraid of vulnerability for the same reasons we all are: we can’t predict the outcome. What if telling the truth doesn’t go well? What if I’m rejected? What if I offend someone? Fair questions. But not good enough fears to avoid vulnerability. When I have chosen to be emotionally vulnerable with others, the responses are almost always full of compassion, gratitude, and reciprocal vulnerability. The key is to know your motivations for doing so. 

7. Writing is not only my passion but also my calling.

Sometimes we don’t view our passions as compatible with our career calling. I used to view my creative writing and storytelling as a side passion. Not to be shared. Not to be a profession. But my view has shifted because writing remains the one constant in my life. Now I understand that the thing I love to do most doesn’t have to be hidden behind the curtain. It can be front and center stage.

8. What it actually means to be brave.

Bravery is not an absence of fear. Bravery is showing up as your full self in the presence of intense fear. It is taking the leap despite every fiber in your body screaming to run back to safety. It is honoring yourself and your beliefs in the face of criticism and judgment. Bravery is honesty and authenticity.

9. How to listen to God’s voice.

You know that inner voice of guidance and wisdom? Some might call it your gut, the universe, the angel on your shoulder, or your intuition. I call it God. And when I’m lost and confused, it is the only voice I listen to. It is the only voice that is eternally reliable. I’ve learned to listen by silencing outside noise (including my own mental chatter) and make space for God to speak to me.

10. How to use my own voice.

I used to hesitate to speak up in class or meetings. But it’s better to speak up and have your idea shot down than to miss opportunities for your good ideas or thoughts to be heard. After learning how to advocate for what I want, stand up for what I believe in, offer an informed opinion, or admit a gap in knowledge, I’ve become more confident. I also recognize the importance of using my voice to amplify others’ voices who are being silenced.

11. The things that are most important in life.

It wasn’t until the 2020 pandemic that all of life’s distractions and interruptions were stripped away. I was left with only my relationships and my faith. And what I realized? Those two things are all I need to be fulfilled.

12. Life’s greatest rewards come from taking risks.

It might be a cliché, but life really does begin at the end of our comfort zone. For me, that has been delivering presentations to a couple of hundred people, interviewing for graduate programs and jobs, quitting graduate programs and jobs, sharing my poetry, and telling someone “I love you” first. Some risks feel smaller than others, but they all have the power to radically change us for the better.

13. How to rely on my emotions as much as — and sometimes more than — logic alone.

I became a master of compartmentalizing my feelings at a young age. I felt safer and more in control during conflicts when I didn’t engage in highly emotional reactions. But with any tactics we learn as children to function in our families, there are unintended consequences. Mine was a disconnect between what I thought and what I felt. I didn’t trust my emotional reactions; they felt primitive, unreliable, dramatic. I have since learned the importance of honoring and expressing my feelings. The best things in life — like falling in love — aren’t often logical anyways.

14. How blind I could be to my own motivations.

For a long time, I wanted to be a psychologist and professor. This dream wasn’t all for the wrong reasons by any means. I wanted to teach, mentor, help people, and work with college students. But for all the honorable motivations I had for pursuing a Ph.D., there were plenty of inadequate motivations too. I wanted to be viewed as highly intelligent and important, to be commended and rewarded for my work, and to feel that rush of pride when I told people what I did for a living. Mostly, I was afraid of inadequacy and incompetence. It was only after I left my doctoral program did I see these hidden, misguided motives clearly.

15. The importance of recording memories through journaling and photography.

I took my first international trip when I was 16 to Guatemala. Since then, I’ve visited many countries, and I always keep a journal of my adventures. Years later when I reread my journals or flip through the pictures, I’m reminded of many memories, experiences, and feelings that might have otherwise been forgotten.

16. Listening well is the best way to love well.

I used to wish I was more outgoing and talkative. But as my grandfather once said, “I find you learn a lot more by listening.” This is true. You also love others better when you listen. Most of the time people just want to be heard, not given advice.

17. God uses our hardships to get our attention.

For most of my life, I kept God at a distance, on a shelf where I could pull him down just when I needed him. But God doesn’t want to just be dusted off when it’s convenient for us. Would my best friend or boyfriend or parents be happy if I only engaged with them in the privacy of my home but mostly refused to be seen with them in the real world? God got my attention through a dark season of confusion and despair until I realized He needed to be front and center in my life. To me, this is the most compassionate, merciful way to get someone’s attention. We don’t think we need peace and salvation when we’re happy and coasting through life. We only recognize our need for saving when we feel like we’re drowning.

18. How to rely less on outside voices and advice.

Opinions and advice can be helpful. But they can also cloud our judgment. Too many contradicting opinions can confuse us. When choosing between what others think I should do and what my gut tells me to do, I’m choosing my gut every time. You are the only person who gets to live your life. 

19. Family dynamics have long-lasting impacts.

Who we learn to be as children to function in our families is who we become as adults in the real world. This is developmental psychology 101. Patterns of how we learn to respond to conflict early on, express (or don’t express) our emotions, and offer and accept love are not easily understood until we become aware of our family history and dynamics.

20. Changing your opinion or worldview upon new information is the best sign of intelligence and maturity.

As I get older, I become more aware of how tightly many adults are willing to hold onto their beliefs, even in the face of contradicting evidence. It’s as though a threat to one’s worldview is a threat to their character. But the people I respect most are willing to apologize, admit wrongdoing, and do better once they know better. I strive to be one of those people.

21. Traveling alone is empowering.

My first solo international travel experience occurred as a junior in college. I explored pockets of London by myself regularly and flew to several cities in the U.K. alone. It was exhilarating, slightly scary, and empowering. These experiences help us see just how capable and independent we are. 

22. You attract what you think you deserve.

When we don’t have our values straight, we settle for situations and people that don’t recognize our value. I’ve been in relationships before where I mistook pain for love. Only once I became content being on my own did I become more selective about how and with whom I spend my time.

23. One of the greatest gifts to give and receive is honest feedback.

Being nice doesn’t equal being kind. Trying to keep the peace by brushing over conflict is only harmful in the long-run. My master’s program in counseling taught me the immeasurable benefits of offering constructive feedback (strengths, areas of growth, etc.) as well as being open to receiving feedback.

24. Real love isn’t just finding someone who brings out the best you.

Young girls often have a fairytale conceptualization of romantic love. It comes from the movies we watch and stories we read. We grow up believing we must find a “soulmate” who will become our “other, better half” as if we were born half of a person. But I’ve learned that true love is a deliberate choice we make to share our already-full life with another person. True love is finding the person who helps you return to yourself when you’re at your worst. It isn’t just about picking the other up when they’re down, it’s holding them while they’re down. And then rising together.

25. Quitting doesn’t equal failure.

I used to think quitting meant an admission of failure, that you got things wrong, or that you couldn’t accomplish what you set out to do. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sometimes the most courageous and difficult choice we can make is the one to walk away.

26. Stillness moves us forward.

When faced with a difficult decision, my first inclination was always to research, make a pros-and-cons list, and seek advice. Sometimes these are helpful parts of the process, but ultimately you are the only person who can decide what you want. To establish inner peace and find my answer, I’ve learned to quiet my mind and sit still in silence for several minutes. I try not to think or weigh my options, rather I stay present in the moment. I strongly believe the answers we seek already live inside of us; it is simply up to us to stay still long enough to let it surface.