Faith, Fear, & the Five-Year Plan: Re-Examining the Notion of Staying “On Track”

Faith, Fear, & the Five-Year Plan: Re-Examining the Notion of Staying "On Track" | My default approach to new opportunities tends to be fear and trepidation rather than excitement and curiosity. In today's post I explore why--as well as what this mindset says about my faith (or lack thereof) and desire for control.

The highlights of this past Thanksgiving were many: delicious food, Christmas shopping, more food, Christmas crafting, even more food, a family Mannequin Challenge–and did I mention that we had a few things to eat? Perhaps my favorite part, though, was getting to catch up with loved ones, many of whom I don’t get to see very often. It can be challenging to carry on a conversation in a group as large as ours–we totaled around 45 people, even with over a dozen family members unable to attend–but once the meal was over and the younger children ran off to play, the adults gradually broke off into smaller groups, and the real discussions began.

During one such conversation, the topic of my blog came up. As one of my relatives opened up about her own experiences with anxiety as a younger woman, she made a statement that really resonated with me:

“I used to approach everything with such fear and trepidation.”

Fear and trepidation–what a simple, succinct way to sum up my own default reaction to new opportunities and experiences. Fear, a word that makes me think of running away, of hiding. And trepidation, a word that brings to mind tip-toeing, whispering, constantly doubting.

All of this begged the question: Why do I tend to approach life in this way? Sure, I may just naturally be on the cautious side and sure, I’ve experienced some tough times. But overall, my past really doesn’t warrant the darkness and gloom that I so often cast on my anticipated future. So why is this my response?

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You’d think my life was a horror movie, given how I tend to tiptoe up to new situations and jump at every unfamiliar sound.

At first, I reasoned that perhaps I tend to expect the worst so that I’m never disappointed, so that situations always either meet or exceed my expectations. But this explanation didn’t quite fit. I’m not a cynic; on the contrary, I tend to be an idealist. Even amidst the pain and brokenness of the world, I see how beautiful things could be–how beautiful things were meant to be–and feel called to make that vision a reality. Sure, I’m often disappointed along the way, but my light hasn’t been totally snuffed out yet. So I don’t think my fear and trepidation come from a place of inherent negativity.

Then I thought that maybe I approach everything with caution because I simply like to be prepared. After all, I adore plans and lists and lists of plans and plans to make more lists. I practically carry an entire Walgreens store in my purse just in case I–or anyone in the vicinity–need a Bandaid or a cough drop or a Tylenol or a snack or some cash or a library card or an expired coupon for hummus. I recently had a phone interview for a job and wore a nice outfit just in case the interviewer changed her mind at the last minute and asked to do a Skype call instead.

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I also Googled “How to answer the phone for a job interview” right beforehand just in case my mind went blank and I forgot how to, you know, people and stuff.

But, I wondered, if I truly like to be prepared for everything, then why do I only brace myself for the bad stuff? Why do I never try to anticipate what might happen if things go well? If I succeed? If I actually make a difference or a new friend or a recipe that looks just like the photo on Pinterest? What then? I don’t know, because I’ve never actually thought about it.

Just ask my family members and friends–for the first few years months that my boyfriend and I were dating, I felt excited, sure, but also totally freaking confused because I had never actually imagined myself being in a relationship. After my comedy-sketch-worthy dating life in high school and college, I had adopted this mindset in order to prepare myself for the very real possibility that I remained single indefinitely. I had even begun to feel kind of okay about it! So when the potential for a relationship seemingly dropped out of the sky, I kinda panicked. Wait! I’m not ready for this! I don’t even know what to wear on a second date, let alone how to be someone’s girlfriend! I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Sometimes I still can’t.

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When I finally stepped down from my role as the Mayor of Friend Zone City, I was wholly unprepared. What is this “dating” of which you speak, and where can I find the instruction manual?

So the preparation hypothesis didn’t quite hold up, either. I thought about it for a few more days, and I think the answer finally came to me as I was driving to church last Sunday.

My default approach to new situations and opportunities tends to be fear and trepidation because I’m constantly scared of making a mistake that will lead me off track from where I’m “supposed” to be. I worry that because of my own failures or poorly informed decisions, I won’t get the job I’m “supposed” to get, live in the place where I’m “supposed” to live, meet the people I’m “supposed” to meet, and have the experiences I’m “supposed” to have, and as a result, I won’t end up as the person I’m “supposed” to be. It’s like FOMO on an existential scale. And to make matters worse, I tend to view my past as a series of detours and missteps that have only served to postpone my arrival at some elusive destiny, which further fuels my anxiety about making these types of mistakes in the future.  

As I mulled over my newly discovered fear of somehow screwing up my fate, I realized 1) how irrational these thoughts are and 2) how weak my faith is. For the record, I don’t actually believe that we are all just puppets on a string, enacting some pre-scripted drama as God sits back in the wings, taking notes on His Almighty Clipboard. I don’t believe that “everything happens for a reason,” especially in times of loss and tragedy. I do, however, believe that God can bring good even out of the worst circumstances, and that sometimes we do need to go through hard things in order to grow as individuals and better relate to those around us. Coping with my anxiety disorder, for example, has been more of a grueling trek along the Pacific Crest Trail (a la Reese Witherspoon in Wild) than a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park. But at the same time, I can identify a number of ways in which I’m better for the journey because of what I’ve learned along the way about life, love, and the freedom of vulnerability. And there will likely be even more good and beautiful things to come from these struggles in the future, some of which I may never fully realize.

So rather than label so many pieces of my past as detours from the “right” path, what if I viewed more of my experiences as important, even necessary, stops along the way? And rather than perceive my future as a laundry list of targets and deadlines to meet, what if chose to see it as a series of opportunities from which I can learn and grow–and who knows, maybe even find some unexpected joy? And what if I made peace with any mistakes, past or future, by knowing that God can still work with these decisions? That God can still work with me?

I will probably always be a planner and a list-maker to some extent. It’s part of what makes me who I am. My goal now is to jot these ideas with pencil, not carve them in stone, and know that if things don’t go according to my 5-day, 5-month, or 5-year plan, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it may actually be the beginning of something great.

P.S. This past week I had the privilege of publishing my first-ever guest post on one of my favorite blogs, Nina Kardia. If you’re striving to create a life and career that align with your passions, strengths, and grandest goals, then hop on over to Kamina’s awesome corner of the Internet and read the post here, my friend. (And when you’re done, be sure to follow Nina Kardia via e-mail, Twitter, Insta, Pinterest, etc., to infuse your inbox or newsfeed with a regular dose of wit, wisdom, and captivating honesty. You can thank me later!) 

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The Worst Thing to Tell Yourself When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned

The Worst Thing to Tell Yourself When Life Doesn't Go As Planned | None of us are completely in control, and it's important that our internal dialogue reflects this reality.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, things just really, really don’t go your way.

Sometimes it’s a relatively minor inconvenience–like when you’re attempting to navigate a new city and end up driving in circles and paying $14 to park for 23 minutes in a garage 4 miles from your destination. (Shout-out to Google Maps for that little adventure.) Or when you really need to make a phone call at 4:45 pm on a Friday, but your service provider is experiencing outages in your area and you’ll have to wait until Monday. Or when you douse yourself in bug spray for a quick walk with the dog and still end up getting bitten on your eyelid. Your eyelid

Sometimes it’s a moderately discouraging event—like when you receive an email indicating that you’re no longer being considered for a job that you were really excited about, or that the position you applied for was simply cancelled due to The Powers That Be. Or when you never hear back from the company at all and are left to assume you didn’t make the cut.

And sometimes it’s a rather life-shattering realization–like when it hits you that your 25th birthday is in a few weeks and you’re unemployed and living with your parents and getting really tired of explaining to everyone you encounter that yes, you’re trying your best to get a job and yes, you’ve tried X, Y, and Z strategy–and still watching the tiniest hint of judgement, skepticism, or just plain confusion flicker in their eyes. I’m an INFJ, yo. I have radar for the things people try to hide but inadvertently show anyway.

The past few weeks have been filled with these moments and more. On one hand, it’s been kind of emotionally draining, and on the other hand, I’ve had some great opportunities to reflect on what it means when things don’t go “my way” and how I can best respond.

For me, things not going “my way” is often a huge source of stress and frustration, especially when I feel that I did everything I could to plan and prepare for a particular situation. I find myself second-guessing everything, including my own capabilities and self-worth: Did I not actually prepare as well as I thought I did? What was I missing? Do I just really suck at life? Does this happen to other people, too? Will things always be this way for me? And on and on and on….

The more I think about why I typically respond this way, the more I realize that in today’s highly individualistic society, it’s so difficult to remember how many aspects of life are actually outside of our control. We love to think that we determine our destinies–if we dream it, we can do it, amirite? But while this type of sentiment may look nice on a motivational poster at the local gym, I think it’s a dangerous mindset if taken too far. It gives us a false sense of authority over a whole host of factors that aren’t really up to us, thus setting us up for disappointment and placing a lot of undue pressure on us to make sure that things turn out a certain way.

The stress and frustration of derailed plans, then, often stems more from a mismatch between our expectations and reality than from the nature of events and circumstances themselves. As a result, we can manage a lot of pain and anxiety by bringing ourselves back to reality. One thing that I have found incredibly helpful in this regard is repeating a mantra in my head– a word, phrase, or sentence that helps me reframe my thoughts. I first learned about mantras through yoga and have used them to regain focus when I become distracted during my practice. But I’ve found that mantras aren’t just good for yoga–they’re good for everyday life, too! And repeating one is something you can do anytime, anywhere when you’re in need of a reality check.

The key to a good mantra, then, is that it does indeed reflect reality. I used to rely on telling myself “I am in control” to calm down my racing mind when I was feeling powerless and stuck. But as you can probably imagine, instead of imparting peace and perspective, repeating this misleading statement over and over only served to feed my frustrations. It’s actually the worst.

Instead, my go-to mantra is now “I have a say.” This is a far more accurate and helpful statement, and to me, its meaning is twofold:

First, in spite of all the factors outside of my control, I always have a say in how I react to a situation. I can be positive or negative; I feel sorry for myself or I can figure out what I’ve learned and what I can do differently next time. I can become angry and bitter and act like the universe is out to get me, or I can acknowledge that crappy stuff happens to all of us, let myself stew over it for a few minutes, and then move on with my day.

Second–and here’s the kicker for a people-pleaser like me–I often have more say than I might think in the parameters of my situation–if I am brave, open-minded, and resourceful enough to actually exercise my volition. How many times have I invited unnecessary stress into my life by not voicing my needs or by always saying “yes”? How many times have I set myself up for feelings of failure and disappointment by approaching a situation with unrealistic expectations of myself or others? How many times have I practically welcomed frustration, inefficiency, and stagnation into my world by not exploring alternate ways of doing things when my usual method no longer serves me? So many times, y’all. So many times. In the wise words of P!nk, “I’m my own worst enemy.”

So today, no matter how many times I get lost, no matter how many job rejections I receive, and no matter how many quarter-life crises I experience, I will remind myself that I have a say. Not total control, but an important influence. And that’s a distinction worth remembering and repeating.

Do you have a word, phrase, or saying that helps you get through challenging situations? Share it in the comments below!

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals

Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals | Applying for jobs can be a frustrating and discouraging process, but it can also present a wonderful opportunity for reflection and self-discovery. Here's the best question I asked myself in order to clarify my life and career goals.

I’m currently looking for my first full-time job out of graduate school, and I’m beginning to understand what people mean when they talk about the difference between the “academic bubble” and the “real world.”

In school, you’re given a syllabus that clearly outlines what is expected of you. In most cases, if you adhere to the guidelines, submit your work on time, and generally try your best, your efforts will be rewarded. And if your work isn’t quite up to par, you can easily request feedback on what you need to do to improve. In the job search arena, on the other hand, you can follow every tip and trick out there for formatting your resume, you can pour your heart and soul into your cover letter, and you can spiff up your LinkedIn profile until you’ve reached “all-star” status–and you can still be met with total radio silence.

Bubble = popped.

Yet despite its many discouraging aspects, the job application process can also present a wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. I know that personally, it has prompted me to explore some of my greatest fears about the future and clarify many of my life and career aspirations.

About two months ago, a series of conversations with my therapist revealed how terrified I was of getting stuck in a job that I’m not passionate about, that offers little room for growth and creativity, that constantly drains my time and energy and compels me to live for nights, weekends, and those few precious vacation days each year. The reasons underlying these fears were numerous and complex, but a huge factor was that I simply didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it’s pretty hard to find something if you don’t know what you’re looking for. I love my field (public health), but it’s so broad and interdisciplinary that the career possibilities are almost endless. That’s awesome, of course, but also seriously overwhelming.

Once I realized this need for greater clarity, I took a break from the job apps and focused instead on research and exploration. After many hours of reading, listening to podcasts, journaling, conversing with trusted mentors, and taking a hard look at what I really have to offer the world based on my knowledge, skills, and experiences, I have arrived at a much clearer picture of what I want my career–and life–to look like. Within my broad field, I have discovered several niches that I believe make a truly good fit, and armed with this knowledge, I have begun applying for jobs once more.

Because the purpose of this blog is to detail a journey toward living a more vibrant and authentic life, and because I know that a lot of other students and recent grads are facing similar struggles, I’d like to share two key strategies that have helped me achieve greater clarity in my career goals.

Today I’ll discuss the first one: Asking the right questions.

It seems that one of the most common questions adults ask of young people is some variation of What do you want to be when you grow up? And I totally get it–it’s a reliable conversation starter that demonstrates interest in the individual’s personality and aspirations. I’ve posed this inquiry plenty of times myself, and always with good intentions. However, in attempting to discern my next steps, I have found this question to be unhelpful at best and downright counterproductive at worst.

We live in a world where lifelong careers with the same company or under the same job title are becoming increasingly rare, where many people study one subject in college and then end up working in an entirely different field, where technological advancements seem to create new positions–and render others totally obsolete–on a daily basis. Thus, asking young people what they’d like to “be” when they grow up encourages them to conceptualize their career path in a way that often doesn’t coincide with reality. There are exceptions, of course, but even relatively straightforward jobs can involve twists and turns–a teacher may decide to move into an administrative role, or a doctor may choose to start seeing fewer patients in favor of pursuing research. And personally, I recall hating this question as a teenager because it made me feel like, at the ripe old age of 15, I had to have the rest of my life figured out. Rather than knowing where I might want to start after college, I had to know what I wanted to “be” for the next 40+ years.

Instead, I have found it far more useful to reflect on what kinds of societal problems and questions most intrigue me. For example, I am fascinated by the fact that despite the plethora of health information available today, many people still do not adhere to basic recommendations for diet, physical activity, sleep, stress, alcohol and tobacco consumption, sun protection, food safety, and more. Identifying and addressing the reasons underlying this reality–including poor health literacy, a lack of access to necessary resources, competing priorities, or inaccurate perceptions of outcome severity and susceptibility–is literally the kind of thing that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning (public health nerd alert). It’s the place where my passions and the world’s needs collide, which has to mean something in terms of finding a career that’s flexible, fulfilling, and in demand.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the second key strategy I’ve used to clarify my career goals. Until then, I’d love to hear about your job search experiences (success stories and horror stories both welcome!) and thoughts on asking What do you want to be when you grow up?

The Metaphor of the Mountain: Overcoming the Fear of Discomfort

The Metaphor of the Mountain: Overcoming the Fear of Discomfort | My first hiking experience taught me a lot about the "mountains" we face in everyday life.

Recently, while visiting relatives in California, I was invited to accompany several family members on a Sunday morning hike along the coast. To a native of flat, land-locked Indiana like myself, this opportunity was highly appealing–at least in theory. In reality, though, I am afraid of heights and really out of shape (a winning combination!). So my mind flickered back and forth between visions of me 1) toppling off a cliff and taking an unintended dip in the Pacific and 2) being (quite literally) left in the dust by my loved ones. My cousin, an experienced hiker, reassured me that the trail wasn’t as narrow and risky as it looked (!) and that we could stop and rest whenever I needed to do so. Despite her encouraging words, though, I was preparing to decline the offer–until at the last minute, something made me change my mind. Maybe it was a profound moment of bravery, or maybe it was a sugar high from the donut I had just eaten for breakfast. Whatever it was, whether pastry or perseverance, I decided to give it a go.

We weren’t far up the path before I went into Deep Life Reflection Mode and realized that my reasons for hesitating had run far deeper than concerns about my safety or physical fitness level. As my legs burned and my heart pounded and the people and objects at sea level seemed to shrink beneath my feet, I realized that what I had truly dreaded was discomfort: the discomfort of feeling my body struggle to make the climb after so many months of inactivity, of appearing weak and slow in front of my fitter family members, of not knowing for sure what lie ahead on the trail and if I would be able to make it, of wishing things were different or maybe that I were different–stronger, braver, more adventurous–and most of all, of feeling all these things and, with no distractions at my disposal, actually having to face them.

And you know what? This ain’t a fairy tale, and all of these discomforts were, in fact, present during the hike. It hurt. I was slow. I didn’t know what to expect at any given moment. In between gasps for air, I thought about how my life right now is so different from the way I had envisioned it as a child, a teenager, and even a college student. And there was nothing to take my mind off it all–it was just me and the mountain. But I did it anyway. And at the top, I got to share the victory (and the amazing view) with wonderful people who didn’t think any less of me for being Poky McWinded. 

When I told my therapist about the experience, I remarked that I can now truly appreciate why mountains are so often used as metaphors, and she and I proceeded to dissect the wealth of symbolism inherent in my own rocky adventure. (It turns out that you can take the girl out of AP English class, but you can’t take the AP English class out of the girl.) We discussed the obstacles that I had overcome, both literally and figuratively, as well as the new perspective I gained at the summit, when everything that had once seemed big and insurmountable was suddenly much smaller. I then asked her for advice on how to better handle discomfort, whether physical, mental, or emotional, moving forward. My aversion to leaving my comfort zone was my own personal “mountain,” and although I thankfully hadn’t let it prevent me from joining in on the hike, I had let it rob me of plenty of experiences in the past. Was it possible, I wondered, to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable?

She replied that although none of us will probably ever reach a point where we enjoy or intentionally seek out unpleasant situations, there are steps we can take to reduce the amount of distress we experience when we inevitably face these circumstances. Although it may seem counterintuitive, one of these tactics is leaning into the discomfort rather than pushing it away and attempting to find a distraction. She encouraged me to “stay curious” and explore what my discomfort could be signaling (e.g., an unmet need), since unpleasant emotions are essentially just indicators that something is amiss. She also urged me to let go of any expectations associated with the discomfort. In other words, rather than anticipating the countless negative outcomes that could arise and creating unnecessary anxiety (one of my many talents!), I should instead focus on what I can control, i.e., my thoughts and actions in the present moment. 

Leaning into discomfort and letting go of expectations will no doubt be a lifelong journey, but I am thankful for this clarity regarding the first steps. Reflecting back on the hike in light of my therapist’s advice, I can now see that my discomfort was signaling a mix of self-consciousness, disappointment, and a desire for belonging and acceptance. I created unnecessary anxiety by assuming that I wouldn’t be up to the task, that I would be judged for it, and that somehow these things would diminish my worth. My goal now is to perform this mini-analysis in the moment, before I let anxiety speak too loudly and before I let fear talk me into playing it safe. And whenever I’m feeling discouraged, I can mentally return to that mountaintop, with a sunny valley on one side and the foggy Pacific on the other, and remember what I’m capable of, discomfort and all.