It’s been a whole month since I preached about there being no wrong answers in the context of debatable life decisions, and I still agree with myself (a feat!). As a wise commenter named Emily pointed out, if you can make a strong case for two paths, both are likely solid options. There is just one small snag in the logic of ditching a belabored pro/con list in favor of listening to your gut: Hearing your gut can be even harder than listening to it.
I’ve probably inundated my poor malleable brain with too many advice columns and inspirational podcasts and “lists of things I wish I knew when I was young,” because sometimes I can’t tell the difference between “my truth” and some quote I jotted down from a TED talk. Belaboring the answer as to what I really want feels somewhat central to who I am. Isn’t it always clearer in hindsight? I think anyone who says otherwise is lying.
Over the years though, I’ve picked up a mental trick to draw closer to the answer. It invokes a seedy part of my psyche, but it’s proved relatively foolproof as long as I stick to the rules. I imagine that another version of myself exists — maybe a twin sister or perhaps just a life-long best friend — and then I visualize what decision she could make that would shake me to my core with envy.
When I lived in San Francisco, it would have been if she quit her job and moved to New York. More recently, it would have been if she decided to move in by herself instead of with her boyfriend. Next year, it might be if she decides to write a book or join the Peace Corps or get a pixie cut. Who knows? This approach first occurred to me when a friend left a relationship for the same reasons I knew I needed to leave my relationship. It was one of my first alarm bells.
It can be hard to see outside your own situation. The twin trick creates the illusion of objectivity. In the same way it’s easier to pinpoint another person’s bad decision — to stay in a bad relationship, to run away from a problem, to accept the wrong job — than it is my own, it’s also easier to pinpoint another person’s good decision, especially if it makes me second-guess my own.
Envy is a very human emotion. In the real world, it can distract, bruise and drag, but in the hypothetical world, it can be harnessed as a tool to unearth deeper truths about what you want. That doesn’t mean self-knowledge always begets results, but in the face of a tough life decision, manufactured envy can help you sort through the mess of emotions parading as your “gut,” so that you can actually try to follow it.
Has something like this ever worked for you? What trick do you use for figuring out who the hell you really are? Is it as insidious as mine?
Collage via Getty Images.