As a high school teacher, the end of the school year brings about a flurry of activities among which is writing graduation cards. If a senior gives me a graduation announcement/party invite, I will respond with a hand written note of congratulations. As I’ve had all the seniors back when they were mere freshmen, it generally includes a very genuine reflection on how far I’ve seen them come in four years, and how far I imagine they’ll go in four years more.
What it generally DOES NOT include is another very genuine reflection on how, having lived a little more life than they have, and knowing how those college years look in the rear view mirror of hindsight, very little is likely to play out how they imagine. While it’s easy to dream big and look forward to everything that’s waiting just outside those high school doors, the biggest things out there that shape all of our experiences in ways we can’t anticipate are chance, uncertainty, and change. And truth be told, even though I know those things now as an adult, I still don’t do great with uncertainty and change in my own life.
That’s not the kind of sentiment that resonates well in a congratulatory message, so I generally skip it. But in thinking about how we handle different seasons of our lives, and what kind of advice we should give to people (be them high school seniors, transitioning young adults, or anyone facing uncertainty) as they look to move confidently into an unknown future, I turned to my friend and return guest blogger Cece, LICSW. She offers great advice and insight into how to face the pressure of wanting and needing to KNOW NOW, as well as some strategies to think about as you face your future! Take it away Cece!
Ever been told by someone, “You’ll be fine! It’ll work out, it always does… ” and have a really difficult time believing it? How can some people seem so confident in the future, whereas others second-guess themselves into a tidal wave of panic? Not knowing if you’re making the right decisions and making a wrong turn in life can be crippling. You can make yourself sick running through the relentless list of “What if”’s. The bottom line is – nobody can actually predict the future, nor can we control what happens. We can only influence how our futures play out. You cannot control what bad things happen, but you can control how you respond to them: with resistance, denial, and anger, or with grace, flexibility, and acceptance. Keep in mind, all of this is easier said than done.
There’s a lot of pressure for high schoolers this time of year as graduation creeps closer, feeling the urgency to KNOW what to do with the rest of their lives NOW. A quick Google search will tell you that the average life expectancy these days is about 78; a high school senior is just shy of a quarter of the way through their life and yet feels these demands to lay out their 20 year plans immediately. “How am I supposed to know what I want to do…?” they ask, and the thing is, you’re not supposed to know – heck you hardly know who you are yet! Facing an unknown future is the jist of life as we know it – you never know what is going to happen and things are ALWAYS changing.
BUT… there is a part of you that doesn’t change much throughout your life, a part that has been shaped since the very beginning. This part guides you when you feel lost. This part screams when you’re not listening and behaving in a way that strays from it. This part has been influenced by those most important to you, be them parents, friends, partners, and mentors. This part weaves itself in and out of your life; always has, and always will. Any guesses? Some refer to this part as their soul. Some call it their conscience. This part is a value. A value is the theme of your life.
A form of therapy that applies perfectly here is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Here, there is a mentality of taking control of what we can to improve our outlook on ourselves and our lives, changing the way we relate to our thoughts and feelings, and strengthening the connection we have and live with our values. Every moment is a choice, or a “choice point” as ACT calls it, where we can choose to act in a way that brings us towards our values and goals, or away from our values and goals; the choice is YOURS.
Part of the future will always be unpredictable. Life will throw its curve balls, which we can relate to just another ‘choice point’, but we can CHOOSE to follow our valued path and stay grounded in the person we are and want to remain true to. If we live according to our values and stay true to our theme, not everything in our future is that unknown and scary. We can take back some of the power in doing this, feeling a bit more empowered and in control of our lives. Instead of worrying about what will happen and being afraid that it’s not what you had hoped for, take charge, take control, and take action in a way that does lead to the future that you want for yourself. The former is a more passive and observant approach to life, and the latter is more assertive and active; you choose your approach.
If you stay focused on your values, and stay on these train tracks, the stops will come up along the way. If you get off-track, and suddenly are following someone else’s rule book and lose sight of yourself, you will feel this in your gut; this is the sign that’s something’s not right for you, and you need to pay attention to this and determine what the best step is to get back on your tracks. You’ve forgotten to live accordingly to your own values, and instead have been doing what you feel like others would want you to do or have pushed you to do. Recenter on your True North and take the next step that’s in-line with your long-term values and goals.
Life is one giant relationship. More specifically, your life is a relationship between you and Everything Else, the collection of daily changes surrounding you that occur with time based on the people, places, and things you engage with. The unknown future is just one subpart of Everything Else. Just like in every relationship, you only have 50% of the control in making the changes you want and hope for in the relationship; the other person must hold up their end of the bargain and meet you halfway. In life, there are so many moving parts and most of them, you have no control over. Accepting that you have no say in that part, but only in what you do next, is key. You can choose how Everything Else affects you, whether it changes you, ruins your day, or just is. Your values, goals, and hopes are your anchors, keeping you grounded when Everything Else gets messy, wild, and unpredictable and just about knocks you off-balance. You can’t control that part, remember, but you can choose to stay focused on what matters most to you. The rest can be just background noise.
The future is abstract, untouchable, and infinite. The future is tomorrow, 5 years from now, and 30 years away. Expect change, and you will adjust better than if you hope and plan for things to always stay as they are. Keep your standards high, but lower your expectations, and watch as you become more patient, appreciative, and kind. High expectations are the root of all disappointment. Keep these in check, and you will triumph.
Open yourself up to the possibility that your life will likely not play out as you had planned it at age 18, and THAT’S OKAY! There’s no way you could have foreseen Everything Else and what changes were in the making. No matter what is on the horizon, stay focused on your values and live according to your core themes, and you’ll make it through successfully, whatever that means for you. The unknown future doesn’t have to be scary.
What value or values are you living according to? What are your themes in your life? Have you gotten off-track, or are you feeling content and at peace with where you are and where you’re heading? Take a minute and check where your True North is pointing.
Take care of yourself,