A few years ago, I found myself at a crossroads. I was recovering from a years–long depression, and was overwhelmed with anxiety as I tried to put my life back together. I was afraid I would lose my job—or at least I should’ve been—because I wasn’t able to focus on anything except the existential terror I felt.
One day I was feeling particularly distressed, so I left my cubicle on the sixth floor and went down to the main entrance of my office building, near the welcome desk. I went through two sets of doors, felt the warm outdoor air hit my body, took a few steps, and nearly collapsed. I felt weak and unsteady, as if my knees would buckle at any moment. I had no idea what was wrong with me. I had never felt anything like this before. I steadied myself against the archway supports that ran between our two buildings, and slowly recovered my senses and motor control. After a few minutes, I was all right and able to return to my normal level of freak–out again.
I can’t say if I had a mini panic attack, or if I just came within a hair’s breadth of fainting, but either way, it scared me. And this was just the most acute of a cacophany of inner alarm bells signaling that I needed something to change. I desperately wanted to quit my job. I dreamed of drafting my resignation letter. Not necessarily because I hated my job, but to get away from the awful gnawing I felt. I would do almost anything to make the incessant, nauseating fear go away.
Over time, and with therapy, I worked through my issues. Things got better. I could go to work without wanting to run away. I could write software again. I started making progress toward a life that felt worth living. Part of making that progress, though, was realizing—again and again—that my job wasn’t something I was passionate about any longer. I had loved writing software and exploring technology in high school and most of college, but I lost interest over time as I discovered new pursuits that aligned better with my deepest values.
I pursued career counseling, and later, therapy that was explicitly focused on making a career change. Although I was no longer a constant ball of anxiety, I still wrung my hands a lot over what to do with my life. I was concerned about going nowhere fast, and worried that I would stay stuck forever, in a career I no longer found fulfilling.
During my year of career–focused therapy, Dr. K and I dealt with my anxiety around the decision of what path to take. She encouraged me to stop thinking about the decision, and take action instead. I had homework assignments: research three graduate school programs and report back on admission requirements, the reputation of each school, what I liked about the coursework, etc. Funnily enough, it helped. I could no longer just sit and stew in my anxiety about what to do. I had to go out and get more information. I had to research until the doubt started to dissipate.
Eventually I realized graduate school wasn’t where I wanted to be, and in fact, my software development gig had its upsides. I made great money and could afford an apartment downtown, worked with awesome people, and had plenty of time to puruse my interests and socialize. Date, even. The less I struggled with the What am I passionate about? What do I want to do? questions, the happier and more content I felt. Over time, I realized that yes, I still wanted to change my career, but that my task was to explore alternatives and let things unfold naturally.
One day I woke up and realized I had dropped the struggle. The inner war I had been waging with myself about what to do next was clearly pointless. I had been driving myself crazy for no reason. It wasn’t that I needed my circumstances to change to be happy; I only needed to accept that life is full of uncertainty, and yes, I have no idea what to do. Now be free and enjoy life. Enjoy these moments that are slipping by right now, and stop struggling so damn much.
I didn’t stop taking action to achieve my dreams (or hell, figure out what my dreams might be). The words I’m typing right now are me achieving, or at least working towards, my dreams. But anxiety is no longer in the driver’s seat. I don’t go around wailing about the fact that I have no fucking clue what I’m doing with my life. I just get on with exploring and creating and doing whatever I can find to do, whatever makes sense and feels right, and has a chance of success.
I still have a day job. In fact, it’s the same one I had through years of depression and anxiety. The surprising part is that I enjoy my job more now, after ending my war with it, than I ever did before. I also appreciate it more. It enables me to do so many great things with my life. But none of that would have been possible without dropping the struggle.
Maybe you’re marshalling some armies of your own right now, engaging in a battle against yourself, where only you can lose. I invite you to drop the struggle. Make peace in your mind, with yourself. Learn to embrace life’s uncertainties, and the beauty of what’s right in front of your nose. You never know what you might discover.