Is It a Chance to Grow, or a Hard ‘No’?
I say this all the time, and anyone who knows me well will recognize it: for me, there’s no worse feeling in the world than ‘stuck in a place I don’t want to be, with no way out.’
It’s why I hesitate to say ‘yes’ to new, unfamiliar things I haven’t vetted first.
It’s why I like to map out plans ahead of time, and mitigate the risk of getting caught off guard.
It’s why I absolutely hate feeling pressured to do something, when I can feel myself resisting it.
Like most people, I’ve also learned that venturing out into new, unfamiliar situations can be a great way to stretch and grow as a person. Being willing to step into the unknown, take some risks, and broaden your horizons can open important doors, and have a huge payoff.
But not every gamble pays off in the end. We know this. Because that’s the nature of a risky move - there are no guarantees.
So how do we know when it’s the right time to extend our boundaries, test our limits, and step outside our comfort zone – and when it’s better to stick with a firm ‘no, thanks’?
To really drive home how murky and grey these decisions can be – even with the benefit of hindsight! – I want to take you back to the 4th of July, 2015.
The Foo Fighters were kicking off their 20th anniversary tour with a hometown show at RFK stadium, and I was there with my fiancé (who loves him some Dave Grohl) plus his family – oh, and about 25,000 other people.
Being the type of person who experiences a certain level of anxiety in big crowds, and who hits sensory overload pretty easily, I knew going in that I’d be out of my comfort zone – at least, to some degree. But I opted in after some hesitation and shushed that whisper of doubt in the back of my mind, partially because this felt like the kind of thing I should want to do.
I went in mentally prepared for certain predictable aspects of a day-long festival in July – the heat, the crowds, loud music, and a headliner I knew and liked.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the extremes. And even now looking back, the most striking part of that day was how fully I experienced both the highs and the lows of that day.
When we walked into the stadium and settled into our seats early that afternoon, all I could hear, see, and feel was a wall of sound – and it quickly became clear there wouldn’t be any pauses or breaks between musical acts. That wall of sound would be there for the next ten hours.
My senses were immediately taxed, and my organs felt like they were vibrating. I couldn’t think about anything else besides OHMYGOD this is going to be the next 10 hours of my life, and there’s no escaping.
So, there were cons. Plus the unpredictability of crowds (not to mention the volumes of alcohol I imagined them all guzzling over the course of 10 hours) wasn’t helping. I was a little bit of a stress case.
But then, there were the pros! I eventually acclimated, and my senses (mostly) returned to their normal balance. I started breathing easier. It was a clear summer night with great people, and the show itself was just spectacular. We had a blast! We even ended up skipping the crowded metro ride home, and opted for a nice walk back to our apartment through a great part of the city.
The evening ended on such a high, more so than I expected. But does ending on a high negate the lows? When the day was over, the question of “would you do it again?” was a really hard one to answer. Even now, I’m not totally sure where I land.
You Don’t Have to Be Willing to Leap
There are so many decisions we’ve faced, and will face - in our careers, in our relationships, and in our lives - that present a risk, and ask us to decide how we feel about it. And making those calls can be particularly tough when you believe another person’s happiness hinges on your choice.
I think more often than not, the world would have us believe that if we pick the ‘bold’ choice, and nothing goes terribly wrong, it’s somehow automatically worth it. You probably grew a little (or a lot) or even learned something new about yourself. Maybe it’ll make for a really great story.
In the case of that 4th of July concert, several of those are true. I learned more about how I adapt to unexpected or extreme circumstances, and where my thresholds are. I generally feel good about my decision to bite the bullet and jump into an overwhelming experience, because it ended well. The stakes were relatively low.
But that’s not always the case.
Sometimes, saying “no” really is is the best way to honor your personal boundaries and protect your right to feel comfortable or safe.
It’s so easy to let your “shoulds” override your judgment, which is why we’ve all done it. We’ve begrudgingly agreed to something we don’t feel comfortable with, because we didn’t want to let someone else down. We’ve placed more value on ‘not rocking the boat’ than on doing the thing that our gut is yelling at us to do. We’ve done the thing we’re not ready to do, because “should” got in the way.
But “should” can be a bully.
The decision to knowingly step into a situation you know is outside your comfort zone isn’t inherently good or bad. There are always factors to consider, and you are the only person who can decide which path is best for you.
Sometimes you’ve gotta know your limits and respect yourself enough to honor them; other times, bold new experiences can be opportunities to grow and open your mind. But only you can decide which is which. Because when other people’s “shoulds” get to start calling the shots in your life, it becomes really difficult to see yourself in your choices, and to feel ownership of them.
For every personal choice you make, whether you decide it’s an opportunity to grow, or a hard ‘no’ – the choice has to be your own, if it’s going to feel right. Everyone else’s ‘shoulds’ don’t get a seat at the table.
I know all of this seems easier said than done – especially because we’re so used to the balancing act of trying to juggle everyone else’s feelings, expectations, and happiness while also trying to figure out what it is that we want for ourselves! But like most things, it gets easier with practice.
Try keeping these three little tricks in mind each time a new decision presents itself. It’s ok to feel stuck or confused, but keeping these in the back of your mind can help you start to make sense of that confusion with more practice.
A Few Tips For Making a Tough Choice, For When You Feel Extra Stuck
Understand and recognize your triggers. See if you can point to specific factors that have made you feel extra anxious/miserable/etc. in the past (i.e., huge rowdy crowds with no escape plan), and look for them in each possible scenario. Is your reaction to these triggers likely to change?
Look for patterns. Consider other times in the past when you’ve given similar options a chance, and honestly assess how those have gone. Ask yourself if there’s reason to believe this time would be any different.
Try the “flip a coin” technique. When all else fails, flip a coin. One of two things will happen: either a decision will be made for you, or you’ll feel a last-minute twinge of disappointment when the coin lands, and you’ll know how you feel.
Still struggling? Or just want some extra guidance? I’ve put together a list of 8 specific questions I come back to again and again when I’m struggling in this area.
Grab it the next time you’re feeling tired or dizzy from trying to manage everyone else’s feelings, expectations, and happiness while also trying to figure out what’s best for you. These are some of my favorite go-to questions for getting recentered, and making choices that feel aligned with what I want and need.
Now I’d love to hear: have you been wrestling with any tough decisions lately? How do you keep all those external ‘should's in the way? Leave a comment below and let me know!