Counseling Tales : Indecision, self-doubt, Fear
We in the north India have some funny stereotypes about South! May or may not be true but we love them. One such stereotype is that people from south are very intelligent. Of course it may not reflect in their politics! That is a different matter!
Anyway. So I was not at all surprised when I exchanged emails with Vijayan, a young man from Madurai, and discovered that he was very articulate, sensitive, intelligent and of course, a stammerer.
He did not drop off after a few emails. He continued being in touch. He had a few questions about career and life in general. He faced enormous difficulties in taking decisions- any decision, even what to have for breakfast or which movie to watch! Sometime he would simply give up and start doing something else. I kept responding to his questions as best as I could.
As a social worker I did have some understanding of various career paths since I had worked with all kind of professionals in voluntary sector- lawyers (human rights, Intellectual property rights etc.), engineers (low cost housing, solar, watershed etc.), managers (HR, Finance), gender “experts” etc.
Vijayan had done B. Tech in non-conventional energy resources. His other friends got picked up by reputed companies during campus interviews. The kind of company he wanted to work for – those working in solar sector, were few at the time and never came to his campus. He kept hesitating about applying to these few companies. He felt that may be he should have a post graduate training abroad, in this upcoming sector.
Then, of course, he as the only child, was worried about his parents. He also felt pressured by his friends who had often commented: With all your intelligence, we expect something good and different from you!
Considering that his parents will soon require support, I suggested that he should attempt PCS exams for the state level administrative job. He would be nearer his parents and chances of success were high. But he responded brusquely: if I lower my vision, I will lose my respect for myself. I must aim at IAS. What do you think: shall I give myself one more dedicated year to crack IAS?
He had already tried it once with no results. There is too much competition. Everyone, including doctors, engineers and commerce graduates are in the IAS race at present.
He further continued: But if I don’t crack it, I will be over-age for other government jobs.. Also, if I must go to USA for specialization in urban planning, I must apply for scholarship now.. I wonder, how my parents would react if I did go to USA.. My best friends who are in MNCs, I wonder how would they feel..
After some more thought, he said: Even if I come back with a degree in Urban planning, I will feel like a cheat, working in Chennai Municipal corporation for the rest of my life. I will feel like someone who turned his back on his dreams…
I could feel a note of panic behind his words. He was analysing things too much. I do not know about his friends, but I did interact with his parents a few times and I got the feeling that they had no problem with his plans, as long as he was happy. But he was he happy? Ever? NO. He had self-doubts, confusion and above all, he was suffering from “paralysis by analysis”. He often picked up pen and paper to do mind-maps but invariably came up with more cons, more things that could go wrong. And then he would give up the whole exercise and retract in a shell of indifference.
We continued exchanging emails and calls. He had now started sending me excel sheets: sort of self assessment against weekly targets. These reports often ended in apologetic lines: I am sorry. I will do better in my next report.
The picture I was getting of him was: A man with a very sensitive mind, tortured by his own judgements and fears. I had read somewhere, that intelligent people are very sensitive people. Being very sensitive they “see” and “hear” things which others cant – hallucinations, delusions. Also, they evolve their own ways of dealing with their fears- postponing decisions, disconnecting with “reality”, excessive analysis leading to NO action at all, etc. They may come up with new inventions but will shy away from talking about it because of their fear of social rejection. Shy Introvert inventor, mad scientist – all these popular images had some substance to them.
Since I myself was not blessed with such intelligence and creativity, I kept urging him to come down to practical plane of day to day decisions. I hoped that he would soon have a suitable job, which will help him fulfil his dreams at a later point in life. But he continued discussing pros and cons of PG studies abroad, IAS exams, A simple IT job, starting a coaching institute etc. I continued to give him patient hearing and responding to his long emails. I kept urging him to take the first practical step, whatever it was, to get out of this “paralysis by analysis” mindset. But to no avail!
Couple of years passed in this kind of indecision and self doubt. He did get into a poor (according to him) job under state services in Tamilnadu. Now his emails were full of complaints against the “meaningless red-tape” prevalent in his department. A sensitive mind, which can find much joy in a sunset, was now super-busy finding fault with the government job. If you make up your mind to be unhappy, world will happily offer you a thousand excuses. Anyway, our email exchange continued.
Last week, I got an email from him: I have resigned and finally am going to USA! I congratulated him and kept thinking: should I be happy for him? Or should I mourn the three precious years he took to reach this simple decision? And the painful journey to this decision?
Finally, I realised that Life is supposed to be an exploration, not an efficient algorithm to give us quickly what we want. Where life is concerned- the shortest path from A to C, may not be via B. It may be via other alphabets, including X Y Z! Although for some of us, who are not blessed (or burdened) with huge Intelligence and sensitivity like Vijayan, life may be simple and quick, with all the steps easily predicted, like a well scripted drama. But even Vijayan, I am sure, will find happiness in his complicated life. Life is messy and if we are willing to tolerate a little uncertainty, this mess can teach us a lot. We can find even happiness and great fulfilment in this very mess.
My own life had been an unmitigated mess and when I opened up with Vijayan and talked about my own experiences, I discovered that my story, broken and chaotic as it was, made more sense to him, than all the bookish wisdom I was offering to him as a counselor. It was perhaps because, he could see that my imperfect life had offered me some meaning at satisfaction finally. He could certainly hope for the same. Or even better.
The final note on which we parted was: Indecision, self doubt, fear – all this and more are experienced by everyone, even great minds, but we don’t have to wait for them to subside totally before we act. With all this, we must take the first tentative step and then the fear flies away. A new world of possibilities opens up. This is why a psychologist said: Feel the fear and do it anyway (Susan Jeffers)