Life choices are something we face every day. Our life course is full of large and small decisions. The choice for one study or another. Deciding that you only want to go through life or choose a relationship, and which one? Buying or renting a house? A child? Or two? Sometimes certain life paths are committed so often that it almost seems like you don’t have to choose. Even without religion or a close family, which gives direction, most lives go according to a fixed pattern. Choosing is easy because you are not aware that there is something to choose from. You can regret afterward. Or suppose you want something different or in a different order. Then suddenly you are on your own. What do you choose? How do you choose?
Making Important Life Choices?
Many large life choices, such as for a study, job or child, are taken surprisingly easy. Your parents recommend a specific study. You like the student city, you are looking for a job so you are applying for a job that catches your eye. You have a relationship, you are 30+ and so a child is in line with expectations. If you have a child (or two), then a house with a garden is very nice. And that’s how you roll from one life choice to the other. Almost without choosing. Because that’s how it goes. Or because you think that’s how it should be.
But what if things don’t go so naturally? If the study that you actually want to do, does it guarantee a job? Suppose you do not have a partner right now, but want a child nonetheless? What of the house of your dreams is too expensive to buy?
You Are Free to Choose
Nowadays, people are no longer so bound to what institutions think. Yet it is difficult to go your own way. You actually have the opportunity to change your life direction at any moment. To redesign your life or differently. The life choice is yours. But how do you know what you want? That is not that simple. You always make all your life choices based on information that cannot be complete – you cannot choose afterward. Only You make the choice while you are at the beginning or in the middle of something. So you must consciously start thinking about what you want or want. And why. From the why question (Why do I live?), How many questions arise automatically (How do I live my life?). Is it (only) a wish or is there also a will?
In order to be able to direct our lives, it is essential that we first realize, from a deep knowing, wanting and feeling, what it means to be human.
The certainties of human existence
Existential psychiatry distinguishes six preconditions that form the basis for human existence. We experience this as important and our position or our involvement determines our vision of life. From these certainties, we deal with every day and daily existence. The first four are formulated by Yalom (1988), the other two are an addition to that.
The inevitability of death and infinitude of ourselves and the people around us:
- The freedom and responsibility to shape our own lives
- Isolation and kinship (existential loneliness)
- Meaning in the absence of meaning or meaning in life
- Not knowing
The inevitability of death
Our attitude toward death is twofold. Of course, we know we’re dying, but at the same time we don’t know, we don’t feel it. If the awareness penetrates, the felt fear is so great that it can be paralyzing. That is not life. That is why we know but still, keep it far from us by denying death. This applies to our own death, but also to the death of our loved ones. The Stoics already advised us to regularly consider that everyone is mortal. That should prevent us from relying too much on ourselves and others. Death is a given. It makes no sense to worry about it. Whether you are dead or alive. And so it is of course.
In psychiatry it is assumed that we use two strategies to deal with our mortality: we believe in the peculiarity of ourselves and we believe that there will ultimately be a savior. These beliefs give us safety. The first from the inside, the second gives us a sense of protection. That someone watches over us and makes sure everything will be fine. Certainly when we are overwhelmed by our habits and the realization that life is not getting better. For example, when we fall ill or when we are suddenly fired during a dismissal round. The full awareness that our life ends with our death brings true wisdom. And that is an enrichment of life.
The freedom to shape our own lives
In principle, we are free to organize our lives the way we want. To be able to change something in our lives it is important that we realize that we are responsible. And that we ourselves have the power to give meaning to our lives. If we want to change anything, we will have to adjust or change our lives ourselves. We are thus the creator of our own existence, as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) said. In order to allow this awareness to penetrate, it is good to look at the here and now independently of the past or future.
What do we do now to shape our lives ourselves? If there are major problems that prevent people from taking responsibility for their own lives, schema therapy can be a solution. Schema therapy identifies the pitfalls (schedules) that determine your life and the way you maintain them by applying certain behavioral modes based on the experiences you have gained in your childhood. Modes are, for example, the detached protector, who rationally rationalizes everything away so that he or she cannot touch it, or the angry child, who immediately becomes angry as soon as he feels injured, passed over, ill-treated or otherwise hurt. In total there are 18 schemes and 4 different types of modes.
Isolation and kinship (existential loneliness)
In addition to existential loneliness, the realization that we must always live separately from the other, there are two more forms of isolation: interpersonal and intrapersonal isolation. We experience interpersonal isolation when we feel lonely or isolated when we lack intimate social contacts. There is intrapersonal isolation when there is a gap between, for example, emotion and the memory of the event that caused it. In extreme form, this can lead to multiple personalities.
People who cannot tolerate existential loneliness sometimes look for a solution in symbiosis, or fusion, with the other. Unfortunately, this does not lead to a stronger self, but only to weaker boundaries with the other. Otherwise, you cannot become one with the other. When people are in love, the boundaries with the other seem to disappear. The lonely ego is dissolved in a ‘we’. When you are in love you are only focused on each other, not on the world.
Actually, no matter how nice it may feel (or perhaps because of that) it is obsessive to be selfish and not to be “there.” That also means that there is actually no self-reflection on one’s own human existence because there is no self that can turn inward. Paradoxically, self-awareness is always accompanied by fear. The tragedy of human existence. Love, as opposed to falling in love, can form a bridge to others. Love is about the recognition and recognition of the other person to whom you give your love. It is a way of being, with which you not only underline the individuality of the other, but also the individuality of yourself. This fact can provide support to bear existential loneliness and therefore be very comforting.
Meaning in the absence of meaning or meaning in life
Life is inherently meaningless. This realization is important because you can or must give your life meaning and meaning. When we feel that our lives are meaningless and meaningless, we get confused and feel displaced. Separate from ourselves and the world around us. What does it all make sense? We want control, we are looking for guidance. So we look for the meaning of things. We are, as it were, programmed in such a way that we organize everything that happens. We make life a story, an adventure. “Coincidence does not exist,” we say. If we are not selected for a second job interview, the job would not have been so much fun anyway. We hide behind the phrase: ‘it should not have been that way’. And they still see a fixed intention in absolute randomness. While the sense of meaninglessness in itself instead of the need to control life can also mean that we dare to celebrate freedom. We can give meaning to our lives ourselves. Nothing is destined; nothing is fixed. We make our own lives. In addition, we will have to learn to tolerate a certain degree of uncertainty. This is essential when making life choices.
We exist through our body and can, therefore, experience life only from (the limits of) our body. We are bound by this and literally attack the other certainties.
Man is unable to fully comprehend and control his or her existence. This can lead to despair when you focus on not knowing and not being able to control your existence. At the same time, it can also give hope. If we knew everything, where would the fantasy, the surprise, the wish, the will go? There may be room for that.
The human condition
The first four mentioned data refer to four truths of existence. It is always about the dialectic between the self and the other, between control and letting go. Do you choose for autonomy or for becoming one with the other, do you want to separate yourself from the other or do you want to merge with the other? How do you contrast meaning with meaninglessness, how do you find certainty within all the uncertainties of existence? The latter two facts actually form the basis for the four truths of existence, namely: the limits of your body and the limitations of knowledge.
If you know that you are dying, that you have to give meaning and meaning to your life, that you are essentially alone and responsible for all your contacts with others, then you can consciously choose.
By entering into a conversation about these facts of human existence, you can shape your own life in a more authentic way. It forces you to make choices, without knowing what the consequences are. Also, it makes you seek and maintain valuable contacts with others, without losing touch with your own loneliness. Moreover, it is knowing that existence is meaningless and yet can give it meaning. And that you always experience all life within the limits of your body and that this fact requires acceptance before you can live your life in such a way that it becomes your life.
How do you choose?
In order to dare to make a conscious decision, it is important that you look for possible inner conflicts based on your investigating self-awareness. You hereby meet yourself and you are curious about what is going on inside of you. What is your wish? Or is there a wish behind the wish? Do you think you want a new job, but you actually seem to want to go in a different direction and therefore have to look for a new career? Do you want a child even though you don’t have a partner? Perhaps in the will of the child, it appears that the desire for a partner is hidden.
This process has at least three steps:
- Take responsibility
- Know your options
- You investigate your wishes and the resulting will
A wish is a will
Every action starts with the will to do something. For that, you have to have your wish clear. So it is very important to have a good focus. That way you literally get your wish sharp. That also means that you have to think carefully if it is your own wish or if you think it should be, or if it should be that way. You must be able to really feel your wish. You do that through inner listening (a principle noted and elaborated by Eugene Gendlin).
"Inner listening" means that you not only pay attention to your words, your language in which you make the wish.
But that you also pay attention to your body. How do you feel about it? Which physical sensations do you notice in yourself? You listen to yourself without judgment. With curiosity and respect, you give attention and words to your inner voice. What is the knot in your stomach? The empty feeling? The unrest in your chest? If you give space to everything that you experience internally when focusing or reflecting on your wish, you can really listen to yourself. This is how you learn to trust yourself. You bring feeling, knowing and wanting together. You form your wish from within yourself. This could be the wish that you thought you had or a new wish. Your body leads the way.
In this process, you also need to consider other options. What do you notice when you choose differently? In addition to getting your wish focused by focusing on it and listening internally, there is also a possibility to find out if you really want something. You can visualize your life choices. What do you think your life will look like if you choose one? What kind of image comes to mind when you do the other?
So to convert your wish into a will is necessary:
- listen inwardly
Then you may wonder if you really want it. Including everything that comes with it. Everything you know and what you don’t know (yet).
Let your unconscious participate
The thought process that is followed here is based on a high level of awareness and the active use of your brain. It is sometimes said that you have to let your unconscious choose. Dijksterhuis (2016) distinguishes three ways of choosing:
- the fast way,
- the unconscious way,
- the conscious way
The quick choice is without thinking, just do it. The unconscious way assumes that with an important choice it is better to sleep on it overnight to get your unconscious to work. If a choice still feels good, then it is the right choice. The conscious way involves a lot of thinking. Dijksterhuis seems to limit itself here to the rational decision, which you can solve by making lists of pluses and minuses, for and against your choice.
Research shows that there is much to be said for the unconscious way. But the purchase of a new car is different from the choice for a particular study and everything that comes with it. A combination might work. You consciously think about a life choice, but you will sleep on it for another night to see if you are still behind your choice. Or you start with the unconscious choice. Then deliberately works it out. Do you still agree and does it still feel good?
The common thread in your life
Help with your inner search
You can only undertake the inner search described here. Often this will work. Certainly, if you can also consult with friends. Other times you need more. Then you need someone who thinks along with you and watches. Then it is good to know that you can ask for help from a psychotherapist. Ultimately, this also involves taking responsibility. In order not to get stuck in the uncertainty of having to decide, but to dare to choose what you want.
What do you want?
If the will is strong enough, then this is the driving force towards a choice or change.
That does not mean that everything succeeds, but at least something happens. In the end, choosing always means losing. A choice for one means the loss of the other. But if you have thought about it carefully, if you feel that this is the right choice, then you need to know, feel and want to be in line. You can then at least tell yourself that you have made a conscious life choice with the information that you then had at your disposal.
Maybe you could have lived a different life. Of course, you could have lived a different life. But you lead your own life. You give meaning to your life in your way. On your terms, with your options. If you choose consciously, you can then let go of your non-choice. It is what it is. The choice you made gives direction, gives meaning. And values and experiences and events follow from that. And that makes your life unique. Life can be lived. Everyone does this in his or her own way. In the end, you are only human among people. That fact is humble and at the same time the most beautiful thing you can experience. It is what it is. And that is good.