I recently took stock of all of the major decisions that I’ve made in my adult life. I looked at personal and professional decisions, including active and passive decisions. It is amazing what one will choose to contemplate when one really needs to be cleaning out the basement storage room, but I digress. Included on my list were the decisions to change the trajectory of my career (more than once), the choices to enter, stay in, or leave relationships, the decisions I made on behalf of my children, and more. I even listed a few seemingly smaller decisions like where to take a vacation. The challenge was to then break those decisions into two categories: were they fear-based decisions or were they growth-based decisions?
Let me step back for a moment and talk about what I mean by fear-based and growth-based decisions. I define them for myself like this:
- a fear-based decision is rooted in avoiding real or perceived catastrophe;
- a growth-based decision is rooted in expanding toward my passion and my purpose.
The concept is really fairly simple. Am I moving toward something or merely trying to avoid something? Could it be true that all decisions can be boiled down into one or the other? Without giving myself a chance to overthink it, I sat at my desk and quickly wrote “FEAR” or “GROWTH” beside each life decision. To my surprise, yes it is pretty easy to boil it down. Nearly every decision I’ve consciously or subconsciously made are unambiguously one or the other. I also discovered an uncomfortable truth: more of my decisions have been fear-based rather than growth-based.
In her podcast, Chiara Mazzucco shares eight ways to know you are making a fear-based decision. In my list, there were two recurring red flags that I recognized from Mazzucco’s podcast. First, too often I made a choice based on the notion of scarcity. The fear of not having enough. My post-divorce career decisions perfectly reflect that fear of scarcity. Prior to my divorce, choosing to return to graduate school in counseling was absolutely growth-based. It is where my purpose, passion and talent resided. Shortly after earning my Master’s degree in counseling, I divorced my husband of seventeen years. Enter fear, stage right. I was a newly single mother with three young children with a brand new career that paid very little while I was not fully licensed. In the midst of anxiety about the future, an opportunity opened up in non-profit management. It was a good job with a higher salary and still in an organization whose mission was important to me. The catch? It would require me to leave the counseling profession and step away from earning my licensure. I would be an administrator, not a provider. It was a good and an important job, but taking the job was a move away from my passion and purpose. I left a career I love out of fear of not having enough financial security had I stayed.
The second red flag that trends in my fear-based decision making seems like a paradox to the first red flag. Where the first was all about fear of not having enough, the second red flag is all about making choices that deep down we know is causing us to sacrifice too much. I call this “accepting the scraps from the table.” What does this look like? It might look like staying in a relationship or job that doesn’t meet our basic needs, or worse yet, even degrades our basic needs because we are convinced that something is better than nothing. The fear that is at play here is our fear of being unworthy. We convince ourselves–or we allow others to convince us– that we are undeserving of experiencing that bounty of having our needs met, so we settle for less.
I am here to tell you that nothing actually IS better than something. Why? Because it leaves us space to grow from the inside out. It is the extra space in the toe of our shoes and the extra cuff turned up in our pants at the beginning of each school year. Our mothers knew we had growing to do. That empty space that feels like “nothing” is actually a plot of really rich soil waiting for something new and delicious to be planted. It is only when we insist, out of fear, on planting those same pitiful seeds over and over again expecting a different harvest, that our plot of land dries up and cracks with bitterness and regret.
We can also judge our decision making based on where we find our locus of control. Our fear-based decisions are externally focused: What will keep ‘the bad thing’ from happening? Who in my life can I please with this decision so they won’t be mad/ disappointed/ want to leave/ fire me? In every single decision I made that was fear-based, I can look back and see that it took me farther away from my passions and purpose in life. Simply put, I was living someone else’s life.
Here’s the flip side. When I looked at my growth-based decisions that were internally focused…WOW! It made my spine tingle! While some of those choices were not easy and certainly not a guaranteed success, they made me feel ALIVE with passion and purpose. I was making intentional choices that brought me closer to who I really am; the choice reflected my authentic nature.
Last spring, I had a week’s vacation time to spend and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Newly single again, I considered staying home and, well, sulking. But I had an itch to do something more…something bigger…something I had never done: travel to Europe alone. I laughed it off almost as soon as it entered my mind. To travel alone could be scary or unsafe for a woman (fear), and potentially cost too much money (fear), or raise some judgmental eyebrows that were all around me (fear). To travel alone could also expand my tolerance to being solitary with my own thoughts (growth), or learn how to navigate hurdles without relying on anyone else (growth), or simply be able to craft my day based solely on what I felt the urge to do for the first time in countless years (growth). So I did it. I choose growth. And Barcelona. And Picasso. And tapas with wine. And crying intermittently along old and narrow streets.
Our decisions are sometimes big and life-changing related to relationships and careers. They are also a series of small choices about vacations and experiences. Each combine to make up who we are. Resilient and growth oriented? Or avoidant and fear oriented? The hope I hold for myself is the same one that I hold for you: that with each resilient and growth-based decision, we strive and stretch to be our most authentic, purposeful and passionate selves.