Figuring Out What to Do

Faced with several options, many people early in recovery have a tough time figuring out what to do. A big choice—such as choosing what to study in college or what to do for a career—can drive them crazy. For some, even a little choice, such as whether to accept an invitation to a party or whether to join the bowling league, creates anxiety.

Here are some typical comments from SCHC clients trying to figure out a new career: “I’m interested in being an architect and a conservation officer, but I can’t figure out which program to sign up for.” “I’ve been told that millwrights make lots of money and are in demand. But I don’t want to waste my time training to be a millwright only to find out I don’t like it.” “There are lots of careers to choose from, but I have no idea what I want to do.”

Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom calls this “freedom anxiety.” Freedom anxiety is a dilemma: “I’m free to do anything. I have lots of options. But I can’t figure out what to do.” It’s a tough situation, which, as Yalom pointed out, causes lots of anxiety.

Figuring out what to do is all about taking action, not just thinking about choices. But what do you do when you’re unsure what’s the best option? In this online program, we’ll look at some tips on how to move ahead when you’re stuck.

The Actual Problem is Self-Awareness

It’s important to understand the psychology driving much of the struggle. Those who have difficulty making a decision seem to rely on the outside world to tell them what they should do as if they’re hoping some inspiration will fall from the heavens and make everything clear.

To put it another way, they don’t rely on themselves to figure out what to do. And the reason they don’t rely on themselves is that they really don’t know what’s important to them.

Research has shown that those who can make decisions fairly easily—and whose decisions are not impulsive—know themselves reasonably well. They know what is genuinely important to them. They know their limitations as well as their strengths, desires, and wants. Based on this self-awareness, they reach out into the world and pursue activities that nurture who they are. They look at the world and ask, “What am I good for?” or “How can I best share my gifts with others?” or “What can I do that I have a passion for?”

But those in early recovery don’t function this way because they lack self-awareness. They can’t rely on themselves for direction. If they can’t rely on themselves, they’re pretty much stuck relying on the outside world. So when they search for a career, they focus on what the government says is good or what Dad says is good or how much money they can make or how many job openings there are. The actual career doesn’t seem to matter very much. An SCHC client once said, “I could care less whether I’m doing what I do now or selling eggs. All I know is that I get to be a rock star.”

Do the Next Right Thing

American writer Anne Lamott wrote this about herself: “I took a long, deep breath and wondered as usual, where to start. You start where you are, is the secret of life. You do the next right thing you can see. Then the next.”

This simple principle of “do the next right thing” often makes confusing choices simple. It doesn’t work for all choices, but it works for a lot. If you find a wallet on the street stuffed with cash, what do you do? Lamott says do the next right thing. Even if you really need cash, the right thing is to return it to its owner. If you see a person being harassed on the bus, what do you do? Lamott says do the next right thing. Even though it’s easier just to ignore it, the right thing is to help the victim.

We seem to know intuitively what the next right thing is. Even when we can’t figure out where our actions will lead, each of us has an accurate sense of what the right thing is.

When you do the right thing, and then the next right thing, and then the next, things almost always work out. Dilemmas and tough choices just melt away.


We tell kids to try different activities to see if they like them. Join the basketball team. Join the choir. Kids figure out a lot about their likes and dislikes, their wants and desires, just by doing things.

We tell those headed for college if they don’t know what to study, then take lots of general courses in different areas. They might think they like biology because they like animals until they take a course in cell biology and discover that it’s really all about chemical reactions in ion channels, diapedesis, mitochondria energy processes, and other microscopic details. The experience will tell them if, in reality, they like it.

The recommendation to just do it is good advice for anyone struggling to make a choice. Just do it, as Nike says, even if you’re unsure. If you don’t like it, you haven’t wasted your time. You’ve gained valuable information about yourself.

In fact, human beings often don’t know what’s important to them until they actually do it. Action—not merely thinking about things—is essential for self-awareness. At SCHC, an all-male facility, knitting has become a favourite activity with clients. New clients typically think it’s just weird that men are knitting. But when they give knitting a try, they discover they like it.

Volunteer for Something Important to You

Many people in recovery believe that volunteering can help them get past the drugs. “I want to give back,” is a common sentiment.

But a good principle to follow is to be selective when volunteering. Pay attention to what is important to you. Don’t volunteer at the local soup kitchen just because it’s two blocks from your house. Don’t volunteer at the hospital auxiliary because your friend said it was a good idea. If you like dogs volunteer at the SPCA. If you like helping the elderly, volunteer at the senior centre.

As we mentioned before, those who struggle to make choices typically rely on the outside world for direction. If you volunteer for something you are genuinely interested in, then you are forced to pay attention to yourself. What are you passionate about? What truly interests you? This principle forces you to look within, rather than focus on the world outside you.

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