Recently an individual I was working with came into the office agitated, and complained of being overwhelmed. He had just returned to school after a two year hiatus, resulting from difficulties he had managing school work and living away from home for the first time. Currently, he was taking a full load of classes at a community college with the goal of transferring to a four year university. In addition to a full time job, he was also in a performing theater group. “I think I need to quit theater,” he told me. “I need to work and keep up with my classes, but theater has rehearsals two nights a week and performances on the weekend when we’re doing a show.”
To give a little background, I knew from working with him that making decisions on his own behalf were fraught with uncertainty. Contributing to this was his parents’ tendency to second guess both his intentions and his ability to follow through carrying them out, which he experienced as disapproval, a lack of confidence in him, and regard. Growing up he’d had difficulty standing up to his parents, and just went along with what they thought he should do. This resulted in a sort of apathy, underscored by resentment which was frustrated by on going dependency and distancing in the place of individualization. The dependency, mainly financial and living at home, maintained his parents’ control, and because of the ways he distanced himself—not following through on his parents’ requests, or the responsibilities they assigned to him, such as keeping up with parking tickets, or his cell phone bill, only engrained the dynamic. The issue I saw before us was that while he had good intentions, not having developed the agency or the confidence to carry them out, left him disoriented and susceptible to continually second guessing himself.
“Well, what is your main priority?”
“School. But theater takes a lot of my time and energy. Plus I’ll have to miss some classes if I’m in the next performance.”
“With work, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for school.”
“I’m not even sure if I like the direction theater’s going in, or if I really want to pursue acting as a profession. I’m getting kind of tired of learning other people’s lines, and having someone tell me how I should deliver them. I think I’d rather create and direct my own performances.”
“Well, you have mentioned possibly studying drama or taking some play writing courses when you finish your general ed classes and transfer. And as we’ve talked about: school not only offers a foundation, but way to move away from home and live on your own. Does being in theater contribute to your goals?”
“Not really. And right now it’s just so demanding. When I get home it’s too late to study but then I end up sleeping late so I can get enough sleep to be able to also work and go to school.”
“If school is a priority, it sounds like quitting theater could be a viable consideration.”
“But maybe I just need to deal with it.”
“Maybe. What’s your week look like?”
He went through his week, the time he dedicated to school, work and theater. It clearly didn’t look as though he could reasonably just deal with it—given that time and resources weren’t infinite.
“Stepping back for a moment,” I told him. “If school is your priority, and you need to work to pay for it, as well as expenses, and saving for when you transfer, it sounds like continuing theater doesn’t allow you enough time and energy to do all of these.”
“So does it make sense to quit?”
Even though the solution was fairly clear, I wanted to separate my influence, so the responsibility for the choice would be his own. “Well, would quitting allow you to dedicate more focus on your current priority: school and work?” The answer was obvious to both of us, but anticipating resistance, I offered another way to frame it. “And on top of that, you don’t really seem to be sure about theater at this time, which effects them too, because you may not perform as well. So, given all this, is it fair to say, quitting theater is a good decision?”
“Yeah, that makes sense.”
As I’d anticipated, he didn’t seem any less overwhelmed. “All right. So let’s let say you’ve made your decision, what’s the problem that remains?”
“I guess that I’ll let the people in theater down.”
“Well, if you were currently in the middle of a performance you certainly would! But even if your between performances you still might let them down—because maybe they like you and will miss you.”
“What if they think I’m making a mistake, or giving up a chance to go somewhere?”
I reflected on this. I knew he wasn’t so much worried about quitting theater for himself, but what his group would think of it. In psychotherapy parlance, he was projecting the tendency to second-guess himself (which, had been an on-going dynamic with his parents) on to the group. This uncertainty caused him to further second guess other, seemingly-related, areas to the initial decision, obscuring the real issue: recognizing and realizing his priorities. The decision was relatively simple, but what made it appear complicated were actually separate problems: his emerging ambivalence toward what he wanted, and his undeveloped agency to carry it out. “Before we go into this,” I said. “Let’s solve the initial problem by breaking it down. So, going back, is it fair to say, given everything in your life currently, that in order to make school a successful priority, you need to cut something out for the time being?”
“I just need time to focus on school.”
“Right. School is the agreed priority, and you need to work, but theater is something you are ok cutting out for now? So, telling your theater group aside, is it safe to say your decision would be to quit theater?”
“Yeah, safe to say.”
“Ok, so now your problem is no longer whether to quit theater, but how to tell your theater group. See the difference? Deciding to quit theater is about focusing on your priority, which is what you want, and now can be more easily achieved. As it was, you were bringing seemingly related, but separate areas of your life to perhaps justify the decision, so the actual problem and it’s solution were no longer clear. By isolating the actual, or underlying, problem, it goes from being a major life crisis to a realistic matter with a much clearer and more manageable solution.” From a psychotherapeutic standpoint, recognizing and isolating the underlying problem also more clearly defined what actually challenged the client in achieving his goals.
Since encountering this, I’ve noticed many other instances of indecision or difficulties that individuals have with executing choices being the result of avoiding seemingly incidental struggles needed for the problem’s solution, yet actually involve other issues. For example, it’s unavoidable that someone has to cancel on a friend, but perseverate telling the friend in a timely or straight forward manner, to avoid hurting their feelings. Even though the solution is relatively plain, as, in this case, canceling is unavoidable, the person gets caught up in the minutiae, to the exclusion of the actual problem or decision at hand, and avoids a deeper, though potentially related, personal conflict.
Plainly this isn’t productive. With the example client, bringing in related, yet in reality, separate issues, turned out to be more of a function of his tendency to second guess himself than actually contributing to his decision making: in addition to putting aside his priorities, and continuing to remain stuck. By isolating the actual problem, telling his theater group he needed to quit, he could avoid the continuing erosive tendency to second guess instead of recognizing the deeper challenges of sticking to them.
Obviously, separating actual problems and their solution won’t automatically resolve underlying personal struggles, it will at least separate them out, so that a person can differentiate their enduring personal challenges and productively address the actual task at hand.