I think I've made all the wrong choices

I'm 38, still single, in a one-bedroom, trapped in debt.

Published May 12, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I admire the fact that you're willing to attempt to answer some of our more existential dilemmas, and even though I have a lot of "real world" issues I could ask you about, in the end I've decided it's my overall worldview that's the problem.

One of the hardest lessons I've learned as an adult is that, sometimes, things cannot be changed. Sometimes a decision is made, a comment slips out, an allegiance is given, and the consequences end up being so much harsher -- and indelible -- than you might have ever anticipated. Sometimes "sorry" isn't nearly enough. Sometimes the damage is irreparable. And lately, this realization has dumped me into a pool of hopelessness.

Coupled with that hopelessness is a sense that I'm actually on the wrong life path and because of past decisions, my new course is unalterable. It's a bit like a midlife crisis I guess. I turned 38 this year and am still single, still in debt, still renting a one-bedroom, still spending most weekend nights alone. I'm also really starting to feel my age -- I don't bounce back as quickly from physical and emotional injuries. Instead of feeling like things can only get better, I'm starting to suspect that my "best" days are behind me and that it can only get a whole lot worse from here.

My question is, What do you do when you realize you've made all the wrong choices and now there's no going back? I feel like I picked the wrong college, the wrong postgraduate program, the wrong friends, the wrong city. I feel like I compromised when I should have stood firm and vice versa. I arrogantly tossed aside once-in-a-lifetime opportunities because of pride (or fear).

And now I've painted myself into a corner. I owe too much money (mostly student loans). I weigh too much. I spend too much. I eat too much. I've taken the reins of life and headed off in new directions too many times to count, but the changes never seem to stick. I don't keep up the momentum somehow, and getting back up on that horse gets more difficult each time. Now I can't even contemplate trying again. What's the point if, after all that effort (and hope), I end up right back here?

Any thoughts, suggestions, etc., would be most appreciated.

Aimlessly Hopeless (or vice versa)

Dear Aimlessly Hopeless,

You have not made all wrong choices. You have made some very good decisions. Your decision, for instance, to write to me today was a good decision. It shows that you have some hope and that you are not giving up. It shows that you are aware that there is something about how you are viewing your life that perhaps you can change. And while undergraduate and graduate programs differ, the decision itself to pursue an education was a good decision; there is no way to know with certainty what would have happened if you had chosen different schools. Your basic decision was a good one. Likewise, I don't know if you live in a rent-controlled urban area or not, but if your one-bedroom has good rent, then hanging on to it has been wise economically.

However, on the question of age, well, just wait till you turn 39. It gets worse.

Just kidding! Come on! I'm on your side!

Seriously, you have a great deal of control over how to live day-to-day, and how to frame, or define, the things you remember from your past. You ask, "What do you do when you realize you've made all the wrong choices and now there's no going back?" The first thing to do with this statement is just to realize that it is not true. Realize what you are realizing: Think about the word "realize." The suffix "ize" means to "cause to be or conform to or resemble," or to "make into." When you "realize" something you are actually "making something real."

In this case you are making real something that is actually not real. It is not true that you've made all the wrong choices. Nor is it true that there's no going back. You cannot change the past, but you can go back to it in memory and regard it anew, and thus change how you allow it to affect you today.

So the next time you "realize" something, or feel crushing regret about your past, try saying out loud to yourself, "I am framing my past in a damaging way. Let's see how I can reframe it."

Try saying to yourself, "I have made some very good choices. Here are a few of them." See how many good decisions you can write down.

Here is something else you can do. Examine  other statements you have made. For instance, the proposition that you spend too much: Is that actually true? What is "too much"? Do you have an actual figure? What if you were to keep a daily journal of all your expenditures? You can get a small Moleskine book (or a less expensive one!), and carry it with you just for expenditures. Take note of what you buy. Add up the numbers. Find the actual dollar amount that you are over budget. You don't have to fix it at first. Just become aware of it. Awareness alone can do much to alleviate the fear and panic that overtake you when you think about money and debt. At first, just replace the statement that you "spend too much" with some actual numbers derived from daily note-taking.

You may find that you are indeed spending more than you take in. But that is something you can do something about. You can cut down on spending or increase your income. You also might find, through the increased awareness that will come of such a practice, that your worries about your student loans are distorting your view of every spending transaction, so that every time you spend money, even if the expenditure is justified, you feel bad about it. Create a budget for yourself, so you know how much money you can spend before you are over your limit. Then you need only feel bad when you are over the limit. And even then, you need not feel bad in a global, I'm-a-worthless-person sort of way. You can just acknowledge that you went over budget again and resolve to do better next time.

Similarly with your other beliefs about your situation in life: When you have one of these thoughts, try asking yourself, Is there any other way to frame this? Is what I am saying literally true? Have I really made all the wrong choices? Is there really no going back? What is the actual emotional content of this moment? What am I actually feeling right now? What can I do right now to feel a little better?

How's your relationship with your past? Good? Bad? Ugly?

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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