It would be nice if the universe put up helpful signposts to tell us when we’re going the wrong direction in life, like a highway sign reading “THAT JOB/PARTNER/MOVE/PURCHASE WILL SUCK YOU DRY AND LEAVE YOU A SHELL OF YOUR FORMER SELF.” In pink neon lights, for preference.
In the absence of such obvious signs, we have to look carefully for the little ones. Y’know, the little red flags that show up when you’re doing something you know isn’t right for you, like pretending to be someone you’re not at a party, wearing clothes you hate or eating an entire boxed pizza in one serving (although, frankly, that last one is probably just indigestion).
The point is if we pay attention to what we’re really feeling and experiencing, sometimes we can notice when we’re making a bad decision before we make it. Here are eight ways to tell when you’re heading in the wrong direction (and a bonus three ways to find the right direction again), from someone who’s done it all before.
1. Check your First Thoughts: Our subconscious is way smarter than we are. The next time you’re thinking about your future, notice the first thing you think about, that tiny first flicker of emotion before you start to consciously justify your decision. If it’s a bad feeling, then that’s worth thinking about. Source: someone who ignored that bad feeling many times and found that it was always a bad idea.
2. What Will Other People Think: Of course, you make some decisions to impress others; that’s the thing that keeps you from going to work in elephant footie pajamas with a bottle of Smirnoff in hand. But if you’re making huge decisions (buying a house, deciding on a partner, choosing a career) based on trying to impress your peers or parents, you’ll probably end up impressively unhappy.
3. Exhaustion: Look, I know everyone’s always tired in this economy. But if you find yourself constantly, deeply tired, and feel like it’s a horrifying exercise in endurance to even get out of bed in the morning? Something’s probably wrong, and it’s worth looking into. As someone who’s been there before, trust me: constant exhaustion and misery are not normal!
4. Playing Defense: If you’re chronically defending your choices to other people (and yourself), then that’s a sign you’re driving up the highway to Miseryville, population: you. This one’s not a hard and fast rule, though; sometimes, you’re just surrounded by really judgmental people. In which case, I’d recommend ditching them instead.
5. Liar, Liar: If you feel like you’re constantly having to lie to other people (or yourself!) about important things, that’s a real red flag. It means that either you’re not happy with your life or that you don’t trust the people around you enough to tell them about it.
6. Sick and Tired: Yes, chronic sadness and stress can make us physically ill. That’s because stress triggers the immune system to turn on, and when it’s working overtime, it tends to fail us when we need it to fight off an infection. So, technically, you can be “sick and tired” of a bad job!
7. Safety First: Let’s make this clear: I’m not advising you to skydive off of mountains while singing “My Heart Will Go On” (if you must do that, at least pick better music). But if you’re always making the “safe” decision, then you’re rarely going to make the ones that make you happy. And safe decisions don’t even guarantee that you’ll be safe in the long run; as John Maynard Keynes said, “in the long run, we’re all dead.” So ask out that girl you like! Try that art class you don’t know if you’ll be good at! Go on your friends’ annual camping trip! Just ix-nay on the mountains-may, okay?
8. Unhappy-Go-Lucky: I’m not saying you have to be happy all the time (if anyone tells you that, they’re a jerk and also wrong). But, if you’re miserable more than half the time, you might want to renegotiate your life, whether it’s making different choices or seeking some kind of professional help.
1. Think Back: What did you want to do with your life as a kid? I mean, if kid-you wanted to be a rocket-paleontologist-fashion-designer, maybe don’t do that. But you could look into learning more about astronomy, or about fashion design. Sometimes, your kid-self had good ideas that were crushed under the weight of adult socialization, and they’re worth revisiting.
2. Baby Steps: Unless you’re in an unsafe situation, please don’t do a metaphorical 180-degree wheelie on the road of your life, because you will metaphorically crash. Take little steps towards your new destination, thinking it through carefully to make sure it’s still the right one.
3. Correcting Course: So maybe you found that your transition from successful bank exec to professional street mime wasn’t as emotionally fulfilling as you expected. That doesn’t mean that you need to go back to doing what you were doing that made you miserable; it might mean that you’re having some setbacks, or it might mean that you need to change course again. And that’s okay too!
Essentially … You know more than you think you do. If you’re sad, sick, or secretive all the time, then your life is probably not going in the right direction. But if you’re willing to be brave and follow your heart (with the appropriate amount of caution) then you can find a direction that’s better for you.