Choices are scary: The importance of clear planning and guidance

March 7, 2014 Life Skills


Thick raindrops pelt your windshield with the force of a fire hose. You find yourself driving down a dimly lit, unfamiliar road at night eagerly making your way to your destination which, once reached, will undoubtedly permit a great sigh of relief. You’ve gotten lost in this bizarre part of the world and are now anxious to put this trip behind you. As you round a bumpy corner you’re suddenly faced with a four-pronged fork in the road! Your knuckles go white as you grip the steering wheel. Inundated with choices you pull over and try to gaze down each road – all of which seem to stretch for infinity as the blackness and pounding rain swallow the weak orange light of the street lamps. What do you do now?

One option is to randomly choose one street and explore with the intention of coming back if that street doesn’t work out. But at what point do you turn around? I find it unlikely that you’re a soothsayer; it’s impossible to know how far you’ll need to travel down that street or if that street will even take you to safety. Instead the best option is to seek help or consult a map for directions and guidance.

People face comparable situations in life. We find ourselves lost in the dark, facing dozens of branching paths and life choices. People with severe mental illnesses have the same moments and like anyone, sometimes find themselves overwhelmed about which shrouded road to follow. Instead of making a decision, they pull over, stop, and frightfully try to stare down each street: stuck and unable to move forward just as you were when faced with a mere four roads.

An important role we clinicians have at The Mental Health Co-op is to act as the map for our residents. We understand how scary it can be for a person to make life decisions when there are too many choices but no directions. We partner with our clients to develop creative and individualized treatment programs that holistically combine the client’s goals with the family’s and our clinical team’s goals. With the map drawn out, we can take a “Google Maps view” of the client’s paths: zooming in to explore each street and zooming out to see where they lead and how streets interact with each other.

We also teach our residents the necessity to understand that routes are flexible. If one path is coming to a dead end, it’s OK to take the detour or turn left onto another street. Planning is important but it’s equally imperative to understand that sometimes we just have to “go with the flow”. We’ve found one of the commonalities between our residents is a paralyzing fear of change or fear of the unknown. By learning how to plan, organize, take detours when necessary, and reevaluate the road map, they begin to overcome these fears and are better equipped to handle life choices.

About the author

Matt Browning: