Dear Vicki

In the last year or so, I’ve gone through a tumultuous time of change and loss. I’m now faced with some important decisions about how I’m going to live the rest of my life. It’s complicated, but the gist of it is that I can’t put off these decisions any longer.  However, I’m stuck and undecided. I’ve sought advice from my friends, my pastor and a psychologist.  It’s crazy but I’ve even gone to a psychic! Much of the advice has been conflicting which just confuses me more. How can I decide whose advice is best and how do I know what is right for me?

Although this is a very general question, let me take a crack at it. First, I am sorry for your loss and know that indecision is a painful place to be. And while seeking professional assistance is often helpful, particularly for complex issues, it, indeed, can be confusing and sometimes even misguided. Practitioners in any field vary greatly in their worldview, education, approach, professionalism and simply in their talent. Beware of swallowing lock, stock, and barrel any advice given by anyone. Remember: You are the only expert on yourself and your situation.

When I studied to be a professional counselor, I learned with dismay that the answers to every client’s problems were not going to be found in a book or in a class. In fact, as a therapist, I realized that the most important skill to acquire was the ability to help my client discover his or her own truths. You must look within yourself for the answers to what is right for you rather than relying on any expert who, at best, can only guide you.

Sounds like a scary thought, huh? It’s not as difficult as you think, so keep reading. You’ve already done much of the hard work! You’ve consulted with a variety of “helpers,” which I hope have assisted you to clarify the issues. And you’ve gotten some feedback on, perhaps, aspects of the problems that you had not considered. You’ve probably come up with several courses of action and have considered the pros and cons of each. These are some of the challenges that professional consultants should assist you in accomplishing. Their job is not to tell you what to do; if they’ve done that, run!

 Reflect upon the advice you’ve heard. Has it been aimed to help you hear your own voice? If the advice has been respectful, knowledgeable, thought-provoking and on a level that is easily understood, you’ve been in good hands. However, if the guidance has been overbearing, bossy, preachy or superior, watch out. Do you feel like the advice-giver has listened and understood you? Or have you felt discounted, dismissed, or as if the person you are consulting has jumped to conclusions without hearing the whole story? You’ve received a lot of information. Use these observations as guides for discerning what advice has merit.

You’re making progress! Now, another word of caution: In times of turmoil, simplify. And a good rule of thumb is to avoid making major life-altering decisions for about a year after any significant loss. You need that time to stabilize and heal. If that’s impossible or you’ve already allowed this time to pass, give  yourself a little more breathing room by eliminating any needless demands and distractions. Solitude and space are necessary for you to go within and hear your own voice.

If you have little privacy at home and can afford it, consider checking yourself into a bed and breakfast where you can rest and focus just upon the decision at hand. Give yourself the luxury of time and space to make the wisest decision possible. Avoid taking along temptations like the latest best-selling murder mystery, but do take along a blank notebook. Not a writer? That’s OK. Take it along anyhow. This is for your eyes only and you don’t have to worry about grammar or creating a work of literary art.

Free writing is one of the best ways to get in touch with your own inner wisdom and to learn what you truly think about an issue. Try a kind of “morning pages” routine that author Julie Cameron suggests in “The Artist’s Way,” a book that is as much about authentic living as it is about creativity.  Morning pages are three pages of hand-written stream of consciousness thought preferably done every morning shortly after waking. For example, just start writing whatever comes to mind: “Another morning. I’m tired and don’t want to get up. I don’t know what to do about____. Maybe I could_____. Have to go to the grocery store, etc.” Keep the pen moving and don’t censor yourself. Why three pages? It may take a couple of pages of complaining and letting go before you zero in on something significant. And while it may seem easier to type these pages, Cameron and other proponents of free writing believe that the physical act of handwriting taps more deeply into our unconscious where wisdom and creative thought are stored.

When you are not writing in your journal, take walks, read something inspirational, pray or listen to music. Record your dreams. They can be quite revealing. Be still, be patient and look inside instead of looking outside of yourself. You’ve already done that and have all the information you need. Now is the time to connect to your own best counselor and expert — that would be you! And I bet you’ll find your answers—they’ve been there all along waiting for you.

Our Un-Anniversary

Our 25th wedding anniversary is next month.  We should be celebrating but, to be truthful, we’re going through a rough patch in our marriage. It feels like a lie to celebrate and it will be hard enough to even find a greeting card. I feel like skipping the whole thing. How do couples in trouble handle anniversaries, especially those important ones?

While I understand your desire for an “Un-anniversary,” try reframing the idea of a celebration to an acknowledgement of a life lived together. Consider that at the very least, you’ve invested many years into this marriage. Even though you feel quite negative now, you’ve gone through a lot of things together—some challenging periods but some good times too. Resist the urge to indulge in black or white thinking. Nobody is all good or bad and neither is a marriage.

To ignore the day that you wed could be a huge mistake at this critical time of raw and vulnerable feelings. Instead of a typical anniversary card, buy a blank card and make a list of five positive memories or five things that you appreciate about your spouse. As far as a gift goes, one of the best marriage counseling interventions that I’ve used is to give unhappy couples the assignment of buying an inexpensive, but thoughtful gift for each other. It’s surprising how walls often break down in the presence of thoughtfulness and consideration.

Initiate a frank talk with your spouse about the upcoming anniversary and your desire to keep it low key but as positive as possible. Decide together how to acknowledge this important milestone.  Consider giving yourselves some marriage counseling or the gift of a weekend marriage workshop to ease out some rough spots. Check out the Web site: for some great suggestions. And hang in there, you’ve got a lot invested!

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