It’s all this manoeuvring and second guessing. Almost as though we have doors in front of us all the time in the modern life as women and each day you have door one, two and three and you have to choose which one you go through and there is that terrible heart-sickening fear that by going through door number 2 you are murdering some essential part of yourself that could only be actualised by going through doors one or three.
I can still remember the feeling — the anxious but excited butterflies that fluttered inside my body as my husband and I began to seriously consider moving our family overseas. Is this crazy? Can we do it? Where will we end up? The possibilities seemed endless, the whole world opened up in our imaginations as we wondered, “Where do we want to live?”.
Since that first exciting experience 10 years ago we have moved twice more, each time to a new country and culture. In the beginning of the process, I usually feel the exhilarating rush of “where do we want to go?” but soon the nervous excitement changes to a feeling of overwhelmed immobility. I admit that during the interview processes before our most recent move, I unhelpfully commented: “Just wake me up when it’s time to go and let me know what continent we will be living on”. The magic of having all of those choices no longer felt like a gift but more like a burden.
I think this is why I was so interested to listen to the audiobook The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz. In this book, Schwartz examines the incredible increase in the number of choices we must make every day — from what type of toothpaste to buy to where to invest our money. While he acknowledges that having some measure of choice and control over our lives is vital to health and wellbeing, he asserts that having too much choice can actually be detrimental to freedom and happiness.
Think of the choices we make as expats. Do we want to take this posting? Do we sell the house? What do we do with the car? Do we try to learn the local language? Local schools for the kids or international schools? How long should we stay? Should we move back or continue to live overseas? And we must still manage to decide what kind of toothpaste to buy.
This issue again hit home as my oldest child was applying to college. The choice was no longer in-state or out-of-state but where (literally) in the world he wanted to study. He applied to the US, Canada and England but also considered the Netherlands, Australia and, at one point, Japan. He applied to a huge number of schools and, after a painstaking process, made a decision that seemed to make him relatively happy. Will he get a good education? Yes. Was the vast array of choices a good thing? I’m not so sure. At the time it felt agonizing and overwhelming.
Despite sometimes feeling overwhelmed with decisions, I’m not ready to give up the choices that my international life gives me. How can we keep from feeling paralysed with indecision and regret amidst all of the choice we have? Here are a few suggestions:
According to Schwartz, if you increase choice in one area, try to decrease it in other areas. It’s okay, even advisable, to limit options for decisions that are not as important to you (like what type of toothpaste to buy). He encourages us to “learn to love constraints” on choice and to make some decisions automatic. This helps us focus time and energy on the choices that matter.
Take time to prioritize what is important to you and why when contemplating the bigger decisions in life. It is tempting to do something because it’s what we are “supposed” to do or because it’s what we wanted at some point in our lives. I strongly encourage people thinking about living overseas to define specifically why they want to make this choice. Identifying your reasons and goals helps narrow the possibilities. If your top priority is interacting with the local culture, perhaps living in a country with many gated expat communities is not the right choice for you. If you want to travel frequently, choosing a job that gives you time off and the salary to travel will be important.
Elizabeth Gilbert in her speech at the ICAN 2011 Women’s Leadership Conference (watch here) encourages us to be gentle with ourselves and to try to be true to our own path. Women in particular don’t have generations of role models to help us navigate the “huge maze of choice” we now have. She says she wakes up each day and tries to, “… do my best with that day. I do my best with what I have there.”
I try to remember that there are no bad decisions. Every choice has something to teach us and the process is often as important as the outcome. While these statements may seem trite, it is so easy to succumb to the fear of what will happen if we make the “wrong” choice. Most of us can point to a “bad” decision that led us to something wonderful later.
Despite the fact that we often feel we have limitless choices, we don’t always get to choose where we live or even what happens in life. Life sends us curve balls and sometimes choices are made for us. By trying to embrace this, by understanding that endless choice is not always a good thing, we can free ourselves to make the choices that really matter to us.
So the next time one of those big decisions comes your way, press pause for a moment or two to keep the nervous butterflies from becoming an angry swarm of bees. Reconnect with your values and reasons for living an international life. Limit decision making in other areas when you can and remember that every path has a lesson to teach if we know how to listen.