I finally quit my job. I’d been thinking about it for years, and I always thought that when I finally did it, I’d be relishing the act: telling my boss and coworkers with a big toothy smile, posting it on Facebook with lots of happy exclamation points.
Instead, when it came time to actually make a move, I felt sick to my stomach. I don’t mean just butterflies, I mean it felt like big fat rodents were wrestling in there. Which made me wonder: Was I doing the right thing? People often say “trust your gut,” but what if your gut feels like it’s gnawing at itself?
In my case, I had a good job offer, so it wasn’t like I was being rash and taking some huge financial risk. I was actually going to be earning more money. But I still felt sick over the change.
Feeling anxious in itself is no reason not to do something. Your gut isn’t always going to feel good, and any big move can provoke anxiety. There’s nothing wrong with that. When I finally realized that, I actually just let myself feel sick. I even shared that fact with my boss when I told him I was leaving. He was perfectly understanding. It’s a difficult decision.
When I finally got all the awkward conversations with colleagues over with, I felt much better. I now feel completely confident that I did the right thing, and I’m excited to be moving on to something new. But it didn’t feel that way until after I’d done it.
Modern culture offers us so many ways to manage our anxiety that it’s easy to feel like there’s something wrong if despite all of that, we still feel anxious. Do I just need to take another yoga class, or meditate, or go for a run? Do I need medication? Or am I just doing the wrong thing?
Anxiety is actually a perfectly normal response to uncertainty. All those stress-management techniques aren’t actually designed to get rid of anxiety, but to help us manage it wisely. Meditation or yoga won’t magically tell me what’s the best move to secure my unknown future, but it can help me slow down enough to become aware of what exactly I’m afraid of, what my options are, and what’s important for me to consider in order to make a wise decision. It still may feel really hard to act, because the outcome will always be, to some extent, uncertain.
Buddhists sometimes talk about the heart-mind as being the center of our being, rather than the mind alone. Ancient Egyptians also believed the heart was the source of the soul and of memory, emotions and personality. The heart is something we still associate with our deepest emotions and values, like love, affection and friendship. To me, the heart-mind idea helps gets me out of my purely rational thinking, since my logical mind can sometimes rationalize all my options, and then I feel stuck. Connecting to what I deeply value seems to me an important way of guiding and grounding major decisions. All those stress management techniques are ways of slowing down our ping-ponging thoughts enough to allow us to make that connection.
That’s different than just “going with your gut,” because our stomach is a place where we tend to feel much of our anxiety. If you avoid anything that seems to disturb your gut, you could end up in a very tiny and constricted place.
Social science research conducted by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt backs up the idea that we probably ought to be taking more risks that we tend to, and that people who say “yes” to new opportunities rather than “no” tend to be happier. “As a basic rule of thumb, I believe that people are too cautious when it comes to making a change,” Levitt says. As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks put it in a recent New York Times column: “Our sin tends to be timidity, not rashness.”
Of course, some people’s sin is rashness (witness our president threatening nuclear war on Twitter), and I’m certainly not advocating that. Weigh your options, consider the risks, and connect to what’s most important to you. You may still feel fear about your decision, and that’s okay. If your heart-mind is good with it, don’t let the churning in your gut keep you from taking the plunge.