Plagued by Indecision. What Causes This?

Reader’s Question

I am a 31-year old married woman of ten years that has a five-year-old son. When my son was two I decided to go back to college for a degree in dental hygiene. I did my pre-requisites and got a part-time job as a dental assistant before being accepted into two dental hygiene programs. I was accepted into a college 2.5 hours away, leaving my son at home with my husband while at school. The first week of school was a huge adjustment for me being away from my family, but I did tough it out. The school gave me enough studies that I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose! The whole time I was at school I was second guessing if I really wanted to be a dental hygienist. I was getting the highest grades the teaches had ever seen on tests. By the end of the first semester I felt like I didn’t really want to be picking on people’s teeth all day, so I dropped out of school and came back home.

This has been about a year and a half ago, and I am still plaged with the “what-if’s” I had stayed. Every day my mind drifts back to that school and replays little scenarios of what happened and what could have happened. I have been very hard on myself, knowing that I could be done with school now and making a good wage.

I have started taking some college classes after all of this. I thought accounting might interest me, but after taking one class I knew I didn’t want that degree. I applied to an ad in the newspaper for a dental receptionist — got an interview and tour of the office, but when I saw those dental chairs a wave of fear came over me. I was given the job, but then had it taken away before I could start because the dentist said his wife had set up other interviews that he did not know about. Then I switched to nursing, got accepted into a program, but right before the classes started felt it wasn’t for me either. I feel like I don’t want to deal in close quarters with people — even though I could do it when dental assisting.

I then started taking classes in health information management and am happy with the first semester’s classes, but there is still something wrong. I keep feeling like it isn’t as important a career as dental hygiene because I will not be making as much money after two years of schooling. I will have to do four years of schooling plus a few years experience to earn the same amount.

I am seeing a pattern in my school problems. I think anxiety took over in dental hygiene school, and now I have put up this wall of defense so that I will not make another school mistake again. I am having a really hard time with all these circling thoughts of wondering if I will ever make the right career choice. I have been to counseling, and the counselor says to work someplace where I will like what I am doing. My first degree is in veterinary assisting — but there are few jobs where I live, and the pay is low. I worked in a veterinary clinic for 3.5 years before my son was born, and then became a stay-at-home mom. Sure, I loved working with the animals, but I have to look realistically at the job — there are no health benefits and a salary below poverty level! I am looking at health information management because of not working directly with people, health benefits, I’ll be able to do this job when I’m old, good wages, and a 49% increase in jobs is expected. So you’re probably thinking, sounds like she knows what she wants. That’s the problem — I dont! Why do the thoughts of dental hygiene still plague me? Why do I think that the students in my dental hygiene class are better than me now?

Psychologist’s Reply

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Everyone is where they are today due to a collection of decisions in the past. Right or wrong, those decisions have resulted in our reading this Ask the Psychologist website. When we review our past and focus on our decisions — especially the ones we didn’t take — we have the option of smiling or being haunted about those decisions. When under stress or depressed, the brain often focuses on “the road not taken” — decisions we might have made that would have changed our lives. Like you, I started college as an accountant and changed majors.

Your story also brings us something people often forget about career and college choices. For example, intelligence is only one aspect of college/university attendance. When we select a college that is 2.5 hours away — the driving requirements are more likely to emotionally burn us out than the classes. Careers have a variety of experiences and activities that aren’t mentioned in the college manuals. Many careers require public speaking — something we didn’t count on.

The most likely reason you keep revisiting your prior career is stress and depression. When stressed out or depressed, our brain floods us with the what-ifs and road not taken. In a way the brain tortures us — the person we didn’t marry, decisions we didn’t make, etc. When this occurs in middle age, it often produces the mid-life crisis syndrome. Probably more sports cars are bought by the 45-55 year-old group than the under 30. Folks fall in love with high school sweethearts at school reunions, attempting to correct the road not taken. In reality, they don’t even know this person after 30 years.

I’d read up on depression and stress. Both impair not only decision-making but action-taking. When depressed, we think too much. We can’t make a decision or take an action because we are overwhelmed by hundreds of possible alternatives and consequences produced by a stressed brain. The key symptom in your description is the negative preoccupation with your old dental hygiene class. That’s typically a symptom of depression. While I might often daydream about what happened to my fellow students in accounting class, it’s a fleeting thought, not a torturing preoccupation.

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