Science of Success

I've been a 'millennial therapist' for more than 5 years—and this is their No. 1 complaint

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Let me start by saying that I never expected to be a "millennial therapist" when I entered the field of psychotherapy 10 years ago.

But five years into practicing, I began to notice an influx of millennials seeking my help. Now, 90% of my patients are between the ages of 23 and 38. (The rest are mostly parents of millennials.)

As a Gen X'er, I've heard all the millennial stereotypes — they're lazy, entitled, self-centered, oversensitive and unprepared. But after studying and getting to know them, what I found was a rising generation of smart and highly ambitious individuals.

They're empathetic, diverse and eager to make a social impact. But there are also many anxieties that hold them back.

The biggest millennial complaint

On any given day, a handful of millennials will come into my office and express their most pressing concerns: "I'm worried I'll never make enough money to retire." "I feel like a failure." "I don't know if I'm setting up my adult life the right way."

But the complaint they bring up the most? "I have too many choices and I can't decide what to do. What if I make the wrong choice?"

Yes, decision fatigue is a real thing, especially in today's world, where we are overloaded with information and have an immense pressure to succeed. There are so many big life decisions to make — who to marry, what career path to take, where to live, how to manage our money — and so many options.

While having an abundance of choices might sound appealing, studies have found that it often causes us to feel stressed and overwhelmed.

In modern "emerging adulthood" — a term that psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett defines as "the period between the ages of 18 and 25 when many directions remain possible and very little about the future has been decided" — delayed choices ultimately leads to confusion about one's identity and purpose in life.

How to deal with 'too many choices'

In his book, "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less," psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the more choices we have, the more likely we are to anticipate regretting our decisions later on.

Schwartz says that one of three things is likely to occur when young adults are faced with too many choices:

  1. They make poor choices
  2. They become more dissatisfied with their choices
  3. They become paralyzed and don't make a choice at all

Here's the advice I give to millennials who struggle with decision fatigue:

1. Address how you truly feel.

Self-awareness is everything. When we force ourselves to think about our feelings, words, emotions and behaviors, we start to understand what's really bothering us and what we really want.

How do you feel about your current situation? What changes would you like to make? What's important to you right now? What are your current goals? What are your future goals?

Asking yourself these questions will guide you in making a decision you feel good about and are less likely to regret.

2. Identify your options.

At this point, it's time to get serious and start brainstorming the choices you have and what outcomes they might lead to.

For example, switching jobs could affect your salary, living situation, work responsibilities or commute.

Define the key factors of each decision and how they might affect your current situation. Maybe you need to take care of a sick family member and can't afford to take on a demanding job.

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3. Identify the things you can control.

It's okay to take risks, but you also want to avoid choices with outcomes that you have very little control over.

You might be dealing with a difficult boss who is unpleasant to work with. If that's just your boss' personality, confronting her behavior might not change things at all. In fact, it might even make things even more awkward.

What you can control, however, is how you react to your boss' behavior. You can choose to not let it affect you or maybe think about finding a new job altogether.

Once you've recognized what you can and can't control, you'll have an easier time narrowing down your list of choices.

4. Make a decision.

It may take some time to figure out what you want your next move to be. Don't rush yourself — but at the same time, don't spend too much time obsessing over your choices.

It may even help to talk things through with someone or ask for a different perspective. Just be careful not to accept blind advice.

Once you've made a decision, be prepared for the possible outcomes. Make a plan for what to do if things don't turn out the way you expected them to.

5. Embrace the uncertainties.

I often tell my patients that it's okay to worry or feel uncertain, provided that you don't allow it to take over your life.

The only "right" path is the path that feels right to you. You might accept the new job offer and realize that it wasn't a good culture fit or that there were far more responsibilities than you were prepared to take on.

You won't always get it right the first time, but when you embrace and accept your mistakes, you become a lot smarter, wiser and more confident about the choices you make in the future.

Tess Brigham is a San Francisco-based psychotherapist and certified life coach. She has more than 10 years of experience in the field and primarily works with millennials and millennial parents.

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