This is a matrix for making life decisions that I’ve been working on for seven years. I lead workshops and retreats to share it with others, sometimes for organizations and church groups but sometimes I host my own events. My upcoming workshop on April 22 is filled for in-person participants but there is still room to join us online if you’re interested. Just visit my events page on this website. I have added another date for Wednesday, May 17. A link to register can be found on my events page. I’ll offer another this summer, probably in June. Click here for my events page.
For those who are applying this process, here is a shorthand version for you to reference when you need a refresher. I hope it helps!
The Life You Could Have:
Take time to consider what is and is not within your capabilities. What are the things you are able to do? This should include finances, physical ability, emotional needs, and geographical concerns. Narrow it down! There are many things we tell ourselves we “cannot” do when we really mean we think we “shouldn’t” do them. Those can wait for the next step. For now, consider what your real abilities and limitations are.
Don’t rush through this step. There will be moments you need to mourn the loss of abilities or limitations you wish you didn’t have due to past decisions. Financially you may find yourself constrained or you may need to accept you are no longer physically able to complete actions you once could with ease. Take time to mourn those realizations. Also make a note of what you may not be capable of now but with some physical therapy or financial planning, you may be able to do in the future. Those notes will come in handy later when you start to consider the life you want and may choose.
Also celebrate the moments you realize you have told yourself you “couldn’t” do something but actually can! For many people there is a long list of “couldn’ts” that truthfully are “shouldn’ts.” We follow rules either of our own creation or ones given to us by our culture. Be honest about this and celebrate the choices now open to you!
The Life You Should Have:
After you have a realistic sense of what is and isn’t within your capability to achieve, start naming the many rules you have allowed to dictate your life. What are the constraints you have placed on your choices based on what you have understood you “should” or “shouldn’t” do? These are the activities and behaviors you came to understand that, even though possible, were or were not allowed by your family of origin, your community of birth, your peer group, etc.
Again, slow down. This will take some time. Dig into your earliest memories of the rules you learned at home and at school. What did you come to understand was expected of you? For instance, “boys will be boys” or “little girls are sugar and spice and everything nice.” It’s amazing how even these two little sayings formed entire fences around men and women for what was and was not acceptable behavior for them.
The “shoulds” cross the entire scope of your life, including what you should wear, how you should speak, to whom you should speak, what kind of career you should consider, the books you should read, IF you should read… the list is endless.
Slowly dig into that list and consider who shaped those rules. Whose voices are in your mind, reinforcing these rules? You will hear those of parents, teachers, mentors, and friends. You will hear bosses and adversaries, characters from books, television and movie personalities, and more. Do not forget the impact of social media, either! There’s a reason why professional content creators on Instagram, Tiktok, Facebook, etc. are called “influencers.”
Make a list of these elements and people. One by one reflect on whether or not these are positive influences in your decision making. Do you trust that voice or not? Do you value that person’s opinion? Begin to differentiate between those you find of value and those you wish to set aside and no longer guide you.
For those of you who subscribe to a religious belief system, this is a time to reflect on how that system has guided your life and what ideals you hold as true. Step carefully into this work because it is likely you will identify ways that belief system has guided you in ways that do not line up with your own ideals. Religious trauma is real and has shaped many lives. Hold onto the guidance from whatever higher power you follow while purging some of the cultural baggage that might have held you back.
If you consider religious influences, include in this section how you feel the divine is shaping your life. In the Christian tradition, this is referred to as “calling.” What are the behaviors, professions, and relationships that you believe God is either guiding you to or expecting or requiring of you?
The Life You Want (and Need):
Set aside the “could” and “should” work you have done. Having named those factors, now remove them from your considerations and reflect solely on the life you want for yourself. If there were no limitations, no rules, what would you want most for yourself? What would you want to accomplish? Don’t allow any “could” or “should” thoughts to creep in, but stay focused on your own desires. What you discover you want for your life may surprise you.
Include detail in your answer. Where do you want to live? What do you want to do? With whom? What would make you feel most fulfilled? What seems the most fun? What would bring you joy and peace?
Recently I have added to this step what you need in order to achieve what you want. For your mental, emotional, and physical health, who and what are the people and things you need to have in your life to make it the one you want? Truthfully, sometimes these are things we wouldn’t choose just based on wanting. However, often in order to get to where we want to be, we must do things we don’t necessarily desire or enjoy. If you want to end your life having run a marathon, you need to start training. If you want a better relationship with a loved one, you might need to start therapy.
If you struggle to find an answer to this one, perhaps try imagining yourself as a child. Allow yourself to talk to your nine or ten-year-old self. Enter into those dreams and aspirations and let them guide you to revised ones for your adult self.
The Life You Choose:
Once you have weighed the above, you are more empowered to take control over the decisions you make that shape the direction of your life. Make some notes on what you choose for yourself today. Creative types, feel free to make a vision board, journal, create a Pinterest page, whatever you like to keep these goals in front of you.
I find myself applying this system almost daily for bigger decisions I must make. It helps me become clearer about how my choices line up with my ideals and beliefs. Over time I have grown more adept at recognizing “should” voices that I value and others that have crept in with negative effect. It has helped me come to terms with some of the aspirations I had for my life that now are no longer possible. I have held those losses and mourned them while turning my face to other opportunities.
I hope you find this process to be equally powerful. Over the years I have realized things I thought I wanted were actually things I thought I should want. I have replaced some “should” voices with others, and found motivation to do the things I need in order to achieve what I want. Good luck as you apply this to your decision making and let me know how it goes!