When facing a big decision or life transition, have you ever heard a voice in your head saying any of the following?:

  • What if you’re not ready?
  • What if you regret your decision?
  • What if you have no time left for anything else?
  • What if it wrecks your relationship(s)?
  • What if you burn bridges?
  • What if you never find something as good as what you have now?
  • What if things turn out shitty like they’ve always been?
  • What if your calling isn’t a calling after all but just an old habit speaking?
  • What if you’re just repeating your parents’ mistakes?
  • What if you really shouldn’t give all this up?
  • What if you lose your job, have no way to pay the bills, and become homeless?
  • What if you die?
  • What if there’s backlash?
  • What if nobody likes your ideas?
  • What if people hate you for it?
  • What if no one even cares?
  • What if it’s just a waste of time?
  • What if none of this matters?
  • What if you give it your all and still, you fail?
  • What if there’s something more important you should be doing?
  • Are you really sure this is a good idea?
  • Isn’t there another way forward?

If you’ve heard yourself asking any of these questions, you’re not alone. So have I.

In most great stories, after the traveler hears their call and before they embark on their journey, they pass through a phase that mythologist Joseph Campbell named the Refusal of the Call.[1]

During the Refusal of the Call, community members, specters, and voices in the traveler’s own mind confront them with fears of unexplored lands and dangerous creatures that live outside the village walls.

Although our callings promise something valuable to those who dare proceed, the journey is risky and without guarantee. None of us can predict with certainty whether we’ll reach our destination or survive the journey. We never know when we may encounter a landslide, rabid animal, or sudden sandstorm.

And so, in this phase,  we encounter a Voice of Doubt. An inner Voice of Doubt is the part of ourselves that cries Yeah but… and What if…? in an attempt to keep us safe.[2] An outer Voice of Doubt is a person we care about who does not understand our calling and tries to convince us not to go.

The greater the risk and the more we care, the louder the what ifs.

Doubt, anxiety, and all other flavors of fear are universal experiences—our body’s normal, physiological response to risk and the unknown. They’re signs we’re on the edge of something new.

Doubt itself is not the problem.

What keeps us stuck in the face of doubt and fear are the ways we react to doubt and fear.

Here Are Some Ways That People Commonly React to Doubt

Get curious about whether you see yourself in this list:

  1. Charging forward without proper discernment. Rather than giving the Voice of Doubt a chance to share its concerns, the traveler pummels past the quiet whispers that say something might not be right and dives headfirst without taking a good look at the obstacles ahead or considering strategies that might better meet their needs. They invest lots of time and energy before they’re confronted with the downsides of the path they’ve chosen.
  2. Avoiding the Call. The would-be traveler occupies themselves with distractions, attempts to resuscitate projects and relationships that are no longer alive, and expends lots of energy avoiding their call.

    But the call does not desist. As much as the traveler tries to push their doubt into the shadows, it bounces back, often as floating anxieties, confusion, and reactions they later regret. They suffer from what Joseph Campbell called a dull case of the call unanswered.[3]

  3. Worrying, and worrying about worrying. Most of us have been raised with the myth that the only thing to fear is fear itself and that we should somehow get rid of our fear. And so, when the Voice of Doubt spins in worry about what might happen, another part tries to convince them to stop worrying, saying their fears are irrational, and they shouldn’t be so afraid.

    But trying to silence doubt often makes it clamor even louder to be heard.

  4. Ruminating about what happened in the past or dissecting all the reasons they might be afraid, rather than getting curious about what might be possible, imagining the future they long for, or taking forward action.
  5. Blaming others for why they’re afraid or why things are so hard, rather than getting curious about what might be within their power now.

So, what works to soothe the Voice of Doubt?

The important thing to remember is that—like any resistant person or part of ourselves—Voices of Doubt are trying to meet a need.

Sometimes, Voices of Doubt have important perspectives that we may not have considered yet. They may ask important questions or point toward information we still need to gather or steps that would benefit us.

Other times, Voices of Doubt simply need acknowledgment, and listening with care can soothe the doubt and make it easier to move forward.

So, when we’re facing a big decision and uncertain about what to do next, our task is to pause, turn toward our inner Voice of Doubt with warmth and curiosity, and listen carefully to what it wants to tell us.

Likewise, if you trust someone who is currently an Outer Voice of Doubt for you to have your best interest at heart, it can help to listen to their concerns. Sometimes, when we listen to them with care, people who originally doubt us become our fiercest allies. And even when they don’t come around, having a heart-to-heart can help maintain a relationship while pursuing a new calling and can shed light on potential obstacles we hadn’t considered fully.

A practice that I’ve found helpful for shining light on an inner Voice of Doubt’s concerns while seeing the bigger picture is a Cost-Benefit Analysis.

If you’re facing a big decision, I invite you to experiment with this now.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

1. Get out your journal and create a Cost/Benefit Grid, like this:

  Potential Short-Term & Long-Term Costs (ie. Worst Case Scenarios) Potential Short-Term & Long-Term Benefits (i.e. Best Case Scenarios)
Option One    
Option Two    

 

2. Fill in Option One and Option Two. These may be two different paths you’re considering, or Option One might be proceeding with a path and Option Two might be not taking with that path.

3. With warmth and kindness, turn toward your Voice of Doubt and ask it these questions. Fill in the corresponding blanks in the grid with what arises.

    1. What costs are you afraid I might have to pay if I take this path?
    2. What needs are you afraid I won’t meet?
    3. What are the worst case scenarios you see?
    4. Keep asking “anything else?” and filling in the grid with the answers that arise.

4. Ask the part of you who longs to take the path you’re considering:

    1. What benefits of taking your preferred path do you see?
    2. What costs might I have to pay if I don’t take this path?
    3. What is the best case scenario?
    4. What needs are you longing to meet?
    5. Keep asking “anything else?” and filling in the grid with the answers that arise.

5. See if any other parts of you have opinions about the potential costs and benefits of their path. If so, fill in the grid accordingly.

Continue filling in the grid until you feel complete.

After listening with care to a Voice of Doubt and taking a close look at the costs and benefits, at a certain point, it will be time to choose your path forward.

It will be time to ask yourself: What will I give up to align my life with my values and move toward my vision? It will be time to choose what you’ll say yes to and what you’ll say no to.

Here are a few more things to keep in mind when you find yourself in the Refusal of the Call:

One: Sometimes, we are called to refuse the call.

Sometimes, courage looks like making a great big change. Other times, courage looks like saying not yet and refusing the call.

Sometimes, we must prioritize another call first, meet other needs first, prepare to say yes in the future, or cross through several little gates before we’re ready to cross through a big one.

Sometimes, our preparation is brief. Other times, preparation feels like its own great journey.

If you’re not yet ready to commit to a path, I challenge you to get curious about what tiny steps you might take to prepare to move forward.

Two: You may need to say, I love you, and no.

Sometimes, you will know deep down that it’s time to cross the threshold, even though part of you is still scared.

If you try to convince the scared part of yourself to stop resisting, it can feel like you’re in a power struggle with a small child.

The good news is, it’s not necessary to convince any part of ourselves to feel or think differently than it does. As I sometimes tell my son, Kai, We don’t always have to want to do something. We can choose to show up for ourselves or the collective because it’s what our values say to do. We can take back the wheel of our lives, and our Voice of Doubt can come along for the ride, even though it feels scared or wishes we weren’t going.

So if you decide to cross through a gate—as big as handing in your resignation or as small as putting your phone on airplane mode—and part of you resists, I invite you to imagine that you are reparenting yourself—offering the younger part of yourself the loving limits you may have missed out on as a little one.

Of course, when we set limits for little ones, they don’t always like it. They might even throw a tantrum. But as an adult who loves them, we can turn toward the resistant part of ourselves with fierce compassion, as if it were a small, tantruming child, and say:

I love you, and no.

Thank you for trying so hard to meet my needs.

And I am in charge now.

You don’t have to like the choices I’m making. And you don’t have to change what you feel or think.

I’m taking back the wheel now. It’s time for you to take a break.

I love you. And, no.

I love you, and I’m moving forward.

Three: You may need to mourn.

Even if you’re making a change that you’ve wanted to make for a long time, it’s normal to feel sad. Grief is a non-optional, physiological response to letting go. We are capable of honoring our sadness and our callings at the same time.

If part of you feels sad, please turn toward it, hold it with warmth and care and allow yourself space to mourn. If we don’t allow ourselves to grieve the loss of what we’re leaving behind, the energy of grief can get stuck in our bodies, and we can have a hard time being fully present to what’s next.

If  you still don’t know what to do…

Four: Consider the long view.

In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, former palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware writes that the number-one regret of her dying patients was this:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

She told the Guardian:

This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.

Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.[4]

With that in mind, I invite you to imagine that you’re on your deathbed looking back.

Bring to mind a decision that you’ve been going back and forth about.

Imagine that you’ve chosen one path:

How do you feel?

Imagine that you’ve chosen the other:

How do you feel?

From the perspective of the end of your life, there may be a choice that resonates more, even if it scares you. That may be the way to go.

When something feels right in our bodies, there is often a great reason, even if we don’t know what it is yet.

I do not know what happens after we die.

What I do know is that we have one chance to live this precious life to its fullest.

Someday, we will die.

Please don’t die with your call unanswered.


[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).

[2] I learned to call this part the Voice of Doubt from Pam England during my Birthing From Within training.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.)

[4] Steiner, Susie. “Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” The Guardian. Feb 1, 2012. I highly recommend Bronnie Ware’s book of the same name

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