By Samantha Smithstein Psy.D.
Why is making a choice, even an exciting one, likely to make you sad?
- Every choice, whether painful or joyful, contains loss.
- Sometimes this loss is literal, and sometimes it’s theoretical.
- Knowing this helps us to not react to anxious feelings with fear, but instead to have them while still moving forward.
There are obvious times when making the right choice involves loss. Moving away from friends or family, ending a relationship that isn’t working, selling the family home, or euthanizing a dying beloved family pet might be the best choice for all right reasons but most people would anticipate those choices would bring feelings of grief and sadness.
But there are other times when we make the right choice and that choice feels joyful and exciting. Getting engaged to be married, having a baby, stepping into the career of our dreams, or adopting a puppy are choices that often bring happy anticipation. These choices are related to the fulfillment of dreams and desires and/or involve love and passion.
We make those choices from a place of happiness, so we are often taken off guard or feel blindsided when we have feelings of sadness or even grief. And we think of the choice as pure gain, so why should we be grieving?
Loss Brings Grief
We grieve the choice for the same reason we grieve anything—because we experience loss. While we may think of an exciting choice as fully about gain, even the best, most glorious choices we make involve giving something up. Getting engaged to be married means gaining a committed partner, but it also means stepping away from our family of origin and, for most people, no longer dating others. Having a baby means gaining a very unique and special relationship with a child, but it also means a loss of centering our lives around ourselves and whatever we want to be doing at any moment: a loss of freedom.
Stepping into the career of our dreams may mean a loss of choosing a different career, or leaving a job or group of people whom we care about and feel connected to. Even leaving an abusive relationship can mean the loss of someone we love and/or financial security. Choosing sobriety, with all of its gains, can also mean giving up certain friends, places, rituals, or experiences.
Sometimes the loss is literal—having to give up something concrete. Sometimes the loss is simply the fact that we can only choose one life, and to make a choice means we don’t get to choose a different course that might also appeal to us. And sometimes a choice involves both kinds of losses. Either way, we find ourselves grieving—mourning the loss in the midst of our joy.
Related: 3 Essentials for Staying in Love
It’s important to understand and respect this duality and to be able to hold both experiences simultaneously. Often people can get confused otherwise: They wonder if the grief and sadness they feel is an indication that they have made the wrong decision. The sadness—and, often, anxiety—of the yet-unknown outcome of the choice can make us doubt that we are making the right decision. Of course, it could be that the “wrong” choice is being made, but not necessarily because of those feelings. Regardless of right or wrong, every choice is going to contain loss and anxiety as part of its experience.
Knowing that allows us to not react to our feelings, but instead hold all of the feelings with compassion and space, review why we have made a choice, and move forward in a way that is best for us, with all of the joy, excitement, fears, and loss that choice entails.