I’ve rarely quit anything in my life. So when I left my doctorate clinical psychology program after receiving my Masters, it was a big deal.
But my heart just wasn’t in it. I witnessed my close friends — who are now licensed clinical psychologists — get excited about the course work and conducting therapy, about studying the ins and outs of psychological treatments.
All I wanted was for my clients to cancel.
I realized that what I’d loved about psychology didn’t require a Ph.D. What I loved was learning about psychology and writing about it. But I still felt an overwhelming sense of the shoulds. I should finish the program. That’s just the proper thing to do. I should barrel through it. I worried that I was taking the easy way out by quitting. I wondered if I’d regret my choice. I wondered if I was doomed to fail at something else.
People face similar inner dialogues and challenges when pursuing their purpose and passion. They worry about “outside influences,” and focus on “what others think [they] should do,” or on society’s view of success, according to Susan Biali, M.D., life coach and author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You.
Don’t let your social self dominate your life.
This is similar to the idea of the “social self,” which comes from renowned life coach Martha Beck. If you allow your social self to “dominate your life,” it can stand in your way, said Joy Tanksley, a certified Martha Beck Life Coach, Intuitive Eating coach and Nia instructor.
“The social self is that part of us that’s concerned with fitting in, following rules [and] being acceptable to others.” It interferes with your purpose when you focus more on pleasing others. “You’ll end up making decisions based on what seems ‘good’ and ‘right’ to everyone around you, which is a recipe for feeling depleted and absolutely purposeless.”
Other roadblocks include “your own thoughts about what’s possible in life” and “apparent failure in early attempts” in trying to accomplish your purpose, Dr. Biali said.
We can even misunderstand “purpose” in the first place, a mindset that becomes a roadblock, Tanksley said. “We make it too heavy, too mysterious, too serious.”
Also, purpose isn’t like a soulmate (if you believe in such things). “I don’t believe for a moment that everyone has one magical purpose that must be discovered or else life will be a miserable waste,” Tanksley said.
Instead, Tanksley has a simple but powerful definition of purpose: authenticity. Purpose is “finding your authentic self, and setting the intention to live in a way that honors whatever it is you find,” she said. For instance, once one of Tanksley’s clients was able to shed her tough-girl image, an act that hid her softer and vulnerable side, she “had a major epiphany about her career path and is taking deliberate steps toward starting her own business.”
Finding Your Purpose & Passions
Passion is another word Tanksley believes is often misunderstood. “When I help clients find their passions, I’m not talking about helping them feel hot and heavy about everything they do every second of their lives,” she said.
Instead, passion can feel “like a quiet inner light…an opening in the chest or a soft flutter in the belly.” When you’re passionate about something, it feels like a “yes,” she said.
6 Tips for Finding and Living Your Purpose and Passion
Below Tanksley and Biali share several tips and insights on finding and living your purpose and passion.
1. Consider your unique talents.
“Clues to your purpose can be found in your unique talents and what you simply love, and it usually will serve others in some significant way,” Biali said. By taking inventory of your gifts and talents, she said, you may be able to spot common themes.
2. List off people you admire.
“List[ing] people whose lives you admire” is another way to spot patterns that can reveal your passion, Biali said.
3. Return to your childhood.
Clues of your purpose also lie in your childhood, both experts agreed. According to Biali, “Most people have signs of it in their childhood ideas or passions, but in my experience most people don’t really figure it out until their 30s or 40s.”
Biali, who had a childhood love of dancing but was unable to take classes, rediscovered her passion—and herself—after traveling to Cuba. When she came home, she started taking dance lessons and then performing and teaching herself. From there, she found flamenco, and currently still performs and gives workshops.
Even a childhood book can help with self-discovery.
List off your favorite activities as a child, Biali said. Engaging in these activities helps in “awakening your authentic self,” Tanksley said. “As children, we are naturally in touch with who we are.”
Even a favorite childhood book can serve as a door to self-discovery. “Try rereading one of your favorite books from elementary school, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll have major insights about your authentic self.”
When she was younger, Tanksley enjoyed expressing herself with clothes and had a unique sense of style. “Now, as a Nia teacher, I see myself making the same sorts of choices. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror before class and think, ‘Wow, 8-year-old Joy would have loved this outfit!’ And that’s always a great sign to me that I’m really in touch with my authentic self.”
4. Complete this sentence…
As Biali said, finishing the following sentence also can provide some hints: “If I had no possibility of failing and were thus guaranteed of success I would…”
5. Fine-tune your “yes” and “no” compass.
Earlier, Tanksley explained that passionate activities prompt a “yes.” In order to recognize what a “yes” feels like, she said, “begin noticing how you feel physically when something is a “yes” versus when something is a “no.”
Still not sure what that feels like? Going down memory lane can help. “Go back and think about something in your life that was a definite ‘yes’ – something that felt fun, delightful, satisfying [and] fulfilling.” When recalling the memory, pay attention to how your body feels and what emotions you’re experiencing. This memory doesn’t have to be work-related, she added. It can be anything that felt great, even playing with your pet. When Tanksley hosted her first body image workshop, she said her body felt “light, as if I’m floating.” She also felt “a deep sense of contentment.”
Do the same with a “no” memory. For Tanksley, a former teacher, the 10 minutes before her first class began became the worst part of her day. “When I recall that time, I feel a sense of heaviness in my head and chest. Emotionally, I feel distraught, sad, and fearful,” she said.
Now, begin paying closer attention to events and experiences that elicit a “yes” or a “no.” Start small. Tanksley gave the following examples: “Which breakfast food feels more like a ‘yes’? Which pair of pants? Which television show? Does it feel more like ‘yes’ to read your email right now or work on that writing project?”
She added that, “over time these small decisions will begin steering you toward an authentic, purposeful, passion-filled life.”
Remember Tanksley’s client? When a close friend of hers approached her client with a business idea, she “immediately sensed it was the big ‘yes’ because she had done so much personal work on discerning yes from no in her body.”
6. Acting on your passion feels right.
Tanksley doesn’t believe in forcing action when pursuing your passion and purpose. “If you feel major resistance, it’s a sign to stop and dig deeper,” she said. Pushing through the resistance can lead to losing “contact with our authentic selves, which means we lose contact with our purpose.”
Instead, she suggests choosing smaller steps “that steer you toward your unique preferences and when the resistance comes up, notice it with compassion and curiosity.” Biali also encouraged readers to create steps, no matter how small. For instance, Biali’s purpose, she said, is to inspire and educate people through her writing. She plans on writing her second book. Her first step is to find the time, so she’s scheduled a trip in May.
As for me, I obviously did take the plunge into pursuing my passion. I took several wrong turns (though those also taught me important lessons), and while writing oftentimes is overwhelming and difficult, I still feel a quiet inner light when I sit down and start typing. And a stomach flutter when the sentences really start to flow.