person showing black and white compass

Navigating Life’s Wrong Turns

Dr. Alyson Nerenberg

I am directionally challenged. In the past, I got overwhelmed by maps and needed to write out my directions in words, including as many landmarks as possible so it would make sense to me and I wouldn’t end up lost. From my perspective, one of the greatest inventions of all time is navigation systems for cars and phones. Instead of having to fumble with maps and directions from strangers, I can just follow my Waze app.

In therapy sessions, I often share with patients my belief that the navigation system I use in my car is a great analogy for life. I explain that there are times while driving, even with this wonderful navigation system, that I blow it. I miss the turn completely, or I turn left when the app says to turn right. What I love about the navigation system is that it does not judge me, it just tells me how to correct my course. The navigation system does not say to me, “You screwed up, you stupid idiot!” Instead, it says, “in a quarter mile turn right.” There is no cruelty, sarcasm, or judgment. It simply tells me to do the next right thing.

Twelve-step fellowships have been promoting this “do the next right thing” slogan for years, and it is one of the principles I try to follow as I live my life. Instead of beating myself up for making choices that were not exactly in line with my highest self, I just keep showing up and trying to do better. Whether I overreact as a parent or communicate too harshly to a friend, I concentrate on breathing, and on slowly letting go of the harsh voice in my head that is judging myself. I try to quiet that critical voice and focus on compassion and self-forgiveness. When that doesn’t work, I just try to do the next right thing.