A GPS for Life

Imagine possessing an emotional GPS to navigate the roads of life. 

Once upon a time, before the days of GPS (global positioning systems) technologies that now provide directions, identify obstacles and recalculate our route when necessary, we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best! Maybe you remember that long stretch of miles traveling in the wrong direction before the sinking awareness that you were lost.


Jack came to therapy upon the recommendation of his boss based on feedback from his professional peers. Jack’s performance wasn’t dependable when work challenges and deadlines intensified. He was surprised and shaken that his colleagues didn’t trust him to carry his share of the work since he prided himself on being overly responsible. Not showing up when stressors increased, however, was a real problem for Jack. He started missing deadlines in high school and yet always managed to charm his teachers and get extensions. At his job when work pressures mounted, his apprehension made him sick with anxiety. He’d chastise himself for not being able to keep it together and shame himself for being flooded with feelings of fear and anger. His fear embarrassed him and his anger frightened him. Leaving seemed the only way to care for himself.

Jack grew up in an average middle-class neighborhood. He was a good student and made friends easily. His parents taught him to be responsible and polite. His mother worked hard to make a nice home. His father had a steady job and made good money. They looked like a happy family but they weren’t. Jack’s father was a bully. Jack and his mother were the targets of his father’s belittling attacks. His mother worried a lot about the next time he would badger Jack until he cried, rage at her, and abruptly abandon them for days.  

It troubled Jack to recognize aspects of his father’s behavior in his own life. He acknowledged his fear of being humiliated had undermined him for a long time. He didn’t know the details of his parents’ troubles or enough of the parts of their history he carried. He wished he had started therapy sooner.

It took time, patience and practice before Jack could slow down his anxiety enough to track his difficult feelings and adjust his behavior. His boss could see the efforts Jack was making. When work pressures increased and deadlines loomed, Jack was finding ways to stay engaged, to ask for help and to work toward a common goal. He liked connecting with his colleagues without being overwhelmed by fear and anger.

Clinical Considerations

Jack’s life seemed predictable and safe enough. Jack appeared to be on a road that would lead to a happy and secure life. The fallout from his father’s penchant for bullying, periodic rages and sudden departures as well as his mother’s anxieties caused detours in his life that confounded him. Getting lost over and over again in a panic was uncomfortable and embarrassing so Jack kept these episodes to himself. It wasn’t until he was in therapy that he discovered the roads he had been using were out-of-date. Let’s face it; we do what we know until we learn to explore different options.

Without a healthy base of emotional support to promote self-confidence, the Adult Child depends on getting directions from others. These “helpful” tips are often the “shoulds” considered by many to be basic rules of life. When “shoulds” become the map an Adult Child relies on, they become dependent on external approval and get lost in outward, other-focused thoughts and behaviors because they have no awareness of their own feelings to guide them.

“Shoulds” promote a guessing game in which the Adult Child scans frantically for clues about “right” and “socially acceptable” behaviors to meet the needs of others and avoid abandonment. “Shoulds,” however, are a recipe for self-sabotage. When the Adult Child determines the positive feedback that they want isn’t forthcoming, the price for failing to get affirmation from others sets off a relentless rampage of punitive self-shame. At these times, the Adult Child may use an assortment of distractions and out-of-control behaviors to numb the pressure of the social expectations that chase them. 

“Shoulds” are the detours the Adult Child uses to deny their fragility. Instead of allowing “shoulds” to control you, figure out the significance of them even if it means feeling stuck for longer than comfortable. If the Adult Child could recognize “shoulds” as distress signals, they might stop to figure out the problem.

When we learn to access our feelings and then use them to find our way, we will not be lost for long. Yet, getting to where we want to be requires patience and resilience. Calming down enough to consider next-step options is crucial. Taking time to track our inner resources means standing at a crossroads until we can decide our own route.

Each of us possesses an emotional GPS in our deepest emotions. Trusting our emotional GPS to provide valuable directions to find our way performs the same function as GPS satellites suspended in space that keep us moving toward our desired destination.