I feel torn between two cities. How can I reconcile where I want to be? | Health & well-being

My dilemma is not knowing where I should be. I moved between two cities during my 20s and feel like I have strong communities in each place. While both offer great friendships, experiences, and feelings of belonging, both also (inevitably) have their downsides.

A city is where I have created great independence from my family and friends and where I have found new parts of myself. The other city is where I grew up, where my family and old friends live, where some of the deepest parts of me reside. I spend so much time in one city wishing I was in the other, and vice versa, never finding myself there to create life in one place. How can I reconcile where I want to be?

Eleanor says: As with so many life decisions, I think the key here is to stop trying to make the right one. It seems counter-intuitive – like what else could the goal be other than making our big decisions right? But sometimes run after the better choice can weaken us.

I like to think of a psychological experiment by researchers Daniel Gilbert and Jane Ebert. Here’s how it goes: Undergraduates learn to take pictures. At the end of the semester, they are told that they can select one of their photos and that the school will print it large enough to hang on the wall – it will come home to them. Some students are told that they only have one shot to make their choice. Whatever they choose now is what they will take home. Others are told they can change their minds for as long as they want, including after the print is made. By far, people who thought their decision was final were happier with the choice they made.

It can be so with places. You talk about dreaming in each place when you’re in the other – I think that’s a common experience for emigrants or timesharers. And there the choice isn’t something external like what to hang on the wall – it can look like a choice of who to be.

You know the weird phenomenon where your personality changes depending on where you are – I know someone who thinks he’s nicer in Spanish, someone who thinks he’s less neurotic in Australia. Each house brings out different parts of who we are, so when we dream of the smells or rituals of each place, I think we are also dreaming of the person it allows us to become. No wonder he’s starting to feel that every decision is a decision you’ll regret – how can you choose just one way to be?

But there are two lies in this way of thinking. One is the phenomenon these students taught us: sometimes it’s the making of the decision that makes you happy, not some belief about how it happened. The students most satisfied with their photo were not satisfied because they answered in the affirmative to the question “did I make the best choice?” it just didn’t occur to them to keep asking.

The other is the thought you mention when you talk about where the “deepest parts” of you reside. The truth is that the two parts of you – the independent part that started on your own and the part that longs for your first home, your friends and your family – are all aspects of the same self. Different parts are more accessible in different places, but the fact that you can access them tells you that they are related to who you are. Whichever home you choose, you’ll be the person who built those two lives – it’s like the most reassuring version of the saying “wherever I go, there I am”.

It will therefore not be the particularities of the place where you will settle that will give you the feeling of having made the right choice. It will be the act of making the choice and bringing as much of yourself as possible to the place you decide to call home.


Ask us a question

Do you have a conflict, crossroads or dilemma that you need help with? Eleanor Gordon-Smith will help you think through life’s questions and puzzles, big and small. Questions can be anonymous.