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Why is Decision Making so Damn Hard?

"Uugh I hate making decisions. It's so hard. I'm so indecisive." 

In my Three Secrets of Self-Confidence blog, I said that struggling with low self-confidence brings a lot of folks to therapy.

Big theme number two that comes up in the therapy room? Decision making. 

You’ve seen The Good Place, right? Chidi’s decision paralysis is a running joke throughout all four seasons. We chuckle at Chidi as he takes an hour to decide on his breakfast muffin, and groan with laughter when his indecision leads to his demise, or to a fabulous pair of boots. But when people are in my office struggling with decision making, it’s no joke…they’re in a lot of pain. 

Why is decision making so hard, and what can we do about it?

There are a bunch of reasons decision making is so damn hard. If you struggle with decision making, try a few of these on and see if they fit for you:

The Unknown
So much of the challenge of decision making is that it forces us to face our lack of control, because every decision has a component of the unknown. Our human minds don’t like uncertainty so putting off making a decision can feel relieving in the short term. Think about the acronym FOMO: the f stands for “fear”, and the “missing out” isn’t anything concrete. It’s just a vague feeling of uncertainty about the future, and lack of control around the things you’re “missing out” on. 

Not Feeling our Feels
Speaking of fear, we humans are experts at avoiding our feelings. You don’t even have to take my word for it. Remember that time you were waiting in line at City Market and you pulled out your phone because you were bored? Bored = emotion, and “phone” = avoidance behavior. It’s important not to heap a bunch of judgment on avoidance. It’s a normal and natural human behavior. However, if we get in a habit of avoiding our feelings, decisions become challenging. That's because almost all decisions involve some sort of emotion and the bigger the decision, the bigger and more complex the emotions. If we're out of practice feeling our feels, we're going to be rusty when trying to process the emotions of a decision. 

Lack of Self-Confidence and Self-Trust
Going back to the idea of self-confidence, people can struggle to make a decision because of the negative ways they think about themselves. If a person has a persistent belief of “I’m a f*** up”, then every decision is going to be seen through the lens of that belief. Their expectation of themselves becomes “I WILL f*** up.” Or, if I hold the belief that the world is unsafe, most of my decisions will likely be influenced by that belief. As a result, I might be afraid to make decisions that involve risk or do anything outside of my comfort zone. 

Our Logical, Analytical Mind
Our brain is really good at solving problems. For better (and a lot of times for worse), it’s the reason we have a globe-spanning civilization. I mentioned that most decisions involve emotions. Big life decisions are especially emotional. Do I leave the town and community I love in order to pursue my passion? Do I end a relationship because I’m feeling unfulfilled? When we turn our intellectual problem solving brain towards these types of decisions, we often get trapped in anxious spinning, ruminating, and “analysis paralysis.” And while our mind can be really helpful sometimes, it becomes not so helpful when we're trying to make a decision and get stuck in an analytical place. 

Fear of the unknown, avoidance of feeling hard feelings, lack of trust in ourselves, and our analytical mind are just a few of the contributors to decision making challenges.

If you’re struggling with decision making, here are a few things you can try:

Experiment with a Decisional Matrix
There are a bunch of matrices out there for decision making; just hit up the ol’ Google. One that I’ve adapted to use with folks I work with goes something like this:

1. List the decision at the top of the page. 

2. Make two columns, and in each column write ONE option or path you could take. 

3. Under each option write THREE positives and THREE drawbacks to taking that particular path. 

4. Next, write TWO values you would be aligned with if you choose that option. (As an example, if you're choosing between staying in a town you love or leaving to pursue a passion, "passion" might be a value in the "leaving" column.)

(It’s important to limit yourself to two possible solutions, and three positives/drawbacks for each solution as it is a way of holding boundaries with that analytical problem solving mind we talked about earlier.)

After you’ve gone through all four steps, circle all the emotions in each column. Try not to look at this as a pros and cons list; instead, see it as a way to both challenge emotional avoidance and acknowledge your fear of the unknown. Seeing all those emotions circled will hopefully help you realize that (a) you’re going to feel stuff no matter which path you choose, (b) the emotions you’re afraid of feeling probably aren’t as bad as you think and, (c) while there is uncertainty, you’re not completely in the dark about what might happen. The values are there to help you notice whether or not you're making a choice in line with your values. 

Give your Mind a Break
Next time you make a decision, try tapping into something other than your logical, problem-solving mind. Using alternative mediums like drawing, painting, collage, or music can help you explore facets of a decision in a less mind-centric way. Try making a playlist for each option, and then listening to the playlists a few times through to see what each one evokes. Buy a stack of old Nat Geos at the thrift store, tear out images that draw your attention, divide the images into stack for each option of your decision, and make a collage out of the images. Create a Pinterest board and add images or words that draw your eye. When trying these methods, I would still recommend limiting yourself to two options per decision…you don’t want to end up with 20 Pinterest boards.

Be a Curious Scientist
When experimenting with different ways to make decisions, try observing yourself as if you are a curious scientist collecting data. So often we judge and criticize ourselves when trying something new. Instead, step back and say “hmm, this method of decision making seems to be eliciting the following thoughts, emotions, and behaviors…how curious.” Since there are a gazillion tips out there for decision making, I’d suggest picking one—even if you have to eeny meeny miney mo it—and commit to using whatever that technique is for a month. Say to yourself “I’m going to try this thing, and collect data on what happens.” Remind yourself that you’re going to feel some uncomfortable feelings along the way, and that you might avoid, and that your mind is probably going to get really busy and maybe even critical at times. 

As Chidi says towards the end of The Good Place: “turns out life isn't just a puzzle to be solved one time and it's done. You wake up every day and you solve it again.” The puzzle of decision making is not going to have a “one and done” solution. Be patient with yourself, try a few things out, and if you still need help…

there’s always therapy