“Life is a series of choices.”
So goes the old adage, which, like all old adages, has staying power because of its essential truth.
But what happens when we can’t seem to make a decision? When we feel trapped by the enormity of what our decision implies? When we are paralyzed by self-doubt, fear, or anxiety?
This happens to most of us at one point or another—how could it not? Once we make a choice, even a small one, it moves us toward one destiny or another…and what if it’s the wrong destiny?
The problem is complicated by our unprecedented access to information. In the old days, we didn’t have Indeed emailing us 20 different jobs daily; we had to pound the street and take the first feasible option we stumbled on. It’s the same way with dating, shopping, traveling, and just about everything else. Faced with what appear to be limitless alternatives, many of us have become afraid to commit. Which leads us to another aphorism: “Not making a choice is a choice.”
So how do we manage our feelings about decision making well enough to actually make, and feel good about, our decisions?
The first thing to remember is that there is no perfect solution. I remind myself and my clients of this regularly. I am, by nature, a perfectionist. I’m the type of woman who can try on 50 outfits and find something wrong with them all. If a pillow is out of place on my couch, my blood pressure rises 10 points, immediately. But my work as a mental health professional has (mercifully) reformed me.
What I’ve had to accept is that being a perfectionist is also being someone who is foolishly chasing an illusion—because perfect doesn’t exist. If that’s true, it makes much more sense to chase something called “good enough.”
Bruno Bettelheim, a renowned psychiatrist at the height of his fame in the 1930s, liked this idea so much he named his best selling book after it: A Good Enough Parent. Bettelheim said, “In order to raise a child well one ought not to try to be a perfect parent, as much as one should not expect one’s child to be, or to become, a perfect individual. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings.”
What is within the grasp of ordinary human beings is making the best decisions we can, accepting that they will be flawed, and updating or editing them accordingly.
Not long ago, I had two separate clients trying to figure out how to move forward in their unhealthy marriages: I’ll call them Tess and Toni (not their real names). Their situations were eerily similar. Both had been married for 12 years, both had two sons aged 10 and 8, and both were middle class professional women of unusual intelligence and emotional sensitivity. They had each discovered their husbands had cheated on them and were still in the middle of long-term affairs by stumbling across incriminating information via technology. When caught, their husbands vehemently denied these affairs, flying into dangerous rages. Instead of being contrite, they were angry and turned to gaslighting. The wives were faced with the tough decision: should I stay or should I go?
Now, before we start making knee-jerk assumptions about how they should obviously have just kicked their husbands to the curb, let’s remember that it’s never as simple as that. These women had a lot to lose—financial stability, self-identity, an unbroken home in which to raise their kids, time with their kids, their reputation thanks to the ongoing stigma of divorce, and the dream of who they had wanted to be.
While Tess and Toni were both in the same boat, they handled their paddles quite differently. Tess decided over the course of about three months of excruciating therapy that she had to end her marriage regardless of the fallout, but Toni couldn’t bring herself to commit to any substantive course of action.
One year later, Tess was starting her new life as a single mom and gaining strength and courage with each step forward, although she was often still riddled with self-doubt. Despite that, she was once again excited about her future, coming into my office in a blaze of glory the day she closed on her very own little home. Her “cottage” she called it—laughing at herself for having put such value on her old McMansion, where she’d sacrificed so much for things she didn’t even want.
By now, Toni was on a different path. She had remained in limbo, tormented by the fact that her husband continued his affair, now unapologetically right under her nose, but unable to leave. She was devastated to discover he was taking his girlfriend to expensive restaurants and hotels, and humiliated when he laughed at Toni after she asked about the credit card charges. Her husband punished her with more frightening outbursts when she dared to confide in anyone about what was happening, so she isolated herself entirely. In her desperation to win him back, she continued to occasionally have sex with him, and when she discovered she was pregnant, he demanded that she have an abortion. She refused, and was soon saddled with a third infant son. Her self-esteem was in shambles and the thought of suicide frequently crossed her mind—the only thing that stopped her from killing herself, she said, was her kids.
I compare these stories not to point out that Tess made the better choice, but to underscore the difference between making an intentional decision versus letting oneself be blown about by the winds of chance. And while the difference, in this case, led to a better outcome for Tess, it’s not the outcome I’d like to bring attention to.
By standing in her own power and being decisive, Tess grew herself into a stronger woman. This means that moving forward, she’ll have evidence-based proof that she can be smart and strong, even if that means experiencing discomfort.
The more proof we build of our own competency, the more competent we become. So, making decisions—large and small—and sticking to them as long as it makes sense to do so, is one way we can come to inhabit our own destinies.
“Okay, fine,” you say, “I know all that. But I still stink at making decisions!” Right. Let’s talk about a system to get better at it.
First things first, when we have a decision to make, we usually have a couple of front running ideas from which to choose. In Tess and Toni’s case, it boiled down to whether or not to stay in their marriages. Whether the decision you have to make is large or small, establish the top two options.
Then, vet your two ideas. Run through, as best you can, how making one choice and then the other will impact you.
Of each, ask yourself:
>> Will this serve me in the long run?
>> Is fear or laziness or lack of information the only thing keeping me from making this choice?
>> If it is one of these, can I face my fear, energize myself, or get more information?
>> Do I have the skills, ability, and resources to make this choice?
>> If I don’t, can I acquire them?
>> When I tune into my heart rather than my mind, how do I feel about each choice?
>> Is there one that sparks hopefulness and excitement in me despite seeming potentially quite difficult?
Remember, there is no perfect choice! The trick is to pick the better one—even if it’s only better by a slight margin.
After you’ve settled on one or the other, you might give yourself a time frame within which to commit to it 100 percent. Sometimes, the act of stating our intention to do one thing suddenly makes us realize we really wanted to do the other thing. If that happens, decide on a date and time by which you will decide—between a day and a week should be sufficient. When you get to your deadline, force yourself to make a choice and move beyond the crossroads.
The most important thing to do now is take action. The time for contemplation has temporarily ended. We must shift gears and do something tangible that supports our choice. If our end game is smaller, that may only require a single dedicated action, but if it’s larger, it may require weeks, months, or even years of sustained and intentional activity.
I often use the example of writing a book. After I decided to write a book (an agonizing decision because I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it, or do it well) I then resolved to write a page a day until I had a complete rough draft. For the next year or so I did this, skipping days here and there because I am human, but getting back on track and not dwelling on my “failure” when I did. When I finally had a big, unruly mountain of rough words the approximate length of a book, I didn’t waste any time. I sorted out which action to take next to support my ultimate goal and got to work on the rewrite. Eventually I was the author of a whole, real book.
The moral of the story? If you write a page a day, or rather do something small but specific that contributes to your goal, you will eventually get where you want to be. If you skip a day, don’t fret. Just get back to it the next. If you find you keep skipping lots of days regardless of how disciplined you try to be, then it might be time for the next step: reevaluation.
Sometimes, no matter how carefully we consider a decision, we can make the wrong one—of course we can! And it’s nothing to worry about. We just need to take a deep breath and start at the beginning again. What are our top two choices now? Are they different than the original two that we grappled with? If so, we can wonder why, and what has changed. Have we learned something about ourselves that makes us see things in a different light? Have we learned something about our original goal that makes it no longer feasible? Take a look at all the data, vet the current two choices, give yourself a deadline, decide on a direction, and get moving.
This may sound overly simplistic, and that’s exactly the point. Boiling things down to the fundamentals and refusing to get caught up in endless reflection or obsessive thinking is key if we want to get unstuck. It takes courage to do this; it takes courage to release the idea of perfection, and courage to dedicate all of ourselves to a potentially flawed idea—but doing anything less means our decisions are based in fear, and living in fear will never get us where we want to be.
By becoming the type of person who can make a decision and stick with it, we also become the type of person who trusts themselves, and anyone who trusts themselves is unstoppable. The decision to become your own hero is yours. What will you decide?