Making a good decision (and why they don't matter so much)


How often do you get tied up in knots over a decision, wanting to make the right one? How often are you presented with options that seem equally murky?

Given the nature of decisions, we’re making them almost constantly.

From the moment we wake up (get up now or hit snooze?) to bedtime (watch another episode or call it a night?), we’re constantly presented with a buffet of options, most of which we navigate without much thought or angst. So obviously some decisions are weightier than others.

I’m currently playing with the concept that none of the decisions I make have any more effect on my well-being than what I have for breakfast. If you think that’s ridiculous, stay with me for a minute.

I realized recently that I’ve been defining a good decision as one that doesn’t cause shame or regret.

I don’t want to look back at my choices and feel that way. Shame is one of the most painful emotions out there. Why wouldn’t I try to avoid it?

To protect myself against shame, I look at every possible outcome to see if it could result in me feeling that way. And then, when I’m lost in an imaginary disastrous future of my own making… guess what I’m feeling? The shame of imagining I’ve lost my life’s savings isn’t any less painful than actually losing them (and maybe it’s worse!). Not to mention the accompanying anxiety and paralysis.

This aversion technique keeps me stuck right where I am, unable to make a decision either way, and then...I feel ashamed of my indecision!

There’s got to be a better way.

My coach asked me yesterday, “What’s wrong with feeling ashamed?” and my head broke a little.

Shame means I did something wrong. It’s the crunch I hear when I back into something. It’s the curt reply to a well-meant joke. It’s the smell of burning food in the oven. If I don’t feel shame, I won’t know I did anything wrong and I won’t know better next time. Shame is good! It keeps me from doing bad things! </jerkbrain logic>

Shame poses as a helpful preventative, but it only ever shows up after the fact.

If I never know until it's too late which decisions (or lack thereof) will cause shame, there’s really no way to avoid it. If there’s no way to avoid it, I might as well stop figuring it into my calculations. I might get in a car accident on the way to the grocery store, but I’m not going to stop driving!

Shame (like anxiety, unlike a car accident) isn’t going to hurt me. It feels awfully uncomfortable for awhile, true. But eventually it will go away and I’ll still be here.

Okay, you’re here because you want to make good decisions.

I’m assuming the decisions you’re stuck on are of the murky variety, unlike “Should I go to work, or stay home and smoke crack today?” (If that is your question, I suggest going to work.)

First, set aside any pro/con lists you’ve made.

If it was that easy, you wouldn't be reading this, right?

Next, question any thoughts you have about urgency around the decision.

Is it true that you have to make this decision right now? Often, my stress comes from the perception that I have to decide IMMEDIATELY.

Can you remove yourself from the situation, even for a little bit?

Go for a walk. Listen to some favorite music. Watch the Sad Cat Diaries on YouTube. Get your head in a different space. You can’t think yourself into a good decision - you’ve already tried that, remember.

Let yourself go to your worst-case scenario, the one you're afraid to think about.

Ask yourself, gently, what you’re afraid might (or might not) happen. What if it came true? Would you still be okay? How long would it last? What resources do you have that you’re forgetting? Are you afraid of reliving a painful situation from the past, and if so, how are things different now?

Don’t spend too long scheming about every possible outcome - the point is to look at the thing you’re scared of and discover that it can’t hurt you. Do this with a coach or a friend who loves you, if it's too scary to face alone.

Once you’ve defused your worst-case scenario (or at least made it a little less nebulous and scary), check in with your body.

By that, I mean take some deep breaths, close your eyes, and mentally talk through what you know FOR SURE about each option (no speculating!).

  • Focus on those areas where you carry tension: maybe your neck, shoulders, or stomach. Do you feel constricted and tight, or expansive and relaxed when you think about your options? Be genuinely curious about what comes up, and if you find you're trying to "make" yourself feel a certain way, be curious about that, too.
  • Notice if there are certain aspects of the decision your body is reacting to. E.g., maybe your yucky feelings aren't about the money you'd have to spend on the conference - they're because you hate traveling.
  • To give yourself a benchmark, you can mentally revisit decisions that you know were right or wrong for you and observe how your body reacts to those memories.

If the choices still seem equally ambivalent, imagine an authority figure telling you that you MUST do X or CANNOT do Y. Do you feel angry? Disappointed? Relieved? Another gem from Molly: "Do you feel like you're trying to talk yourself into it or out of it?"

What decision would the person you'd like to be make?

In this TED Talk, philosopher Ruth Chang says, "We shouldn't think that hard choices are hard because we are stupid...Hard choices are hard not because of us or our ignorance; they're hard because there is no best option."

Her solution when there is no best solution is to decide who you want to become and let that version of ourselves direct our choices. "When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are."

But whatever decision you make, my dear, it really doesn’t matter.

(And if that statement makes you angry - good! Let’s talk!) Your life will go on whichever choice you make, or even if you don’t make one at all, and you’ll keep doing the best you can. Besides, science tells us that we tend to overestimate how much effect a situation will have on our happiness.

Let’s remember this together (because I’m writing this for me as much as for you) - in the end, you’ll be okay. In fact, you're already okay. You’re a resourceful, intelligent person who just forgot that for a moment.

**I feel the need to add: sometimes anxiety-brain or depression-brain jams the signal to such an extent that every option feels equally pointless, urgent or doom-filled (or that there aren't any options). My heart is with you if that's where you are, and my hope is that you're able to slow way down and take exquisite care of yourself until the fog lifts enough for you to hear your own wisdom.

If you're wrestling with a difficult career decision you can't seem to get clarity on, I invite you to connect with me for a free strategy call and learn more about working with me.

Image credit: Pate

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