Decision Making for the Slightly Confused

If you find decision-making in your personal life difficult, you are not alone. Decision-making is something that I have struggled with for a long time and I am very familiar with the agony of indecision. Very gradually I have become better at listening to my intuition, and making decisions that I feel comfortable with. I thought it would be fun to illustrate with a case study from my life:

Saturday afternoon 30 years ago:

Its Saturday and a group I belong to going on a social outing to the pictures. I can’t decide whether to go. I should go. They are all going. If I don’t go I will just be staying home and watching TV. Boring. Why wouldn’t I go? I really ought to just go. But I don’t really want to go.  If feel a bit like I might be getting sick. I’m tired. But I am not actually sick so that’s not a reason. If I don’t go, I’ll never go out and I’ll always be home watching TV. So I’d better go. If I am going, I need to ring someone for a lift. I don’t want to ring. But if I am going to ring, I ‘d better ring soon, or it will be too late. I don’t really want to ring. But I should ring and I should do it soon because its rude to ring at the last minute. I need to ring by four o’clock. I’ll decide by four o’clock. Its only 2 o’clock so I have two hours to decide.

How to destroy a Saturday afternoon! It seems comical now, but I spent quite a lot of time stressing out about apparently simple decisions like whether or not to go to the pictures. At the time I was at a complete loss as to how to understand my own ambivalence, and what to do about it. In later years I struggled with more serious decisions, and it wasn’t so funny, it was painful. In hindsight I can see that my intuition was working, but I could not recognise and support it.  What I needed was a Starter Kit for Dealing with Ambivalence. It might go something like this:

1. Look for clear statements of what you want or think.
Clear statements of what you want or think are often pointing to the core of the matter, but get buried under other thoughts.
I don’t want to go. I don’t want ring.

2. Look for clear statements of what is needed, and evaluate the strength of that need.
In this case, since I am making a decision about a social outing, there is no compelling need to go or not go. Thats useful information, and puts things in perspective.  (If the decision was whether to attend a court appearance, the risk of contempt of court would create a compelling need to do it).

3. Interrogate “shoulds”, “oughts” and “buts”
The biggest barrier to intuitive decision making is usually the rules we tell ourselves about what we should do. They tend to follow close on the heals of thoughts about what we really want or think. They often masquerade as rules or needs, but are sometimes based on dodgy logic, unquestioned belief systems, or projections of what other people would think or do. Its important to question these rules to see if they really make sense and add value to the decision making process.
I should go. I ought to go. I should ring by four o’clock.  (Its a social occasion, I don’t have to go, and I don’t have to ring. These beliefs are not adding to the discussion. )

4. Identify and Address Fears
Another barrier to decision making is fear of the consequences of making the decision, such as Fear of Regret, Fear of Loss and Fear of Emptiness. These point to the things we will have to deal with if we make a decision that feels risky.
In the scenario, I fear  the lonliness of being at home on Saturday night when my friends are out, and what that says about me.

5. Watch out for catastrophising.
Sometimes fears are supercharged by catastrophising, ie making the negative consequences seem bigger than they really are.
If I don’t go out tonight, I will never go out again and I will always be at home alone…

6. Pay attention of physical sensations.
Sometimes if we are not paying attention to what we really want, our body chimes in with physical sensations that are an extra indication of what we really want to do.
I feel sick, I feel tired, but I am not really sick.

7. Review, Decide and Plan
Once you have considered the different factors affecting your decision in this way, you will have a better idea of what you really want, what is holding you back, and whether those barriers are genuine reasons, or self imposed limits. If the shoulds turn out to be red herrings, and the fears manageable, then you might be able to give yourself permission to do what you really want to do. If necessary you can plan strategies to manage the shoulds and fears as you move ahead.
I could go out tonight, but I don’t really want to. That fact that I feel sick at the thought of it is telling me something is not right. It worries me that I am drifting apart from my friends, and I feel sad about it, but its reached a point that I am just not enjoying being with the group like I used to. Rather than go out and have a bad time, I am going to stay home tonight and do something I enjoy. I am going to need to think about other groups that I can get involved in that will be more rewarding.

Intuitive decision making is a tool for living, and like any tool, it needs to be used with care. The process described above is for people whose thought processes and feelings are generally operating well, but they are having trouble deciding what is important. Care should be taken before applying intuitive decision making in situations when you are feeling dominated be extreme emotions or disturbed thought patterns. In these situations, there is a risk that Step 1, looking for clear statements of what you think or feel, could be distorted by extreme emotions (such as depression) or disturbed thinking (such as hearing voices). I have written about barriers to intuition in an earlier post.

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