How To Make a Decision When You Don't Know What to Do
As a therapist, I commonly see people who are struggling with making big life decisions, especially ones with seemingly important implications for the future.
We live in a world of many choices and are faced with countless decision points throughout our day. As our world has become more advanced, we have far more choices presented to us than humans did even a few hundred years ago. But is this vast array of choices actually helpful?
While choices certainly increase our agency and freedom, there is a lot of research suggesting so much choice is actually stress-inducing. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this “The Paradox of Choice.” Here is a link to his Ted Talk presentation nearly 10 years after originally writing about this paradox.
Combine the paradox of choice with our societal expectation of perfection and we have a recipe for disaster.
Not only do we have more choices than ever, but we are expected to always make the best choice. It seems that with increased agency we are also supposed to succeed more since we “choose” the circumstances of our lives.
Some kind of “You made your bed, now sleep in it” attitude. As a result, I see many people struggle with decision-making.
People assume that if there is a single outcome that is the one correct path. In reality, the choices in our lives that truly have one superior outcome are non-issues.
Those are things like, “Should I go to work today on this Wednesday that I’m scheduled to be in the office even if I don’t really feel like it?” Of course, the answer is yes. We struggle with decisions because we are treating them like a puzzle with only one correct solution.
Many people seem to dread making significant decisions regarding their future because they assume they will mess up and make the wrong choice.
This struggle is what I call, The Price is Right problem”. Anyone who has seen the show, “The Price Is Right” knows that near the end of the episode finalists have the option to bid on one deal “behind door #1” prior to seeing what the other deal includes. Contestants squirm and visibly struggle while they work out whether or not to bid on the package in front of them and worry about what they are missing out on.
In life, like in the game, even when people are leaning toward choosing Door #1 they are haunted by the thought of the opportunity cost of what’s behind Door #2, usually ignoring their own inner wisdom or gut instincts. The package behind Door #1 is usually a great deal that most people would be happy to win but the temptation and mystique of Door #2 is too much to handle.
The key to decision-making about the future is to realize that for most conundrums, there are multiple correct outcomes.
Making healthy decisions is much more about the way we listen to ourselves and our gut instincts than the actual decision we select.
I advise my clients to understand that there are likely many correct choices with many favorable outcomes. I ask them to pay attention to their gut instincts. Together we analyze the client’s values and process how well or not well the choices line up with their most important values.
Are they taking in all of the information?
Are they putting up blinders for any reason?
Are they considering the big picture and long-term trajectory as well as current factors? What emotions are bolstering or hindering their decision?
All of these factors are important to consider when faced with a big decision.
We are all so afraid of messing up, but the reality is that life will include mistakes.
Regret is a dirty word that most people live in fear of, often with the illusion that this regret is some kind of monster lurking just behind the next corner. I advise my clients to try and move away from this idea of regret, as I see this as an extension of the “Door #2” temptation, and instead look at it from the perspective of life review.
If we are to have a positive life review, then the goal is that when we reflect back on what turns out to be a mistake we can say that we honestly did our best with the information we had at the time.
Regret occurs when we conduct a life review and feel stupid because we were knowingly ignoring the signs around us or we had our blinders on.
Again, even if the outcome is poor, if our intentions were to care for ourselves and our lives in the best way we know possible at the time, then the meaning of the error is different and arguably easier to live with.
Once we are freed from selecting the very best decision and instead focused on the wisdom of listening to ourselves and our surroundings, we realize that there are many paths forward to favorable outcomes.
This way, even if we chose wrong, we are living in accordance with ourselves and our values.
About the Author
Kendra Doukas, M.S., LMFT is the Assistant Director of The Catalyst Center, a group psychotherapy practice in Denver, CO specializing in working with trauma and assisting families from pre-conception throughout postpartum and beyond.
She is also a Supervisor at The Ardent Grove Foundation, a Denver-based non-profit dedicated to providing trauma-informed therapy services. Kendra specializes in working with trauma, grief, and loss. She is passionate about helping people heal from attachment-trauma and childhood trauma. She also has a specialty in supporting families who have experienced pregnancy and infant loss. Learn more.