Written by Thanos Nioplias
Making decisions is a complex process that has been examined from various fields including cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy. Decision making is also very relevant to psychotherapy, since difficult dilemmas are a known source of anxiety, frustration, and feelings of helplessness for many people. Choosing between two career paths, between two romantic partners, or the right mental health treatment can lead one to stay up at night, procrastinate, and constantly seek reassurance from friends and family by asking questions such as “Is this the right choice?” “What would you do if you were me?” “But are you sure?!”
From a therapeutic perspective, feeling anxious and helpless when having to make hard choices is related to intolerance towards uncertainty – reacting negatively to uncertain situations and events. When anxious individuals face a dilemma, they tend to tell themselves that they wouldn’t be this anxious if only they knew how their life would turn out with each of their two options, while they also make draining efforts to achieve an absolute sense of certainty that their decision is the right one. The reality, however, is that uncertainty is part and parcel of life – achieving 100% certainty about anything is impossible.
How can we be more efficient when facing stressful decisions? First, it can be helpful to refocus on one’s values and goals in life. Instead of calculating possibilities and probabilities, reflecting on one’s internal values and objectives that they want to guide them in decision making can help restore equilibrium and calmness. For example, ask yourself questions like: “What am I aiming for in making this decision, and how does it fit into my overarching life goals (e.g., building relationships with family, establishing financial security, growing spiritually)?” “What are the characteristics I want to embody in this process” and “When I look back on this problem one year from today, what are the values that I would like to have influenced my choice and therefore my life?”
Second, it is important to acknowledge that we live in a world that is filled with uncertainty, and that we have much less control of future possibilities than we believe that we do. Instead of trying to eliminate any risks when making decisions, one can accept and even embrace the idea that risk is inherent in every hard choice! Even though acknowledging your limited capacity to control and predict future risks is frightening, it can also be surprisingly liberating. In other words, the only variable that you may be held liable for when making a decision is not about the risk you did not foresee, but about acting in a way that was incongruent with your values and the person you wanted to be!
Third, accepting uncertainty is not an easy process and therefore it takes practice for one to master. For instance, when ambivalent about smaller decisions – such as which restaurant to go to or what to order from the menu – you can practice making a quick decision and accepting the risk that the decision they are making is actually the wrong one! In other words, learn how to make decisions while accepting all potential outcomes instead of reaching a sense of certainty prior to making a choice.
Good luck and over time you will learn to choose wisely!