Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
An’ if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know!
Should I stay or should I go?
– (You’ve guessed it!) ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’, The Clash
Jason was in despair. “Should I stay or should I go, Mark? What should I do?”
I was careful to neither nod nor shake my head. But he wasn’t watching me anyway.
“I’ve written all the reasons for and against leaving my wife.” Jason had that glazed look of someone who’d spent too much time focused on the contents of his own mind. “But there are as many reasons for staying as for going!”
I finally allowed myself a nod of the head.
“If I stay, I feel like I’m missing out on the excitements of a single life.”
I can relate to that, I thought.
“And if I go I’ll feel guilty and might regret the decision, as I still love her dearly.”
I could equally relate to that sentiment, too.
“I don’t know what to do. And how can we be sure whatever I decide is the right decision?”
Where’s this “we” coming from, I found myself thinking. It wasn’t my decision, obviously – although he seemed to want me to make it for him! One thing’s for sure though. Big decisions can cause big problems.
Overanalysis = decision paralysis
Too much thinking can really screw you up! Ever noticed that? The more you think, the more stuck you feel.
Of course, some things in life are black or white. This kind of decision is a no-brainer. When a juggernaut is speeding towards you and you jump out of the way, you know unequivocally that you made the right decision. Likewise, when you feel thirsty, you don’t have to agonize over whether having a drink is the right choice.
These decisions require little, if any, actual thought. The right choice is clear. It doesn’t even feel like a decision.
But should you buy a car in silver or blue? Should you buy this house or that house? Should you go to the party? Should you marry or not? And if so, whom? So many options! How do we make any decisions?
The agony of indecision
We all approach life’s crossroads sometimes. There are paths, maybe many, to choose from. But which way to go? Straight ahead? Left or right? Up across the mountains or down into the ink-dark forest?
Which way lies safety? Which way treasure? And which way destruction?
How do you make decisions? And how do you decide how to help your clients with theirs?
Jason seemed to want me to tell him what to do. And, more than this, he wanted to magically know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that it was the 100% correct decision.
“I feel paralysed!” he almost wailed.
So much of life is ambiguous. Sometimes both decisions would have been right or wrong to some extent. Taking that job may have led to good things, and not taking it may have led to other good things. This is an idea worth running by our agonized clients.
Some people respond to decision making like a rabbit paralysed by the headlights of a fast car. Jason was driving himself to distraction or destruction through constant toxic rumination – something that is strongly correlated with the onset and maintenance of depression.1
Here are a few ideas I presented to him to break the cycle.
Step one: Break down the absolutist thinking
The more depressed someone is, the more they communicate and think in absolute terms. Absolutism thrives on words like ‘completely’, ‘utterly’, ‘totally’, ‘always’, and ‘never’. This kind of all-or-nothing thinking tends to be driven by emotion.2 Shades of grey, subtlety, and flexibility diminish as emotion takes over.
Jason was being absolutist: What is the right decision? What is the wrong decision?
I suggested that both decisions might be ‘right’. This gave him pause for thought. “How do you mean?”
“Well, whichever decision you make, you’ll make it work. And eventually, whatever decision you make will work for your wife too. The question is how easily the decision you make will work.”
Trying to make the ‘right’ decision assumes that life is always simple, or even simplistic. Sometimes there are no ‘right’ decisions – only different or alternative decisions. This idea helped Jason relax a little.
The next reframe I presented to Jason also helped loosen up his thinking a little.
Step two: Why wait for certainty?
A trap when making decisions is to wait for absolute certainty. Jason, it seemed, wanted 100% empirical, scientific proof that whatever decision he made was objectively the right one. It was as though he wanted official, government-stamped approval of whatever decision he made.
Perfectionist types with simplistic ideas of right and wrong go for this approach. They don’t feel it is reasonable to act on a decision while they still have doubts about it. They want that certificate to come through the letterbox telling them the right decision has been reached and officially approved.
When this doesn’t happen, their minds go round and round in circles and they actually think too much.
I suggested that sometimes we can never be sure we made the right decision. Even decades later, all we can be sure of is that we made a decision.
Jason’s wife wasn’t abusive, violent, or unfaithful (factors that would have made any decision more clear-cut). In fact, he loved her deeply – and she him, it seemed. The problem, I suspected, was that he was suffering from acute ‘grass is always greener‘ syndrome.
He might stay with his wife and never know whether that was the 100% correct decision. Or he might leave his wife and, likewise, never be certain that was right either. The fact is that no single decision makes everything perfect, because we do not live in the realm of perfection.
This seemed to strike Jason as a totally new idea. As with the first idea, it helped him relax just a little.
But to take even more pressure off, we can encourage the following.
Step three: Decide not to decide for a while
Pressure often builds when we feel we have to make a decision soon. But unless a decision date is forced upon us, we can sometimes decide to not decide, at least for now.
Time does things to people. Often the missing ingredient to clarity is the passing of more time. Jason hadn’t slept properly in weeks. He had been off his food. Unable to focus on work. He felt panicky and pressured. But the pressure was coming from him, and him alone.Often the missing ingredient to clarity is the passing of timeClick To Tweet
I asked Jason if decision making was something he struggled with generally.
“You bet,” he said, “and it’s getting worse. I can’t even decide what drink to have in the pub, what to eat, where to take a walk. There are pros and cons to everything.”
This gave me a clue. When someone is panicking, it’s essential to take pressure off. Jason was putting all the pressure on himself.
I suggested Jason “decide not to decide” anything at all about his marriage for a period of three months. During that time we would work on improving his decision-making skills around the small things.
Now he visibly relaxed. He’d half wanted me to make the decision for him, to tell him what to do. But instead I had told him that he needn’t – in fact, shouldn’t – make any decision for a while. Now that he was off the hook for a bit longer, his sleeping improved and he felt happier.
Sometimes the decision to defer the decision can take a load off. But making good decisions isn’t just about what we do, but what we also don’t do.
Step four: Help your client avoid these four common decision-making mistakes
People wreak havoc with their mental health by worrying about what to do. I use the following almost as a checklist when attempting to help clients who are suffering a crisis of decision making.
The four most common traps are:
- Wanting too much certainty before acting
- Making ambiguous decisions while highly emotional and distressed
Emotions do act as signals sometimes. Being miserable at work, for example, is a powerful signal that perhaps another kind of work might suit you better. But in general, for ambivalent, less clear-cut decisions, we need to calm things down.
Emotional decisions are often easily recognized as mistaken, but the emotional decider will rarely admit this. Instead, they will seek to ‘back up’ their dodgy decision with emotional rationalizations, kidding themselves and sometimes other people.
For example: “I have taken up with this violent psychopath because he is so good at helping my child with her history homework!” or “I won’t stop smoking just yet, because so-and-so is still smoking and if I stopped now it would upset her.”
In a kind of cognitive dissonance, the decision maker refuses to acknowledge terrible decisions that are obvious to those around them.
- Believing a decision can only be valid if ratified by other people
This approach often comes out of fear of making an entirely independent decision. It may be a sign of reluctance to become fully adult and take responsibility for one’s own life.
Jason seemed to want my approval for any decision he made. I asked him if he worried what others might think, other than his wife, and he said that it tormented him constantly. So I suggested it was none of any one else’s business. Not really.
- Repeating the same mistakes because of failure to learn from the past
Of course, people rarely admit that they have ‘failed to learn’. Have you ever heard anyone be that honest?
Instead they blame other people, lousy luck, feckless fate, misbehaving star signs, lax ley lines, a failure in familial support, shrinking ice caps, or whatever. Anything other than their own failure to learn from their – or other people’s – mistakes. Once we own our decisions, we can own our mistakes. And the only shame in mistake making is to keep making the same ones.
Jason had left a previous happy relationship because he wanted “to be free”. He had regretted that for a long time.
I didn’t suggest he’d be wrong to do that again. I merely suggested that he may have learned something valuable from that previous decision. Life, bless it, is always trying to teach us.
This made him pensive.
Step five: Trust your gut
For some decisions, an instinctive approach is better. When we relax, we are better placed to trust our subtle feelings rather than try to work it out as though it were some test paper problem.
Unfortunately, Jason fitted into the latter category. He was constantly obsessing about what he should do. Should he stay and make a go of his marriage (which was by no means bad), or should he leave and enjoy being single (with the assumption of enjoyment)?
He’d repeatedly asked friends for advice. But ideally, he wanted his wife to make the decision for him. Yes, he was open with her about his inner agonies. This had, not unexpectedly, put huge pressures on her!
He just couldn’t find the answer. The trouble was that the problem he was trying to solve wasn’t mathematical. He was treating the problem of what to do in his life as if it were algebra. He actually asked me, “If X is the joy of the single life, and Y is the guilt I feel for leaving my innocent wife, what is the product of X and Y?” That stumped me, but then maths was never my thing.
Jason seemed to feel that when he worked this out, hey presto, he would come up with a magic number – a solution. Then some encouraging teacher would come and tell him he was correct, and he’d know without doubt that he’d found the solution.
But research tells us that for many decisions you are better off not thinking about it.
Trust your unconscious
Research published in Current Biology shows that in some instances snap decisions are better than endless, pedantic, logic-based pondering.3
Test subjects were asked to pick the odd one out on a screen covered with more than 650 identical symbols, including one rotated version of the same symbol. They performed better when they were given no time to linger and were forced to rely on their subconscious to select the correct answer.
Dr Li Zhaoping of University College London said, “You’d expect people to make better decisions when given time to look properly, but this was not so … The conscious or top level function of the brain, when active, vetoes our initial subconscious decision – even when it is correct – leaving us unaware or distrustful of our instincts.”
So thinking too much about a decision can leave us worse off, which, in turn, can freeze action. The famous Milton Erickson‘s injunction to “trust your unconscious” is now backed up by research. Your conscious logical brain doesn’t always make the best decisions.
But does this apply to real decision making, like buying a house or car, or even buying a shampoo?
Researchers at the University of Amsterdam investigated this very question and found that thinking hard about what car to buy doesn’t help you make the best choice.4
Participants were asked to identify the best car of four, each with 12 desirable attributes. Around 25% of participants selected the correct car – no more than you’d expect due to chance alone.
The surprise came when the researchers distracted participants with puzzles before asking them to make their choice. In this study, more than half managed to pick the best car. Instinctively they picked the better one when they had less time to think.
Logical thought, of course, has its place in decision making. But logic is a tool – and it’s not the only one in the box!
I spoke to Jason about this research. And all of the above.
So what takeaways can we glean from all this?
Quick pointers for good decision making
When making non-clear-cut decisions, we need to:
- Learn to trust our instincts and not always insist on ‘logical’ reasons for everything. Learn to say, “Because it feels right.”
- Resist the temptation to automatically go with greed-driven decisions because of strong emotion and then try to flatter ourselves with justification and rationalizations after the event. Intuitive decision making works best when the distorting effects of emotion are kept to a minimum. I really focused on helping Jason calm right down.
- When we do base decision making on weighing up the pros and cons, we can then use our imagination to explore what those different realities might feel like. We can really sit down and envisage living with the decision. How does it feel? What does it look like?
- Remember that some decisions won’t make sense to other people, and that may be okay. Most medical advances (open heart surgery for one5) were instigated by people who decided to follow what seemed like crazy ideas to others at the time.
- Not beat ourselves up if we do make a ‘wrong’ decision. We can learn from it, and hey, we’re only human! But as far as possible we need to avoid repeating our mistaken decisions.
The upshot with Jason? Well, after three months of learning to go with spontaneous decision making over small stuff, I finally asked him about his marriage. He looked confused and then laughed. “You know, I haven’t really been thinking about that lately. But we’ve been getting along great, I guess I’ve made my decision without realizing it. I love her. I’m going to make it up to her.” With that, he decided he didn’t need to see me anymore.
As he left, he smiled. “I’m going to make a go of it!”
Helping a UPTV client with public speaking anxiety
This client came to see Mark 17 years before to stop smoking. Now he wants help with public speaking anxiety. He has to present regularly for work but recently has panicked twice and is now anxious at the thought of presenting again.
Mark accesses resources, uses reframes and the Rewind Technique to decondition the fear from the fearful memories so the client can start to feel he can’t help but relax when public speaking. Mark frames this as a “happy limitation” which is an idea which really appeals to him.
By the end of the session the anxious memories have been successfully de-conditioned.
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