Decision making. This has been such a struggle for me lately. When I turned 30 a few months ago, I decided to take a more responsible stance in my life. This decision has brought with it even more decisions for me to make. Where do I want to be in 5 years? What work do I want to be doing? What projects do I want to focus on? And I’m terrified.
Am I making the right decision?
Will I regret what I choose?
What if I fail?
Do any of these thoughts sound familiar?
I keep coming back to something I read a while ago in Dr. Susan Jeffer’s book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. She says that the root of your fear about making decisions (or taking any action really) is having the belief, “I won’t be able to handle what happens to me.” And that’s exactly what my fear is.
When I’m faced with making decisions to live my dreams, I fear that I’m not strong enough to handle failure, or the consequences of my mistakes or pain. But if I dig deeper into that belief and look at my history, I see that my mind is playing tricks on me. It’s using the cognitive distortion called magnification that David Burns explains in his book The Feeling Good Handbook; basically putting a big spotlight on your perceived faults and overlooking the successes you’ve had.
If I’m honest with myself, everything that has happened in my life, I’ve gone through and handled. I’ve weathered loss of relationships, scary health issues, rejection, depression, and other mishaps and I’m still here. And I’m pretty sure that if you sit and reflect, you’ll find that to be true in some way for you too.
In times of making decisions, we must remember all that we’re capable of. If we let ourselves get caught up in believing that we can’t handle it without remembering all that we’ve handled so far, we are letting our minds play tricks on us, tricks designed to keep us “safe” and pretty much unfulfilled and stagnant.
And you may have noticed that my fears above were around me expecting the worst to happen. This is called catastrophizing which is another cognitive distortion. To combat this it helps to remember how all those situations that you’ve gone through, have likely brought with them some good things: perspective on your place in the world, a deep gratitude for what you do have, renewed confidence, closeness to friends or family and I’m sure you can name some more. Also remind yourself that you cannot tell the future and have no way of being sure that the worst scenario is the one that will happen.
So when you are faced with a decision that you fear you can’t make:
Remember your past successes in “handling it.” Even if you’ve never experienced what you’re thinking of trying now, you can make use of the same techniques and inner strength you used to handle other things before. Make a list of those experiences, what you learned and what good things came of them and refer to that list every time you doubt your ability to decide for yourself or handle what happens as a consequence of your decision.
Without judgment, observe the thoughts and feelings that come up when you are making a decision, but don’t use them alone to make the decision. Russ Harris in The Happiness Trap suggests that in times of rampant thoughts, you ask yourself “Is what I’m thinking helpful?” To that I would add the question “Does listening to this thought make me take action towards my dream or run away from my goal?” If your thought makes you want to retreat, it’s probably not helpful to take it so seriously.
Find a way to let go once you’ve made the decision. That could be using a written agreement, repeating a helpful sentence (“I made the best decision for myself that I could and I am fully capable of handling the outcome.”) or getting support from a caring person. Whatever you choose doesn’t really matter as long as it helps you move forward without looking back obsessively.
What do you do to make decisions less scary and to ensure that you move forward instead of backward? Share in the comments below.