Often people visit my office with the goal of helping them in making a decision. Not an easy task when it’s about life-changing decisions, like: should I divorce or should I stay in this relationship, should I accept this new job/position, should I move to another country, or which partner is the best for me?
The predominant feeling is ambivalence: “I want this, but I also want that”. Or fear and regret: “I am afraid that if I choose this, I’ll lose that”, “What if things go wrong?” Some other people might experience guilt for choosing one partner over the other or for disappointing their coworkers or boss by leaving the workplace.
Understanding where these feelings are coming from, questioning their validity, and learning how to move beyond or accept them are part of the therapeutic process.
But decisions are not only emotional. They are rational, too.
When we talk about cognitive processes, some of the best practices I’ve seen working are:
1. Identifying if the possible decision is solving the root problem you have. Let’s say you want to leave your marriage due to communication issues. Before deciding to leave, the question is if there is anything to be done that would improve that: addressing issues with your partner and trying new solutions or going to couple therapy together. The decision you take might be the good one at the moment, but later, with a new partner, you’ll find yourself in a similar situation because you’ve only solved the symptom, not the problem.
2. Expand the options you have. Exploring several alternatives besides the two favorites (stay or leave, this position or another), including the alternative of not taking any decision, speeds up the decision-making process. That is because you’re feeling less invested in any single one and therefore allow yourself to be more flexible in your opinion. And it makes it possible to have a plan B in case plan A doesn’t work.
3. For each option consider the possible positive and negative outcomes on short, medium, and long term. On you and on those involved in the process (for example in a divorce, what will be the effect on the kids?). This mind excursion in the future could bring up possible obstacles or problems you want to be prepared for. Same time, with the time perspective you’ll realize that the negative feelings associated with the process will come to an end someday.
4. Because often our decisions are based on our perceptions of reality (perceptions that could be wrong), asking relevant people in your life, experts, or people who had similar experiences about their perspectives might bring a lot of information that you are not aware of, or could help you expand the options you have.
5. Check the actionability of your decisions. Which actions do you need to take? Do you have all the necessary resources, or do you need to attract other resources to support you in your decision? You might want to change your job, but if currently there are no positions available, wouldn’t you rather wait for better circumstances? 6. Set yourself an “internal deadline” for making the decision. Consider the urgency, but also don’t make yourself pressured if there is nothing pressuring you from outside. A deadline should give you the time to gather or look for new information that would help you to finally make the decision or to feel more prepared.
I have experienced that making a decision can be a very stressful and difficult process. But having the right support, being well informed, and exploring possible outcomes, can lead to good decisions, and that, in time, will strengthen our self-esteem. It is something we all must go through if we want to live a good life.
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