Embracing Uncertainty: How to Make a Hard Decision
Put down your pros and cons list and tap into your inner wisdom.
How can you make a hard decision when you have no idea what the future holds?
Should you quit your job? Cut off contact with your difficult friend? Buy the condo, or the house? Marry your partner? Dump your partner?
Some people swear by using a cost-benefit analysis, or a decision tree, or a patented Six-Step Decision Making Model for Tough Choices™. While tools like these may have their place in decision making, I think a lot of them miss the larger point…
Decisions are about feelings.
Does that surprise you to read? Maybe you’ve absorbed the popular idea that emotions are the enemy of sound, rational, goal-oriented decision making. In reality, having a good connection with your feelings is the only way to set meaningful goals in the first place, from which wise decisions can flow. Your feelings are a source of information, pointing the way toward the life you want. When you can tune into them, the right decisions become clear. This article will show you how.
I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic, featuring two of my Growing Self colleagues with a lot of experience with this topic. Alejandra P. is a marriage counselor on our team who helps people find clarity about their relationships, and Kristi H. is an experienced career coach and counselor who helps people navigate big, bold career changes. You can tune in on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
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How to Make a Hard Decision
You can’t know for sure whether you’ll look back some day and regret changing your career path, or ending a relationship, or committing to a relationship, or making any other important, life-altering choice. For many people, this uncertainty provokes a lot of anxiety. We may even feel paralyzed by it, and procrastinate on making the decision until inaction closes off some options and effectively makes it for us.
It’s easy to go into analysis mode and ruminate on all of your options and their possible consequences. But there’s a limit to how much clarity you can achieve with a purely cognitive approach to decision making. Tuning into an older and deeper part of your mind, where you can pick up on the unconscious data we often call intuition, can be a better way to get unstuck and start moving forward with the choice that’s right for you.
What’s So Hard about Making a Decision?
When you’re faced with a choice that feels especially tough, there are a few factors that can contribute to indecisiveness:
- You Fear the Unknown
You may know for sure that you hate your job, or that it’s time to call it quits in your relationship, but still struggle with the decision to make a change because you’re not sure if what comes next will be better. Your mind may envision worst case scenarios when you picture the future — what if your next boss is an even bigger jerk? Or, what if you never find another partner and you end up alone?
Uncertainty about the future can keep you from moving forward, even when you know what the right decision is.
- Your Goals Aren’t Clear
Sometimes we feel indecisive because we’re not clear about what our goals are.
If you knew for certain that your goal was to be a graphic designer, and you were working as a bank teller, you wouldn’t feel unsure about whether or not you should quit your job. You would need to make choices about the “how” of accomplishing your goal — Should you enroll in a design program? Apply for an internship? Start a side hustle? — but you would know what you were ultimately aiming for.
When we have clear goals, our choices are just vehicles that move us toward them, which makes decision-making a lot less complicated.
- You Fear Letting Go
One mental quirk most humans share is that we give the prospect of losing something more emotional weight than the prospect of gaining something. For example, you would probably feel more disappointment about losing ten dollars than you would feel excitement about earning ten dollars.
The fancy psychology term for this bias is “loss aversion.” It affects our decision making because most decisions involve trade offs, or “losses.” Even when what we stand to gain is greater than what we stand to lose (i.e. you could find a career you love, but first you have to walk away from a career you hate), we fear letting go of what we already have.
- You Lack Confidence in Yourself
If you’re struggling to make a decision, you might have a narrative playing in your mind about everything that could go wrong if you make the wrong choice. This points to more than anxiety about stepping into the unknown. It actually points to some self-limiting beliefs about your own competence to find solutions to problems when they arise.
Few of the decisions we make in life are truly final. If you make an imperfect choice, you’ll probably have the opportunity to course correct and make a better choice in the future. As you learn through trial and error, you’ll get better and better at making choices that serve your goals. But if you lack confidence in your own ability to overcome setbacks, making “perfect” decisions will feel more important than it actually is.
- You’re Disconnected from Your Feelings
Our culture tends to prioritize logic and denigrate feelings, especially when it comes to decision making. How many times have you heard that you shouldn’t make an “emotional decision?” It turns out that’s not such great advice, at least not across the board.
There’s a difference between making a snap judgment when you’re emotionally flooded — dumping your boyfriend in the middle of a bad fight, for example — and tuning into your “emotional guidance system” to get clarity about how you feel before making a decision.
The truth is, not all problems can be solved through cold calculation. Some problems are rooted in feelings and you can’t make a good decision about them unless you can connect with your feelings and listen to what they’re telling you.
Using Your Emotional Guidance System to Make Hard Decisions
Being in touch with your feelings is harder than it sounds. We have low-grade emotional reactions firing through us all day every day, in response to everything happening to us internally and externally. We learn to tune out a lot of this data, and often to override it so we can get stuff done in spite of how we feel. We force smiles when we’re in a foul mood, put on a brave face when we’re feeling scared, and say everything’s cool when we’re really feeling angry. Over a lifetime of practice, we begin to disconnect from our emotions without even realizing it.
This is a big loss. A much larger chunk of our brain power is devoted to unconscious processes than to conscious thought, and shutting out that unconscious information limits us. When you unlock the power of your subconscious mind, you simply have more information to use in making decisions.
An easy way to tune into your emotional guidance system is through a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness can help you turn down the volume on the conscious thoughts that are constantly running through your brain. When you can get some internal “quiet time,” some deeper feelings and sources of wisdom will rise to the surface. This will help you feel more sure of yourself and what you want. Then, the right decision may become clear.
Overcoming the Fear of the Unknown
Not everyone feels paralyzed by uncertainty about the future. People who like things to be more structured, orderly, and “under control” (this personality trait is represented by the “J” orientation on the Meyers-Briggs) tend to struggle more with the fear of the unknown in making decisions. On the other hand, people who are more adaptable and open to “going with the flow” don’t find uncertainty so scary.
If you think that a fear of uncertainty is what’s fueling your indecisiveness, you can work on that by stepping outside of your comfort zone. The more you put yourself in unfamiliar situations, try things you’re not sure you’re going to be good at, and take calculated risks, the more comfortable you can become with the kind of leap of faith that making decisions requires.
Let Your Goals Be Your Lighthouse
Finally, you can make better decisions by setting clear goals.
Knowing exactly what you want from a relationship, for example, helps you know when to stay with someone and when to walk away. Having clear career goals helps you make decisions about what jobs to quit, what promotions to pursue, and so on.
When you have a clear vision for the life you want (based on a solid connection with your emotional guidance system), it’s easier to make good decisions that fit into that vision.
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Embracing Uncertainty: How to Make a Hard Decision
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Music in this episode is by Grimes with their song “Crystal Ball.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://grimesmusic.bandcamp.com. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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