Why does making a decision feel so difficult sometimes?
We make decisions nearly every waking moment. Some are “big” choices that may alter the course of our lives (“should I quit my job?”, “do I want to have children?”, “should I stay in my relationship?”), others are more mundane, everyday choices.
The decision-making process doesn’t always go smoothly; with so many choices to be made, everyone is bound to get “stuck” sometimes. Struggling to make decisions can feel exhausting and paralysing, taking your energy and focus away from other things.
Where is My Decision-Making Getting Stuck?
There’s more than one way for decision-making to go awry. People may be stumped by one particular decision or experience a period when they have trouble making seemingly any decision (“I just don’t know what I want right now!”).
Some choices simply aren’t easy.
A choice may have lots of potential benefits but also carry significant risks. In some cases, there doesn’t seem to be a “good” choice among the available options; you may be choosing between what feels like the lesser of two (or more) evils. Decisions like that are bound to be difficult.
However, there are several additional factors that may be adding obstacles to your decision-making process or clouding your thinking.
Depression or Grief
It’s common for people to struggle with decision-making when they’re experiencing depression, hopelessness, or grief. In those emotional states, every choice may feel confusing, overwhelming, or difficult and take a lot of mental and emotional energy. Decisions that may normally happen in a split second can become arduous tasks. It may be that none of the possible options to choose from seem exciting or fulfilling.
Although we’re decision-making creatures, consciously choosing between different options is tiring – it saps our mental energy. As the day wears on, people start to experience “decision fatigue”. Decision fatigue can lead people to make quick, irrational decisions, such as impulse buying. It can also lead to “decision paralysis”, which leaves people unable to decide. Even the most rational and seasoned decision-makers aren’t immune from decision fatigue; studies have shown that judges in court consistently make more logical and reasonable decisions earlier in the day.
Sometimes people experiencing decision fatigue feel overwhelmed or exhausted by the prospect of making decisions, or their thinking seems fuzzy. In other cases, people do not feel fatigued but feel “stuck”. Physical or emotional fatigue, or being hungry can also interfere with our decision-making abilities. The old adage, “sleep on it and decide in the morning” holds a lot of wisdom.
I “Should” Do X, But I Want to Do Y
We all have rules that we live by – things we “should” do. These rules permeate almost every part of our lives. Some of them are practical things that keep us safe, such as “I should look both ways before I cross the street”. Others are broader concepts directing how we live our lives, such as “I should be married by the time I’m 30” or “I should always help out my friends”. We learn these “shoulds” from many sources, including our cultures, families, religion, laws, and past experiences.
Decisions can feel very difficult if what you’ve learned you “should” do doesn’t match what you want to do. Imagine that some of the rules you learned from your family include, “I should be practical” and “I should make choices that secure a stable future for me”, but you’ve always dreamed of becoming a freelance artist. When it comes time to decide whether to study accounting or art at university, you may find yourself feeling stuck and unsure of which path to take. The mismatch between what you’ve learned you should do and what you want to do makes the decision difficult.
If you’re feeling stuck on a decision, it can be useful to consider what “shoulds” you hold that might be impacting your decision, where they came from, and whether they’re rules that you agree with. The rules you learned earlier in your life might not fit with your own view of how life should be, and they could be interfering with your decision-making now. Counselling or psychotherapy can be a useful way of exploring and understanding the “shoulds” that affect your decisions.
My Head and My Heart are Arguing
There can also be a mismatch between logical and emotional pulls when making decisions; our heads and our hearts sometimes disagree. For instance, you may have been offered a job that ticks all the right boxes on paper – good salary, easy commute, fits your skills and expertise – but it may not “feel” right or hold any personal meaning for you. Logic may be telling you to take the job, while your gut feeling is that it would be a mistake. Both are important sources of information. Self-reflection, as well as talking to a trusted friend or a professional, can help illuminate the role of each in your decision-making.
Fear of Failure (or Success)
Making a decision means starting down a particular pathway, which may result in failure (or success – both can be frightening). Struggling with a decision can be a way of delaying those potential outcomes. For more on fear of success and fear of failure, check out this blog post on procrastination.
Sometimes when people are having trouble making a decision, they ask themselves, “Why is this so hard? Why can’t I just make a decision? Other people seem able to make decisions!”. It’s common for people to berate themselves for feeling stuck. Self-criticism can be paralysing, and actually make it harder to come to a decision.
If you’re struggling with your decision-making, being compassionate toward yourself can help make the process less painful, and may even help your decision become more clear.
Everyone struggles with decision-making sometimes, and outside support and guidance can be useful. Counselling and psychotherapy can provide helpful emotional support, as well as helping you explore what’s getting in the way of your decision-making.