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Choice can be scary when you never had one: Learning Healthy Decision-making
We explore common beliefs that that keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns as well as ways to become a healthier decision-maker
Growing up in a culture where hierarchies are everything and individuality is a myth, you fail to realize how little choice you are given in your life. Add to that the pressure of making “the right choice”, and you have the perfect recipe for the worst case of analysis paralysis.
It is normal for parents and authority figures to make choices for us in early life. After all, we have no real clue what the fuck is going on. But as we grow up, the way we are given choices and the way we are taught to make choices has a huge impact on the adults we become. Many cultures prevent you from thinking for yourself. Your choices are handed down to you as obvious decisions because “that’s how things are done in this family/society/country”.
Apart from the obvious choices in which we are given no chioce, we are constantly loaded with fear about making bad decisions when we do have a choice. The fear instilled could be both about physical safety as well as psychologically and emotionally distressing like disappointing your parents and getting admonished by them. That may not seem so bad for some of us today, but it was a HUGE deal when we were children. Parental approval is worth more than candy at those ages. That fear continues to live within our unconscious until it is healed. And that translates to the fear of disappointing authority figures in adult life.
A lot of us are not taught healthy decision making. We have been modeled with unhealthy methods which emphasize our powerlessness and weakness. But this is not a cause for hopelessness.
Freedom can be scary when the prison feels safe
Toxic Beliefs Lead to Unhealthy Decision-making
There are few factors that can have a strong influence on your decision-making abilities. We have also discussed some of these in our podcast episode Moving Out of FOMO.
Before we get into discussing the factors that can help you become a healthy decision-maker, it is important to be reminded that the new strategies don’t automatically kick out decades of toxic programming. Working with a therapist can help to identify beliefs that block you and keep you stuck in unhealthy patterns of decision-making. It also provides a support structure that helps you to break the old patterns and establish new ones. Healing the toxic beliefs is vital to be able to move forward, and that doesn’t mean just creating new habits/beliefs. Healing is a much deeper journey.
Here are some common patterns that keep us stuck:
A lot of people feel extremely anxious about making decisions because they feel pressured to to make not just the right decision, but the “perfect” decision each time. This is perhaps the most paralyzing factor when it comes to making a choice. Give yourself permission to get it wrong, learn to be wrong, and watch how easy it becomes to make decisions. Which leads us to…
Mistakes and Failures
You don’t just choose once, you commit to making a choice till you reach your goal.
A stumbling block for many people is believing that they make the choice at the beginning. A choice is a commitment that requires following-through with the choice every step of the way. Failures and mistakes are not reasons to quit. They are the tools we need to learn, recalibrate, and get back on track. This is why your goal cannot be too dependent on the path taken (more on this in the next section).
Aversion to Responsibility
The biggest challenge of not having had choice in your life is that you also never dealt with responsibilities of the consequences of choices. On the other hand you may have become aversed to decisions and responsibility because of having too much of it at a time when you couldn’t handle it. No matter which it is, if you don’t have a good relationship with responsibility, you cannot be a healthy decision-maker.
Did you notice I kept using the phrase “healthy decision-maker”, not “good” or “bad”. No one is immune to bad decisions, no matter the stories you hear about people, everyone has made and continues to make choices that are less than ideal. Understanding the difference between bad choices and unhealthy decision-making can help us to become healthier at decision-making.
We want to reach a place where we can make decisions, whether good or bad. If you stay stuck to the narrative “I don’t want to make bad decisions”, you will likely remain paralyzed when it comes to making decisions. And guess what? Not making a choice is a choice itself. There is no way out. Procrastinating a decision can cost you choices just because time is a factor in many choices. Not being able to choose, you may end up losing out much more than if you had made any choice.
Reparenting yourself is entirely possible with the right help.
We will be hosting a live workshop for an exercise on decision-making called The Egg.
What does healthy decision making look like?
Learning to lose in order to gain
This is important especially for those with FOMO and Analysis Paralysis. You have to learn how to lose out on opportunities so you can move forward in life. It may come naturally to some, but for many it is a skill that has to be trained. Fear of missing out and regret are going to suck you dry and prevent you from enjoying the opportunities you have right in front of you. And then the regret of missing out on those will cause further regret in which you will keep losing more. So your fear of losing out just makes you lose more. Whereas, if you learn to lose and move on from that, it can be very quick and then you have plenty of time to enjoy whatever it is you chose. If you don’t choose something for the fear of missing out on some options, you end up losing everything.
Loss is inevitable, accepting that will lead to gaining a lot.
Remove arbitrary/cultural value judgments
When you are judging a decision as good or bad, are you consciously choosing the parameters for your judgment? Or are you using automatic parameters based on how things are expected to go? How much of your judgment is influenced by values instilled in you by others? And how much are you using your original, authentic, unique values to judge yourself?
Whose parameters are you judging the outcome by? Society, culture, family? Or have you taken the time to decide what is important to you? What are your priorities? What really matters to you? Have you distinguished yourself from the values and morals of others? Or are you just an echo of the world around you? When you stop wasting time feeling bad based on others’ value judgments, you are free to enjoy a lot more.
When you clear up the inner clutter of beliefs, judgments, and morals that have been handed down to you, there is a striking sense of clarity because you are finally able to listen to your own voice. Without the interference from 100s of external voices that have taken up residence within you — making decisions becomes much simpler, and much more fun!
Why fun? Because when your decisions are not about pleasing others, the process of making a decision can be quite interesting and fun. Researching, learning, exploring the options with curiosity, all this makes the process of making decisions fun! All you have to do is choose to enjoy and learn to enjoy the process and act of making decisions. And there is no shame in needing help to learn how to do this. You don’t have to do everything on your own. There are people who can help you to learn these skills and also save you a lot of time and energy.
Small choice — Big choice
We often don’t realize the decision we are making is rooted in a bigger/deeper decision. As I said to one of my clients in a recent meeting: “whether or not you should use substances in this specific instance is not the real decision; the real decision you have to make is whether you want to be in control of your life.” If you focus on the smaller choice without considering the impact on the bigger decisions, you unconsciously remain stuck in the same loop.
On the other hand, if you focus on the bigger choice, the smaller choices are made automatically. The real challenge is maintaining perspective of what is important in your life.
The smaller choices are a recommitment to the bigger choices about your life.
The smaller choice is not really a choice if you are committed to the bigger choice. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you will stop wasting time and energy debating these not-choices.
For example: If I have already chosen and committed to taking control of my life, then there is no decision to be made about using substances. That choice is pre-made, every single time.
As another example, if I have decided to have a child and be responsible for bringing it up in a loving, healthy way, then the decision to smoke and drink while pregnant/raising the child is pre-made, it is not something I need to debate each time I feel tempted.
Choosing goals, not paths
This is a variation of the Small-choice Big-choice tool covered above. When we choose a path, we may realize it was not the ideal path or not even the right path. If our choice was entirely and only about the path, we are doomed when we find out we took the wrong path. So choosing the right path becomes critical, and also paralyzing. But if you choose a goal instead of a path, then a bad choice about the path is not the end of the world. When you realize your mistake or failure on one path, you just learn from that and switch to another path. All you have lost is some time, energy, and resources, but you have gained experience and knowledge which you will use in future decision-making. And the road to your goal is likely a bit clearer now.
Having clarity about your goal makes you less attached to the path. In this way, when you are faced with unexpected circumstances that require you to pivot, you are less affected than when you are completely attached to a fixed plan that cannot change. Making space for variations and changes along the path helps us to make decisions about the path.
Most importantly, whether it is the right path or not, whether it is the best goal or not, we choose and make the best with what we have. Rather than waste time in regret, we use our energy to create the best experience on our chosen path. In this way we also learn to enjoy the journey and not be fixated on the goal. The journey is what we experience through all the paths and pivots on the way to our goal. Making the journey enjoyable is as much part of the choice.
You can also read the related article Alternatives to Fear-based Decision-making written by a member of our Study of Self group where there are many tips for healthy decision-making.
It may seem like an unfortunate reality that many of us are not educated in healthy decision-making but that is the world we live in. Rather than waste time resenting and regretting what we missed, we can take ownership at any age to teach ourselves to become healthier decision-makers.
If you have any tools that have helped you become a healthier decision-maker, please share in the comments.
If you are looking for support and help to learn these tools, you can explore group-work and 1:1 options on our website .