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Chronic Indecisiveness: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Can't make up your mind? You might be suffering from chronic indecisiveness.

Key points

  • Chronic indecisiveness is the habit of not making a choice.
  • Chronic indecisiveness is more than ordinary indecision.
  • Those affected may be so consumed by the possible consequences of a wrong choice that they overlook the results of taking no action.
 Jon Tysun/Unsplash
Source: Jon Tysun/Unsplash

Chronic indecisiveness is the habit of avoiding a decision—sometimes agonized and anxious, sometimes unconscious. It can happen regularly with small meaningless choices—Which movie should I watch? What brand of cereal should I buy?—as well as with consequential choice points—Should I marry this person? Should I buy this house?

Procrastinators, perfectionists, and people with OCD often deal with chronic indecisiveness. Here is what it can look like:

Carol had constant trouble making up her mind. When her oven broke, she couldn’t decide which type to get. Although she spent hours looking for the ‘right’ gifts, she almost never bought anything. She was chronically late to appointments because she was never sure what outfit to wear. She wanted to move to another apartment, but never seemed to find the right one. She mused over all her missed opportunities but was unable to break that cycle.

People with chronic indecisiveness may focus on the doubts when feeling uncertain of the right decision to make. Or they may just get stuck, procrastinate, forget or avoid because the consequences of any decision could take them down the wrong path, end in dire results, or produce regrets.

As with anticipatory anxiety, both overthinking and getting hijacked by imagination about the future play an important role in paralyzing action.

More Than Ordinary Indecision

It is common to avoid making decisions, big and small, at various times. Getting stuck at certain choice points does not constitute chronic indecisiveness.

Most people manage to get on with their lives. In contrast, being chronically indecisive is an enduring tendency. It is not a personality trait; it is a behavioral problem that can be changed.

Some people with chronic indecisiveness seem unable to make decisions across the board, while others have little difficulty making choices in some aspect of their life (for example, at work), but are paralyzed by chronic indecisiveness in others (perhaps in their personal life).

Each person with chronic indecisiveness has areas of sensitivity and individual patterns of avoiding decisions and becoming stuck.

  • Procrastinating refers to knowing what you need to do but being unable to just do it; delaying is closer to declining to make a choice.
  • Active evasion (or head in the sand) is dodging any aspect of the decision you are avoiding and pretending there is no decision you need to make.
  • “Convenient” forgetting is a way of avoiding just outside of awareness. It may seem accidental, until a pattern emerges.
  • Escape clause “decisions” are returnable, exchangeable, reversible, redo-able choices that make every decision a tentative one, allowing for endless deliberations without making a committed choice.

Other Underlying Issues

Chronic indecisiveness can arise from different issues. Here are some of the more common ones.

  • Avoiding Potential Risks. The attempt to avoid potential risks is related to anticipatory anxiety. Examples include not being able to commit to a doctor’s appointment or to decide to confront a challenge, undertake a project, or volunteer for something. You may constantly revisit decisions. You likely have an escape plan for any commitment, perhaps in the form of “text me right before and I’ll see if I’m up for it,” or “we’ll see how I feel then.”
  • Avoiding the Wrong Choice. A second type is centered around avoiding making the wrong choice. You might imagine having major regrets or being trapped in an untenable situation from which there is no escape. It is about avoiding a mistake—a big one like choosing the wrong college or life partner—or a little one, like buying a non-refundable item of clothing you might end up not liking.
  • Make the Best Choice, or Paralysis by Analysis. Some forms are less driven by anticipatory anxiety. Making the best choice involves deciding among alternatives. If you have this form, you repeatedly go back and forth; nothing stands out as the one to choose. You may do endless internet research, collect others’ opinions, and make useless pro-and-con lists. This is related to perfectionism.
  • Make the Right Choice. Underlying another form is wanting to make the right choice. You have an idea of what you want, or that you will know it when you see it. You are waiting for that feeling of “aha! this is it!”—being sure of your choice (which never comes). This is often related to intolerance of uncertainty (or OCD doubting). It may also be driven by ambivalence, where all choices seem equally attractive or unattractive and there does not appear to be a ‘rational’ way to choose.
  • Fear of Missing Out. Yet another type stems from a fear of missing out (FOMO)—wanting to follow all opportunities and keep all options open. It is not deciding because of a profound sense that making one choice precludes the alternative. FOMO can show up as being unable to choose one professional path because it closes others. Or being unable to settle down with one plan of action, giving up another equally attractive choice. It can lead to overscheduling to avoid turning down any potentially exciting experience. Unlike an approach/avoidance conflict (you want something but it scares you), it is an approach/approach conflict (you want everything but it is impossible).
  • “Justified” Indecisiveness. Finally, there are some people who feel justified in continuing to do their research and delay their decisions. They may see themselves as appropriately cautious, and they may also see others who make decisions easily as too impulsive or cavalier. They may value “getting it right” as a virtue, no matter how long it takes, and are willing to suffer the frustrations of others as well as the negative effects of their inaction. This is common in OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder).

The Costs of Inaction Are Often Ignored

You might become so preoccupied with imagining the possible negative consequences of making the wrong choice that you overlook the losses involved by taking no action. In these cases, imagining regret about an action is more powerful than realizing the actual effects of inaction. These include losing windows of opportunity; remaining stuck in unsatisfying circumstances; being left behind by peers, friends, and family; disappointing others; and engendering self-criticism.

Anticipatory worry about deciding often starts with “what if?” But being stuck can also be about avoiding that “if only” feeling.” Action might produce regret. Doing nothing feels safer. Keeping a situation unresolved can give the illusion of avoiding a bad outcome, while ignoring the consequences of inaction along the way.

Another potential consequence of chronic indecisiveness may not be immediately obvious. This is how others tend to interpret your frustrating behavior—whether they let you know or are supportive. You may be perceived as selfish, inconsiderate, stubborn, unreliable, or immature.

One patient was shocked when her cousin accused her of being selfish and self-centered because she frequently changes plans last minute, often refuses to commit to plans, and usually cancels the few she makes. The patient—a kind and empathic person—had no idea her inability to make decisions was viewed this way.

Three important factors contributing to chronic indecisiveness—perfectionism, difficulty with uncertainty, and fear of regret—will be discussed in a future post.

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