There are several reasons why someone may have considerable difficulty making decisions both large and small. One is the inability to tolerate having not chosen the alternative. Decisions often involve sacrifices or losses - something that some people can find unbearable. Significant life choices like where to live, whether or not to change jobs, or whether to make a relationship permanent are understandably difficult and may paralyze the individual faced with them. Being able to relinquish the alternative not chosen can even affect the countless minor decisions of everyday life. It is unfortunate when someone chooses or agrees to dine at the Indian restaurant but not the seafood restaurant, and has difficulty enjoying their meal because of a longing for their favorite shrimp dish—or, when a diner chooses steak over lobster and laments the absent shellfish for that meal and focuses only on what they are missing.
Another reason is being prone to what I call “decision-paralysis”—being overly concerned about or too dependent on the opinions of others. This may lead to an individual being unable to determine how to proceed without first undertaking a survey of their support network in the hopes of arriving at the optimal choice. It's as though somehow others might be in a better position to know what the correct thing is to do. Therefore, what should be a personal decision ends up being decided by committee.
A final reason that people are troubled by decision-making is the need to be “right” no matter what. When someone imposes “right vs. wrong” on a decision they have to make, they may complicate the process of making the best choice or the one that is truly right for them. Believing that one has made the “wrong” choice has the potential to weaken one's faith in his or her ability to make sound choices in general.
Let's take the example of Kelli. In a recent treatment session, Kelli wanted my help in deciding whether or not she ought to continue dating Greg, the new man she met through an on-line dating website. At first, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable and appropriate issue to raise in therapy and invite my input. I listened intently as Kelli reported the conversations she had already had with many family members, friends, and colleagues about what she should do about her “problem.” Not surprisingly, Kelli had become quite confused and more doubtful when she discovered that her respondents were about evenly divided regarding whether and how she should proceed with Greg.
When I asked Kelli what she thought she wanted to do about Greg, she looked startled and exclaimed, “I have no idea!” Kelli was unsure about her feelings regarding her new beau and, I discovered, had asked everybody what she should do - except herself! Kelli and I agreed that the real problem was less “what to do about Greg,” than understanding why she seemed unable (or even unwilling) to figure this out for herself.
Kelli, like so many individuals struggling to make important life-decisions, did not have much faith in her ability to make sound, reliable choices and decisions. Raised by overly controlling parents who valued obedience, compliance, and passivity, rather than independence, autonomy, and assertiveness, Kelli was often mercilessly criticized and developed into a person who magnified her own limitations believing herself to be inferior to others. She also became primarily concerned with gaining the approval of others and, as a result, it was always difficult for her to know her own abilities and strengths—including whether or not she had the capacity to make reasoned judgments, sound choices, and reliable decisions.
Her low self-esteem and chronic self-doubt were responsible for her overreliance on the presumed wisdom of others in knowing what was best for her. Also, her own focus on how others viewed her interfered with her ability to get to know herself and her feelings about various situations. She was, therefore, unable to develop a sense of confidence and trust in herself. These issues explained her need to survey others for guidance in how to proceed in a new romantic relationship, as well as so many other decisions affecting her life. Procrastination, indecisiveness, and self-doubt are the common consequences of an emotional climate like the one Kelli experienced as a child.
What eventually changed for Kelli in the course of our work together was her appreciation for the fact that decisions like whether or not to deepen a romantic relationship, make a job or career change, or move to a new apartment were hers and hers alone. While appropriate input from trusted and informed others was helpful, the ultimate choice was hers and she needed to be able to make it, regardless of the outcome. She began to look inward rather than outward to determine what was best for her. It was also helpful for Kelli to no longer assess and evaluate her decisions based on the outcome of her choices. The decision to ask a boss for a raise, for example, ought not to be evaluated solely on whether or not the raise was given. Similarly, her decision to continue to see Greg could not only be related to how things eventually turned out between them.
Actual outcome: Kelli decided to continue seeing Greg. Four months later, she discovered that Greg had lied to her on a number of occasions and she decided to terminate the relationship— without asking anyone else what she should do. Fortunately, and to Kelli’s credit, she did not blame herself for a bad decision in continuing to see Greg four months earlier, recognizing that she made a choice based on her own criteria and judgment using the available information she had at the time.