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Uncovering Hidden Causes of Indecision

Simple solutions to help you make decisions and empower your life.

There are seven words that, when combined and posed as a question, can stir up such massive indecisiveness that it has even started battles between people who have promised eternal love and commitment to each other. That is, until this question gets asked: "What do you want for dinner tonight?"

Hopefully some of you can get a chuckle from the question. If so, you can relate. It’s a relatable example the sheds light on the feeling of helplessness that comes from the inability to make a decision. Some people have more challenges with decision-making than others, yet just about everyone can have a deer-in-the-headlights response to something at some point or another. This post illuminates some of the hidden, and not so hidden, causes of indecisiveness in order to help facilitate decision-making along with generating a little more self-compassion when you feel stuck (and maybe even help you tolerate those “other people” who can’t decide).

In the case of dinner decisions, there are a number of reasons that cause people difficulty in articulating what they want to eat. First, the options are plentiful. So plentiful that it can flood people and leave them with heightened uncertainty. Too many options leads to indecision. The sky is the limit and the challenge has been taken away. Limit the options and make food hard to come by and then you’re salivating gratefully over a warm cup of soup or a piece of sweet melon on a hot day.

On top of that, people can appear to be indecisive when they are trying to please the other person. When both people are trying to please each other, it can be a perpetual ping pong game with each person repeatedly replying, “I don’t know. What do you want?”

Then when someone offers up a suggestion like pizza, the other person may move past their flooding stage from too many options and realize they don’t want pizza. They still don’t know what they want, yet now the decision-making has turned into an elimination game. This is where relationship dynamics can come into play as the person with the suggestion can feel thwarted and defensive. (For relationship issues, read my posts on Resolving Misunderstandings or The Formula for Staying Together.)

We’ve touched on “too many options,” “people-pleasing,” and “playing the elimination game.” For people who have the hardest time making decisions, these issues are powerful in many parts of their lives, yet there are a couple more things that happen to hamper clarity of wants and desires.

Too many options can flood someone, yet their inability to choose may be directly tied to their fear of making a mistake. This is exponentially increased if they have had a history of being corrected when they were making a choice—or always being told what to do and what to want. Both extremes create self-doubt and the inability to connect to one’s own inner guidance.

Let’s look at some common examples. Following are a list of questions that demand big decisions.

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?
  • What do you want to major in?
  • How many kids will you have?
  • Where do you want to live?

If a child was told “no” to their answers and directed in all of their answers, over time the cognitive dissonance between their desires and those of the hand that feeds them will lessen and cut them off from their desire. They may rebel and have trouble with authority and do all kinds of things that go against what others want in an attempt to be free, yet the scar of not trusting their instincts may be so severe that they can never connect to what they want.

To heal this kind of wound, begin with little things. Try finding colors that make you happy. Feel temperature changes and discover what your body feels when it’s hot, cold, warm or just right. Adjust your bathwater to what feels best for you. Journal about the things that make you happy and grateful Finding our bliss reveals our truth. Over time, move on to finding your favorite books, movies, vacation places. Read different viewpoints and journal about what you like and don’t like.

Another exercise you can take is to list the fears and “rules” that you were raised with (or influenced by others) that impact you.

A fear list might include the following: “I’m afraid to live in the city;” “I’m afraid that I’m bad at math and can’t do a job that requires math;” “I’m scared I can’t spell or write and don’t how to send a resume or cover letter to a school or a company.”

A list of “rules” might include things like: “Rich people are bad so making too much money will make me a bad person;” “Poor people are lazy so being poor means I am lazy;” “Scientists are nerds and boring and have no friends;” “Artists are poor;” “I cannot love people in different religions because I will go to hell;” “I am a bad person and cannot trust my dreams and desires.”

Take your time creating these lists and be gentle with yourself as new fears and rules reveal themselves. You may cry and grieve as you uncover ingrained beliefs that have been under the radar. The more you excavate, the easier it will be to release them and replace them with alternatives. To do that, write the opposite of the fear. “I have courage and trust that I am safe wherever I choose to reside.” “Math is a learning opportunity and I will find joy in learning what I need in order to reasonably accomplish my job.” Do the same with the rules. “Income does not define people and I am giving and wonderful no matter how much money I make.”

The key is in uncovering old tapes and making new ones that you author so that you can be a more active participant in your life. Sometimes not making a decision is a decision, so take all the time you need. Be gentle with yourself, yet also applaud yourself when you see the advances you’re making. Make a decision every day (no matter how small) and over time, you will discover you’ve made great strides.

As for making a decision about dinner, try limiting the options the next time you feel like asking that seven-word question. Instead, offer three suggestions like: “I was thinking about spaghetti, saag paneer, or filet mignon tonight. Do any of these interest you?”

Generally, not always, you will have a richer and less troublesome conversation about what to eat.

Happy decision-making and bon appétit!