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Why Some People Just Can't Make Up Their Minds

How anxiety makes even trivial decisions torturous.

Key points

  • Uncertainty is inherent in every decision we make.
  • Choices create a hugely difficult issue if you are chronically indecisive.
  • Knowing for sure is about feeling sure enough.
  • Your best approach is to tackle the impossibility of eliminating doubts and learn to make decisions in the midst of uncertainty.

When you think about it, there is very little in life that we can be certain of. Uncertainty is inherent in every decision we make, from the most profound choices of our lives ("Have I chosen the right person as my partner?" "If I take this job, will it advance my career?") to the most mundane ("What color should I paint my room?" "What should I have for breakfast?").

We can have doubts about virtually anything. ("Am I really a good person?" "Will this plane crash?" "Could I have an asymptomatic illness?)" Most of the time we are confident enough in our choices—or that they just don’t matter that much—and we can bypass our doubts well enough to make plans and follow through with some assurance.

However, for those with chronic indecisiveness, making a choice—any choice—and the uncertainties and doubts that each choice unleashes, turns into a barrier that stops the decision process in its tracks

The Question of Certainty

Every assumption you make about the world is embedded in uncertainty, from the most trivial ("My pen has ink.") to the most profound ("My parent/partner/child is alive."). In fact, you can’t be sure of either until you check. (And then right after you check, you can no longer be certain because things can change.) Still, most people feel certain enough, and that is sufficient to make decisions.

The experience of uncertainty is different from not having enough facts. It is a type of thought called a meta-cognition, accompanied by a feeling. Uncertainty is the awareness or knowledge that we do not know something for sure. This awareness is most often accompanied by a feeling. It can be excitement ("Who is going to win this football game?") or fear ("What if I cannot handle what happens?") or shame (I"f that were to happen, I would never be able to live with myself.") or any other feeling. Occasionally, uncertainty is just neutral. ("I don’t know for sure whether I said that, but I don’t really care.")

Some ordinary doubts can simply be resolved enough with facts. (“Is that the right name of this movie star?” “Did I forget to send that email I was thinking about?”) This kind of doubt can be settled by using your senses to look and see what is currently true (“Yes, that is his name.” “Yes, I did forget to send out that email.”).

However, there is a different kind of doubt; it arises from your imagination and makes you doubt what your senses tell you. No amount of fact-checking will ever resolve this type of doubt. Here is an example. A doubt arises: “Did I turn the stove off?” You check whether you did. Your senses tell you yes. You feel sure. But then, as you walk away, another kind of doubt arises that is an imagined narrative of what you just saw. “What if it did not turn off completely”, or “What if I burn down the house, and what harm would it do to check again?”

This kind of doubt cannot be settled with another “fact” because it is generated by your imagination. No matter how many times you attempt to settle it with a reassurance or a check, you are never able to feel sure enough.

Other examples of doubting arise not from discounting your senses but from your imagination about the future. Here again, facts are of no help. It might be a worry that some past choice will return with bad consequences, or you realize that you have no guarantees about the outcome of a choice in the future. “Have I inadvertently made a bad decision I do not even know about?”, or “How can I be sure I will remain healthy?”

Being aware of an unwelcome possibility—and being unable to recognize clearly that you have inadvertently made up a story that scares you—makes it difficult to ignore. No matter how slim the probability that the bad outcome could happen, it is a real possibility—and now that you have imagined it, it urges you to do something: Be responsible, prevent a bad thing from happening, resolve this doubt, find a way to avoid something.

The problem, of course, is that there are no facts in the concrete here-and-now that can help you resolve this. The story resides in your imagination. And this kind of obsessional doubt increases the more you engage with it, either by thinking about it more and more or by checking for new facts. You have already dismissed your common sense in favor of a preoccupation with your unresolvable doubts.

Choices, therefore, create a hugely difficult issue if you are chronically indecisive. Each choice you make starts you on a different path. Sometimes it is trivial (“If I choose a red purse, then my whole outfit needs to match.”); sometimes it could be consequential (“If I buy this house, I am committing to a long commute.”) or even life-altering (“If I accept this job, I am committing to this career path.”).

So, can you ever be certain that you are making the right choice? When you acknowledge the reality that unexpected things happen and unexpected consequences are likely to show up from time to time, you realize that you can never really know for sure. Knowing for sure is not about nailing down certainty, banishing doubts, or gathering more facts. It is not about telling yourself that you can be certain, that all will be well, that there is no reason to have any doubts. It is about feeling sure enough.

People with chronic indecisiveness often find just making a choice becomes torturous. They become so concerned that they might be making an irrevocable mistake or embarking on a path that they just can’t handle or that is a poor choice, and the concerns trigger so much anxiety that delay, avoidance, and procrastination seem to be the only acceptable options.

And, for many, the same paralysis can be engulfing for even the most trivial decisions: “Which exit should I take from the parking lot?” or, “Should I get a double latte or just a regular hot coffee?”

In situations like these, you might even ask yourself, “Why do I have such difficulty making up my mind when it really doesn’t matter?” When you are stuck this way at a trivial choice point, it is the anxiety caused by your uncertainty that you are avoiding, rather than any negative consequences of making a mistake. So you genuinely become incapable of viewing your alternatives with any degree of objectivity or common sense.

The Key Shift

Attempts to fix your apprehension over not knowing for sure are most probably leading you in the wrong direction. Waiting for the right time, endless research, hoping for unmistakable inspiration and motivation—these are all attempts to eliminate uncertainty from your decision-making.

A much more productive approach is to tackle head-on the impossibility of eliminating doubts and train your brain and body to make decisions in the midst of uncertainty. The goal is to help you feel sure enough of your decisions to carry on with self-confidence. Imagined possibilities are not probabilities.

Your best guess is really the only option you ever have.

LinkedIn image: Pheelings media/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

More from Martin Seif Ph.D. ABPP and Sally Winston Psy.D.
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