Why We Can't Make Up Our Minds

You can't stop the clock. Sometimes you just have to make a call.

Posted Nov 09, 2014

By David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D.

We have all had the experience of getting stuck while trying to make a decision. Trying to choose between two or more alternatives, we debate the benefits and drawbacks of each and don’t get any closer to choosing. Being stuck is often a result of our desire to avoid loss. Each choice we make means potentially losing the alternatives not selected. Other times, remaining stuck is a way of holding on to our youth. We resist certain decisions because doing so would mean moving on to the next stage in our lives.

We Don’t Want to Give Anything Up

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We all struggle with decisions about our lives: Should we get married? What should we study in school? Does it make sense to leave our current job for a new opportunity? We might remain indecisive because, as long as we don’t make a choice, we don’t give up any of the possibilities. When we don’t decide, we potentially have it all and don’t have to give up anything.

As we consider the benefits and shortcomings of each decision, we think about what it would be like to go forward with each option. We imagine ourselves having made each choice and what it would be like should we choose that path.

For example, in considering two jobs, one might have better work hours, whereas the other offers a higher salary. We imagine what it would be like to work shorter hours and have a better work-life balance; we imagine all we could do with those extra hours in the week. Alternatively, we consider having a higher salary and how we will spend that extra money. In our imaginations, then, we create an attachment to both the extra time and the extra money.

But when it comes time to decide, we have to give up the benefits of one of the choices—the time or the money. Now, we are faced with a loss. It is our resistance to this loss that makes it difficult to pull the plug and make the decision.

Arrested Development

Other times, making a decision entails the more painful losses that can accompany moving forward with our lives. At these times, it might be that our “uncertainty” about a decision is really our way avoiding a choice that will lead to giving up aspects of our youth.

Indecision about whether to move in with a romantic partner might actually evoke more worry about relinquishing youthful independence than about whether it’s an optimal match. But as long as we occupy our minds with weighing the relative merits of our partner, we avoid awareness of the anxiety about growing up and moving on. As long as we can convince ourselves that we are just not quite sure this is the right person for us, we can avoid the growing pains associated with losing our single life.

The Price

Of course, being stuck in an arrested development can have tragic consequences. As time passes and we resist making decisions and foreclosing on options, options foreclose on us.

We might be trying to decide whether to get married and start a family and give up our late-night partying. We might be trying to decide whether to buy a new apartment instead of maintaining the freedom of renting. As a result, we might squander opportunities. Lovers move on to find someone who will give them the family they want. Real estate costs soar, and we find ourselves priced out of the market. Time passes—and if we don’t keep up, we risk falling behind.

Life changes can strike fear in us at our very core. It is not uncommon to need help to manage these feelings. Life change means shifts in what we do and how we see ourselves. A therapist can support us emotionally during this time, while keeping us on track and helping us confront the discomfort of change. Having someone dedicated to listening and understanding can help us locate our particular concerns and identify the worries causing indecision.

David Braucher, L.C.S.W., Ph.D., is a Candidate at The William Alanson White Institute and an Associate Editor for the journal, Contemporary Psychoanalysis. He has lectured at the NYU School of Social Work and written on relationships. He is in private practice in The Village in Manhattan.