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Why Second-Guessing Yourself Might Not Be All Bad

Second-guessing yourself can be painful. But with control, it can be helpful.

Key points

  • Learning to use second-guessing as a tool can help you manage decision-making more realistically.
  • Combining idealized daydreams and second-guessing can help you deal with disappointment.
  • Reviewing and re-thinking decisions can help you clarify some of your expectations.

When Angelique* and her husband Mark* discovered that they were going to have a baby, she told me, “

We were excited, thrilled – and terrified. With COVID still floating around and terrible political situations worldwide, we worried about what kind of life we were bringing this baby into. And then we worried that we would be lousy parents. We kept asking each other if we had made a terrible mistake.

Dan* was miserable in his job, so when he got an offer from another company, he jumped at it.

But after he signed the papers for the new job and handed in his resignation to the old one, he started having second thoughts. “I started thinking about the things I did like about the work I’d been doing, and I worried that I wouldn’t have the same opportunities at the new firm.”

As Abraham* drove away from the car dealership in his new car, he was assailed by doubts. “Maybe it wasn’t really what I wanted,” he said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about whether or not it was right for me after all.”

Two weeks before her wedding, Erin* was in my office in tears. “What if he isn’t the right man for me?” she cried. “Maybe there’s someone else out there who is really the one. How do I know?”

Second, guessing ourselves is often seen as problematic, a sign of insecurity, self-doubt, and possibly some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but I view it differently. In my work, I have repeatedly seen that when it isn’t out of control, second-guessing can be the sign of a healthy, highly functional psyche. Second-guessing yourself can be a way of preparing yourself for some of the realities of an experience that you’re about to head into.

Sometimes we can only choose to move forward in a new experience if we look at it through rose-colored glasses. For instance, a new job must look incredible to make us give up an old, comfortable one. A new house must be really special to be worth the financial sacrifices we might have to make to pay for it. We have to believe in happily ever after with a romantic partner to make up for the loss of liberty that comes with a commitment.

For instance, Angelique and Mark had made a conscious decision to become pregnant because they both loved children and thought it would be wonderful to have some of their own.

But when the reality hit, they began to worry.

Before, we had imagined all of the wonderful, probably a bit idealized pictures we had of parenthood. Once the baby was real, we started to think about some of the less beautiful stuff – like ways our freedom would be limited. I wouldn’t be able to go out with my girlfriends the way I did before. Mark might not be able to get to the gym as often. And it was going to be expensive. Our jobs became more important. We started thinking about a budget.

This tarnish to the idealized image that often helps us make complex or difficult decisions is important. According to psychoanalysts like Heinz Kohut and D.W. Winnicott, disappointment is an important and necessary factor in human development. We have to be disappointed to grow. Or, to put it differently, if we were always content with everything, we’d never try new things. Babies, for example, would never learn to walk or talk if they were just happy crawling and being carried and communicating without language.

But disappointment, to be useful, has to be manageable or “optimal,” as the psychoanalyst Howard Bacal described in his book optimal responsiveness. In the best of cases, second-guessing allows for optimal disillusionment. It helps us start to think about how we will be disappointed and will enable us to start preparing for a less than perfect situation. And since no situation is perfect, being prepared for some imperfections can be a lot healthier than expecting everything to match your idealized version.

Of course, second-guessing can get out of hand. You cannot return the baby once it is born. The way you can return a pair of shoes that you realize you don’t really like. And once you’ve signed on the dotted line, it’s hard to reject a job or give up a house. The same is true in intimate relationships. If you keep second-guessing that kind of decision, you lose the ability to appreciate and enjoy what your decision has given to you. The thought that maybe there’s someone better out there makes it hard to grow a loving relationship with the person you are with.

If that happens, your second-guessing might be interfering with your life. It can help to think about some of your expectations of others and also of yourself. For instance, if Mark and Angelique had thought that a baby would solve problems in their marriage, they would very likely be headed for serious disappointment, which could affect not only them but also their baby.

Some choices cannot be undone. But reviewing and re-thinking decisions can help you start to clarify some of your expectations. Whether it’s a house you bought that you now think was a mistake, a business decision you wish you could undo, a marriage, a baby, or any other choice that you are worried about, try to listen carefully to your doubts.

Did you think a new job would bring you unlimited satisfaction? Was marriage going to be conflict-free and happily-ever-after? Was a baby never going to be fussy and inconsolable, never have a smelly diaper? Or are you genuinely unhappy about a decision, and if so, what can you do to change it? Almost all decisions can be altered or adjusted somehow, which is part of why second-guessing can get out of hand. Taking action to undo or adjust the results of a harmful decision is often complicated and painful, but it’s important to recognize when your second-guessing is telling you that something really is wrong.

Seeing things through rose-colored glasses isn’t bad – without some romanticized daydreams, we also probably wouldn’t change – but second-guessing is a way our psyche has of reminding us that our daydreams are generally more perfect than reality can ever be.

*names and identifying info changed to protect privacy