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Highly Sensitive People and Decision Making

A good decision made slowly is better than a quick decision that is wrong.

Do you have trouble making decisions? I do, and it seems to be true of most HSPs. Indeed, having made many difficult ones in my life, I joke that I have "decision trauma" from truly agonizing over some especially painful choices, in which whatever I did would change my life dramatically, and I knew that I would have reason to regret either choice.

I don't see this as a problem or something to be ashamed of. It is simply another side effect of who we are. In my next revision of the HSP Self-Test, I am pondering adding some new questions on decision making. I am almost certain that after I analyze all the data for doing so, that my new questions would be, "I have trouble making decisions" and "I find that I make good decisions." The latter item, often making better decisions than others, is why our difficulty is so much not something to be ashamed of, even though we live in a world where it seems that a quick decision that is wrong is more admired than a good decision made slowly.

Both our slow speed and our final tendency to be right follow from the most central aspect of our trait, our depth of processing. We notice even quite subtle aspects of our world and a vast array of the possible consequences of a choice. All of this goes into our consideration of what may be going to happen and what we should do. Much of the time we are not aware of this process, or aware but it does not complicate decisions. In fact, it can make it easier to decide what to do.

When we must consciously make a choice, however, we can suffer with real dilemmas, even over choosing a flavor of ice cream. All of this awareness of the details and possibilities can make it much more difficult than for non-HSPs. Then we can get teased for it, or frustrate the people around us. The ice cream server wants our order and our mind freezes as stiff as gelato. The realtor wants to close the deal and our mind panics and runs out our imagined new door. If our decision affects others also, eeks!

Part of the problem is that, because of being more emotionally responsive, we are more upset than others by making the wrong decision. Indeed, often when the choice is between two things we want, we tend to process all of the consequences, that is, regret the loss of the one we did not choose. "Gee, maybe I should have ordered the butter pecan!" Or "This pleasure will be over so quickly--I really shouldn't have had any ice cream at all." This trait does make life difficult sometimes.

I have a great deal of experience helping myself and other HSPs make decisions. Here are some tricks I discovered.

Okay, Your Choice Could be Wrong

First, face how much uncertainty is involved. Often there is a great deal and with serious consequences. An HS couple wants to have a baby, but fear the child might be very difficult in some way, or that given the wife's age the infant might be born with Downs syndrome, autism, or some other genetic problem. The odds are small but go up with age. However, what their baby will be like they can't know.

Uncertainty lurks in almost every decision, and as an HSP you can feel that more than others, often without being fully conscious of the fact. You are trying to decide between two or more jobs, colleges, places to live, apartments to rent or homes to purchase. You can go through endless inspections and investigations, but some things you cannot know until you are in the situation, and some things will change with time, including how you feel about your choice.

If you face the brutal fact that you may be wrong no matter what you do, you can go to step two:

Think about how you will handle being wrong. How serious will it really be? Can you be philosophical about making a mistake? Put it in perspective? See the "big picture"? We all make mistakes. What matters is that we learn from them. Or ask yourself whether in a year or ten years it will even matter? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Sometimes a choice at first feels like a mistake--especially when you give up what you are used to, and naturally you will miss parts of that. However, usually your thoughtful decisions turn out to have huge benefits in the long run. Some of you can also take the stance that things always or usually turn out for the best, or that a higher power is guiding your life. On the other hand...

Have a Way to Undo Your Decision if You Can

I always try to have an exit strategy. Maybe it will cost extra, but can you get home early from where you are planning to go if you want to? Can you take a sabbatical for a year from your job in case you change your mind about leaving it? How much would it cost to move again if you hated where you chose to live? Marriages tend to last longer if you do not have an exit strategy, but sometimes HSPs are better off when trying to commit if they consider how bad it would really be if their marriage ended in divorce. Maybe it would be very painful or costly to make a change, but it helps to know that you could.

Make a List and Maybe Then Some

My husband and I once had to make the difficult decision for him to stay at his current job or accept a new position for more pay at a different university. There were an enormous number of variables to consider as well as uncertainties: How we would like the new city, how he would like the new job, the cost of finding the housing we would like, the enormous effort of moving and settling in, the friends we would leave, the health insurance each offered. Our minds were swirling with all of this, so in order to avoid forgetting any factor or overemphasizing one, we made a list.

The list inspired us to turn that into a spreadsheet. Beside each issue we put numbers, 1 to 10, about how good it would feel if that particular thing worked out for the better, how bad if something did not, how good it would feel to leave something we did not like about where we were, how bad it would feel to give something up that we had where we were. Then we had to estimate the odds of each of these if there was uncertainty involved. Having it on a spreadsheet, we could sum up the columns but also change the weights according to our shifting feelings or new information and instantly see the new resulting sum. There were actually many surprises when we did this, and the end result was that we did not take the job, and have never regretted it. We knew exactly why we did not.

While that method sounds pretty brainy or techy, it was full of feelings because we were rating how we would feel about each, and we could imagine different degrees of feeling, maybe even after we made the change, and see how that affected the overall picture. Mainly it helped us keep it all in the picture, rather than feeling our minds jumping all around from issue to issue, feeling to feeling, during the day when we wanted to think about other things and even more when we wanted to sleep at night.

Take Your Time

My firm advice is to take as long to decide as the situation permits, and ask for more time if you need it and can take it. During this time, try pretending for a minute, hour, day, or even week that you have made up your mind a certain way. How does that feel? Often, on the other side of a decision, things look different and this gives you a chance to imagine more vividly that you are already there.

Balance Carefully Your Needs and Those of Others

Few decisions are made outside of a social context. Very often our decisions affect others. Sometimes people really want or need us to choose something that we are not so sure will be good for us or even good for them. Although we must be very careful to let others make their own decisions, often we can sense what is good for others better than they can and need to state our observations as diplomatically as possible.

When a decision truly affects you and another equally, it's much more complicated. What are the issues for HSPs? One is knowing better. Sometimes I will ask my husband, a non-HSP, what he would like to do, or to choose between this or that. It's painful when, as soon as he tells me, I realize that this is going to be the wrong choice. That trail isn't shady enough for hiking in summer at mid-day, or doesn't he remember the bad food we had at that restaurant last time? Actually, he is used to me being better at these types of choices--I'm the HSP--so he usually agrees as soon as I point out the problems. Of course, sometimes I'm wrong, and taking the responsibility can be hard, too. Then there are times when I can't decide, so he decides on one thing, and only then do I know I want the other.

If you both know what you want and it is different, use all the skills for conflict resolution that can be found on the web or in advice books, but you can also use The Highly Sensitive Person in Love for HSP-specific suggestions. For example, non-HSPs often state their needs with a higher volume, even when in fact they care about the outcome less than you do. Ask any non-HSPs involved to rate how important something is for them from one to ten, and also how important it is if they do not get their way. Do the same for yourself. Now you see the true balance.

When you really must sacrifice your needs, which we are prone to do as especially empathic people, be very careful. Could you go to your grave resenting the other person for this decision? You must make your decision fully conscious of the costs and fully willing to accept them and never bring it up again.

Also remember that if you discussed the decision with the other and you feel he or she agreed to let you have your way, and then it turns out to be wrong, there is no reason for guilt. That's an HSP tendency. We can feel guilty even if something we intended to do by a selfless decision turns out to be good for ourselves, too. Self-interest, when it dovetails with a greater good, is nothing to be ashamed of.

Be Careful About Others' Advice

Sometimes non-HSPs in particular, with no (conscious) stake at all in your decision, will voice strong opinions about what you should decide, often while focusing on only a small part of the decision or thinking of how they would feel in your situation. The sheer strength of their expression can throw you. If you said something in this tone, it would represent near certainty. With non-HSPs, it often turns out "Oh, you heard it that way? I didn't really..." These opinions can stick in our minds and hearts, especially if we care about how the person will feel if we decide to go against this advice.

The people you want to ask are those who have information you may not have--those living in the town you will move to, going to the college you may choose, working in the career you are considering, or who have had that second or third child you are thinking about. Also ask those like vocational or college counselors who have helped others make the same decision.

Above all, talk with those types who really listen to you and reflect back what you are saying. "Sounds like you are saying that it really worries you, living in a big city." Again, be careful of those who do not listen. Some may have strong opinions that are really more philosophical or political. For example, some people feel small or large families are better or even morally right, but your situation is not being considered.

May most of your decisions feel right! Always right, we HSPs know, is too much to expect.

More from Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.
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