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Struggling to Make Good Decisions? It's Time to Trust Yourself

What do you do when you're faced with a big decision? Ditch the analysis paralysis! Risking mistakes and regrets is all part of living your best life.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #278
make decision
The Quick And Dirty

In times of uncertainty, it's hard to trust yourself. You can be paralyzed by indecision. To cultivate trust in yourself and make decisions that enrich your life, you can use these approaches:

  • Don't make avoiding mistakes your goal. Consider mistakes the price you pay for the privilege of living an interesting, fulfilling life. 
  • Use your values instead of your fears to guide you in decision-making. Values are big-picture princples that you would want to see in your obituary. 
  • Use both your rational mind and emotional mind to make decisions, because they both provide valuable information. 
  • Reward yourself for decisions made, successes earned, and lessson learned. 

How can you learn to trust yourself and your ability to make the “right” decision?

Recently, I found myself stuck at Home Depot. Like in a surrealist movie, I was unable to leave because I was in the paint aisle staring at a wall of sample colors, unable to decide between falcon gray and flannel gray.

Is falcon grey too dark? But flannel seems a little too warm. How will it look under the lighting we have? What if one of these will bring down my house’s resale value? Should we even have bought a house in this uncertain economy? Have I made the biggest mistake of my life? Falcon or flannel?

Choosing paint colors may seem like a silly thing to fret over—and it is! But indecision and doubt can follow like shadows in more significant parts of life, too. Maybe instead of being torn between two shades of gray paint, you're torn between staying at your current job or switching to a different career. Or perhaps you feel unsure about your relationship, but you can’t tell whether it’s a phase to be worked through or you should call it quits. Maybe you and your partner have each gotten coveted job offers in different cities. Who should make the sacrifice? Or should you try long-distance dating? Or break up?

It's not always easy to make decisions

In uncertain times, it’s hard to trust yourself and be decisive. This doubt feeds anxiety that feeds more doubt. To make matters worse, second-guessing tends to result in worse decisions. Sometimes—even after making long pros-and-cons lists, consulting your trusted friends, and resorting to throwing a dart with a blindfold on—you just can’t seem to get to that magical, cathartic confidence that you’re making the right choice.  

Doubt feeds anxiety that feeds more doubt. To make matters worse, second-guessing tends to result in worse decisions.

 

Four steps to making decisions

Let’s take a step back from the nitty-gritty of the decision itself and look at your overall psychological and philosophical approach. In other words, forget for a moment whether falcon gray or flannel gray is the warmer shade. Let’s see what you can do to boost your decision-making confidence overall.

1. Accept that sometimes you'll make mistakes, and this is not only okay but necessary for a fulfilling life

First, get rid of the goal of perfecting decision-making. If you are looking for a fail-proof approach to guarantee that you will never make a bad decision or have regrets, then you’ll need a time machine. Aiming to avoid all mistakes will not only disappoint and frustrate you, but it will make you miss the point of decision-making in the first place. We face uncertainty and challenges in life to explore, grow, learn, and cultivate. Uncertainty also helps us to feel appreciation, surprise, pride, joy, humility, inspiration, and all the other things that make life interesting and fulfilling.

If you are looking for a fail-proof approach to guarantee that you will never make a bad decision or have regrets, then you’ll need a time machine.

To experience this richness of life, it’s not only okay but necessary to experience unintended outcomes, fall flat on our faces, and generally find ourselves in uncomfortable situations.

So, when you’re paralyzed by indecision because you’re afraid of making the wrong one, tell yourself: “If this decision turns out for the best, good! If it turns out to not be ideal, good! That's the ticket price I need to pay for growing and having a fulfilling life.”

2. Be guided by your values, not by fear

Now you’re ready to look more closely at your decision. How should you tackle it?

Often, we’re guided by fears of what could go wrong. What if I regret this? What if other people my decisions affect regret this? This choice is less exciting, so what if I get bored? That choice is a higher risk, so what if I lose money? The fear factors weighing on the scale seem endless. Sometimes it’s hard to even put a number on how much each option matters.

Instead of making a decision based on which fears you want to avoid, make it based on which values you want to move toward.

Did you know that there is a term for extreme anxiety about making career-related decisions? It’s called zeteophobia, and it’s quite understandable why people would have it. Making a career move is a high-stakes gambit, and there's always a chance things could go badly.

Instead of making a decision based on which fears you want to avoid, make it based on which values you want to move toward. Values are big-picture principles that guide you in your life. The best thing about your values is that you get to choose them.

Think of your values as things you'd like to be known for, like integrity, fairness, or stability. What's important to you in your career? Do you value prestige? Intellectual challenge? Financial stability? Consistency with your ethics? There are no wrong answers here.

Once you know what you truly value, you’ll be able to better choose between two job offers. Not only will your decision become more clear, but you'll also have less regret. You'll know that whatever bad aspects of your chosen job you have to put up with, you chose to take those as part of the package to live consistently with your values.

3. Listen to both your rational and emotional mind

Often, we hear people say things like “So-and-so is so emotional! They just don’t make rational decisions” or “So-and-so is like a robot, only using cold-hearted logic.” The truth is, rationality and emotionality are not opposites, and you don’t have to sacrifice one to have the other. When it comes to trusting yourself and making decisions, you should use both your rational and emotional mind. Both provide useful information.

Your rational mind can do things like make pros-versus-cons lists, systematically laying out factors to consider in your decision-making. Let's say you're trying to decide whether to stay with your current partner or move on. You might list that they're smart, interesting, and great with your dog in the pros column. But they're also untidy, not punctual, and awkward around your dad—those are cons. Now, consult your values. What's higher on your list, intellectual growth or being organized? Whose opinion matters more, your dog's or your dad's? 

When it comes to trusting yourself and making decisions, you should use both your rational and emotional mind. Both provide useful information.

But your emotional mind plays an important role, too. If your pros and cons list points to staying in your romantic relationship because it simply “makes sense,” but you feel a big wave of disappointment when you come to this conclusion ... take note. Your brain has other information or has done other calculations behind the scenes, to produce this emotional response as a way to draw your attention to something important. This is a signal urging you to check whether you’ve missed items on your pros-versus-cons list, or to whether one of the cons secretly holds more values weight than you realized.

4. Reward yourself for successes and lessons learned

Of course, trust in yourself isn't like a faucet you can turn on whenever there's a decision to be made. Confidence in yourself is something that you can (and should) cultivate over time.

Start with compassion for yourself. Philosopher Bertrand Russel famously said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.” He’s right! Doubt can be a sign of wisdom or at least thoughtfulness. Working through uncertainty is one of the best opportunities for us to grow. So cut yourself some slack for past indecision, mistakes, and regrets.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.

Bertrand Russel

Now, celebrate your successes and gains after making difficult decisions. Maybe you finally put down that enrollment deposit to go back to school. Celebrate and reward yourself! Enjoy looking forward to the things that made you want to go back to school.

Doubts like “What if I don’t end up increasing my salary after this?” may still nag you. When they do, don’t pick at that scab. You’ve already made your decision based on a life value, which means you have already succeeded in accepting uncertainty, following your values, and paying for a ticket to an experience that will enrich your life one way or another.

Even if you end up regretting your decision, because you learned new information about how the un-walked path could have been better, or you’ve suffered unanticipated hardships on the path you chose—still celebrate. You have learned lessons, gained skills or resilience, or at least added a battle scar to be proud of. Here you are, truly living!

By the way, I ended up choosing falcon grey after what seemed like an eternity. It looks great! The funny thing is that flannel probably would have looked great, too. The thing about having a thousand options—-at the paint aisle and in life—is that it seems like there are 999 wrong ones. But chances are at least a few of those options would be just fine, or even awesome.

Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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