Should I Stay or Should I Go? How to Make Tough Decisions

We’ve all been in situations where the choice is anything but clear. How do you know when to keep on keepin’ on, or wave the white flag of surrender? This week on the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers six tips to help you decide when to stay and when to go.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #124


Fish or cut bait. Put up or shut up. There’s even a certain saying regarding the bathroom. Whatever you call it, it’s the endless conundrum of choice that comes from that pesky thing called free will.

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We make a million decisions a day, from what to eat for breakfast to what shoes to wear, but some choices can get a lot more complicated. For instance, a job that fills your bank account but drains your humanity one billable hour at a time: stay or go? A partner you adore but with whom you fight daily: stay or go?

For better or worse, what we truly want and what is best for us can be hard to tease out. Therefore, this week here are 6 tips for handling ambiguous situations that leave us wondering if we should stick it out, or get out.

Tip #1: Would you expect others to do the same? Loyalty, a sense of duty to a larger cause, or plain old fear of ruffling feathers can all complicate matters when we’re deciding whether to stay or go.

For example, imagine you land a meaningful job for a noble purpose, but soon realize your boss is toxic and your co-workers are even worse. You don’t want to stay, but quitting feels like abandoning the cause. In another example, maybe your once-heavenly housemate pulls one too many maneuvers from hell. You want to move out, but you’d hate to burn bridges with this friend.

Try this: regardless of whether you’re inclined to stay or go, when making your decision, ask yourself, “Would I expect anyone else to do the same?” While there is always room for empathy and tolerance, don’t ask of yourself what you wouldn’t ask of others. If you set a double standard, you’re setting yourself up for martyrdom at worst, resentment at best.

Tip #2: Make room for some emotion. While making a major decision in the heat of the moment goes about as well as getting a tattoo when drunk, some emotion is necessary for good decision-making. In the 80’s and early 90’s, teams of researchers found that individuals with damage to the parts of the frontal lobe that feel emotion and produce an emotional drive can’t learn from their mistakes or make sound decisions.  In other words, it turns out your gut is actually in your frontal lobe.

The take-home? Wait until you’re not in the throes of feeling angry, depressed, or freaked out to make a big decision—luckily, most acute emotions dissipate over time. But also let yourself go with what you feel, rather than just with what you think. Turns out a little emotion is necessary to make your own best decision.


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

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.