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

Tip #3: Expand the classic pros and cons list. Even Spock would approve of the logic in this classic decision making tool: the pros and cons list. But consider giving Spock a run for his money by expanding it from one list to two: pros and cons of staying and pros and cons of going. You might think they would just be opposites of each other, but you’d be surprised—listing the positives and negatives of both sides help you dig a little deeper and make a better gut decision with that frontal lobe of yours.

Tip #4: Notice how much you’re justifying the decision. A pregnant client of mine was deciding whether to go with a renowned pediatrician who practiced at an underfunded clinic in the inner city or a run-of-the-mill pediatrician who practiced in a fancy suburb. She said she really wanted to go with the inner city doc, but she was worried about finding street parking, she thought it might be tough to get to in the winter, she though the waiting room was too crowded. It was clear she wanted to go with the suburban doctor, but felt guilty about going the less noble and more convenient route. But you could tell she had made her choice.

The point? If you find yourself rationalizing, justifying, and plain old convincing yourself, just do what you really want. Better to shamelessly walk a straight line than twist yourself in a pretzel of guilty explanation.

Tip #5: Stand up for yourself before resigning yourself. Assertiveness falls somewhere on the spectrum between passive and aggressive, and it falls somewhere between the two in terms of respect, as well. Being passive disrespects you. Being aggressive disrespects your partner. Assertiveness, on the other hand, respects both of you.

To be sure, it’s hard to make your needs known, but give being politely assertive your best shot before you put the final nail in the coffin of quitting, moving out, breaking up, or stewing in a pool of resentment.

If assertiveness doesn’t come naturally to you, imagine yourself in a role where you’re both helping and in charge. Use the same voice a friendly doctor might use in firmly instructing you to take all of your medication, the same voice a concerned teacher would use if you failed your last test she told you to go to tutoring, or the same voice your mom would use in telling you to put on a jacket because it’s forty degrees outside. You’re going for caring but in charge.

Now, it’s always possibility that self-advocacy will fall on deaf ears, or that nothing can be changed, but at least you can walk away knowing you stood up for yourself.

Tip #6: Take the choice out of the matter. We’ve talked about this exercise on the podcast before, but it bears repeating. To make a tough decision, sometimes it can be helpful to test the waters of both outcomes by imagining you don’t have a choice. For instance, pretend you’re trying to decide between staying or walking from a less-than-stellar job. First, pretend all other jobs in the universe vaporize. You have to stay in your job. How would you feel? Pay attention to your gut reaction: relief, resentment, something else? Next, go the opposite route: pretend your position is cut. You have to look for another job. Now how would you feel? Take your feelings and use them as information to make your decision.

To wrap up, it’s hard to make a big decision. We can’t tell the future, we operate with limited information, and emotion both facilitates and clouds our judgment. Sometimes it seems like if you go there will be trouble and if you stay it will be double. Somebody should write a song about that.

But ask yourself if you’d expect the same of others, notice your justifications, assertively stand up for your needs before you decide, make your pros and cons lists and then go with your gut, and you’ll come to your own best decision every time.

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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.