It’s Not the Decision That’s Tough, It’s the Aftermath.

Liz Sumner Decision-making, Learning, Wisdom Leave a Comment

In my last post I asked what kinds of decisions were the toughest for you to make. Big thanks to those of you who responded to my request. I received very useful feedback.

I thought I was going to help people who found decision-making difficult, with an if-this-then-that kind of tree, or with explanations about urgency vs importance. I quickly discovered that this approach was irrelevant.

Deciding isn’t difficult. People know what choice to make. What’s hard is facing the aftermath of the decision. Once they’ve made the choice they know is right, what happens?

Facing the consequences, pulling the trigger, taking the leap– what scary metaphors we have for this action. No wonder we avoid it.

I have a different mental image. One of my favorite childhood memories is of going to the beach with my stepmother, Agnes. She loved to body surf and actually shouted “Whee!” when we’d bounce up and down with the waves. Now, anyone who has spent any time in the ocean knows that sometimes a huge breaker can tower over you and look terrifying. If it crashes and you’re not prepared you can get tossed about and fear that you’ll drown. Agnes taught me that when that big wave starts to curl over your head you just dive into it and pop out the other side. It crashes behind you and you’re back to bouncing and shouting “Whee.”

I think of that when something big and scary is looming. If I just dive into it I’ll come out the other side unscathed.

Here’s my best advice on how to ease the turmoil and get through the emotional whitecaps surrounding the choice.

1They won’t like me afterwards

So you’re faced with a decision where you know you must set tough limits on someone. I struggle with this as well and often avoid confrontation. What helps me is to remind myself of an aphorism that I truly believe– “What blesses one, blesses all.” If the tough limits are the right way forward and genuinely will make life better for you in a meaningful way then they will also be good in the long run for the others. It might not be immediate, but sometimes it actually is. The person you’re afraid to tell is actually grateful.

Thinking of the outcome in a larger setting helps me move from the puny, “what if they don’t like me” frame of mind to a more courageous “it’s for the best” attitude. If this is honestly good for me it will be good for the whole.

2I like both choices a lot

When I’m faced with two good choices and it’s really not clear which way to go I’ve used a method where I list all of the positive reasons for both– not the pros and cons, just the reasons for. Then I take a look at what I’ve said and see what values they express. I choose the one that better reflects the values to which I aspire.

Here’s an example– I was invited to a fancy gathering full of important celebrities that would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The problem was it was 3 hours away in the winter and I’m not a party person. The idea of staying home and being cozy and lazy was very appealing. I looked at my list of reasons and decided that courage and adventure were more important to me than comfort at that time. In the same situation someone else might choose self care over stargazing. There isn’t one right answer. But looking at the underlying values of each choice helps you decide.

3. If I let it go it’s a personal failing/ (I don’t really let it go)

Keeping your options open can seem like a good idea (especially to a Myers-Briggs P) but unmade decisions can often mean stagnation, missed opportunities, and disappointment. Being uncommitted, a subject I’ll tackle in a future article, suppresses energy that can help you make progress. (If you don’t know the applicable Goethe quote read it here).

When I have trouble letting go of a unchosen option, often the one that isn’t necessarily good for me, I think about parallel universes. Somewhere there’s a world where I ran off with that handsome stranger, or joined the campaign when it left for another state, where I said yes instead of no.

I don’t have to say I never got to be that person because in my imagination there’s a version of me that is. With parallel universes you get to have your cake and eat it too.

4. I’m afraid of making a mistake (so I don’t do anything)

In our right minds we all know better than to let fear get the best of us, but when we’re in its grip it’s hard to be rational. I find it useful to have a series of questions to walk through to help me get out of the emotional stalemate and review the actual issues.

What is the worst that could happen?
Then what?
And that means what?

Investigate the deeper pain points in your journal or with a trusted advisor. Look at the fear with patience and without judgment. If you can be both compassionate and dispassionate you are likely to uncover a solution.

For example, my friend Ivanka (not her real name) had an idea for a new business venture. She’d done her homework, learned about the product, the market, and the law. She had thought through all contingencies but still felt unsure.

When I probed we determined that even though the investment was manageable she would still hate to lose the money, the real issue being that she didn’t trust herself not to change her mind down the road. It wasn’t business failure she feared but that she might lose interest and it would all be a waste of money.

I get that. Perfectly understandable if you have a history of starting projects and getting bored. But it’s not a good enough reason to throw away a good business idea that you’re really excited about.

Together we came up with the realization that if circumstances changed  she could most likely recoup her investment by selling the equipment. That was enough of a safety net to counter her niggling distrust.  

5) I overthink it and override my first instinct

This one is a little tougher for me because I’m strongly kinesthetic and my body is a reliable barometer of what is a good and bad decision. I have a recommendation and I’m interested in feedback about whether it works.

When you are in a loop of Go or No Go and you’ve been through your rational review,

What am I really wanting or seeking?
What’s the outcome I expect?
Is this going to deliver it?
What will I do as a result?
What’s next?

If you’re still in doubt, try putting your hand on your heart and asking yourself “Do I do this? Is this the right decision?” See what comes up.

Sometimes simply the connection to your body will get you out of your head and able to access other wisdom.

Again, my thanks to all of you who participated in the making of this article. It was fascinating to realize the difference between knowing the correct choice in the moment and making it. I hope this helps you dive through the wave and come out the other side.

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