How to Make a Decision Without Driving Yourself Crazy
Should I stay or should I go?
If I stay there will be trouble…
if I go it will be double.
– The Clash
Many years ago, I went on a life-changing pilgrimage to Mt Kailash in Tibet, one of the most sacred mountains to Buddhists and Hindus.
The six-week journey from Nepal to Tibet and back took our group to the edge, physically and emotionally, many times. We were faced with blizzards and sub-zero temperatures (in May!), altitude sickness, potential border crossing challenges (we arrived there not long after the U.S. had ‘accidentally’ bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade), intense inter-group dynamics, and more.
Every day brought a new challenge — and decisions that needed to be made related to that challenge. But every day those challenges somehow worked themselves out, one way or the other.
At some point along that epic journey, a mantra planted itself in my head: The nature of problems is to solve themselves. I have remembered that ever since, and particularly when I am faced with tough decisions.
Making decisions can be an agonizing process… and, as human beings, there’s no way to avoid decision-making.
Many times those choices are fairly trivial. What would I like for breakfast this morning, eggs or oatmeal? Which movie should we see tonight?
But sometimes the decisions are big forks in the road of life, and we have no idea if making the ‘wrong’ one will end us up on some track that will result in much unhappiness. Where to live? What job to pursue? Is this a relationship worthy of my commitment? When the stakes are high, those kinds of decisions can be hugely challenging.
Having a consistent reflective practice has helped me to become much more familiar with the workings of my mind and intimate with the desires of my heart. When this kind of mindful awareness is the basis of decision making, the process takes on a very different feel. You move from anxiety and panic to trust. Confusion and doubt may not be completely removed, but they sit in a much larger context… and that makes all the difference.
If you are faced with a potentially life-changing decision and you feel a sense of stuckness or trepidation around it, here are five things that I’ve found helpful for how to move through the process:
1) My ground zero is to understand that there are no “bad” decisions, no wrong choices. There is only the next decision I make, based on the best available information I have, staying awake to the consequences that flow from that, and knowing that I can make another decision down the road based on those consequences. So if, for example, I decide to quit my job to accept a different one and a year from now discover that it is actually not as good a match for me as I thought, I can re-assess and move in a different direction. Life is a series of course corrections based on ever-changing reality, not a rigid straight line from point A to point B. Resting in this understanding frees me up to be more relaxed in my decision-making and lessens the anxiety that I have to make the ‘right’ decision or risk blowing everything.
2) I’ve noticed that the more I grind the wheels of my mind when working out all the factors of a decision, the fuzzier my thinking gets and I make myself crazy in the process. Remembering the first point – that there is no wrong decision – helps a lot, and it also helps if I increase the amount of time on my meditation cushion during that time of discernment. A consistent reflective practice helps to shift the orientation of our decision-making from a primarily left-brained rational process to one that draws on all aspects of our wisdom and intelligence: emotional, intellectual, somatic, intuitive. I’m not a neuroscientist so I can’t describe to you how or why this is so, but I do have the depth of my own experience to draw on and know that decisions coming from this holistic place feel far more grounded to me. And that makes the decision so much easier to live with.
3) Consider the values upon which you are making your decision. If you’re trying to make a significant life choice in the absence of a reference point for what’s most important to you, you’ll almost certainly be very confused about what to do. If you’ve taken time to clarify a set of values that serves as your moral compass, you can refer to those as you weigh the options in front of you. This is similar to the process of creating a personal mission statement that I guide participants through in my “Fall in Love with Your Work” course. You can find a mini-version of it here.
4) Give yourself the gift of time when faced with a big decision. Don’t put pressure yourself, and don’t allow others to pressure you. A situation or opportunity that feels absolutely right today may show more of its true colors over the span of a few days or weeks. Conversely, a situation or opportunity you have doubts about may reveal more of its positive aspects over time. If someone else is waiting for your answer, you can almost always buy more time if you explain to them how important it is for you to have this process. If they’ve asked for your decision by tomorrow, tell them that to truly do it justice, you actually need the next week to sit with it (or whatever amount of time feels right to you). Be strong in your conviction of what will serve your internal process.
5) One of the most important questions I ask myself during a time of discernment: Where is this decision coming from? Is it coming from a place of fear, or from love? This often takes a bit of digging because our minds have a way of fooling us. We may be absolutely sure our motives for a choice are positive, only to find when we look a bit more deeply that our rush to say ‘yes’ to something may be rooted in fear or anxiety. My experience has been that decisions based in my fears almost always end up backfiring. Again, keeping in mind there is no ‘wrong’ decision, this doesn’t have to be a negative thing, only a learning experience that we can draw on for future decisions. Because ain’t that what life is all about?!
What do you find helpful as you make a big decision? I’d love to hear your insights on this… Please leave a comment below.
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