Welcome back to the podcast! I so appreciate you coming back and tuning in!
This week I want to talk about decision-making and the fear of choice. This is something I talk A LOT about with my clients. It usually looks like confusion or “I don’t know what I want” or “I don’t know what to do.” Now, I don’t allow my clients to sit in “I don’t know” or even use it as a viable answer. Because the truth is, they DO know, we all do; we just don’t want to say it out loud or commit to a decision because we’re afraid it’s going to be the wrong decision or move.
I got this drilled in my head early on in life, and I’m so thankful that I did. My dad hated it when we told him, “I don’t know,” in response to a question. And I don’t mean not knowing an answer to a problem or legitimately not having the information he was seeking. It was specifically around when I broke the rules or did something he instructed me NOT to do.
When he caught me or discovered the truth about what I had done, he did as most parents would and asked, “why did you do it?” And like most kids, I’d respond, “I don’t know.” What angered him so about that response was that he knew I was lying to him and to myself. He’d rather I just tell my reason even if it was simply, “because I wanted to. If that was my response, or my response seemed a fit fuzzy or wishy-washy, he would take it a step further and ask me “why I wanted to.” He kept probing until we both were able to uncover the truth and reason for my decision.
You see, my father believed if I chose to do something, I should always be clear as to why I made a choice and feel confident in my decision, even if I ultimately got in trouble for it. Basically, he wanted me to own my choices and use them as an opportunity for growth and learning. Yes, my dad was a badass! And It was an incredible life lesson, even though admittedly, at the time, I didn’t appreciate it.
When we’re young, it’s normal to test our boundaries in the safe bubble of childhood because we know our parents will save or protect us, even from ourselves. So we tend to be a bit more adventurous and daring, quickly making decisions and choices amid multiple options. However, as we mature and age, and the safety net gets removed, or because we feel the sting of what we perceive as an impulsive or bad decision, we become more cautious and fearful about definitively choosing to do something. That childish curiosity starts to fade away because the stakes of making a perceived wrong choice feel a bit higher and the risks too extreme.
So, as a result, we’re faced with decisions in our lives, we start re-indulging in the thought “I don’t know,” particularly when we’re faced with a decision or choice in which we have no idea of the outcome. We ruminate over the decision for days, weeks, or even years, we ask everyone within earshot what they think we should do, what salary should we ask for, should we take the job, should we stay at the company or do something else, is it time to make a move, and on and on. By the time we arrive in midlife, we’ve almost wholly relinquished our power and eroded our confidence in our decision-making ability. Why? Because over time, allowing your brain to live in the land of “I don’t know” became a comfortable and safe place to live. It absolves us of the responsibility of making a choice or decision that we’ll have to live with.
But do you know why that is? It’s because we’re fearful of how we think we’ll feel if we make a decision that we later believe was the wrong one. Here’s something you need to absolutely know… everything you do is based on achieving a desired feeling or emotion. We buy certain clothes because they make us feel good, sexy or confident. We purchase certain cars because they make us feel safe or important. We take specific jobs because the title or salary makes us feel accomplished and successful. Everything we do is because of a feeling we want to achieve.
SO…when we’re faced with a circumstance that requires us to make a choice or decision, we start to THINK “I don’t know,” which creates a feeling of fear because our brains are like, “I have no idea of the outcome of that choice, and there’s a possibility that if you make that choice today, you will feel bad, unhappy, sad, or whatever, tomorrow.” So our brains try to make us feel better by getting us to avoid this process altogether. So don’t say yes or no, just settle on “I don’t know.”
And in the land of “I don’t know,” your brain feels safe and comfortable in indecision, and as a result, you remain stuck, take no action, fail to grow, and limit yourself and your opportunities. You’ll stay stuck in jobs and careers you don’t love and ultimately start living a life of “what if,” woulda, coulda, shoulda’s, and regret. Psychologist Tom Gilovich found that as we look back over our lives, we don’t regret the things we’ve done; we can get over that; what we do regret are the things we haven’t done. Human developmentalist Erik Erikson also talked about this in his eight stages of psychosocial development. In the last stage, usually in late midlife, we start reflecting over our lives with feelings of regret, shame, or disappointment for the choices and decisions we DID NOT make in our lives.
The truth is, choosing the thought “I don’t know “ and giving in to the fear of indecision IS A DECISION; it is IS A CHOICE. You’re still creating your reality, and it can sometimes (actually quite often) lead to an even worse outcome than actively choosing a thought that leads to you taking action.
And this became really clear for me after I was in a near-fatal car accident.
I was driving home from my office one late Sunday afternoon, you know, working over the weekend as we high-achieving ambitious women tend to do. And my kiddos were in the car with me as well, and they were about 7 and 9 at the time. Now, this was a few years after my divorce, so I was a single mom, which meant they went with me everywhere.
So as I was heading up this two-lane hill that led to my house, I thought I saw bright lights coming at me, like right in front of me. Now it was raining and starting to get dark, so I thought maybe I was seeing things, but as the lights got closer, I realized the lights were coming directly at me, and for a brief moment, I thought I was about to die and let me say it’s true what they say, moments of your life do start to flash before your eyes.
But in that split second, I heard a voice as loud as if it were in the car right next to me, say, “TURN NOW!”
As I mentioned, I was driving up a two-lane hill, and to the right of me was a drop off into a deep ravine, and to the left of me was on-coming traffic and the face of the hill, so I was literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. So for a brief moment when I heard that voice say TURN NOW, my initial thought was, “turn where?” Because the options to the left and right and me were less than optimal, and all of this was going on in my mind in seconds. Now, while I was completely unsure of the outcome if I listened to the voice and made a turn, I was completely sure that if I didn’t turn, what was directly in front of me was a certainty of death. So in that split second, I made the decision and chose the thought, Listen to the voice,” which allowed me to not sit in panic, but to take action turn left into oncoming traffic—and choosing to make a decision saved my life. Had I sat in panic and worry by holding on to the thought, “I don’t know what I should do,” and spent time being worried about the potential outcome, I would have been killed.
While the car still hit me, the passenger side took much of the brunt of the impact, but it was so severe that I still required multiple surgeries and was in a wheelchair for six months. But what’s most important is that I lived, that I’m still here. That taught me that every choice wouldn’t result in smooth sailing, but that’s part of the human experience. There’s never all positive or negative; life presents us with both at all times; the trick is how you think about those experiences. Do you see them as opportunities or as things to avoid?
To be honest, that experience pulled me out of the ivory tower as an associate professor researching these things. It led me to become a coach to work directly with women struggling to make a choice and decision about their lives and careers. I realized just like I heard that voice that said “turn now,” so many women hear a similar voice telling them to make a turn, to make a choice, because the direction they’re heading doesn’t feel right, their career isn’t fulfilling, they need to start that business, change jobs, their not living authentically, they’ve lost their voice and direction, that somethings off and they have to make a change. But they don’t listen…they don’t make the “turn” because of the fear generated by the thought, “what if I make the wrong choice.” If they perceive their options as less than optimal, they’ll be even more inclined just to stay the course because it’s known, it’s comfortable, and it feels safer than the unknown of their decision.
When my clients come to me, they are steeped in indecision, and for many, they have shattered their confidence and faith in their ability to make decisions, and they’ve convinced themselves they just don’t know what to do. They believe the THOUGHT “I don’t know” is TRUE. Which generates the fear of “I may get it wrong,” which has placed them on the hamster wheel of worry, anxiousness, confusion, and overwhelm, and that has resulted in years of no action, no movement, no growth.
So I want to share with you what I teach them to help them with decision-making. Because listen, if you can’t get over this hurdle, you won’t make the progress you want, and you won’t get the career and life you love.
The first is: “There are NO wrong decisions.” You’re like, what? Of course, there are, and I’m telling you NO, there are not. Like Henry Ford said, ‘Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right!” And I’m telling you whether you say yes or no, you’re right. It’s right because you think and believe it’s the right decision for you. It’s our thoughts that make a decision, right or wrong. If you think it’s the wrong decision, it will be. Period, bottom line.
The second is: “There are no forever decisions; there are ONLY RIGHT NOW decisions.” We get caught up in the idea that we can never change our minds or make a different choice in the future once we choose. We think if I take that job and it doesn’t work out, I’m stuck. Or, If I make a move and leave my company, I may never find something better. But the truth is if you take a new job and you don’t like it, you can always leave. If you make a move and leave your company, you can find something else or, in some cases, go back, depending on the reasons you left. The point is, you can also change or mind or make a new decision.
What often happens is that we worry about what others will think of us if we change our minds, so to avoid being perceived a certain way, we stick to our original decision. That’s what makes us believe we have to make a forever decision. It’s our thoughts about the decisions we make. We get to decide! And when you accept the truth that you can decide as many times as you deem necessary, it releases the pressure of feeling like every decision is a life-long one.
Third, many of us accept the sunk cost fallacy. Meaning we can’t possibly take a different course of action because we’ve already invested so much time, money, energy, etc., that we can not turn back now. This is another thought that fuels the idea of a “forever decision.” This thought error can keep us trapped in situations that we know intellectually we should leave, but we have accepted this idea that we can’t, that we have to “see it through to the end, and anything less is like throwing away all we’ve invested.
Fourth is you have to start asking yourself questions. Remember when I told you how my dad would ask me, “why I want to do something?” Well, why is one of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself because it kicks your mind out of autopilot, childhood beliefs, and societal programming and focuses the mind? By asking questions, the brain goes to work searching for the answers.
When you tell yourself,” I don’t know,” you’re blocking yourself from your wisdom. Your brain is saying it’s too hard. So instead, ask yourself more questions and tell your brain, “I’m learning, I’m figuring it out,” and guess what…you will! This will open your mind up to more options and possibilities that you may have never considered before.
So give yourself the gift of possibility through the gift of decisions. Get off the hamster wheel of worry, overwhelm, and confusion. Release yourself from the thought of right or wrong decisions, forever decisions, and sunk cost decisions, that are all wrapped up in “I don’t know.” Instead, give yourself the gift of your wisdom.
This is your life; the is your career. You get to decide; you get to decide how you’ll feel about the outcome. It’s up to you, and once you learn to trust yourself again, you’ll realize that you do know!
…..Alight Rebels, that’s it for this week. Be sure to rate, comment, and subscribe to this podcast so we can continue to get the word out, and if you have questions, I’d love to hear from you! Send them to [email protected], and I may even answer them on a future podcast. Thanks for listening, and until next time, have an amazingly rebellious week.