THE BLOG

How To Make Decisions Without Distress

11/11/2015 05:30 EST | Updated 11/11/2016 05:12 EST
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thinking woman standing pensive ...

'Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do." -- C.S. Lewis

Have you ever sat in a restaurant, staring at the menu, torn between two entrées?

You ask the server for a few more minutes, hoping you'll be struck with clarity while he's off fetching the bread. Of course you're not, and so you take a deep breath and make a wild leap of faith when he comes back for the second or even third time, ordering the first thing that comes out of your mouth.

(You'll likely chase him down moments later, telling him you changed your mind. No really, it's the lime leaf coconut curry that I want!)

I've heard sighs of relief from those who no longer eat meat or gluten, that it's much easier now to go out for meals, especially if there's only one diet-friendly option on the menu. Crisis averted: there's no decision to be made.

For some of us the act of making a decision, even a small one, can evoke distress.

As a therapist (and not exempt from the agony of having to choose only one entrée), I've seen that decision-making can cause obsessiveness, immobility, anxiety, self-recrimination, doubt, and a sense of overwhelm and crying. It may be a major decision, like questioning whether or not to stay in a relationship, or whether to change jobs, or it may be about attending a family function, or deciding what type of bread to buy.

How then do we learn to make decisions without distress? When we feel stuck, our usual tactics -- giving ourselves more time, assessing pros and cons, soliciting our friends for advice -- don't really help, and in fact, can escalate our anxiety.

So what if we turn to mindfulness?

1. Be curious. Experiment.

The fear of regret, or 'getting it wrong', often underlies our anxiety. We get caught up in judgment, holding to the idea of 'right' and 'wrong' or 'good' and 'bad'. We believe there's an absolute 'right' answer to be determined if only we can figure it out. Oh the pressure!

What happens if we release that judgment? What if we realize that life is a process of trial and error, which is ultimately how we learn? Instead of focusing on making the right choice, we can view our decision as an experiment and an opportunity to learn.

Maybe we're invited to a family dinner on Saturday evening, but we'd wanted to go to yoga that night. Rather than trying to figure out the right answer, what if we choose to experiment? Maybe this time we opt for downward dog and see how it goes. Or perhaps we go to dinner and be curious about what comes up. Either way, we learn something. Either way, we have a chance to practice a mindful approach to the evening.

2. Be mindful and observe.

Making decisions can activate old patterns and impulses. If we practice slowing down and pausing before we decide, we may become aware of habitual emotional states, like anxiety or fear or frustration. We may notice a recurring desire to procrastinate, to push off the decision. (Good server, could you please come back in two more minutes?)

Some of us notice that we have a clear desire or preference, and then immediately doubt ourselves. We may observe a proliferation of harrowing shoulds, like I should eat the healthy meal, or I should order the ahi tuna that everyone thinks is so great!

The aftermath of a decision can be just as provocative: the stories we tell ourselves of getting it wrong. Oh what a wretched mistake! It rarely stops there. Often it morphs into how we always get it wrong. We always make mistakes. And if we really get caught up in this old storyline, we start blaming ourselves because we're bad or flawed in some fundamental way.

Here's where we can slow down. Pause. Observe. Notice these emotions and thoughts, the way they rise and peak, and subside again. Label them for what they are -- stories or patterns -- and not the objective truth. We don't have to react to the feelings. We don't have to believe the story.

3. Be kind.

Yes, it's hard. Making decisions can open us up to vulnerability, to all those emotions and blame and obsessive self-doubt. So what if we just be kind to ourselves? Give ourselves a break?

Developing self-compassion can help us be less fearful of this process. Instead of dreading our own wrath, we can trust that we'll be met with soothing words and reassurance. Imagine a dear friend tormenting herself over a 'bad' decision. We would comfort and offer kindness, and feel compassion for her suffering. We deserve the same for ourselves.

By taking these steps, by loosening the hold of judgment, slowing down and observing, not reacting to our stories, and offering compassion, we can transform our relationship with decisions from one of distress into one of growth.