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Decision-Making Paralysis

Here’s the scene: You have two options, possibly narrowed down from a larger set of options, or maybe it was always two. Both have their pros and cons, which you have already turned over in your mind repeatedly, and both seem equally tough to give up in favor of the other one.

What do you do?

Well, you may do what any person who struggles with making decisions does: you likely either impulsively kick one aside and then struggle with impact of this forced choice later, or you become completely paralyzed in between the two options, kicking the can down the road and making no decision at all. You may obsess about the decision but don’t actually make a choice unless you are forced into a corner where you have no other option but to choose; or the choice happens passively when one option eventually drops out of the picture for one reason or another. It is quite possible that the same decision could be weighing on your mind for months or even years before something moves.

Why does this happen?

Decision-making paralysis is a common issue that is frustrating for many. It tends to leave people stuck between two (or more) entities and unable to emerge on one side of that central position.

For people in this situation, this ambivalence can actually become the comfort zone. It may not feel all that comfortable, but it is often quite familiar, nonetheless.

When people repeatedly struggle with making decisions, it can often be because the sacrifice of one option or another is either painful, scary, or both — a loss that will in some way bring up a struggle of its own to work through. The unconscious question can become, what’s going to be more painful or scary — the unknown repercussions of the sacrificed option, or the frustration of the struggle I already know (the ambivalent space)?

This great unknown is part of what causes the paralysis. Even though ambivalence can be stressful and frustrating, it’s at least known to you. The feeling tends to be, “well, I’ve done this for a while, so I know I can survive and deal with this, even if I don’t like it.” But the idea of making a sacrifice by choosing an option (and dropping an option out) becomes overwhelming. What if I make the wrong choice? What if I put myself in real pain that I can’t undo or deal with?

This brings up another signifiant piece of decision-making paralysis: the imbalance between the mind and emotions. When in the position of paralysis, the thoughts are obsessing and ruminating. The mind is generally aware that there is one choice it is leaning towards, but can’t commit to making the choice. This is because of the emotions. For many possible reasons, the emotions often want the other option more (whether or not it’s the “better” choice). So the mind and the emotions go to battle with each other, each one continuously negating the other along the way. The mind is trying to protect you from your emotions, while the emotions are too strong and are aiming to defeat the mind.

If you’ve ever heard of “grass is greener” syndrome, this internal battle is one of the key elements perpetuating the struggle. In grass is greener syndrome, there is generally an internal conflict between what the emotions want, and what the mind knows is probably good for you. However, the emotions are strong — much stronger than people often realize. So rather than do what the mind tells you is good for you, the emotions continue to weigh in heavily, making you feel the pain of what you’d be letting go and, therefore, leaving you to feel intensely stuck in ambivalence.

In my practice in NYC, one of my specialties is helping people work through these types of struggles — grass is greener syndrome, commitment issues, and decision-making paralysis. In working with many people in these areas over the years, most people don’t tend to realize that it is often both options that can lead to pain. Whichever way you choose, there is the pain of the loss of the other and worry that you’ve made the wrong choice. When both sides are potentially painful and unknown, the space between the choices tends to become the favored position, no matter how much a solution is really desired.

What is the solution?

When stuck in this ambivalent position, people often want the quickest way out and want me to just tell them what to do, how to make the decision, and quickly be finished with it — which of course would be immediately gratifying and relieving of the stress. However, unfortunately, it’s usually not that simple. If it was, I’m sure you likely would have figured it out on your own by now in the process of thinking about the issue constantly over time.

But with this strong of a mind-emotion deadlock, it is important to work through the mental and emotional processes in order to align these two processes within yourself. While there is often more to it than only this piece, when it comes down to it, as long as there is a divide between the mind and the emotions the there is going to be internal disagreement and, therefore, no choice is going to emerge with a sense of confidence. Simply put, it’s very difficult to rationalize your way out of an emotionally-based struggle (as the strength of the emotions will generally outweigh what your mind may know). 

It’s actually quite common for the mind and the emotions to become divided (we can get into the deeper reasons this happens in another article)– and it’s also very common that most people are not consciously aware that this divide is even happening. What people tend to know is that they are stuck and are having great difficulty figuring it out.

While bringing the mind and emotion into alignment isn’t an overnight process, I’ve found in my experience working with this issue that it can be a life-changing breathe of fresh air for people who are patient with the process. The aim is to gain control over your options in life, rather than the stress of life’s decisions controlling you.

Decision-Making Paralysis


Nathan Feiles, MSW, LCSW-R

Nathan Feiles is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. He also provides online coaching nationally and internationally. In his practice, Nathan specializes in anxiety issues, relationship struggles, commitment issues, fear of flying (specialized method), decision-making, creative blocks, depression, and migraines. For more information about Nathan Feiles’s work, including a complete list of services, please visit his website at http://www.nathanfeiles.com

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APA Reference
Feiles, N. (2019). Decision-Making Paralysis. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 18, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships-balance/2019/11/06/decision-making-paralysis/

 

Last updated: 6 Nov 2019
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network (blogs.psychcentral.com) prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.