Leaping or falling into the unknown: the risky task of decision-making in an uncertain world.
I used to wish that I could be certain I was making the right decision, that everything I planned would go as I expected. I tried so hard to get it ‘right’, that I’d tie myself up in knots to the point of immobilising myself and then do nothing. Which turns out to be a decision in itself. Doing nothing becomes a ‘no’ or a decision made by someone else.
It’s taken me some time, to get to the position of understanding that in most circumstances there’s no wrong or right decision. There are some decisions which are predictably and clearly harmful to self or others - but most decisions can have a range of different outcomes- some positive, some negative and often unforeseen. That’s what makes it so hard to be sure what decision to make.
The preceeding story is fictitious, illustrating counselling work on the theme of decision-making in my practice. Jasmin really disliked her work and living situation. She felt stuck, as if she owed everyone something and that whatever she decided would upset someone. Even not making a decision would negatively impact her intimate partnership because of how unhappy she felt. She had an idea for a change but didn’t know how to decide whether to act on it. Jasmin wanted to move to her partner’s home city and try something different in her career. Her partner was also keen to move back to her home city.
Jasmin came to counselling for support to decide what to do. Her situation and paralyzing indecision was really affecting her and she wanted support to get unstuck. After talking about the difficult situation, the contributing factors and the desire for change, Jasmin worked with the counsellor through some practical decision-making tools.
Practical Decision-making Tools
Pros and Cons
With some guiding questions Jasmin prepared a list of pros and cons for both options. She noticed from this that the pros for change were more than the cons and that the cons for staying also outweighed the pros. She was interested that writing lists for both options raised more items for consideration that completing one list.
Advice from Future position
Jasmin was invited to consider the decision from a future position. “What do you imagine you would say to yourself in three years’ time about this decision?” Jasmin had a sense that her future self would encourage her to take the risk and make the change.
Jasmin took time to notice and talk about her physical reaction to imagining herself making the change and again her physical reaction to the thought of staying in her current circumstance. The physical symptoms Jasmin reported when thinking of staying, were a heavy feeling in her stomach and a tightness across her chest. When thinking of moving and changing her career Jasmin reported feeling lighter, as well as a bubbly excited and nervous kind of feeling in her stomach.
Imagine the decision is final
Finally, Jasmin acted as if she’d made her final decision. She took time to be with how that choice felt for a couple of days. Then she acted as if she had made the other decision for similar length of time.
As a result of these practical decision-making tasks Jasmin decided to make the move with her partner to another city and take a new direction in her career. However, her work in counselling was not yet completed. She spent a few more sessions taking time to understand her reactions to other people’s expectations of her. She developed personal strategies for managing other people’s reactions and expectations; and Jasmin also found ways to support and reassure herself through change. Jasmin also received information about the grief process associated with change and how that might be a part of her moving experience.
As can happen, the move didn’t work out as Jasmin anticipated and she returned after 8 months to her city of origin because of the needs of her extended family. She let me know that she was glad she had made the move, as she had learnt a lot about herself. Her relationship with her partner had grown stronger and she had more confidence in her ability to cope with the expectations of others, which made it easier to support her family.
Resources for decision making include:
Who moved my Cheese? Dr Spencer Johnson (1998).
Ignatian decision making tools- articles online, including this non-religious https://www.fastcompany.com/90295914/3-steps-to-smart-decision-making-according-to-a-16th-century-priest