Some life decisions are life changing — think: getting married, having children, choosing a career, buying a house, etc. They should, rightfully, cause us to pause and consider deeply before jumping in. But some people are so indecisive they don’t just pause, they can be completely paralyzed by a big decision. Others struggle to make even small choices in their life, so that they can’t seem to complete even simple tasks on time. 

It is commonly known that indecisiveness can be related to perfectionism and fear of failure.

Some articles offer good suggestions on how to be more decisive that usually focus on changes in how to think about your situation. One article recommends “Banish Your Perfection Mindset” and even gives this simplistic snippet as its first piece of advice: “Stop Being Indecisive.”

But I’d like to go beyond these obvious and cognitively based pieces of advice to answer the question: What is the real the reason for indecisiveness? There are emotional blocks to be aware of and that lead us to the most helpful solutions.

Indecisiveness is about Avoiding Shame

As an expert in the emotion of shame, I know that this powerful emotion is the cause of much human emotional suffering and dysfunction, some of which is incorrectly labeled as a “mental disorder.” Shame can also be the major cause of issues such as indecisiveness and procrastination. 

Most people struggle with good shame tolerance — the ability to handle experiencing feelings of guilt or regret with equanimity. Looked at another way, they lack good self-compassion skills and struggle to forgive themselves when they make a mistake — such as a decision that turns out badly. 

Let’s look at how this might play out. So, let’s say a person doesn’t like his current job and thinks he might like to change jobs. But he is very self-critical and lacks the ability to be compassionate toward himself for failures or imperfections. When considering if he should change jobs, he becomes paralyzed by fear of disliking his new job just as much as the current job. Now, this is a reasonable consideration.But something more is going on. For this type of person, they have experienced a lack of self-compassion in the past, so they have a pattern of berating themselves for bad decisions. Consequently, the job change decision triggers a recognition of this pattern: So their fear isn’t just that they might dislike their new job, but that they will also BLAME themselves for making the bad decision. This self-blaming and self-shaming piles onto the regret of the job decision and makes the entire situation into a painful emotional experience that he may then attempt to avoid by being indecisive.

I often call shame the “caboose” that is hooked onto other emotional experiences. If you grow to hate your new job, you may feel regret about the job change, but then when you begin to berate yourself about the decision and add on layers of shame and blame, then the situation feels especially toxic and painful.  

The solution to indecision that is often not mentioned is self-compassion. By repeatedly being kind to ourselves, we learn that we, quite simply, feel safe with ourself. In contrast, when we are unkind and unforgiving with ourself, we learn to react with fear and avoidance to possible risk taking and decision making. 

Self-compassion trains us to take care of our future self — we learn to trust that we will meet ourselves with kindness in the future even if the decision we make turns out poorly.  This frees us to take risks, make decisions, and feel empowered. 

How to be More Decisive

  1. Learn self-compassion skills in this blog and see the resources at the end of the blog. Many other articles and videos are on my Resources tab under “Mindfulness and Self-Compassion”. If you practice the skill of compassion on a regular basis, you will train yourself to trust yourself to make wise decisions that are in your best interest and to be kind to yourself no matter the outcome. 
  2. Recognize that we all have a cognitive bias toward negativity, which means our brains tend to assuming bad results will happen and makes us tend to think about what could go wrong. It leads us to overlook the positive, which makes decision making even tougher because it blinds us. We   need to practice mindful awareness of this bias and work to counteract it on a regular basis so that it doesn’t blind us to possibilities when make life choices. 
  3. Another cognitive bias that can affect decision making is catastrophizing. We often assume the worst-case outcome, such as “If I buy a house in the city, I’ll get robbed.”
  4. Some people avoid or procrastinate on decisions, which gives them an “out.” They can then blame  the bad outcome on “bad timing” or “I guess I missed that opportunity,” rather than be accountable for making the decision themselves. This is a form of blame-shifting that indicates Other-blamer  or Blame Avoider traits. By procrastinating until the decision gets made for them, they scoot away from having to hold themselves accountable and avoid possible shame. A simple example is people with hoarding tendencies: They are hesitant to make decisions about throwing away an item because “I might need it in the future” — AND because they will then judge themselves harshly if that situation occurs. If they could eliminate that caboose of shame, the decision making would be much easier. 
  5. Some people trick others into making the decision, which allows them to blame that person if the decision doesn’t turn out well. They get to skate away from responsibility. {This is why therapists avoid offering advice on big life decisions — we will get blamed if the decision goes poorly! Alternatively, if the decision goes well, the client may give credit to the therapist, not to themself.)
  6. Learn about how you were trained in childhood by your parents (below) to deal with decisions. 
  7. Validate any time you are decisive to offer yourself kindness for your courage. 

Do Childhood Traumas Cause Indecisiveness?

Some people are especially prone to indecisiveness because of their upbringing. 

  • Those raised by a parent that is hyper-critical, verbally abusive or harsh can become hesitant to make choices for fear of getting it wrong and being judged by the harsh parent. As adults, this often shows up as people-pleasing and submissive tendencies. 
  • Authoritarian parents who have rigid rules and strong opinions, often raise children who are extremely submissive and compliant, and who fail to develop age-appropriate skills at making independent choices. People-pleasing tendencies can then continue into adulthood, leading to a person who unable to form opinions about their own likes and dislikes They may be afraid of making a decision and defer to others about small and large choices. They may even attract domineering abusers who can spot these passive traits and who target those they can manipulate and control.  
  • Over-protective parents, a trend that has worsened in the past 20 years, raise children who don’t get experiences making their own decisions or solving their own problems. Helicopter or snowplow parents swoop in and take over a situation, disempowering the child. It leads to a loss of agency as the child learns the lesson that she isn’t capable of working out solution on her own behalf. The lack of resilience and persistence can show up as indecisiveness, but also low functioning, such as refusal to get a job, a driver’s license, or have healthy adult relationships. 
  • Parents who set extremely high standards and expectations make a child feel incompetent if they fail to achieve unrealistic goals. Even if there is no verbal criticism of a child for failing, the unspoken belief is communicated that the child did not meet a parent’s expectations, and the child can internalize this as a sense of inferiority.
  • Those raised by a narcissistic parent may also learn early on that they may not surpass the parent in terms of achievements, looks, athleticism, or other measures. A narcissistic parent can be very envious of a child who is more talented or attractive than the parent, so they work hard to diminish the child, often with a steady stream of criticism. This emotionally conditions e child (then adult) who self-diminishes to avoid upstaging others and the resulting verbal abuse. They may self-sabatoge with indecisiveness that shows up in frequent frequent career or relationship changes.
  • Many parents transmit intergenerational patterns of indecisiveness that children see and then model. If your parents struggled with basic life skills, such as paying bills, saving money, holding a steady job, or choosing when to have children, you may have someone who modeled for you inappropriate decision making. 

Decision making is partly a practice you can start to engage in with small, daily decisions that you validate and support with kindness and compassion. The more you manage your self-judgments, the better able you will be to take risks without the fear of self-blame facing you at the end of that track. 

…be kind to yourself

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