There are some times when we all struggle with making decisions.The decisions can be monumental –“Can I take care of my mother after she’s released from the hospital?” – or the decisions might be relatively trivial – “Should I buy the purse I saw when I cut through Macy’s because it was so cold outside?”We all get stuck sometimes in our thought processes and need some outside force to jar us out of uncomfortable indecision.As a psychologist, part of my training involved crisis work in the emergency room and we had to make difficult and quick triage decisions.The first rule we learned was, “Don’t decide alone.”That was great advice for the ER, but what about when you have to decide alone?
People who live alone are obviously confronted with this situation more than people who are not single.People who are single may also confront a greater quantity of decisions in the course of a day or week than people who aren’t single because they are less defined by other people and external structure.This is one of the true blessings of single life and provides a core of freedom and self-definition that is invaluable.But it also gets difficult at the moments of uncertainty when there is no one immediately available to turn to for input or listening.
This is a time when writing can really help.Writing pulls your thought process out of your own head a little and gives you something to look at and a way to force your thinking to go further than the loop you may be stuck in.Lists of “pros” and “cons” are very helpful for some people to examine a choice and to look carefully at every aspect of each possibility.
The following exercise is another useful writing technique for helping work through decisions.Try to do each step of this exercise before reading what the next step will be.
1.Pick a difficult decision you’re working on and list the possible outcomes of your choice.Try to keep the list small – the 2 or 3 main things that could happen, like “I accept the job offer” vs. “I turn down the job offer”-or-“I buy a new hybrid car” , “I buy a used non-hybrid car” or “I repair my car and put off the purchase.”
2.Get two or three pieces of paper and write each outcome from your short list on the top of a separate piece of paper.Lay the papers in front of you on a table or desk.
3.Now imagine it is one month later than today and you have made your choice.Pick up one of the pieces of paper and write one paragraph about how you feel about your choice given you made the choice that’s written on the top of that paper.Now pick up the other piece(s) of paper and do the same thing.For instance, following the example above, say I pick up the piece of paper that says, “I accept the job offer”. I write a paragraph imagining being at the new job for a month and what I feel about it.Then I pick up the paper that says, “I turn down the job offer” and I write about how I’d feel at my present job in a month, recalling that I turned down an offer for a different position.
4.After you’ve done your paragraphs, you will probably already have a great deal more clarity on how you really feel.Often, the first paper you choose is the one you can more readily imagine and this might tell you that you are actually already headed in that direction.Similarly, the paragraph that is easier to write, more flowing or more filled in with detail and description is often the truer choice.
This exercise draws on another rule I recall from my days as a crisis worker in the emergency room.Don’t discharge a psychiatric patient if you can’t picture the person being safe after he or she leaves the crisis area.Sometimes it helps to use your imagination to jump into the future of a decision and then you might realize you really can’t see yourself doing one of your choices.The option is lingering there because you have ambivalent feelings, but it really doesn’t feel like a viable possibility.In general, indecision is often more about mixed feelings than real uncertainty about what to do.It is usually more fruitful to take a look and try to examine all of your feelings than to try to decide what should happen.Writing can help you do that.
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The JOURNALERS’ CLEARINGHOUSE is written each month by Beth Jacobs, Ph.D., the author of Writing for Emotional Balance: A Guided Journal to Help You Manage Overwhelming Emotions. For further information, see writingforemotionalbalance.com.