I know that my life has become too hectic, when I go into a restaurant and look at the menu and feel paralysis. Everything looks good, and I begin worrying about making the "wrong" decision... sometimes even before I look at what's actually on the menu! The pressure inevitably builds as the waitress comes to see how things are going and if I have any questions. I want to look at her and say, "Questions?! Lady you have no idea. I am over here lost in an existential dilemma over the tacos vs. burger!"
This stressed thinking, over even the simplest of decisions, is a sign for me that I have too much going on in my life. The menu can be hard but the bigger risk is being stuck in this state over important life choices about work, housing, where to send my kids to school etc.
For years I spent many late nights up thinking instead of sleeping, experiencing body aches and pains, spending my time with obsessive detailing, and annoying family and friends by talking things over again only to change my mind again in the end. These are the tell tale signs of anxious decision making. For people who suffer from anxiety, depression, and chronic stress this becomes a way of life.
What happens when every decision feels like this? Or when we are faced with big decisions about education, work, moving or relationships. Theses decisions matter and we know that they do deep down. So what can you do? How can you begin to navigate big decisions and small choices without the anguish? Thinking more, making more pros and cons list, asking for advice, none of these things address the root of the problem, they simply give us more static to wade through. Instead we need to create an intentional inquiry, a way for us to slowly move through decisions that allows us to get centred and make choices that reflect our deepest values and desires not a knee jerk reaction. Next time you find yourself lost in overthinking anxious and stressed decision making try this process.
1. Give it a pet name
Instead of continuing down the same road of thinking, analyzing, questioning and
imagining every single outcome possible, resolve to name it. Notice that you are in this chaotic state and name it something unique to yourself. For some people they may call this "overthinking" others may call it "anxiety" I call it mine the "spiral." Give a name to this experience, something that makes sense to you. Maybe there is an image or a word that you associate with this? Maybe it has a colour or a quality? Is it foggy or fast, hard or soft, muddy or spiralling? Whatever the words are that resonates with you, give it a name. Think of it as a pet name for this little creature that takes over your brain from time to time. This first step is the hardest because it requires you to know when you are in it. But once you begin to notice when you are in it you will be able to begin addressing it in an intentional way rather than staying lost and confused.
2. Find a Symbol for Each Choice
When you are trying to decide between a few bigger things it helps to create a symbol for each option.
- Begin by writing out what each choice is. For example if you are trying to decide between making a shift in your career write out what each choice is finance, marketing, social worker etc. on a separate price of paper.
- Now write out all of the typical stuff that comes to mind when you think about each choice, your typical pros and cons list. Finance pays well,already have experience, no additional schooling required, may get bored....marketing, get to be creative, no experience, interested etc
-Once you have written out all of the stuff that has been volleying around in your brain take a look at each page and begin to think about how you would show it if you couldn't use words. What shape is finance? What colour? What texture is it? What objects represent it? Begin to draft a list of images or symbols that can stand in for this?
- Next look around your home or online for an image or an object that represents each option.
- Once you have found an object for each choice find a place to keep them. Maybe it's on your nightstand in your bed room, maybe it's a digital collage on your computer wallpaper. Find a place where you can house the symbols for a little while. 3. Get Still Now that your brain has done the hard work of thinking here comes the even harder part. Get still. Get quiet. Find a place to go that makes you feel quiet and set the intention that you are not going to think or analyze it. Now inevitably your brain will want to continue on this work because it's really good at it and has likely been practicing for years! Each time your brain interrupts your stillness just say thank you (insert pet name here) I am getting still.
Your brain will likely put up a fight. Treat it as though you would a curious toddler trying to get near the campfire. Simply tell it gently with love and compassion that we aren't going to touch this and redirect it. EVERY SINGLE TIME. This is where the pet name label and the symbols can be helpful. You don't have to go down the thought train each time you can just name it, or see it as an object, and then place them to the side for now. The more stillness you can find the better. A morning meditation of 5 minutes, a mindful walk each day, sitting in nature, mindful art journaling all can help you to create some space for stillness.
4. Be ok with the Vacuum
Getting still and not making a choice means that you need to be ok with what I call the vacuum. This is the terrifying place of the in-between, the not-knowing, the discomfort, the gray, the uncertainty, purgatory. Where nothing exists, where there is no resolution. This is the feeling you get when you reach the end of a movie and it doesn't make sense and there was no tidying of loose ends to create a resolution. This is the place to get comfortable in. Yes, you don't know. No, you have not decided. No, you won't make a decision just to end the agony. You are currently getting still and working to love the vacuous state that you are sitting in.
5. See what emerges
Eventually after you become comfortable in the stillness and the vacuous state you will have clear resolute thinking that will bubble to the surface. This thinking feels different that the obsessive kind. It doesn't come from a need to make a decision but rather from a trickling flow from your deeper desires and values. Perhaps your little collection of symbolic objects and images starts to look different to you now? Maybe one object seems to draw your attention more than the others? Maybe you begin to notice something else about them? These symbolic objects can help to connect you to the bigger picture, they are stand ins for all of those details and bits your brain likes to push around. Eventually you will begin to see them as tools that can be guides for this decision making process. But they can only guide you when you are quiet and at peace in the vacuum. Eventually a decision will emerge and you will feel good about it because it came from calm resolution not chaos. It might not be the "right decision" but who can ever see the future! But it will be the choice that is most reflective of your values and life at that time, not a projection of some flurry of mental imagery and anxiety. 6. Practice on the little things
Obviously you can't use this process with the menu at the restaurant or any of the other millions of little decisions you make in a day. This process is for the big decisions in life. But you can always practice on the little ones, and in fact when you practice on the little ones it helps build your decision making muscles into strong confident clear ones ready for all of those big questions down the road! Start small and notice how you make decisions like where to park your car, what to wear in the morning, what to eat for lunch, which route to take, what movie to watch etc. Spend sometime just noticing how you approach each of these little choices in the day. How do you know? How does it feel to know? What happens when you don't know? Does it feel different? Do you have a sensation or feeling that comes along with it? Where in your body do you feel it? Notice all of these little choices and then choose to practice with intention on one choice. Maybe its what to wear each morning or what to make for dinner. Just choose one to isolate and practice on using a smaller version of the big process outlined above.
If you are at a restaurant looking at the menu and the choice feels uncertain....
1. Name it! Notice the anxiety or stress and call it out. "Hello decision gremlin, I see you!" 2. Find a symbol and shut out the rest. So if you are choosing between the taco or the burger just get a general mental image for each. THEN CLOSE THE MENU. Shut out all of the rest of the information and noise.
3. Get still. Take a few breaths, notice your surroundings, perhaps notice the feeling of sitting at the table, or the sounds in the room. Don't think. Just be.
4. Now at this point you might be feeling pressure knowing that the waitress is coming and you still don't know what to have. Be ok with the vacuum. Be ok with the not knowing, trust that in the end a decision will be made.
5. See what emerges. When the waitress comes just see what emerges what choice will you say? Just see what happens and notice how it feels to blurt out- TACO!
6. Be ok with the choice. Did you know that there is no such thing as good decisions and bad decisions? Just choices. Thats it. One after another after another. No right or wrong. So maybe the taco wasn't amazing? Thats ok. Maybe the burger wasn't either! There are infinite choices to make each day agonizing over right and wrong is merely an exercise in creating suffering for yourself. Practice making a choice and then letting it go!!!