3 Easy Ways to Make Hard Decisions.
What should I do? This is a question that takes up a lot of headspace in a lot of people, a lot of the time. I hear it from my clients. I hear it as I ask myself the same question. “Should I relocate to the town or country?” “Should I quit my job or not?” “Should I stay with him/her or go?” “Should I invest or save?” “Should I buy the dress or the jeans?”
Decisions. Why are they often so difficult? How come we can get so tied up in knots trying to make them? For many reasons. Often our minds are filled with ‘shoulds’ about how we should be and act. In Gestalt Therapy theory we calls these ‘introjects’, cultural beliefs we have unconsciously swallowed hook, line and sinker. An example could be ‘life is a struggle’, ‘money is hard to come by’, ‘good things come to those who wait’, ‘duty before pleasure’. If we are trying to make our lives fit into those maxims then it will be difficult to make a decision when what we actually want conflicts with that.
Decision-making is also difficult because it means there is a time of uncertainty. And uncertainty breeds anxiety. Some of us are better than others at living in uncertainty but many of us control freaks freak out when we don’t know. We may grab onto the first decision that unfurls, grabbing it like it was the only sail on a boat in a hurricane. Then we implement the decision, clinging on to it for dear life, even if it kills us.
Others of us, myself included, have made angry decisions. Decisions based on a ‘f**k you’. An example is, ‘”well you didn’t appreciate my work so I’m leaving this job”. Or, “so you kissed that woman in the club, I’m leaving you f**ker!” I’m not saying these decisions are never the right ones but they can sometimes be likened to a childish tantrum. In the aftermath of the decision we start to regret it and feel worse off. Perhaps the more grown-up thing would have been to communicate our pain, disappointment or hurt directly and see if we can change our situation without having to leave it.
So how can we make effective decisions?
One Gestalt Therapy experiment I use with clients is inviting them to map out in a room their different options. For example they designate one spot in the room to represent one option. Another spot in the room symbolises another. Another spot a third, and even more depending on how many options they are deciding between. Then I ask them to stand in each spot and to visualise themselves having chosen that option. I ask them to scan their bodies to notice physical sensations such as tension, ease, excitement, numbness. I then ask them what feelings they associate with the body sensation. There will often be marked differences between the options. Finally I get them to stand at a point where they can survey all the locations in the room and check to see which they feel drawn to. Whilst trying this at home might not lead to the crystal clear ‘a-ha’ moment you are looking for it will certainly help you get a lot more clarity and less headspace taken up with the same old thoughts going around and around.
Another Gestalt experiment is called ‘Head, Heart, Belly’. You got it, I ask my client to speak from these separate parts of their body. That might sound strange but it is simply about getting in touch with that body part and then speaking in the present tense as ‘I’ from that body part. For example my heart might say, “I really want to leave this job, I hate it”. My head might say, ‘I can see reasons why and reasons why not’. My belly/gut might say, “hold on a sec, do you need to leave just yet? Is it so bad? Remember financial security is really important to you. It may be better to build up your options before leaving.”
This experiment can be really enlightening and sometimes a client will get very clear statements from the different body parts, which helps them to decide. However I for one struggle with a ‘knowing’ in the gut and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. For that reason a third technique comes from Marsha Linehan and her Dialetical Behavioural Therapy programme, originally designed for those diagnosed with having Borderline Personality Disorder but actually useful for many different client groups and even non-clients. The concept is Wise Mind, which is different from Emotional Mind and Reasonable Mind. It is a synthesis of the two and she describes it as ‘the inner wisdom that each person has’. A way to access it is to sit still and breathe. We think of our question. Then, as we breathe in we say to ourselves ‘wise’ and as we breathe out we say, ‘mind’. As we repeat this, our attention stays on the area just beneath our belly button, our gut. We do this until our answer comes. If it does not come we trust that the answer will come when it is ready. I have been surprised by ‘knowing’s bubbling up from that area.
One final thing to bear in mind, which is part of Gestalt Therapy theory and also features in Linehan’s book, is that of polarities co-existing. Rather than needing for things to be either/or, both/and is possible. Just as day exists at the same time as night (think different hemispheres), just as we can momentarily feel hatred for someone we love, just as we can want to stay up for late-night movie and want to sleep at the same time. In the same way it is possible to stay in my job and build up my freelance work. It is possible to relocate to the country and commute into the city. It is possible to buy a slightly less expensive dress and still save money. It is possible to stay with our partner and make it very clear we didn’t like the betrayal and wont’ stand for it again. Children tend to make things black and white. Someone or something is all bad or all good. When we grow up we can be left with this hangover. To embrace both poles may feel unfamiliar but it is often the more grown-up choice. A good indicator of whether we have made the right decision for us at this particular point in time is if we end up feeling balanced. Rather than our heart, gut and head screaming in different directions“I don’t know’, we are listening out of a slightly more muted and choral, ‘here we go, here we go, here we go!’