Episode 57 – Making Decisions the Struggles and Strategies

Join Sarah in this episode as she delves into the reasons why decision-making can be challenging and shares practical strategies to make the process easier.

Find out why we find it hard to make decisions at 3:23 and some helpful tips and strategies at 15:22.

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This episode was written and presented by Sarah Rees. It was edited by Big Tent Media and Produced by Emily Crosby Media.


ATT57 Transcript

Thu, Mar 02, 2023 11:26AM • 29:02



Sarah Rees


Welcome to Ask the Therapist, a monthly podcast for everyone who’s interested in how our minds work to build resilience through journaling and all things therapy. I’m your host, Sarah Rees, a mental health nurse and CBT therapist with over 20 years of experience in the field of mental health.



Today, we’re talking about decision-making. I hope you enjoyed the last episode of Ask the Therapist with Amy Porterfield. And after recording the episode, it got me thinking about how big decisions are made. Like for example, how to give up your job and start your own business. It was honestly one of the biggest decisions and hardest I’ve ever made. I’d been in the NHS for over 14 years. And when I qualified as a nurse, I really thought that I had a job for life. Then I found my way into the world of psychology and then trained as a CBT therapist. And then, I had a skill for the first time that gave me the opportunity to possibly work for myself and set up my own private practice. I debated it for ages going through the pros and cons. And while there were many benefits, there was also many more benefits to staying in a secure job with sick leave, a good pension and holiday pay. But ultimately, I was bored and frustrated with a number of areas. And what finally helped me make the decision was I came up with a plan B. If it didn’t work out, I would go back on the wards and work as a nurse again. Or I’d go and find another secure job as a CBT therapist; because of the growth in the world of mental health, there were always going to be jobs around. And the thought, it’s okay. I can afford to make this mistake. And then, at least, I’ve tried. 



Actually, 10 years on, it’s still honestly the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve never looked back or thought, Oh, I wish I’d stayed, ever. I thoroughly enjoy it. Being able to make big decisions is really important, as there are many times in our lives when we need to make decisions. And it can be really tough and hold us back if we can’t. Also, being unable to make decisions is a common reason people come for psychological support. So I thought I’d put together this episode on how to make big decisions from my experience and share some of the advice and strategies that I go through with my clients. So you might need a pen and paper for this episode and a coffee. So pause me now go and get that coffee and then settle down. And let’s go through it. 



This episode is in two sections. The first is why it’s difficult for us to make decisions. And the second section is where I’m going to go through the strategies about how to improve making decisions. Let’s start with a quote by Amy’s old boss, Life Coach Tony Robbins. He says that “your life changes the moment you make a new congruent and committed decision”. This quote emphasises the importance of making a decision that aligns with your goals and values, then sticking to that decision with commitment. When you make a decision that is congruent with who you are and what you want, it can profoundly impact your life and lead to positive changes. So it’s hugely important we can make decisions with a commitment. 



Let’s look at why we find it so difficult to make decisions. There are many reasons why we struggle as people to make decisions. Firstly, it’s important to know that you are not alone. We struggle to make decisions because we are a vulnerable species and making decisions that could be negative or mistakes just wouldn’t have been great for our survival. It’s not a great strategy to make the wrong decisions. So we avoid it. We also have a negative cognitive bias. So predicting a negative outcome is so much easier than predicting when things will go well. This impacts our ability to make decisions. This episode is dedicated to my dear friend Lisa who really struggles to make decisions. Despite all our efforts to encourage her in going forward with them. She shares that her struggle is because there are just so many choices, and she worries about making the wrong decision. So her strategy is like many others to over-research to help her make that decision. But the result is even more choices. Lisa, get your pen and paper you’re gonna get some tips on how to be a better decision maker and you are absolutely not alone in your struggle. In fact, when I was researching this, the number one thing that stops people from making decisions is the fear of making the wrong decision. Many people are afraid of making a mistake and feel overwhelmed by the potential consequences of their choice. One way to tackle this is to really dig deeper into what the fear is around making the wrong decision.



A CBT technique that we use is called the Downward Arrow technique. This is where a client will say; I’m worried about making a decision about, say, buying a new house. And the therapist would start the Downward Arrow technique by saying, What’s so bad about that? And they’d say, Well, what if it’s in the wrong area? Or what if I can’t afford the mortgage? And then you kind of you keep saying, What’s so bad about that? What’s so bad about that? What’s so bad about that? And then the person digs deeper and deeper into what their fear is about making that decision until you get to the ultimate fear. When you get to the ultimate fear, then you can assess, is it really that bad, or sometimes I work with people and find that, actually, there isn’t an ultimate fear, it would be okay. So they just kind of have the worry and the fear about making a wrong decision. But there isn’t any ultimate fear, like, I won’t be able to afford the mortgage, and I’d be homeless, or I’d move into a house and the neighbours might be a nightmare, and I wouldn’t be able to manage. Sometimes, the more we dig, we realise there just isn’t a fear there. When you dig deeper than you can see if making a wrong decision really is that bad. Then you can ask yourself, how likely is it that that fear would come to reality? And if it did happen, what would you do then? So I find that lots of people who struggle making decisions say in their head a lot, what if? They’re doing a lot of what if this? What if that? And I get them to change what if? to what then? This switches you into a problem-solving mode. When you think well, what would I do if that happened? What would I do? Like, for example I did with that kind of moving into private practice. I thought if it doesn’t work out, what would I do then? At that point, when I made a plan B, it then gave me the courage to go forward with what I really wanted to do. So here’s my first tip: change your what ifs to what then.



Sometimes we struggle making decisions if we’ve ever had a traumatic experience where we have made the wrong choice or the wrong decision. And it’s had catastrophic implications. And honestly, I come across this so rarely in my clinical practice. And if this is the case for you, if you’ve had a really bad experience, that has been a traumatic event, and you just can’t move past it, and because of that event, it’s making decision making rarely tough for you, it might be worth seeing a therapist. But in my experience, this is rarely the root of it, as when we make a wrong decision, all that happens generally is that we alter our course and we correct ourselves. Also making decisions is often associated with an uncertainty. And we do not like uncertainty as humans, because uncertainty means risk. So it makes sense why it’s difficult to make decisions. But remember, the only thing that is certain in life is that everything is about to change, and everything is uncertain. So we can’t keep things the same. We have to be really good at building up tolerance to uncertainty. Sometimes people feel that they just don’t have enough information to make a well informed decision, which can lead to indecision. But the more we check, the more doubt that can be created not certainty. This is just what Lisa was talking about in her example. Her researching is not helping, it’s actually causing the paralysis in that you just can’t move forward. Overthinking also impacts decision making. People get stuck in a cycle of analysis paralysis, where we’re constantly weighing up the different options and considering every potential outcome. This is often a symptom of you’ve done far too much research. So sometimes you need to put a cap on the research you’ve done. 



Another thing that stops us from making decisions sometimes is when we have an emotional attachment to a particular outcome. This can make it difficult to consider other options objectively. It means that if a person is emotionally invested in a specific outcome or the result, to the point where it becomes difficult for them to look at the situation objectively. For example, if someone has always wanted to start their own business, they may become really emotionally attached to the idea of having their own business and then struggle to look at it objectively. This can cloud your judgement or make it difficult to weigh up the pros and cons. Sometimes we just need to give ourselves a bit of space or we need to kind of get others in to help us make the decision. 



Perfectionism is another challenge for making decisions. Some people have a perfectionist tendency and believe that there is only one right decision, which can make the decision making process so stressful. Actually, sometimes you need to give yourself permission to get it wrong and really test out and challenge that perfectionism. When we have different values and priorities that are at odds with each other, then this can really make it difficult to make decisions. And we have to determine which one to prioritise. For example, if you want to really go on holiday, and you want to take a flight to a sunny destination, but you’re also aware of the impact on the environment when you travel, you have to decide which of your values is more important to you. And last, but not least, is not being able to tolerate making a wrong decision. So if I make a wrong decision, and I’m really worried then about the fear of what others think, or I’m going to be so cruel and harsh to myself through self criticism that making a wrong decision is unbearable, I’m going to struggle making a decision. So sometimes we have to be able to make bad decisions, tolerate the minds of others, but also be able to really support ourselves if we get it wrong. Because we’re just human, we will make mistakes. It’s really useful to become aware of what’s holding you back from making decisions. This could involve seeking help from a therapist learning mindfulness and stress management techniques, starting a journaling practice. All are ways which can give you more clarity and perspective on what’s going on, creating more awareness of mind and then you have choice over what you do going forward, so you can start practising new ways of being and trying out new strategies and techniques.



There are many benefits in being good at making decisions, some of which are increased success. We know that make being a good decision maker can help you be more effective and successful in choices in all areas of your life, whether it’s in your career, relationships, health or personal growth. When you can make better decisions, you’re better at solving problems. Effective decision making involves analysing problems, evaluating options and identifying the best solution quickly. By honing your skills around decision making, you can improve your problem solving skills, and navigate challenges more effectively. Making informed effective decisions can increase your self confidence and your self esteem. When you trust in your ability to make good choices, you are more likely to be able to take risks and pursue your goals, which all adds up to making you more efficient. So it saves you time and energy that would be otherwise wasted on indecision analysis, paralysis, or trial and error. It’s also really helpful for relationships because good decision making involves considering the needs and options of others, which can help you build stronger relationships with colleagues, friends and family members. If you’re with someone who never makes a decision, you’re never sure if you’re doing what they really want to be doing. And this can cause some strain and also sometimes it’s just nice for the other person to make a decision and to be able to share that decision making responsibility. 



It’s going to reduce your stress. Indecision and uncertainty can be a source of stress and anxiety. By improving your decision making skills you can reduce your stress levels and feel more in control of your life, and it will save you so much more time. It’s also going to lead to better opportunities because good decision making can open up new opportunities and pathways that may have not been available to you otherwise. When you make informed choices, you can position yourself for success and growth.



I want to take a quick break to tell all the therapists listening about the sponsor for this episode. Hello Self, who will support you in growing your private practice. Hello Self is a community of psychologists and CBT therapists who help people feel better faster. They provide clinically proven therapy via a team of expert therapists and a tech enhanced platform. They are growing rapidly and looking for BABCP and HCPC registered therapists to join them and start working taking cases right away. As an associate, you’ll be expertly matched to new clients by the Hello Self team and they get 99% of matches right first time. You can work flexibly and at times that suit you. They’ll also take care of all the admin invoicing, scheduling, tech support and guarantee you’ll receive monthly payment for completed sessions. Plus, you’ll have full support from the Hello Self clinical team, giving you access to safeguarding and risk management as well as CPD and supervision. To find out more about joining Hello Self today, go to www.HelloSelf.com/join us.



So in the next section of this episode, we’re going to look on how you can make big decisions and the strategies that I use in my clinical practice with the clients that I work with, and therapists that I mentor as well. So we started with the Tony Robbins quote, where he clarified that we need to be clear on our values and our goals. And we really need to know our destination to make good decisions. I want to start this section by thinking about the driving force under how we make decisions or avoid making decisions. It’s sometimes useful to see ourselves as having many different parts. So I have an anxious part that might not want to make decision a scared part that might be nervous about negative outcomes, a critical part that might beat myself up if I make a wrong decision or not get it totally right. And the sad part. And sometimes we have competitive part as well, there are many different parts to our personalities, and we’re moving between those all the time. There is also the part of us, which is us at our very best. When we are being strong, we are self compassionate, we feel at our wisest, and I want you to just take a moment and think in your life when you are at your absolute best. I think for me, it’s being in the therapists chair, because that’s where I’m most comfortable. I’ve been doing it for many years. And generally when I’m with a client, what they’re telling me, I’ve heard a form of that before. And I often know how I can support the client in moving forward. So that’s when I feel at my most confident. And when you have that in mind, when you are at your very best, that part of you would make some really good decisions, I’m guessing. It’s really useful to think about which part of you is in the driving seat of your life? Is it the anxious part? Is it the critical part? Is it the sad part? Is it the competitive part? Or is it the part of you that’s at your very best, which part of you drives your life forward? And when you need to make a decision, which part of you is the best part to have in the driver’s seat? I know for me, like I’m sure you’re thinking at this moment, it’s when we’re at our absolute best, when we’re at our calmest, most settled, feeling wise and strong and at our most confiden. When we’re in that part of us, we can make some really good decisions. 



I was recently working with someone who wanted to take his daughter to an event. And this was really important to him. And then he also had a patient that really needed his support. He was in the medical world. And he was struggling with which decision to make. Both these things were really important to him. So I asked him to think about him at his very best when he’s operating from his most confident and in tune part of him. When he’s at his best in his life. And he thought about that for a moment. And then I asked him, if a friend came to him and he was feeling like this at his absolute best, what advice would he give and straightaway he had no problem answering it that he could see his priority was his daughter’s event. So sometimes asking ourselves, what would advice would we give to a friend that gives us an objectivity and we get a bit more clarity. 



Also, I worked with somebody recently who was really unhappy in his job. He’d been working in the same position for several years, and he felt it wasn’t progressing his career. He’d then received a job offer from another company that paid more, had more opportunities for advancement going forward as well. He was really excited about the job offer, but he was also really hesitant about leaving his current job. He had a young family and security was really high up there huge priority for him. And his current job was safe. He also had a lot of friends at work and he wasn’t sure if he was ready to leave them behind. And he was just so comfortable with his current routine and the idea of starting a new job was scary and daunting. I asked him to make a list of all the pros and cons of both staying in his current job and accepting the new offer. And this helped him see the potential benefits and the drawbacks of each option. I then encouraged him to think about his longer term goals and spend some time zooming out of the immediate picture and thinking about whether his current job was going to help him achieve those longer term goals. And this helped him realise that staying in his current job might not be the best option for him long run. It wouldn’t give him the financial security in the longer term. The new job was gonna be much better for him and his family. So after careful consideration, taking in all his options, and talking with his family, he decided to take the new job offer. And although he was nervous and scared, he knew that ultimately, he was going to have more opportunity to provide more security for his family, and it was the right decision for him. 



So let’s go through some really straightforward strategies on helping you make decisions. Identify your priorities and your values. Before making a big decision, take the time to think about what is most important to you. What are your values and your goals and how does the decision align with them? Then I want you to gather some information as much as you can about the decision you need to make, but you need to have a stop point. So there is a point where you can get so much information that it actually becomes confusing rather than helpful. So have a stop point. Plan how much information you’re gonna gather. You can’t beat a good old fashioned pros and cons list. That’s never gonna go out of fashion. It really helps giving you some clarity. Sometimes removing yourself from the picture, like I discussed in the last example. And imagine if this was a friend or colleague in the situation, what advice would you give them. Seeking feedback can be really useful. But again, this can fall into the pit of gathering too much information and doing too much research. So talk to a few trusted friends and families and or mentors about your decision. Not too many decide who you’re going to talk to, and stick to those people only, say two or three people. And they may provide you with a fresh perspective and valuable insights. But I think if you get too much feedback, you’re going to overcomplicate things, so pull back on getting too much information. Sometimes people report that getting too much feedback or getting too much information to help make decision is a form of procrastination. And I think they’re totally right. It’s a way of avoiding making the actual decision. 



Then it can be useful to break down all the possible decisions. Like if you’re arranging a holiday, break it down to just booking the flight than the accommodation. So break down the steps and just look at the first step ahead of you. Sometimes looking at everything in one big go just feels overwhelming and a little bit too daunting. So break down your your choices. I’m gonna mention the strategy I mentioned before as well about changing your what ifs to what then. So switching yourself into more of a problem solving mode, Try to give yourself some enough time so that you don’t feel too pressured into making a decision quickly. Giving yourself time to think things through and ensure you’re comfortable with your decision and choice is useful but do set a time limit. Because pondering and giving yourself too much time can also be a form of avoiding. 



I want you to think about times in your life where you have made a decision that you got wrong. What was the outcome? How bad was it? Can you even think of a time when you got it wrong, you might not be able to? I want you to think about your inner voice around making decisions. How do you talk to yourself about how you make decisions ? Is your narrative, I’m rubbish at making decision, I always make the wrong decisions. And I want you to at least level this out a little bit. Start to talk to yourself in a way that’s a little bit more optimistic. And that’s gonna really help with your confidence and your self esteem around making the right decisions. And practice – making decisions is a muscle. If you’ve not been practising making decisions, that muscle is going to be weak and you’re not going to be that good at it. So making decisions is like an unused muscle. So practice, practice, practice. Start by deciding where to go for dinner or where to go to holiday. Every day, just start pushing yourself out of your comfort zone with decisions and build up your confidence. I think sometimes we need to practice just going with our gut. The first decision we make sometimes and because I work with this a lot in clinical practice. When I hear people talk through it, they often the right decision is in the first 30 seconds, they start talking about it. And then it’s everything else that comes after it all the pros and cons and thoughts and information and asking people that absolutely muddies the water. And actually, if they just went with the decision that popped into their head. This isn’t right all the time. And you know, we’ve got to be flexible, but sometimes just go with your gut decisions. And I think sometimes going with a decision quickly, can be really useful. And it can be useful in turning that muscle up around making decisions. 



In therapy, I might work with somebody to consider what’s the function of their lack of decision making, how is it serving them to look at what’s underneath it for them, and then you can work with the root cause. And that’s kind of going back to what we started with in the first section of this podcast, looking at why it’s tough for us to make decisions. Maybe one of those areas hit home for you. Also have a backup plan, so you can move forward just as I did when I was leaving my NHS job. Remember making big decisions can be stressful, but taking a structured and thoughtful approach can help you feel more confident and in control and have a life with a lot less stress. Also, not making a decision can be considered a decision in itself. When we don’t take action or make a choice, we are essentially making a passive decision to maintain the status quo or to let the situation unfold without our intervention. That too is a decision. So not making a decision can have its own consequences. For example, failing to make a decision about a job offer or an investment opportunity may result in you missing out on a potentially valuable opportunity. While it may seem easier to avoid making the decision, it can also lead to feelings of regret, indecision, a sense of being stuck and in some cases, not making a decision can have serious consequences such as financial loss, impact on relationships, or just missed opportunities. In short, not making a decision is still a decision. And it’s important to consider the potential consequences and outcomes before choosing to take a passive approach. 



Being good at decision making is important for our self confidence. Making decisions and taking action helps us grow and develop as a person, we become more aware of our values, strengths and weaknesses. And we learn new skills and gain new experiences. And we always can auto correct when we get things wrong. We’re human, we’re gonna make mistakes, we’re gonna get it wrong. When we are able to make decisions, we develop a greater sense of self assurance and trust in our own abilities. So I want you to go forward and start practising and toning up that muscle of decision making. I hope that you’ve found this episode helpful. And you know, it’s like with anything when we give strategies out, some of them will be helpful for some people and others will be helpful for others. So just pick out the little bits that might be helpful for you. And I will see you at the next episode.



Thank you for listening to ask a therapist. For more information about the CBT journal, visit my website at www.sarahdrees.co.uk. You can also sign up to download your free guide to building emotional resilience delivered straight to your inbox. You will then also receive regular newsletters where I share my blog posts, podcast and tips and strategies for better mental health and psychological resilience. Don’t forget to review and subscribe to the podcast and you can also share episodes on social media using the hashtag ask the therapist. This episode was written and presented by me Sarah Rees and edited by Big Tent Media and produced by Emily Crosby Media.


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