So much of who we are and what we achieve results from a lifetime of decisions, large and small. We choose our clothes, food and drink, job, romantic partner, and everything in between. To a larger extent than we realize we even choose our own thoughts. Our choices may lead us to the peak of our potential, or leave us meandering in the valleys of doubt and guilt. Yet despite their power, most decisions happen so automatically we barely even realize we’re making them.
While most of our decisions are finished before we know it, occasionally we find ourselves mired in difficult ones. We agonize over pros and cons. We feel trapped by possible risks and outcomes. We fear that any way we go we’ll be wrong. Such hard decisions provide a laboratory for us to examine our own mental process. By observing ourselves we can learn what goes on in our minds when we decide what to do next. What are our constraints, our freedoms, our hopes and fears? By learning about our decision making process, and learning to improve it, we can learn how to make the best choices to promote a healthy successful life.
At the foundation of every decision lies our desire to accomplish some goal. From our most basic needs to our most noble dreams of service to society and God, our goals draw us onward. But as important as goals are, we may not always be conscious of them. Many of us have simply never made the effort to think through what we want to accomplish. Without conscious thought, we may find ourselves working hard towards some vague end. Or we may be struggling to reach some goal, even though we feel conflicted and unsure about the value of that goal.
If we feel our lives are meandering with little direction, or headed in a direction we don’t necessarily want to go, we need to think through our own sense of mission. As Stephen Covey suggests, “Begin with the end in mind.” What results do we want from our decisions? Are we headed in a direction that serves our purpose? What do we want people to say at our funeral? By carefully and consciously considering what we want to achieve in our lifetime, we can align our decisions to take us closer to our goals.
To achieve our goal we must pay a price; hard work, sacrifice, putting off a reward until later, respect for the feelings and well being of others. We must choose our way through all these competing demands and balance our material, social and spiritual dimensions. For example, we may need to choose between spending time with our family and putting in extra time at work. If our decision to succeed at work results in our hurting the people around us, we are trading benefits in one area for pain in another. Balancing alternatives requires close scrutiny of what we want to get out of life, and what we are willing to put in. The more we understand what we want, and how we want to live, the better we’ll be able to make choices that fit our overall plan.
From the day we are born, we start adapting our behavior to please and cope with our parents. We respond to the way they handle us and we learn what we need to do to get their attention. As we grow up, these lessons are built deep into our thoughts and actions. We tend to continue to do the things we’ve always done, the way we’ve always done them. To a large extent these patterns determine who we become. In fact, they are woven so familiarly into the fabric of our identity we barely see them. But as we try to grow, we may recognize that some habits no longer serve our own best interests.
To grow we need to get a handle on these powerful habits. We learn about the habits that get in our way and gradually and gently extinguish them. As we alter unproductive habits, we replace them with new ones that help us move towards our goals. For example, we gently reduce our snacks and increase our exercise, or reduce our television and increase our time with family and friends. The first few times we do something differently, we need to think it through. We feel awkward, and don’t have the confidence of familiarity. Over time we feel more comfortable and confident with our new behavior. Each choice we make can become the basis for a future habit. When we persist along lines that we choose, we develop habits that will carry us forward in the direction we want to go.
Confidence and risk
When we look carefully at our decisions, we realize that we have a pattern of expectations about the way the universe will respond. Some of us are willing to jump off cliffs, believing that the universe will somehow be ready with a safety net by the time we get to the bottom. Others experience anxiety just by dipping a toe into a puddle, for fear it might be deeper than it looks.
We formed our ideas about the world in childhood, by watching the way our parents made decisions. Were our parents worriers and doubters? Did they feel empowered in the world or victimized? We also learned from their reactions to our own choices. Did they criticize or praise us for taking risks? Did they help us think things through clearly, or ignore our opinions and tell us what to do? When our childhood environment was filled with doubts and inaction, we learned to avoid decisions and do as little as possible. We grew up believing the world is an unfriendly place, and we need to keep our head down and not make waves.
The American psychologist, Martin Seligman, showed in a laboratory experiment that dogs can learn to feel helpless. So can we. When we say to ourselves, “What’s the use of trying when nothing I do matters?” we’ve learned that we’re victims in life rather than actors. Instead of making decisions, we blame others and wait for rescuers to do it for us or tell us exactly what to do. But not making a decision is also a decision. When we wait, we have decided to wait. And whether we like it or not, we must live with the results of this decision.
By reviewing our attitudes towards helplessness in a new light, we can learn how to approach decisions more energetically and effectively. Seeking to change our old patterns, we first understand where we’ve been. Then by using agents of change, such as counseling, self-help books and tapes, religion, and soothing techniques, we learn to overcome the limitations of our childhood training.
What story do we tell about ourselves?
Through our developmental years we’ve learned a role that we expect to play in life. Do we look at ourselves as successes, or failures, as victims or actors? These images help determine the choices we make.
Many of us avoid the pinnacles just as surely as we avoid the depths. Perhaps we avoid success because when we visualize successful people we don’t like what we see. If our image is that they are manipulative and arrogant, we may not feel that we want to become one of them. Or we fear that if we are successful we’ll become the targets of jealousy, or we’ll hurt the people we love by making them feel that we are better than them. These stories, created from ideas we accumulated as little children, have a powerful effect on the way we project ourselves in the world.
To make the best possible decisions, we must gain a clearer understanding of the way we portray ourselves. If we realize our internal image of ourselves does not take us where we want to go, we need to change our image to more closely match who we want to be.
Examining our story more carefully, we may recognize the sound of our parent’s voice. Years after we’ve moved out, the story they told us about ourselves continues to play a big part in defining our actions. We have internalized their expectations, and remember deep at our core what we needed to do to win their approval, or avoid their disapproval. As adults, trying to live in our own way, we’re still doing things to please our parents. We may discover that we complicate some of our most important decisions in life by mixing up their dreams with ours. Ultimately, we need to make peace with our parents’ wishes, accepting the parts that work for us, and gently distancing ourselves from the rest. To break free from this focus on pleasing them, and doubting ourselves, we need to revisit our childhood. Getting in touch with our inner child, we may find that we have been searching our whole adult life for our parent’s approval while missing out on the satisfaction that is available to us in other ways.
Grieving and regrets
When we look at the road ahead of us, many of us find our minds clouded by regrets about the road behind. The road not taken is filled with missed opportunities. Regret and guilt drag us into the past. To clear the way for the future, we need to make peace with the past. If we have been deeply disappointed by things we did in the past, and obsess on what we should have done differently, we clutter up our decision making process.
To escape the grip of the past, we need to face our regret openly and creatively, grieve the losses and the mistakes and let them go. The process includes opening up to emotions like anger and despair that we may have been trying to shut out of our minds. We can facilitate this process by openly sharing our thoughts and feelings with a counselor or other mentor. Once we’ve let our past decisions go, we can free ourselves to move forward into the present.
At times our decisions seem impossible to resolve. For example, all alternatives seem equally bad or equally good. Or choosing the direction we really want would require more effort or sacrifice than we’re prepared to make. Even though we feel we’ve put in our homework and have our mission well thought out, and we believe we are in a good frame of mind about the generosity of the universe, we still can’t settle on one course of action. When we feel stuck, we need to renew our awareness of the key elements of the critical life skill of making decisions. We need to be open to input from others, brainstorm to think creatively, and stay tuned to our value system to be sure we’re sticking with our own internal guidance system.
We also need to be smart about the time-frame. Making a choice may be important, but not important right now. If there’s no urgent reason to make a difficult decision now, we’re better off waiting until more facts are in, or until we’ve sorted out the conflicts.
Feedback from others
When we make decisions we take into account input from others. Sometimes their input helps us see the situation from their eyes, and gives us productive ideas. At other times their advice doesn’t take us very far. Since we’re the ones who are going to be stuck with the results of our decisions, we need to weigh input from others as only one step in a process. We may need to disentangle ourselves from some advice if the result will take us in the wrong direction for our own growth and satisfaction. In either case, learning how to ask for and process other perspectives is a valuable life skill.
We also need to remember that we’re not the only ones who are affected by our decisions. Everything we do impacts the people in our lives. When we make choices, we need to take into account the impact our decision may have on others and, as appropriate, give them a say in our choice.
Counseling can provide additional tools. By listening carefully, a counselor can help us tease apart the many ingredients that make up a decision. As we work out our decision, we gradually uncover our own priorities and mission. In talking in a safe, supportive environment we can deal with factors that may have been too complex to think about clearly on our own, such as inner conflicts, fears, and motivations.
Often we feel stuck with decisions that follow along only a few lines. However, when we think more freely, we may discover there are other options that we haven’t even considered. Brainstorming is a freewheeling process, exploring options by imagining possibilities from many points of view, without at first trying to block our creativity with critical judgment.
When we think freely, we also invite input from our intuition. Intuition can be a good source of additional insight, and may guide us in creative ways that pure logic cannot. However, before acting on intuition, we need to carefully check our decision out against the guidelines provided by our own value system and past experience and be prepared to reject intuitions that take us in a direction that violates our value system, takes us in the wrong direction or creates unnecessary risk. Intuition is different from acting on impulse. When we act on impulse, we bypass our own thinking process about the consequences. Since impulse does not give us time to think through the results of our actions, we often associate impulsive action with swashbuckling adventurers who can do whatever they want, whenever they want. In real life, acting on impulse is often associated with self-destructive behavior, because we are not using good judgment about where our action is leading.
Decisions lead towards actions
Acting is the final stage of deciding. Once we make a decision, we must take the plunge and accomplish our goal. If we feel we are not yet ready to act, we may need to go back to the decision stage, and make sure we are clear. Then we need to understand other reasons for our reluctance to follow through on what we’ve decided. Are we avoiding risk? Are we afraid to leave the familiar world of our old choices, and take the plunge into something new? Have we populated our universe with generous, abundant forces, or do we shrink back from a cold and forbidding universe? Are we afraid our new decision might be out of character from the role we always played in the past?
To understand more about action, we can explore the powerful myth of the hero. Heroes make fascinating entertainment, and when we consider why we are so entertained, we recognize our longing for a perfect world where every problem results in decisive, effective action. The mythical hero leaves the safety of the nest, faces the universe, accepts risk, deals with frustrations and discomforts, understands the need for innovation, and acts effectively. To expand our potential and live a life that fulfills us to the utmost, we can discover heroic elements in our own ideal story.
And as we act, we learn from our experience. According to Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing over and over, and then expecting different results.” By taking into account the results of our actions, we learn important lessons about how to act in the future.
These are the three elements of an action: defining the goal, selecting a method for achieving the goal, and then following through with action. At every step of our journey through life we face this process, and our lives are built up year after year from the results. As we “begin with the end in mind” and follow our mission, we can make each moment, each decision and each action add up to the life we want to live.
See also: Advice, Assertiveness, Behavior, Beliefs, Child within, Goals, Hero, Myth, Self-esteem, Story, Values
Seven habits of highly effective people by Stephen Covey
Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins
Hero of a thousand faces by Joseph Campbell