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Ashley Solomon, Psy.D is a psychologist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental illness.

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Stop Wrestling with Yourself: How to Make a Big Decision

October 7, 2011 3 Comments by Ashley @ Nourishing the Soul

10104-SmithWinsGold {image credit :: familymwr}


    Up early and standing in the dimly lit store, literally thousands of pieces of glass surrounded us as my husband and I tried, desperately, to make a decision about what tile would adorn the walls behind our kitchen counters. We had literally been there for hours and my feet were starting to blister, as was my brain. The tiles started blending together into a swirl of colors as we debated the respective significance of material, opacity, size, and pattern. All of this for something whose sole purpose is to catch my spaghetti sauce? 

    After four grueling hours, some threats of an early divorce, and the intervention of two sales people, we finally came to a decision on our tile. That’s when the gentleman behind the counter said, “And what about your grout color?” When we asked him what he meant, he reached for the book o’ grout and my jaw dropped. This can’t be happening, I thought. Determined to make it home before Christmas, we picked the grout ten seconds flat and we’re out the door four minutes later. Done!

    Sure, the tile is harder to pick than the grout. Once you’ve decided on a direction, the other details are just that – details. But aside from being totally fatigued, how do we come to major decisions? What about when the decision isn’t for a backsplash, but slightly more significant things – like whether to change your 401(k), take that job in Seattle, to end your nine-year relationship, or to start a family?

    While I’m no decision making expert (see exhibit A above), as a therapist I’m often witness to some really heart-wrenching decision-making. I’m honored to share in part of that struggle, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. So next time you’re faced with a major decision, consider the following.

    Get as much information as you can – but not too much.

    For many of us, especially the left-brain thinkers out there, the first step in making a big decision is often taking time to gather knowledge about the situation at hand. We want to be well informed about the potential outcomes, and that takes can take some investigative work. In some scenarios, this is the optimal strategy – like if you’re my brain surgeon and you’re choosing the best course of action to remove that tumor. But sometimes too much information can be utterly paralyzing.

    In fact, Angelika Dimoka, Director of the Center for Neural Decision Making at Temple University, conducted a study in which she asked participants to make a complex decision that really taxed their cognitive resources. What she found was that the more and more information that she fed participants regarding the available options, activity in parts of the brain responsible for helping them sort through the mess started to fall off. As a result, decision making became weaker and the participants started making choices that made “less and less sense.”

    Finding the balance of just enough information can be difficult, but when you’re struggling, it’s important to –

    Hey! Listen to your feelings too!

    “Listen to my feelings?” you say. “Isn’t that the whole problem!? I have too many feelings about this!” Okay, okay! I get it. But as a therapist I’ve become very attuned to listening intently at individuals’ emotions about the major decisions that face them. And often I find that I end up giving voice to some of these for the very first time.

    Sometimes when we think that we’re focusing on our feelings about a situation, what we’re actually doing is getting caught up in all the mental chatter that surrounds it. Our minds might be yammering away about how quitting our job will leave us poor, desolate, and unhirable. Not to mention the laughing stock of our ten-year reunion and the bane of our mother’s existence. But that’s not necessarily our feeling. Our feeling might be fear, but if we can get quiet long enough to get in touch with our emotions, we might find that the fear is mixed with excitement or longing. If we stay in the loudness of the chatter, we’ll never hear the voice of our feelings bubbling quietly underneath.

    If you’re new to this whole feeling your emotions thing, try free writing for twenty minutes about the decision and see what comes up.

    Explore the outcomes.

    When asked about his own decision making process, Ben Franklin weighed in, “My way is to divide a half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro and the other Con.” Seems logical, right? As simplistic as it is, this technique does allow us to consider the implications of our decisions. But what it lacks is an analysis of how much we really care about those outcomes. To do this, we need to give some weight to the factors that play into our decision. For example, getting married to your on-again, off-again boyfriend might confer emotional security, tax benefits, and getting Aunt Sally off your back about joining JDate, but one of these factors is likely to be more important than the others. If you’re more of a math person, you can create a system of prioritizing these factors or even multiplying them by numbers representing how important each is (1point minimally important, 2 for somewhat important, etc.).

    If you’re more right-brained, another way to explore the potential outcomes is to visualize yourself living with every possible outcome having been realized. In a quiet moment, spend some time reflecting on what each scenario would look like in your mind. You can see yourself having just bought that beautiful new car (and writing the painfully large check each moth) and see yourself taking the bus again (with lots of money to spend on dinners with friends). The beauty of this practice is not so much that it will help you make a decision, but that it will allow you to come to terms with what the potential outcomes might look like.

    But in the end, none of it really matters. (And that’s good!)

    My favorite point about decision making is the fact that most of the time, we’re really bad at it. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s often a good thing that we’re so poor at predicting our future happiness, because we can end up much happier than we thought.

    Daniel Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, is an expert in such issues. He has done loads of research that confirms that human beings are notoriously bad affective forecasters. That means that we tend to imagine that our decisions will make us happier in the future than we actually will be, and that they’ll make us less happy in the future than we actually will be.

    [For a video on this, click here.]

    Among other things, what he tells us is that when imagining what our future will hold if we make various choices for ourselves, we tend to focus too much on the decision or event at hand. Thus, we also tend to ignore the other factors that will be affecting our futures. To grossly oversimplify, when we imagine ourselves not having a child, we might picture eerily quiet hallways and living out our days lonely in a nursing home. But when we talk to others who don’t have children, we find that in fact they have created a life of happiness for themselves – full of rich friendships, exciting careers, and interesting pursuits.

    The point is that whatever decision we make, assuming we don’t have to choose whether to detonate a global bomb, is far from being the end of the world. While it might seem minimizing when you’re faced with a major choice, it’s also liberating to know that we really can’t make that colossal of a mistake. At least not one that we can’t bounce back from with the support of a few good friends and a bit of resourcefulness. Oh, and I hear having the right tile on your backsplash helps too.


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  1. scott
    4 years ago

    absolutely great advice. Thanks so much for sharing!
    scott recently posted..Long weekend!


  2. Hannah
    4 years ago

    This is a really informative post, Ashley. Thank you for sharing this funny but helpful post with us. I’m going to have to make some big decisions this year (whether or not to go abroad, what my major will be, what I want to do next summer for a job, etc) and it’s good to remember the balance of gaining enough information but also listening to one’s emotional self.
    Hannah recently posted..Emotional Emergency Kit + Fall Break


  3. GR
    2 years ago

    I know this is old, but it’s still really good advice. I definitely have a problem with listening to the chatter instead of my real emotions.


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