Do you often find yourself paralyzed in the face of big decisions—ping-ponging back and forth endlessly between options? Or maybe you frequently get stuck second-guessing the decisions you have made—questioning your judgment and wishing you could go back?
In my work as a therapist, I hear the following words constantly:
I just wish I could be more decisive!
And while many people struggle to be more decisive, they frequently misunderstand why they struggle so much. Usually, they chalk it up to bad genes or an unlucky personality type:
My husband’s so decisive: He just looks at the options, goes with one, and then he’s done with it. I wish I was a more decisive person…
In reality, though, the biggest reason we have trouble being decisive comes down to a simple but powerful process: cultural conditioning + bad habits.
Some people—women in particular—tend to be trained by society and culture to be less decisive in their decision-making. I won’t go into more detail on this because it’s beyond the scope of this article. The point is, some people do start life from a disadvantaged position when it comes to confident decision-making. But it’s important to see that this is still fundamentally constructed not inborn.
What really magnifies our difficulty being decisive is our own self-sabotage.
Most people I work with who struggle to be more decisive have developed a collection of powerful habits reinforcing their lack of confidence around decision-making.
Learning to be more decisive, then, comes down to identifying and eliminating these habits that reinforce indecisiveness.
In this article, we’ll look at four common habits interfering with your ability to make decisions confidently, as well as some thoughts on how to eliminate them and allow your natural confidence to rise.
1. Embrace uncertainty wholeheartedly.
One way to look at your trouble being decisive is that you’re excessively afraid of uncertainty.
Many decisions we make in life don’t have an obviously right or wrong answer. At least not at the time that we’re trying to make the decision:
- Should I buy the black shoes or the brown ones?
- Would it be faster to take the freeway or back streets?
- Should we get married or break up?
Regardless of the size or impact of the decision, uncertainty is often a key feature of decision-making. And it’s human nature that, when faced with uncertainty, we feel afraid.
This makes sense from an evolutionary biology perspective: the more certainty our ancestors had over their life and environment, the better their odds of survival. On the other hand, the more uncertainty the riskier things got. And even though most of us live in far less dangerous times than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, it’s a hard instinct to shake.
We have stone-age brains in a modern world.
The key insight is, while it makes sense that our initial response to uncertainty would be some fear or trepidation, we shouldn’t let that dominate our decision-making process. But that’s exactly what happens to people who struggle to be more decisive.
You think you’re trying to make a good decision, but really you’re trying to feel less anxious. Which is why you hem and haw and go back and forth so much.
Intellectually you probably understand in hindsight that it either doesn’t really matter that much (Crests toothpaste vs Arm and Hammer?) or there’s no amount of thinking that would give you more confidence (choosing an accountant after doing your basic research). But at this point it’s not really about the toothpaste, it’s about not wanting to feel so anxious anymore.
The trick, then, is to face up to the fact that most decisions will involve uncertainty and often a decent amount of anxiety. That doesn’t mean something’s wrong.
Acknowledge that you can’t resolve all uncertainty and that you don’t need to. Acknowledge that you feel a little anxious and that’s okay—it’s just your stone age brain doing its thing.
When you validate the uncertainty of the decision and your own anxiety about it, it becomes much easier to simply make a decision and move on.
Next time you face a decision and find yourself anxiously second-guessing which direction to go, hit the pause button and remind yourself that uncertainty isn’t a bad thing; and neither is feeling a little anxious.
When you embrace uncertainty wholeheartedly, you’re training your stone-age brain to see uncertainty as a challenge but not a threat. Which is exactly how confident people make decisions.
2. Make some bad decisions on purpose.
Another major reason people struggle to make decisions confidently is that they’re terrified of making a mistake.
Fear of making mistakes usually has two sources:
- You have an early history of being severely punished or abused as a result of mistakes. That fear sticks with you and results in the understandable but misguided strategy of avoiding decisions altogether in order to avoid potential harm.
- You’ve been so driven to achieve and succeed that you managed to make it well into adulthood without making many major mistakes. But as the stakes get higher in life, you feel more and more pressure to be perfect. Which, again, leads to a strategy of trying to avoid making decisions unless you’re sure they will turn out well.
The common denominator in both cases is that you lack real knowledge about the consequences of poor mistakes in your life now. Your stone age brain is terrified that mistakes will lead to something awful. And as much as you or others try to convince it, it won’t believe you without real proof and evidence to the contrary.
This means that the key for many people to becoming more confident decision-makers is to start making some mistakes on purpose. This is the only way to convince your brain’s fear center that, while somewhat painful or embarrassing, mistakes are not a threat or danger.
Now, obviously I wouldn’t suggest that you intentionally make mistakes that have legitimate risks involved. What I’m talking about are mistakes that you find terrifying even though you know rationally they’re not dangerous.
- Deliberately buy the wrong kind of sandwich for your boss when you’re picking up lunch. Your stone age brain will scream at you that doing so will get you fired. Prove it wrong.
- Intentionally show up 5 minutes late to a dentist appointment. Your stone age brain will scream at you that your dentist will be furious and that you’ll get fired as a patient and have to find a new dentist all over again. Prove it wrong.
- Bring home the wrong kind of apples from the grocery store on purpose. Your stone brain will freak out and insist that your spouse will blow up at you and probably end up divorcing you too. Prove it wrong.
By intentionally making some small mistakes, you can inoculate yourself to the irrational fear of making mistakes, which will help you feel more confident making future decisions.
3. Let go of your need for control.
Another major source of poor confidence when making decisions is an unhealthy need for control.
The concept of “control issues” gets thrown around casually as a pop psychology explanation for just about everything. And as much as it’s misused, having serious issues with control is a very real phenomenon. And it’s a key ingredient in why so many people struggle to make decisions confidently.
Here’s how it works:
- Being able to exert control over our lives is generally a good thing. From deciding which shirt to wear in the morning to choosing a partner to marry, exerting control often improves our lives. And because exerting control can be so beneficial, it feels good.
- But it’s a fact of life that we can’t control everything. And in fact, we tend to overestimate how much we can actually control precisely because it’s so valuable when we can do it.
- But because we want control so much and because it makes us feel so good when we have it, we tend to feel especially bad when we don’t have control.
- Instead of accepting our lack of control in some situations, many people get in the habit of denying the truth about their lack control, and instead, doing things that give them the illusion of control.
- And even though it’s temporary, the illusion of control feels pretty good. So whatever behaviors make us feel in control (even if we’re not really) get stronger and stronger. Which means it gets harder and harder to confront lack of control.
- In effect, you become addicted to the illusion of control, and because the withdrawals feel so bad, your addiction becomes stronger and stronger, Consequently, your ability to face up to reality becomes weaker and weaker.
Okay, that’s the psychology of control issues in a nutshell. But how exactly does this relate to becoming more decisive?
Well, many difficult decisions involve a degree of helplessness and lack of control. For example, your boss calls you into her office and delivers some bad news: The company is downsizing and you can either A) Stay on at 80% of your salary, or B) Take a small severance package and look for a new job.
Now, even though you have some control in terms of which decision to make, there’s a lot of helplessness going on. You’re losing control over either your salary or your job and there’s nothing you can really do about it. And so, naturally, you feel helpless.
The confident decision-maker accepts the fact that he’s pretty helpless and moves on by exerting control confidently where he can.
But the indecisive person, because of a habit of denying lack of control, spends hours or days under the illusion that if they just think enough about the situation they will actually be able to exert control. Unfortunately, 99% percent of the time this doesn’t happen and, in addition to having to make the difficult choice anyway, they’ve racked up hours or days worth of stress and anxiety that comes from second-guessing and worrying about the decision.
People who make decisions confidently accept reality for what it is.
Instead of living in a perpetual state of wishful delusion, they’ve built up a tolerance to feeling helpless and out of control. This means that when they are faced with decisions over which they don’t have as much control as they’d like, they’re able to swiftly and confidently move on without all the stress and anxiety that goes along with indecision.
If you want to start feeling more confident with your decisions, face up to the reality that you don’t and will never have as much control as you’d like. And that’s okay.
Validate your desire for control and your impulse to deny the reality of occasional helplessness. Remind yourself that it’s okay and natural to feel that way.
Then get to work building up a tolerance to feeling helpless and you’ll find yourself feeling far more confident with all your decisions, big or small.
4. Stop asking for reassurance.
Reassurance-seeking undercuts confidence, including confident decision-making.
In the face of uncertainty with a big decision, it’s natural to feel anxious. And anytime we’re anxious, it’s natural to want to stop feeling so anxious! The trouble is, this gut instinct to alleviate our anxiety shifts our focus from the real problem (making a decision) to the secondary problem of feeling bad.
When your main focus becomes feeling less anxious, a common coping strategy is to seek reassurance from other people—a spouse, best friend, coworker, even a child. And like most coping mechanisms, they unfortunately work.
Why unfortunately? Because they don’t really work, not in the long-term. Coping strategies like reassurance-seeking temporarily make us feel better by alleviating our anxiety in the moment. But they also tend to make us more anxious and less confident in the long run because they train our minds to believe anxiety itself is dangerous.
If every time you feel anxious you immediately try and run away from it or eliminate it, your brain is understandably going to treat it like a threat the next time. And what happens when your brain perceives something is a threat? That’s right: it shoots you up with a bunch of anxiety. Cue the vicious cycles…
The problem with reassurance-seeking is that it tells your brain that the anxiety that goes along with making decisions is dangerous. This means every time you face a decision that makes you even a little anxious, your brain is going to make you feel even more anxious.
And all this anxiety is the exact opposite of what we’re after—confident decision-making.
Ultimately, your mind trusts your behavior more than your words. If you’re telling yourself you’re confident, but then compulsively asking other people for reassurance, your mind is going to be skeptical and decisions will become more and more anxiety-producing.
On the other hand, if you’re willing to feel anxious and make a decision anyway (and live with it), you’re training your brain to see the anxiety that goes along with making decisions as no big deal. Which means you’ll feel increasingly confident making future decisions.
If you want to feel confident in your decisions, you must be willing to play the long game. The better you get at tolerating short-term anxiety without seeking reassurance, the more long-term confidence you’ll build.
All you need to know
The ability to be decisive and make decisions confidently is not a personality trait or genetic gift. It’s a skill that can be built. And the best way to build it is to let go of the habits that are interfering with it:
Embrace uncertainty wholeheartedly.
Make some bad decisions on purpose.
Let go of your need for control.
Stop asking for reassurance.