Uncertainty & Decision-Making

In this blog post I will look at how anxiety and the intolerance of uncertainty can impact our ability to Make decisions.

How do you decide?

It can be useful to look at how you go about making decisions, especially when you are not sure what to do, or there is no obvious or right choice.

A useful question to ask is this:

"How do you decide what to do when you don’t know what to do?"

Whilst it is a useful question to ask, we typically don't think about our decision-making process, we just go about our lives making decisions. This is fine when things are going well and the choices we are making seem to be working out well, however, if we are struggling with decision making, or we are repeatedly making bad choices then this becomes a very important question to look at.

Everyone has their own way of making decisions and the things that influence the choices you make may include any or all of the following:

  • Thinking about your goals – where do I want to get to?

  • Using your values – what is important to me as a person?

  • Looking at practical factors – time available, finances, resources

  • Looking at the potential benefits or costs of a decision

  • Thinking about others involved and what they want or how it will impact them

  • How do you feel? Mood, energy, motivation….

Anxiety Demands Certainty

The above list and other influences may inform or guide the choices that you make, however, when anxiety and self-doubt gets involved in this process and starts demanding certainty around the decisions you’re making, then it can make even the simplest or smallest of decisions challenging. Anxiety wants you to be sure you’re making the right choice, that you’re not going to live to regret the choice you make, and that you’re not going to be responsible for some bad outcome. Anxiety will remind you of previous choices you have made that didn’t work out and where it seems like you didn’t make the best choice. It will tell you about other people you know or have heard about who made bad choices, and the terrible way this worked out for them. It will use this information as evidence to reinforce the need for certainty.

Whilst anxiety's motives are good and it is trying to protect you from something bad happening, the problem is life is full of uncertainty, all areas of your life are full of uncertainty, including the areas of your life that matter most, for example, relationships, parenting, career. Anxiety is demanding the impossible, in that there is no way you can know up front that the relationship you are committing to will work out and last. You can feel confident and fairly sure at the time, you can look at how it is currently, e.g., that it is strong, close, supportive etc., but you cannot know for sure that it will work out. Anxiety can tell you that it might not work, that maybe there is someone else out there that you should be with, so you’re making a mistake here. It can also tell you that something bad could happen to your partner, e.g., an accident, illness, that could take them away from you, so it is too risky to make this commitment.

Costs of Needing Certainty in Decision-Making

If certainty and feeling sure or comfortable is the criteria you use to make decisions in your life, or in certain areas of your life in which anxiety shows up, then this is likely to be problematic. If you do use this criteria to make decisions then it can be useful to look at what impact it is having. How does it affect the different areas of your life?

Here are some examples of how the need to remove any uncertainty or doubt can affect different areas of your life.

Relationships:

Should you stay in your relationship?

Get married?

Have a child?

Move in with your partner?

Work & education:

Should you follow the career path your parents expect you to or not?

Should you change jobs or stay where you are?

Are you going to mess up this piece of work?

Are you doing it right or not?

Trying to give Anxiety the Certainty it needs can be very draining

Trying to give anxiety the certainty it demands can result in you engaging in various efforts and strategies to achieve this. These efforts can include worrying, repeated cost-benefit analyses, reassurance-seeking, researching, “Googling”, procrastinating, avoiding and checking.

The problem with these efforts is that whilst they can feel productive or helpful at the time or in the short-term, they can actually create more questions than answers, and more doubts and uncertainty. You then need to engage in more efforts to try to answer these questions, and you are then stuck in a vicious cycle. Even if you come to a decision, you are likely to then start doubting it and going back through the same repetitive process. It can be the mental equivalent of the hamster in the hamster wheel.

The more you get stuck in these cycles the more you can feel paralysed around decision-making, feeling unable to decide, or making the decision that feels least risky or scary. A problem with making decisions in this way is that the decisions being made are not necessarily going to be the most rewarding or life-enhancing. The effort involved in making decisions can become draining, demoralising, and make you more anxious about decision-making. The more anxious you become the more you might try to avoid having to make decisions, for example by staying within your comfort zone, or by getting others such as a partner to make the decisions, as then you won’t be responsible if they don’t work out.

CBT and Decision-Making

Whilst feelings are important to pay attention to and acknowledge, they are not the only source of information in decision-making, and often not the best source of information. In addition to anxiety, feelings such as guilt, shame, anger, and sadness can all exert an unhelpful influence over the choices you make if they are the main or only influence.

In CBT we look at ways of being able to step back and disengage this struggle with anxiety and the need for certainty, and whilst acknowledging the anxiety, we also want to use other sources of information, for example your values, your current life situation (finances, commitments) to help make a more informed choose, and to be have the skills to be able to handle the doubt and uncertainty as you do this.

If you're finding yourself getting stuck with decision-making, struggling with uncertainty, procrastinating and missing out on opportunities then therapy could help you address this problem and allow you to take better control over how you live your life.

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