“I’ve got to commit to this relationship or end it,” said Tessa, sounding a little desperate. “I can’t go one more day without making the decision.” It was clear that she really meant this…just as she had the first time I heard her say it, eight years earlier.
Tessa is prone to ambivalence, a torturous condition that simultaneously pulls and crushes us between incompatible alternatives. Though it can make us say laughably absurd things (“I’ve known for eight years that this can’t go on one more day!”), ambivalence feels anything but funny. If you tend toward indecision or face a problem with a number of equally good solutions, it can help to be reminded that you may have more options than you think possible.
Option One: Do Nothing
If you’re feeling intransigently ambivalent, it might pay to formally accept what’s already happening—that is, decide not to decide. Here are three ways to take the pressure off yourself to make a choice right this second.
- Refocus. Stop thinking about the problem by thinking about something else. Read a book. Feed the homeless. Learn French. You’d be amazed what you can do with the energy you once put into fretting. If a decision is absolutely necessary, change will eventually push you off the fence. Tessa, for example, will stay in her relationship until it becomes unbearable or her boyfriend leaves her or they die in a hail of satellite debris, or whatever—whether Tessa continues to agonize or focuses on more interesting pursuits.
- Delegate. Officially give someone else authority to make the choice, as you might pay a skydiving instructor to push you out of an airplane or an organization expert to trash the objects clogging your home. Warning: When the moment of decision comes, you’ll disagree, rationalize, possibly weep. So make sure your adviser is both honorable and utterly ruthless.
- Research. Indecision may come from an instinctive hunch that there’s more you need to know—which means it’s time to learn everything you can about the pros and cons of each option. You can continue on this track, however, only as long as you’re unearthing genuinely new information. The moment your research becomes reiterative, you’ll need to go to Option Two.
Option Two: Do Anything
I often make ambivalent clients play that game where you find a hidden object by following the clues “You’re getting warmer” and “You’re getting colder.” Ditherers often stop dead in their tracks and start asking questions: “Where is it?” “Is it under something?” “Can I look up?” These are smart people and the game is extremely simple, but my waffling clients manage to find the one possible way to lose at it: not moving.
The reason I make my clients search my office for a pen, a coffee cup, or my elderly, immobile beagle is because many of us do this with major life decisions. I want to go back to school, but what if I ruin my career? That’s a nice house, but what if it burns down? Instead of asking whether one option makes us feel “warmer” (as in happier) or “colder” (unhappier or generally squashed by the universe), we may ponder such questions for ten, 12, 50 years…then, boom! A quail-hunting expedition or liposuction procedure goes awry, and the only determination left is whether we’d prefer to spend the future in a coffin or an urn.
If you’re waiting for the Right Answer to end all uncertainty, look no further: The answer to every “what if” question (which I got from a fabulous teacher named Nancy Whitworth, who got it from her special-needs students) is “som’n else.” What will you do if you make the wrong choice? Som’n else. If you lose your job? Som’n else. If your fiancé stomps your heart into a pulsating pancake? Som’n else. Using this principle, we can formulate a complete guide to life:
- Do anything.
- See if you feel warmer (happier, more alive) or colder (more miserable and dead) if you do X.
- If it feels colder, do som’n else.
- Repeat as necessary.
Some people, however, are too baffled to use this method. For them doing nothing is intolerable and doing any old thing is overwhelming, but they have one option left. My favorite.
Option Three: Do Something Completely Different
No problem, said Einstein, can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Then he resolved ambivalent aspects of Newtonian physics by figuring out relativity. Intense uncertainty may be a sign that a problem is pushing us toward a new level of consciousness. Instead of choosing one of two options, we may squirt sideways, like a pinched watermelon seed, into an entirely different way of seeing.
Zen masters force this to happen by requiring students to meditate on baffling queries called koans. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” “What did you look like before your mother and father were born?” The masters insist that students answer such unanswerable questions, deliberately causing severe ambivalence. Why? Because this is the path to something called satori, an experience of the mind suddenly sidestepping its usual level of consciousness, recognizing its own limitations.
For instance, I once spent years studying role conflict in American women. Our culture has created two almost irreconcilable descriptions of a “good woman.” The first is the individual achiever; the second, the self-sacrificing domestic goddess. I found that women fell into one of four categories: those who’d chosen career (and were very conflicted); those who put family first (and were very conflicted); those who’d combined work and family (and were very, very conflicted); and mystics.
Mystics? Where the hell did that category come from? It was so unexpected that I did years of interviews without even noticing that the calmest, happiest women had all experienced a kind of satori: Faced with two mutually contradictory options, they had discovered and come to trust an intensely personal inner voice. Each had found some method of detaching utterly from social context, connecting deeply with inner peace, and carrying that peace with them back into their hectic lives.
Practical Steps to Satori
If you are now facing a confounding choice, congratulations. Your life, that crafty old Zen teacher, is lining you up for your next satori. A silent meditation retreat might help. Can’t go to one? No worries; ambivalence will bring one to you. You’ll sit sleepless, hour after hour, staring at nothing through red-rimmed eyes that see no satisfactory answer.
Once you get really sick of this, you’ll be motivated enough to take a tiny vacation from doubt and fear. Just for a few minutes, stop trying to solve the problem and relax into trust: Trust in the process, in your true self, in God, in the scientific method, in any force you hope may be strong enough to hold you, ambivalence and all, for even a little while. It is in moments of surrender, following terrible vacillations, that quietly earth-shattering revolutions occur.
I can’t tell you when or how your satori will arrive. All I can tell you is that if you keep struggling with ambivalence, then relaxing, then struggling again, resolution will come. You may invent a solution no one’s ever seen. You may realize that not deciding—ever—is perfectly okay. Or you’ll feel free to do anything at all, and then do som’n else. The alternative you select will be inconsequential next to the realization that your frustration came not from a difficult choice but from the way you thought you had to choose.
Life is full of tough decisions, and nothing makes them easy. But the worst ones are really your personal koans, and tormenting ambivalence is just the sense of satori rising. Try, trust, try, and trust again, and eventually you’ll feel your mind change its focus to a new level of understanding. The problem that was tearing you apart will suddenly appear as a little puzzle, already solved. It will make you nod, or smack your forehead, or roll your eyes. It will make you laugh right out loud.