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Yes? No? Maybe? How to Make Decisions

_DSC6293“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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3.  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:

  1. Do anything.
  2. See if you feel warmer (happier, more alive) or colder (more miserable and dead) if you do X.
  3. If it feels colder, do som’n else.
  4. 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. 

Video: Coach 4 2day- Divine Discomfort

In this video, Martha addresses the concept of “Divine Discomfort” and then speaks to how to act and react when you feel”powerless” to another’s choice.

[Can’t see the embedded video above? Watch it online!]

Set it Free

birds in the shape of a heartSonya was stuck. Every time she came in for a session, she seemed more inextricably wedged into a life she hated. It wasn’t that she lacked means: Born to wealth and privilege, Sonya had beauty, education, and the talent to become what she’d longed to be—a songwriter. But she couldn’t take the steps that would make her dreams a reality.”It’s just too hard,” Sonya sighed during one session. “I’m stuck in the life my parents want for me. I’ll marry a rich man, have 1.7 kids, do what I’m told. I’m trapped. Completely trapped.”

I couldn’t help comparing Sonya’s comments with another conversation I’d had when I was in Cambodia, doing interviews for a World Bank project. A vibrant man I’ll call Khet told me about his experiences during the war-torn 1970s, when he’d been imprisoned, starved and sentenced to death.

“One night they told me I would be shot at sunrise,” Khet said. “So, you see, I was completely free.” I stopped him. How did he figure that one? Khet smiled. “Things could not be worse,” he explained, “so I was free to take any opportunity that came.”

And an opportunity did come. As he and some other prisoners were being led to the execution ground, Khet bolted, running for a weak spot in the wire fences. He fully expected to be shot, but the other prisoners distracted the guards enough to spoil their aim. Khet escaped into the jungle.

“You see? My fellow prisoners were free, too,” he said. “No matter what happens to your body, madame, if your heart is free, you are free.”

Most people think more like Sonya than like Khet. My clients routinely tell me they’re deadlocked, hemmed in, blocked, controlled by circumstance. If you feel that way, it isn’t because you don’t have the option of charting an exciting, meaningful journey through life. Trust me, the options are there. You’re at an impasse because you’ve been trained not to seize—or even recognize—the opportunities that lead to the fulfillment of your dreams. Your body is free but your heart is in prison.

Our hearts are imprisoned for just one reason: The only language they can speak is truth. Unlike the mind, which can be persuaded to accept the most bizarre ideas (“Look, it’s the Hale-Bopp comet! Time to kill yourself!), your heart tells it like it is, without bothering to be tactful or socially appropriate. Free hearts rock boats, break rules, do things that disrupt the system—whether that system is a dysfunctional family, a bloated bureaucracy, or the whole wide world.

As a result, few of us speak the truth out loud. All our lives we’ve been hearing things like: What you are thinking/feeling/saying/becoming, etc., is stupid/rude/scandalous/sinful/depressing/ridiculous/unoriginal, etc. All the infinite variations on this theme convey just one message: Silence your heart or you will be rejected. Rejection hurts our little social-mammal hearts so much that just the threat of it convinces most of us to cooperate with our enemies. This is a two-step process: First we go dumb, learning never to speak our deepest truths. Then we go deaf, refusing to hear our own souls.

Sonya was a fully heart-bound when she came to see me. For thirty-some years, her life’s journey had been steered by social expectation, slowed by fear, stymied by conflicting demands. Bad news: If you’re a normal human, you probably act like Sonya at least some of the time. Good news: As your own jailer, you—and only you—can free your heart whenever you want.

To release your heart, you simply reverse the two-step process by which you locked it up. First you begin to listen for messages from your heart—messages you may have been ignoring since childhood. Next you must take the daring, risky step of expressing your heart in the outside world. It’s lucky this process is so simple, because it’s also terrifying.

Step 1: Tune In

People with captive hearts often spend years thinking very hard about things like reawakening their passion or discovering their destiny. This never works, because such information is stored in the heart, not the brain, and is expressed by feelings, not thoughts.Sonya was so numb to her emotions that she couldn’t tell a surge of love or pathos from, say, gas. Not to worry. Paying attention to any feeling unlocks your heart, and if subtle emotional nuance eludes you, physical sensations will do nicely. Try the exercise I assigned Sonya: Write a detailed description of everything you’re feeling in your body. If you do this for more than ten minutes, you’ll find that you’ve also started describing your emotions.

As Sonya began to write about her chronic exhaustion and headaches, a torrent of truth burst from her heart into her conscious mind. “I hate the socialite scene,” she found herself writing. “I want solitude. I need music.” For years her heart had been trying to send these messages through physical symptoms. As she began to listen, those symptoms faded. Sonya’s prison walls were coming down.

Step 2: Think of This As “Shock” Therapy

Once you begin listening to your heart, I guarantee it’s going to say some things that shock you—otherwise, you wouldn’t have locked it away in the first place. You may discover that your heart wants to spend your paycheck on flowers or wear purple spandex to a board meeting. You don’t have to act on these impulses, but you must not judge or repress them.

Treat your heart like a tired, hurt child: Accept its tantrums, revenge fantasies, and pity parties, but don’t get stuck in them. Say kind things to yourself: “It’s okay that you love your goldfish more than your in-laws” or “Of course you want to stab Billy’s third-grade teacher with a meat fork—all the moms do.” When you acknowledge your forbidden feelings calmly, you’ll find that you actually have more control over your actions. It’s when feelings are repressed that they burst out in dangerous, unhealthy ways.

The more you tune in, the deeper the truths your heart will tell and the more intense your emotions will become. You may feel great pain about times others have hurt you—and, worse, times you have hurt others. But as this pain flows through you and begins to dissipate, you’ll find something beneath it, something astonishingly powerful, something one philosopher called the “all-pervading radiant beauty” of your heart of hearts.

Step 3: Defy your inner jailer

At this point you’ll begin to realize that your heart is telling you where to steer your life. You’ll know the next step because you will begin to long for anything that connects you to it.

When desire really comes from your heart, deciding to act on it will bring another strong sensation. You’ll feel an extraordinary clarity, the sense that something inside you has clicked into place. Of course, your Inner Jailer might not agree. You may be flooded with reminders that your heart’s instructions are stupid or boring or rude. Don’t listen. Run.

Step 4: Run for the jungle

I’ll never forget the moment Sonya stopped daydreaming about sending her songs to a music producer and decided to Just Do It. It doesn’t sound like much—until you try it yourself. Acting on your heart’s instructions means abandoning all those careful strategies for avoiding rejection and bolting toward the fertile, gorgeous jungle of human imagination and possibility.

I’ve watched in awe and admiration as many clients took the enormous risk of freeing and following their hearts. I’ve seen high-income executives joyfully switch to low-paying careers as artists or forest rangers, and people who grew up in poverty dare to believe they deserve decent money. I’ve seen folks adopt children with AIDS or lose 50 pounds. As a 13th-century Zen master said, “The place is here: The way leads everywhere.” Once you are present in your own heart, you’ll find your life going places your mind has never even dreamed of.

Step 5: Spread the word

Toni Morrison said that “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” This is the final step necessary for keeping your heart at liberty, and you do it in just one way: by telling your story. However you do it—a journal, an artistic creation, the pictures you hang on your walls, or the way you raise your children—telling your story demolishes the barriers between your heart and the outside world. I won’t lie: This means that your heart will be exposed and, yes, broken. But it’s important to remember that a heart is imprisoned not by being broken but by being silenced. There will be people (often the people you most want to please) who won’t like what you say. It’s going to hurt—and it’s going to heal.

When Sonya started sending out her demo tapes, she became what she called an overnight failure. For months no one so much as acknowledged her creations. Sonya’s heart broke, but she refused to send it back to prison. Instead she began to think like Khet facing execution: Since things could not be worse, she decided to drop her inhibitions. Her music became less derivative. She began writing raw, gut-deep songs that horrified her family—and impressed some producers. Sonya began to find her “tribe,” the people who understood her true self. She’s still far from famous, but her heart is free, “and that,” she told me, “is what it’s really about.”

As you learn to live by heart, every choice you make will become another way of telling your story, calling your tribe, and liberating not only your heart but the hearts of others. This is the very definition of love, the process that makes all-too-human people and societies capable of true humanity. It will chart you a life’s journey as unique and authentic as your fingerprint; send you out, full of hope and breathtaking exhilaration, onto paths you never thought you could travel. It is the way you were meant to exist. If you stop to listen, you’ll realize that your heart has been telling you so all along.

Taking the Blame

It’s a scene we’ve watched a hundred times: A public figure glares into the camera with an expression of outraged innocence and declares, “I am not a crook!” or “It was dehydration, not a drug overdose!” or “I have never had an affair!” Most of us in the viewing audience used to give these folks the benefit of the doubt, but not anymore. We’ve grown jaded watching a succession of well-known people make bold disclaimers that later proved to be flat-out falsehoods.

Of course, this always makes me conscious of my own weasel-ish tendencies. It’s so easy to commit the occasional sin of omission, to tell the little white lie that conveniently precludes taking the blame for my mistakes. But even when I’m doing this, I know it’s a short-term solution with disastrous long-term effects. Avoiding responsibility for our actions is the single most effective way to get stuck—or stay stuck—in a life that doesn’t work. It turns all the energy we might use for problem solving into keeping us insulated from the very experiences and information we most need to learn and grow.

Recognize when it’s not your fault. While some folks avoid blame, others apologize for everything, from their allergies to global warming to the Spanish Inquisition. Accepting blame for things over which we have no control is just as counterproductive as dodging the blame we deserve. It’s not surprising that many people take the blame when it doesn’t belong to them. Females, in particular, are often socialized to hold ourselves responsible for other people’s feelings and behavior, thinking that if we don’t take care of them physically and emotionally, their bad moods or reprehensible actions are our fault.

Watch your language. If, like yours truly, you sometimes get confused about what is or is not your responsibility, you might want to use a very simple and effective method of differentiating between things you can’t control and things you can. All you have to do is pay close attention to the way you talk—specifically, the way you use the phrases “I have to” and “I can’t.” Pretend you’re wearing a shock collar and you get zapped every time you use these phrases when they aren’t literally, physically true.

“I have to finish this report.” Zap! No you don’t. Take it from me: If you really put your mind to it, you can go a long, long time without finishing anything. The truth is that you’re choosing to finish the report because that will create positive consequences.

“I can’t say no.” Zap! You just said it, so we know you have the physical ability to pronounce the word. What you mean is that you’re reluctant to say no because you’re afraid how other people might react.

“I can’t make it to the meeting; I have to go to the dentist.” Zap! Zap! The dentist isn’t abducting you at gunpoint. You could cancel the appointment and attend the meeting if you really wanted to – but you don’t and that’s okay.

Being this ridiculously literal may seem like splitting hairs, but these weasel words can be deadly when used without awareness. When you sound like a passive victim of circumstance, you come to act and think the way victims do. The power to determine your own thoughts and actions goes out the window—and with it, your chance at a fulfilling life.

Try this verbal discipline for a week or so. Instead of saying “I can’t,” substitute more accurate phrases like “I choose not to” or “I don’t want to.” Rather than “I have to,” say “I choose to” or “I’ve decided to,” or simply “I’m going to.” Suddenly, you’ll see a wide range of choices and options available to you in situations where you once felt powerless. This isn’t always comfortable, but it is incredibly liberating. Instead of nice, fuzzy cheesecloth of excuses, you’ll be staring at some hard realities: Sometimes you make mistakes. Sometimes you make choices you later realize were just plan stupid. Sometimes you know a choice is stupid right from the get-go and you make it anyway. Ouch.

Taking the blame stings, like most disinfectants. But the longer you wait to deal with your mistake, the more miserable the process is going to be. Better to accept responsibility the way you’d clean a wound: quickly, thoroughly, with no nonsense whatsoever. This means fully admitting a mistake, apologizing to anyone you may have harmed by your actions, and making any amends you possibly can, without wallowing in shame or acting pathetic in a bid for leniency.

If you take the blame this way, the results will be far more positive than you’d expect. I’ve almost begun to look forward to taking the blame and I’ve become acutely aware of how much easier life is when I’m getting useful feedback, instead of pouring my energy into excuses and cover-ups. Compared to facing new challenges and learning effective ways to shape your own life, the Weasel Dance is boring and repetitive. What’s more, everyone looks terrible doing it. I’ve wasted way too much time on it myself – and make no mistake about it, I have only myself to blame.