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. 

20 replies
  1. Deb
    Deb says:

    Thank you Martha! Just what I needed to read this morning. I went from being an executive VP at a national company to an ‘executive domestic manager’ at retirement. Both have been equally unfulfilling. The concept of Satori rings in my soul and I’m taking that path to see where it goes.

    (Also, can you add a Pinterest button so we can pin your wisdom?)

    Thanks again, Deb

  2. Miraaj
    Miraaj says:

    Hey Martha,

    Nice article. The thing is I kind of hold many of the beliefs that you write about, and these beliefs seems to have improved my quality of life and given me reasons and methods to be calm and patient.

    However, I would like to share with you some of my problems which might be of interest to you since you seem to be a student of the human condition, and I am definitely interested to read what you might have to write about my kind of problem.

    My problem is that I am pained by a longing for an awesome and strong kind of success, part of which I have experienced in the past and part of which my imagination tempts me to look for.

    My ambition is to gain power and strength, but not the kind that money could buy. Sometimes, when I played the guitar I got a taste of what that power might be like. When I expressed myself instinctively and with faith in my feelings and instinct I produced music that would make people feel emotion. I was ecstatic, not primarily in receiving compliments. The compliments were a bit like the icing on the cake because it seemed to kind of validate the ecstatic feeling I had while I was playing music.

    But that kind of ecstasy doesn’t come around only when I play the guitar, it happens when I look at the beauty of trees, of dust, it happens when I have a crush or I fall in love, but it doesn’t last long enough. Why doesn’t it last long enough? Why can’t I be ecstatic forever? How can one be powerful enough to be ecstatic all the time? Also, is it through power that we have ecstasy, or what?

    I know I might sound a bit muddled, but that’s because I feel muddled. I don’t know if you reply to these comments, but if you have read this maybe you will find this to be a common problem which you have already addressed in one of your articles you could point me to or maybe my thoughts will encourage you to write addressing this issue in the future. If you have read my whole ‘reply’ I thank you for doing so.


    • Chrissa
      Chrissa says:

      Miraaj, Are you sure you want to be in ecstacy all the time? In my experience ecstacy is an extreme emotion which is so nice, but the valleys are important, too. We grow through all emotion; ecstacy, grief, peace, and anxiety, all of them. Try to imagine that you are OK in all states. You ARE OK in all states. We are not our emotions. We only experience our emotions. Use your ecstacy to point you in a peaceful direction. Obviously you like to play guitar, do that more :).

  3. says:

    Ahhhhh. Here is what helps me about your writing, Martha. You bring me a new word, like “Satori” and help me to understand it by packaging it up with all kinds of familiar, both high and low brow. Doing som’n with my zen koan of a life at 3 in the morning.

    Piaget, who studied cognitive development in children, talked about creating a schema. Once we have a new schema, or category in our brain, a whole bunch of things can suddenly be grouped together.

    With this new word, Satori, you help to provide that schematic umbrella for me. Now I can neatly tuck som’n and koans together. I’ve bridged the cavernous gap. This is one of the ways I think your mysticism works best.

    Perhaps…eventually…as I keep doing som’n and anything my writing with stretch this direction as well.

  4. Kym (Kymba)
    Kym (Kymba) says:

    Dear Martha,
    I am so drawn to your teachings right Now. I have immersed myself in the them. Finding your calling, these posts on Facebook and CDs in the car.
    I am called to these wisdoms because they feel like soul food, and I was starving.
    So thank you – I appreciate you taking the time to let your light shine.

  5. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    I am feeling stuck in a place where decisions need to be made………. when I saw this today……… I did the smack to the forehead………. just what I needed to hear……… Thank you.

  6. stephanie
    stephanie says:

    Totally AWESOME article!!!! And it comes right at a time when I’m struggling with some major transitions and decisions. Gotta love the universe!

  7. Janine
    Janine says:

    Impeccable timing. As always. Should I be fussed about you being in my head?

    I ripped the ambivalence band aide off tonight and spoke my truth. It was painful. Soul sucking, cried until I couldn’t breath painful. But avoiding was costing me dearly. No way through, but to go through. No matter how much I tried to avoid it.

  8. Kate Daniel
    Kate Daniel says:

    Wow. What an *incredible* intro to your website.

    I love synchronicity. I’ve been stalling, to put it politely, on getting back to work because of feeling overwhelmed. There is TOO MUCH I want to accomplish, and I can’t choose between.

    I’m coming out (thank heavens) of some mold-related health problems that included a mental fog that stalled my writing career in its tracks. Music, my original muse, in the form of the piano, had been lost to carpal tunnel.

    But I have learned to play the organ, teaching myself the pedals. Organ is easier on the wrists. Since I can now play (some of) Johann Sebastian’s organ works ON the organ, I feel justified in calling myself an organist.

    Here comes the stalling point. Story ideas are popping up more and more; I want to, not just write, FINISH writing a new story, novella, novel.

    At the same time, I just inherited a treasure-load of new music. Plus, the church where I’m organist (yeah, synchronicity again; about the time I’d heard organs were easier on the wrists than pianos, I met a congregation in need of an organist) has just gotten an electric piano. So I want to make more and more music.

    BUT I still have limited energy. I still have physical limitations. And my house is a total disaster, and I need to get it put *together* long enough to establish a routine!

    I want all three. How?

    I’m going to go back through this. I suspect I’m going to wind up sort of doing all of the above, which means I’ll probably never do any of them that well, but this will help me live with it. When I can’t do any more of THIS, I’ll do Sum’n Else. That is such a brilliant way of summarizing SO much!

    Thank you.

  9. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Thank you Martha. I have a very strong tendency toward indecision and have been practicing some of the suggestions you write about. It’s made a huge difference and I no longer spend an entire afternoon at Lowes trying to decide on a paint color for my laundry room.

  10. Marie-Josée Parent
    Marie-Josée Parent says:

    Yesterday I bought myself a treat that cost about 20$.

    Since my finances are really under red flag for a few years now and that I’m living on credit to pay credit, I thought wow I feel that this 20 $ was not such an expansive treat because it was so great.

    Then I was wondering how come I had that thought and I said to myself because it’s not my money! Then I laugh out loud.

    Working on figuring out what is the energy behind money, I got to think there is always some money somewhere that will be available of some sort. How do I make the energy flowing freely without attach, just as I need there it is, and then it flows… Anyway this money will be mine for some time (life is short and will end at some point) in a way and then of no use to me. So it must just go through the days until the last. It’s a weird thinking so I think maybe it is a kind of satori for me.

    I really didn’t figure it all out, so I going to do som’n else!

    Thank you.

  11. Sara Dill
    Sara Dill says:

    You’re the best!! This made me laugh and repeat my mantra: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and that’s ok!! 🙂

  12. TaraB
    TaraB says:

    What terrific insight. I just came upon some of these realizations just this year. I started to go to school (something I’d played mental ping-pong with for years) and I received big hot-cold insight.

    I recently also wrote about my “just do something, anything” to get un-stuck. What you write here is tremendously insightful and gives me more to appease my active mind and settle into my core, Mystic self.

    🙂 <3

  13. Rose
    Rose says:

    This is such good advice and I come back to review it often. Thank you, Martha! Even though we’ve never met I know I’m part of your tribe.

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