Making decisions is one of the hallmarks of human behaviour. Our decision-making abilities distinguish us from the primates and help us to make choices towards making our lives and civilisation better. It is a complex human behaviour, and the lack of it—indecisiveness—is one of the most debilitating causes of unhappiness in life.
For a person who is incapable of taking decisions, the world is harsh, stressful and an unhappy place to live in. We all go through periods of indecisiveness, so it is a common problem. But, when it becomes chronic, it is disturbing and difficult to resolve.
The thought process
Decisions are required in all aspects of life, however simple it may be, like deciding what to wear for office or deciding to invest in stocks or even extreme situations governing life and death. Decisions are about options and choosing from among the options wisely, so as to optimise the results. It is a complex cognitive process [thingking process], which requires synchronisation of other cognitive functions such as memory, assessment of risk, knowledge of outcomes, motivation and reasoning. The process of decision making involves:
- Understanding the problem
- Listing the alternatives
- Evaluating the gains and risks with each alternative
- Evaluating the probabilities associated with outcomes
- Choosing the alternative
- Learning from outcome.
Research has shown that parts of the brain known as the dorsal and ventral streams guide decision making. Injury to these parts, through physical injury, as in head injury or due to neuro-chemical imbalance as seen in psychiatric disorders, can bring about deficits in decision making.
In general, it can be said that synchronisation between emotional and cognitive processes ensure effective decision making. When emotional or cognitive processing is disturbed, such as seen in psychiatric conditions, like depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis or personality disorders, the ability of decision making is severely impaired.
The basis of indecisiveness
Indecisiveness is a generic term given to the inability to make decisions, not specifically due to any neurological or psychiatric conditions. It is a common condition experienced in different phases of life, when we are faced with challenges. These may involve difficult situations in which an important decision needs to be made. For example, choice of career, business decisions, financial investments, choice of friends, choice of a partner and so on. It is said that the most difficult decisions in life are not about choosing right v/s wrong, but about right v/s right.
Decision makers can be classified in two extreme groups: one who decide on impulse, and therefore may later repent or suffer because of their decisions. The second who due to their chronic indecisiveness are paralysed in making decisions. They suffer from extreme anxiety and frequently avoid making decisions by themselves. They may depend on others to make decisions for them or may avoid such situations altogether.
Indecisiveness is a condition that comes under the purview of personality disorders. It is to be noted that personality disorders do not signify any kind of neuro-chemical imbalance or any psychiatric condition, but it is a term used to signify relatively permanent patterns of behaviours of some individuals.
In some people, these patterns reveal a chronic inability to make decisions, since they can not judge the significance of their decisions or understand the risks involved. They frequently gamble with choices that involve heavy risks or minimum gains. Hence, such decisions often result in undesirable outcomes, unpleasantness, and repentance. Such outcomes often underline the decision maker's incapacities. This makes the decision maker less confident about himself or herself, and fosters self-doubt and leads to more difficulties in making decisions. Thiscomprises the vicious cycle of indecisiveness.
Indecisiveness may also stem from a perfectionistic tendency in some people, which makes them go after making the 'perfect decision'. No decision can be perfect, since every decision is a weighted average of the pros and cons, but such perfectionist people are unable to sit quiet with such incongruence. Hence, for them, decision making is a scrupulous process, in which, they must follow each step minutely and accurately. This often prolongs the decision making process and leads to burn out of resources. Ultimately, they suffer from chronic indecisiveness.
It is said that the essence of human life lies with the capacity to 'choose'. This freedom to choose to do what we want, gives our life a meaning and it further helps us to define our purpose of living. This purpose gives clarity to our thoughts and feelings, and further refines our ability to make decisions in line with our designated purpose of life.
Individuals, who are unable to figure out their meaning or purpose in life, often suffer from a kind of aimlessness, which fosters indecisiveness. For example, students who are not sure about their knack or ambition, often feel confused about which career path to choose beyond schooling. Students who lack this focus, or aim in life, are unable to remain happy with any career decision, because, in the very first place, they were not sure about their meaning of life.
Similarly, many such decisions in life demand an effective resolution to the question about one's meaning of life. Often indecisiveness stems from a battle between choices which demand choosing between our core values and what may be convenient for us. For example, when we choose to follow the wrong means for getting our work done, we choose to go against our value system, which may emphasise honesty and sincerity. In such situations, it is our meaning in life, which guides us in making a decision between these two choices, both of which appear apparently right!
At the outset, let us first understand that all problems do not have solutions. Similarly, all situations may not necessitate decision making. Even choosing not to make a decision is a decision! Hence, it is important to understand the background of our decisions, so that we can justify the circumstances with the decision we make.
This is an important point, because the significance of a decision changes with time. What may seem like a perfect decision today, may be a flawed one tomorrow. Hence, it must be remembered that decision making is not about making the one perfect solution, but is about making the best of a deal—every decision has its pros and cons. It is important to do a cost-benefit analysis when making a decision, since this highlights the gains and risks involved.
For chronic indecisiveness, the problem may not have such a simple solution. It may involve several steps in helping oneself.
Identify your pattern: If you think you fiddle way too much with making decisions, and even after making decisions, you are not sure and repent having made a particular decision. You must first identify your pattern. Make a habit of writing a diary, where you can list down your difficulties and discomfort while making the decision and aftermath. This will provide insight into your pattern and help you understand where you may be going wrong.
Identify chronic areas: Once you have identified your pattern, try and understand the chronic area of failure. Is it with understanding the problem or with gauging the different options? Is it with evaluation of risks or with evaluating feasibility of alternatives? Is it with choosing the best option or with perfectionism hampering your peace after you have made the decision? It may be one, many or a mixture of all.
Build on what you may be lacking: If you have successfully identified the lacunae, you can help yourself. Take the help of your friends or close ones, or even a professional counsellor or clinical psychologist, who might help you build on your weak areas.
Correct some basic beliefs: Some people are perfectionists by nature. For them, perfectionism in whatever they do is a prerequisite. This stems from a basic belief system which emphasises that they 'must' do things perfectly. Such beliefs, as already discussed, hamper the decision making process, because such people are never satisfied with their decisions, and thereby suffer from chronic indecisiveness. The remedy is to correct such beliefs to understand that too much perfectionism is not ideal at all. Perfectionism itself has its pros and cons, and when applied to the decision making process, can lead to severe impairments.
Refine the decision making process: Evaluate the alternatives well, and get a fair idea of the costs and benefits of a choice. Once you decide upon the option, remember not to brood over it. While you may learn from your mistakes, brooding will only demotivate you.
In conclusion, it may be said, that indecisiveness is a common problem. However, there are no perfect decisions and no perfect decision makers. It is an individual's psychological reality that decides for him/her, which alternative s/he chooses. After all, the freedom to choose is a basic human right. Perhaps, the only guiding principle which may be adopted is that: make the best of the deal and then look forward to making more decisions.
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