“We get stuck between two choices when we have a desire to do something, but the fears – fear of the unknown, risk, failure, success – keep us stuck and unable to move forward,” says Larina Kase, a cognitive-behavioural psychologist and author of The Confident Leader (McGraw-Hill, 2008) “The heart and the head are in conflict.”
Most of us revert to listing pros and cons, but the exercise rarely helps. “We continue to be stuck because the pros and cons for each choice are roughly equal or because there are too many variables,” Kase says. “There are so many considerations on both sides that it can become paralysing.”
To get unstuck and finally make a firm decision, consider these five steps:
1. Uncover your hidden fears.
To move forward, you must first understand what exactly you fear. “It is unique to everyone,” Kase says. “It often requires digging below the initial fear, which is typically something like, ‘What if I’m not successful?’” To dig deeper, ask yourself, what would happen if that fear came true? What would you lose or jeopardise? Your answers will help make the fear more specific to you.
“Be on the lookout for a mood shift,” says Kase, noting that emotional cues can serve as a guide. “As soon as you notice yourself feeling uneasy, unsettled, or uncomfortable, ask yourself, ‘What thought just went through my mind?’” That thought is triggering anxiety, so it’s likely rooted in fear.
2. Keep anxiety in perspective.
Often, we imagine the consequences of our fears will be extreme. We think, ‘I will never be a good leader if I’m terrified of public speaking,’ or, ‘I will lose all respect from my peers if my business fails.’ The reality is never so black and white.
“We reduce anxiety by challenging negative thoughts,” Kase says. When you notice a fearful thought, think of a time when the opposite was true, or ask yourself if there is any reason to doubt that assertion. The goal is to see that your negative belief about what will happen is not absolutely certain, or even likely – even if it feels that way right now.
3. Do what you fear in small doses.
Testing your fears is the most powerful way to overcome them. Start by trying activities that give you some anxiety but not too much. For example, people who worry that others will judge their failures might take a dance class, if they have two left feet. “Gradual exposure builds confidence and shows us that the feared consequence is unlikely to come true,” Kase says.
4. Commit for one hour.
Another way to get closer to a decision is to imagine you’ve already made one. Spend one hour pretending as though you’ve committed to one option. Do a minor task toward your goal and notice thoughts or feelings that come up as you play the role.
“Remember that most people are happiest with choices where they went with their gut rather than when they talk themselves into something that looks good on paper but doesn’t resonate on a deeper level,” Kase says. If your gut tells you to do it, that’s a sign.
5. Trust that you know what to do.
If you’re doing endless research to find the “right” choice, give it a rest. “Paradoxically, when making more complex choices, we do better when we go with our gut instincts, rather than weighing all the variables,” Kase says. Your intuition unconsciously takes into account all the information available to you, including your values and goals, and is likely to guide you to the best choice.
If you’ve lost touch with your instincts, give yourself space to find them. Take a walk, get a spa treatment, or play basketball with your friends – whatever you find relaxing and enjoyable. “You may find that rather than trying to chase down the decision, it comes to you,” Kase says. If you listen to your gut, you will make a much better choice.