Help me be sure of myself.
December 6, 2011 7:58 PM   Subscribe

I am easily swayed by others' opinions. I am easily encouraged by encouraging words and discouraged by discouraging words. Please help me be sure of myself.

I think maybe this is because I can easily see the other peoples' points of views?

This causes difficulties when I am unsure of something because I can be easily swayed by the person I am talking to at the moment but my feelings can change depending on who I am talking to.

This has been bothering me in particular lately because I'm trying to make a large decision in my life. I have talked to various people about this decision because I am unsure/want to know more about pros and cons/etc. Last week I spoke to someone who was very encouraging. I was excited and encouraged. This week I spoke to someone who had a lot of discouraging things to say and I feel very discouraged. They both have valid points.

But this issue of mine is not limited to this instance. How do I know how I really feel about something? How can I be more sure of myself?

(I should note, there are things that I have very strong opinions about but this issue has more to do with the things I am unsure of.)
posted by bobobox to Human Relations (15 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
I find I'm easily swayed by enthusiasm, be it my own, others, or by a crowd. The way I combat rash decisions made on that enthusiasm is to take the time to step back and evaluate away from the emotions. To listen to arguments and get swept up in the strong feelings, but then wait before making any sort of decision.

A written list of pros and cons (in separate columns) can help me to cut out the noise of emotionally-charged arguments.
posted by xingcat at 8:01 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

"How do I know how I really feel about something? How can I be more sure of myself?"

You obviously very empathic -- while lacking in any deep-seated convictions of your own -- and feel the way other people think you should feel.

Therefore, if you want to be more sure about yourself and your own feelings, clearly, you should ignore all that outside chatter, and just listen to me instead. Let me know the problem, and I will be glad to tell you what you should think.

That will be five cents, please.

Alternately, you can ignore outside advice, relying simply on your own mind and on research of other similar, observable situations, so that you can get a bit more of a grasp on what the actual positives and negatives might be. You can even write out a sheet, listing the potential pluses and minuses of the decision you are going to make, and decide for yourself whether the potential pluses outweigh the minuses. Don't focus on just the number of pluses and minuses you can think of, but also weigh what's most important to you, too. Sometimes, one compelling plus is all you need to justify the risk of several potential minuses. (Decisions made for love, for instance, are usually like that... and often justified.)

There are no certain answers. Things could turn out badly, or for the best. You have to decide what is best for your life, make your decision, and make the best of it, either way... dealing with it clearly and as positively as possible, moving forward with no regrets.

Sometimes, that requirement in itself will help answer your question for you.
posted by markkraft at 8:22 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Another question I would ask yourself: Does the large decision you need to make require you to have particularly strong, decisive convictions, in order to succeed? Do you feel strongly enough about the decision you are supposed to be making, either way?

If you can't be arsed to commit, one way or the other... why not? Is the decision / goal important enough for you to really commit and give it your best? Because that's what you owe your self and your life here.
posted by markkraft at 8:40 PM on December 6, 2011

I can only commiserate and seek (hopeful) consolation from Bertrand Russel:

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
posted by sockpup at 11:33 PM on December 6, 2011 [18 favorites]

There's a line in the Tao that says something like "Care about other people's opinions and you'll be their prisoner." I think once you start to be swayed by someone else's opinion, you start listening to everything they say and it's harder and harder to form your own opinions.

I think the best thing to do when this happens is to ask yourself "Can I personally live with MYSELF is this decision goes wrong/right?"
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:12 AM on December 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

bobobox, many seemingly innocuous questions are sufficiently nuanced and complex that someone who is "sure of themself" most of the time is most likely failing at their due diligence, circumspectionwise.

As long as you are taking other views into consideration, and not allowing them to dictate your own decisions, then feeling confused and unsure is the correct response to most questions; one thinks things through regardless, makes a decision, and loses sleep later over retrograde analysis of every other unconsidered factor in the decision, which decision is usually to some extent irrevocable.

One has to acknowledge the Weirdness and cultivate a sort of modest courage to try to solve the mysteries of the Weirdness, one tiny piece at a time, knowing that the Weirdness is vast and ever-changing. The Weirdness is such that your Major Decision is likely to have many foreseeable pros, many foreseeable cons, and ten unforeseeable consequences for every pro/con one enumerates. The Weirdness is such that many of your pros/cons may become unimportant in light of new developments as soon as the decision is made. Your mission as a human, which you absolutely should choose to accept, is to analyze the question carefully and doggedly and as rationally as possible, knowing that every one of your conclusions and convictions is, in reality, contingent and temporary and ephemeral.

Life and thinking are in fact hard, and if one is able to decide easily on some issue, then it is either a simple issue, or one did not give it sufficient thought. Indecision, self-doubt, "flip-flopping", etc. are extremely healthy, and reflect honesty with oneself in a way that iron-clad "conviction" rarely does; the latter almost always reflects laziness.

So take heart; you are feeling swayed because you recognize the simultaneous merits of several viewpoints. That's awesome! Now you have to synthesize, remembering that, although the decisions it engenders are sometimes irrevocable, your synthesis can and should change to reflect new information and understanding.
posted by kengraham at 5:34 AM on December 7, 2011 [9 favorites]

It might help to know what kind of decisions you're talking about, but I'm going to assume the big one is something like moving or going back to school.

Two things to keep in mind, when people give you their opinions. The first is, remember that they are not the one who's going to be impacted by your decision in a year or five years or whatever the time frame is. They're not always going to be with you. (Unless they are, in which case you do have to take their opinion into account!) Their views on what you do with your life will seem less important once you're actually living across the country or working towards your degree or whatever. Think about your life in the future, how it might be if you do X or don't do it. When you are climbing Mount Everest, will it really matter that Sue said you should have stayed home because it will be cold there, or that Bob thought the idea sounded wicked cool? Probably not so much. That should put some of the decision-making power back on you, and put their opinions into perspective a bit.

The second thing is that often when people say encouraging or discouraging things to you about doing X, they're just trying to participate in the conversation. If you told me you were thinking of going to a certain school and three friends of mine had gone there and hated it, I'd tell you that. But I wouldn't intend that as a vote against you going there neccesarily. I would assume if you were serious, you'd have done - or were planning to do -much more serious research than just talking to me, or people like me. In other words, don't give their opinion more weight than they might intend it to have themselves. And if they really are actively trying to sway your decision, ask yourself why. Unless they're personally involved, they could have their own agenda that's not really about what's best for you. (That sounds sinister, but it doesn't have to be. It could just be, of course your mom doesn't want you to move far away b/c she likes having you around.)

That said, if you yourself are truly unsure, then maybe you're not ready to make this decision yet. Big changes can be hard, and people will disapprove, and it helps (I've found, anyway) to be very sure of what you want before you choose it. Sometimes it takes a long time to reach that stage. But it feels so much better when you know you're doing the right thing for you, even in the face of negative comments.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 6:11 AM on December 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

A few bits I've learned:
  • Flipping a coin will tell me how I feel about something. "How I feel" is not "what I should do", but it will tell me how I feel at that instant. Sadly, desire shifts regularly and without warning.
  • Pro/con lists don't decide things for you. They just help you explore the space of aspects-of-the-decision you might have forgotten. They're a memory-work device, "making sure you thought of everything". There's no actual way to weight or compare them. If there was we'd all make decisions quasi-automatically using them, and life would be easy.
  • You can decide to maximize happiness or minimize regret. Realize these are subjective and there's nobody to ask advice of. Also realize they don't use the same logic: the things that make us happy are more to do with benign, ongoing habits and patterns in life (having friends, taking care of health and spiritual practices, having a sense of purpose, authenticity, autonomy) whereas regrets have to do with choice-points: avoidable pains, rare opportunities.
  • Generally when life gives you choice-points it's "do vs. not-do" rather than a straight dichotomy between two equally rare kinds of "do". And generally in these cases, it's better to err on the side of "do" for rare or novel things. You regret what you don't do more than what you do and don't enjoy.
  • You can be more "sure" of yourself by accepting a degree of fatalism. Unhealthy certainty is mental illness. Healthy certainty is just fatalism, being bored enough with indecision to say "enough!" Just promise to accept and care for yourself, and do the best you can, whatever you choose.
  • If you're having trouble achieving fatalism, know this: that you will rationalize whatever you do, but that desire knows no reason. Desire is anti-reason. So if you do what you desire, you will make up the reason why it was ok; whereas if you decide by reason your desire will howl mercilessly about being ignored. That is the human condition. We were built by a sadistic asshole.
  • Finally: everything is 100x as random as it is under your control anyways.
Good luck.
posted by ead at 8:11 AM on December 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Pay attention to how your gut feels (your literal gut) when you make a decision. If you're anything like me, your gut will tell you in no uncertain terms when you have made a Very Bad Decision. You may have some anxiety even over a good decision but it won't feel anything like the Angry Gut you get when you've made a misstep that bothers your conscience or otherwise doesn't sit right with you.

Also: "when in doubt, do nothing." Talk to someone who knows you well before you commit.

Meditation helps some folks with this stuff too.
posted by Currer Belfry at 8:32 AM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just got finished reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It has helped me considerably in situations like you describe.

He is a Nobel laureate and the book is well researched and supported. Basically, it details how, and why, we make the decisions that we do. He uses current, yet accessible explanations of the neurobiology of our brains to explain how the actual brain goes about taking in information, attuning to certain parts of it it feels are relevant to the question at hand, and then proceeds to use (often flawed) heuristics to come to decisions based non this information.

The gist is this: We are good at thinking in some ways, but are poor in processing information "rationally." For example, we are often asked nuanced questions such as "Who will make the best President of the USA in the next election?" Since this is a difficult, complex question, our brains have evolved by employing the strategy to answer it by substituting an answer to a similar, but very different question, we may have a much more easily accessed and passionate answer to. Something like "Which candidate seems like the person I would most like to be like? Or who better articulates my immediate frustrations with my life?" Things like that...similar. but much different questions. Turns out we use these heuristics constantly with little awareness of even doing so. Sometimes they work, other times they don't.

We are also awful as statistical thinkers. Flummoxed by what, upon reflection, are even the simplest of statistical problems we could easily figure out if we took time to employ the part of our brain that is actually good at these. Often times it is a matter of perspective. The roulette wheel looks much different if you are a tiny individual standing directly on the wheel facing outward, seeing only a fraction of the choices. It looks much different if you are looking at it from above with an overall idea of how the "system" works and what the realistic variables are.

TL;DR The neurobiology of the brain has evolved to tackle problems a certain way. Often times this works. But in an age of increasingly complex everyday problems, the heuristic shortcuts it has evolved have made it often less efficient rather than more. An understanding of these basic ideas and how they play out in everyday decisions makes it much easier to think independently with confidence.

Good luck!
posted by nickjadlowe at 8:37 AM on December 7, 2011

One thing that surprised me (at a relatively advanced age) was discovering that decision making skills have been studied, processes vetted, and those skills and processes can and are being taught. I only knew about the lists of pros and cons with weighted multipliers, I didn't know that there were whole worlds of different processes for different kinds of decisions.

Those can all be helpful (I just googled "decision making skills" and found several nice leads). But the thing that really helped me most, as I've said in response to way too many askmes, is therapy. I felt like I had no idea what I wanted, and was kind of afraid that maybe I was incapable of wanting the right things, or something. But my therapist pointed out early on that I knew what I wanted, I was just afraid to articulate it even to myself, and was often deeply confused by what I thought I Should want versus what I Did want. So in the long term, consider either some talk therapy, or walking yourself through the sorts of questions a therapist might ask.
- What sounds good about option A/B? What sounds hard?
- How do you think you would react or try to counteract the hard parts?
- Why are you choosing between A and B, versus C and D?
- What are some of the worst or best possible outcomes? How would you handle them?

Sometimes your true answers are hard to find, especially at first. But you'll start getting better at recognizing what it is that really sounds right for you with practice and experience. And that can help with other aspects of being so empathetic, too.
posted by ldthomps at 11:23 AM on December 7, 2011

You may find it helpful to articulate to yourself what your goals are, and that'll help you align your priorities with regard to those goals.

For a simple example, let's say you can't decide whether to bring lunch to work or to buy it from the downstairs cafeteria. One friend says that bringing lunch to work is a great idea: it's cheaper and likely healthier. On the other hand, another friend says that bringing lunch to work is not a great idea: the amount of time you spend making the lunch offsets any money you might save, and eating in the cafeteria gives you more variety in your meals.

Both of these friends have valid arguments, but you need to think about what your goals are. Let's say you're saving up money for buying a house or paying down debts. Then, to reach your goal, you would prioritize saving every nickel, even at the expense of using a little bit of time. You would be willing to make the effort to make lunch even if it takes a little more time every day. On the other hand, if every second of your non-work life is precious to you and fully packed with your hobbies or family, then you may not want to spend the time to make lunch every day. You'd prioritize other things over making lunch to bring to work.

Ultimately, you want to be able to say to yourself: "My friend's argument is good, but personally for me, I went the other route because my goal is X and therefore my priorities are Y."

Finally, if there is no clear-cut, easily prioritized choice, it may mean that the choices are equivalent and you won't know which is the right one until/unless you try one of them.
posted by be11e at 1:37 PM on December 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also, I think depth-first search is a better metaphor for how one should identify possibilities and consider their likely consequences than, say, breadth-first search: it's better to think deeply about the consequences of a decision that are both likely and important, rather than half-assedly considering every possible "pro" or "con". In other words, a good way to avoid paralysis without sacrificing effectiveness is to (at least subconsciously) consider something like the "weighted list of pros and cons" mentioned above, but with two factors: the perceived importance of a consequence and that consequence's perceived likelihood. Don't spend more time brainstorming about possible future outcomes of a decision than you spend recognizing which outcomes are vanishingly improbable or about which you don't care.

(Caveat: people are not (or at least I am not) generally good at estimating the likelihood of some consequence of their actions, especially if it is weird. People are also not very good at estimating how important they will consider something to be, even in the near future.)
posted by kengraham at 6:45 PM on December 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, all, for your comments. It's good to remember that it is not an entirely bad thing to be unsure and that there are strategies for decision making when the answer isn't clear. I am pretty much a fatalist - I do sort of believe there are no "wrong" decisions - but that doesn't mean the decision making is less hard. Wait! That kind of makes it even harder because there is no clear wrong choice, ack!
posted by bobobox at 4:22 AM on December 8, 2011

Well, I'm here to tell you, there are wrong decisions...but if you attempt to step back each time, and not answer or decide until you feel like you've done at least a tiny bit of "homework" , you will be much better off.

It's good you are able to see both sides of things...beef up that talent and you will make better decisions, and they will be all yours.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 1:57 PM on December 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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