Difficult Decisions, Missed Opportunities and a Dog
March 11, 2012 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Some people say: “If you have doubt, it is there for a reason.” Other people say: “Everyone has doubt. Don’t miss a golden opportunity because you don’t feel ready. No one ever feels 100% ready for anything until it happens.” What is the line between a rational decision and a missed opportunity, and how do I tell the difference? Disclaimer: Not really about the dog.

I’ve recently developed a problem related to anxiety and decision-making.

The problem is: When I am faced with a decision, I convince myself that either choice I make is a bad choice. Sometimes I *create* decisions in which both choices are bad, and other times, the decisions just present themselves, and I come to believe that any choice I make is a bad choice. (Oftentimes, I feel that the consequence of either choice as not just “bad”, but catastrophic.)

Understandably, decisions are way more stressful when I believe that whatever choice I make will be a bad choice. My therapist calls the decisions “binds”, and believes that they largely serve as a defense against change. Whatever the reason I create these “binds”, they make me feel that I am continually stuck between and rock and a hard place.

To alleviate the anxiety that these “binds” cause, I often (but not always) freak out and escape the decision process entirely. When the decision is small, I usually escape unscathed. When the decision is bigger, I feel that this (potentially or actually) results in a number of missed opportunities.

The current example that is causing me to lose sleep/productivity is about a dog:
My girlfriend (hopefully future wife) wants a pitbull (eventually.)
I’ve never lived with a dog and am fearful of my ability to truly love a dog/tolerate its habits, but I have decided that I will get one with her (eventually.)
In the meantime, I happened across a pitbull up for adoption that I fell in love with at first sight. (This is very rare...I am not *yet* a dog-lover and usually find fluffy hunting dogs more appealing.) It seemed like the perfect dog for us. I fell in love and I wanted this dog.

But then I stepped back and tried to be rational. I reminded myself that I am extremely busy (in school and working) and we just recently moved in together, and I wanted time to adjust to the two of us living together before we got a dog.

So I created a catastrophic bind: “If we get the dog it could cause me to get distracted and fail school or destroy our relationship, but If we don’t get the dog, we will never find a dog that cute or perfect for the rest of our lives and I will live my life with grave regret and never truly love the dog we do get.”

When making a decision, people always say “trust your instincts”, but as a result of my anxiety and “bind” creation, I feel that I have completely lost the ability to “trust my instincts.”
I’ve also lost the ability to discern when I’m being rational with regards to a decision, or when my anxiety has taken over all of my thought processes so I can’t think rationally at all. (and what I believe is rationality is really just avoidance.)

I backed myself down from trying to make a decision about the dog, but in essence, made the decision to NOT get the dog due to my rational concerns about it being the wrong time to get a dog, and now the dog has been adopted by someone else.

In this case, my “instinct” is that I made the wrong decision.
My “instinct” is that I really never will find a dog that I like as much as that dog, and that I missed out on a wonderful opportunity to have a dog that both I and my girlfriend will love equally.
I realize that is a terribly negative, catastrophic way to view a decision that may well have been completely rational (and that surely, I will be able to love any dog we eventually get), but how do I convince myself of that fact? And how might I better approach similar decisions in the future (either during the decision-making process or after I’ve already avoided the decision.)
posted by emoemu to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Any decision is better than no decision. You have probably made many "right" decisions in your lifetime. The wrong decisions are learning opportunities. Think of those like a wrong turn on a highway. You learn from it and then steer your car such that you can recover from the missed turn. If you open yourself to the learning opportunities from decisions -- right and wrong -- then you might find it easier to decide on things. Also, give yourself permission to adjust your own life based on your decisions and you won't get stuck in the rut of a "bad" decision.
posted by thorny at 2:34 PM on March 11, 2012

People always say "trust your instincts" but they also say "look before you leap." It's obvious that you know something of psychology, but the only really rational thing you mention is that the dog could affect your relationship and/or school plans. Both of these reasons are totally valid.

There are so many dogs in the world that they have to be constantly put down in order to have a manageable population. You'll find another.
posted by rhizome at 2:47 PM on March 11, 2012

Life is imperfect; few decisions carry that much weight, in the long run. If you get a dog, you'll adjust, and it will be fine. If you don't get a dog, you'll adjust, and it will be find.

Nobody knows the future, it's potential paths and deviations, or where they lead. We all just muddle through; trying to find a perfect answer ahead of time seems like it would paralyze anyone.
posted by ellF at 2:52 PM on March 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm so good at turning anything into a "wrong" decision in my head that I've made a deal with myself. If I'm framing a decision so that no matter what happens and no matter what I do, I'm going to be unhappy with the outcome, then I have to re-frame the question. I have to figure out at least one possible outcome in any situation that I am acting in that I would be happy with, or at least okay with. This is an absolute rule. It doesn't mean necessarily that I always get what I want, and it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm always happy. But I used to be miserably anxious most of the time underneath all of my other emotions--because of being usually unhappy about the outcome no matter what--but I've been finding lately that I just get to be happy about things, without any buts, because there aren't any miserable-strings attached to every accomplishment.

This is relevant, because you seem to have constructed this dog situation in the same way. You decided that you were going to be unhappy if you got the dog, and unhappy if you didn't. You can't change the past, but in the future, make yourself pick one that would make you happy. The nice thing about using this criteria is that it totally subjective to start with, so it's not like you can fail by not being objective enough. And, like anything, the more you do it, the better you get at figuring out what makes you happy, which makes it easier to make decisions.

If you need a smaller place to start--if you're really not sure anymore what would make you really happy--then start differentiating between what would make you less miserable and what would make you more miserable. I think the helpful thing is to start noticing that all misery is not actually the same: there are always gradations.
posted by colfax at 3:00 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some people say: “If you have doubt, it is there for a reason.” Other people say: “Everyone has doubt. Don’t miss a golden opportunity because you don’t feel ready. No one ever feels 100% ready for anything until it happens.”

I think they're both true, and you really only start to figure out the difference by making decisions, over and over, some good, some bad. In my experience even the bad ones, when you look back on them, were the best you could have done at the time with the information you had, and therefore not really bad. (Their consequences might be bad but you realize you just have to deal with that and at least it's not your fault.) It's never going to be a perfect line, you just learn a little bit from every decision you make (or don't make) and that informs all the future decisions. And it's partly the way you think about it. Don't think that you missed out on this dog and it's too late - think that you didn't know if you could love a dog but this one showed you that you could, which allowed you to prepare for the future dog you'll own someday. Which, not to sound like Martha Stewart, is a good thing!
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:08 PM on March 11, 2012

Best answer: Doubt is one of the highest human faculties.

Seriously. It means that you're already able to admit that the decision you were planning to make might not be the right one. It may be something you have to struggle with, but it also means you're open-minded enough to consider other possibilities.

There are a few ways to handle it:

1) Whatever decision I make could be the wrong one - or not? I'll do what makes me happy. If I lose, I'll know better for next time. If I win, it was the right choice.

2) Life is full of opportunities. Another one will come along, and it may be better. Saying no to this one means saying yes to another.

3) Regret is all in my head. If I keep moving forward, and I don't let my regrets bog me down, I'll be fine. One's life isn't over when something terrible happens or we experience loss. We move onward and forward, one way or another.

4) It's better to be practical. Make the smart decision and the other pieces will fall into place later.

5) You can't put a price on my emotional needs and impulses. They deserve to be indulged as much or more than "the smart choice."

Here's the crappy part: All of these could be true - or false! It may depend on your mood, too. You just have to pick what makes the most sense and act on it. Failing that, get opinions from people you trust, who you know to have good judgement. And that list was by no means conclusive.

There may be no line between a rational decision and a missed opportunity. That distinction is completely subjective to not only each person, but your current position or mental/emotional state in life. If this concerns you, then focus on always moving forward. Life is full of might-have-beens, but they're ultimately meaningless. You can ask what would have happened if history played out differently - it's a fun way to engage your imagination, but it won't really help you deal with the future constructively.
posted by Strudel at 3:19 PM on March 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Perhaps framing this as an "instinct vs. rational decision making" isn't the most helpful. Yes, any decision can carry lots of predictable and unpredictable consequences and can lead you down lots of known and unknown bunny trails. That's life and what's fun about life.

For me there is a very direct relationship between my faith in my ability to handle competently the outcome of any decision I make and my anxiety about that decision. The more I trust myself to handle the unknown as it comes, the less anxious I am. When I say unknown, I also mean the unpredictable and indeterminate nature of when and what kind of opportunities emerge and pass.

So, worry less about trusting your instincts or rationalizing your decisions like a spreadsheet and focus more on trusting yourself to manage and learn from the outcome of your decisions competently - whatever they are.

Good luck!
posted by space_cookie at 4:37 PM on March 11, 2012

I think the significant part is that you're catastrophizing. You learn from making bad mistakes (well, in limited situations, but the dog situation is definitely more "limited" example). So, if you make a bad choice and think "wow, I made the wrong choice, but next time I'll know better," you're fine. If you're like, "I made a bad choice, I will never have that chance again, life ruined," well, you're going to freak out over everything. It will make it extremely difficult to make decisions, and if you mess up you'll feel abject and negative and it will sour future decisions.

On preview, what Strudel said about regret!
posted by stoneandstar at 4:38 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You know that you are creating a more extreme sense of drastic consequences than the situation warrants. In terms of the specifics, when I was in the process of finding my dog, I fell hard for a dog who - due to a mixup with the rescue group - was not actually available. It broke my heart, because I'd totally convinced myself that she was my dog. A few weeks later, I met the charming fellow who actually became my dog, and we've had five great years since then. In retrospect, I can't even imagine life with that other dog. You'll find your dog when you're ready, and part of being ready may involve being kinder to yourself about making decisions along the way. Best of luck.
posted by judith at 4:48 PM on March 11, 2012

For me, this kind of behavior is directly related to my level of depression. The more self-centered and insecure I get, the more every single one of my decisions is The Biggest Deal Ever, often with a heaping helping of magical thinking. I have to deal with the underlying issue, and then the decision-making issue goes away as a result.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:08 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

hmmm. . . does it help to think of your life as very small in the grand scheme of things?

Life can be pretty random, you could have gotten the dog and in a year found out it had a terrible disease, or well- there's a million other dog-related outcomes that you can think of.

I suggest, if you find your mind reeling like this, try to clear it and ground yourself. Go for a run, or do whatever brings you calm. Then return to the problem when you are in a less frenzied state.

There is no right choice really and perhaps this is what you find frightening. Over-thinking will just heighten this feeling.

Maybe you should do an experiment- stop making decisions all together, or flip a coin for decisions-
posted by abirdinthehand at 5:51 PM on March 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses, everyone!! I'm new to metafilter and I already love this site. I find *all* of the responses to be very helpful, but I have a few specific comments:

DestinationUnknown: The Martha stewart-y bit actually made me tear up a little: "Don't think that you missed out on this dog and it's too late - think that you didn't know if you could love a dog but this one showed you that you could, which allowed you to prepare for the future dog you'll own someday." I would very much like to think of it this way. :)

Strudel: I love the list...I'm going to keep it around for reference. Even though I'll have to choose between the various modes of thought, they give me a better framework to work with than the current mess that occurs in my mind!

space_cookie: "worry less about trusting your instincts or rationalizing your decisions like a spreadsheet and focus more on trusting yourself to manage and learn from the outcome of your decisions competently - whatever they are." Very good advice...Luckily I do find it much easier to trust my competence in handling a given outcome than I trust my ability to choose the "correct" outcome. (Though I still don't trust my ability to handle the *idea* that I've chosen the wrong outcome...)

colfax: Also great advice. I'm hoping I can find a way to reconstruct my decisions and take away the miserable-strings, but I think I'm going to have to start with the baby steps that you suggest, and go on what makes me less or more miserable. Feels like I need to be a curmudgeon about decisions for awhile until I evolve... :p

This decision paralysis is a pretty new thing for me, and I'm not sure what caused it. I don't think it's related to depression, as one poster suggested, but I do think there are some deeper issues that I need to work out.
posted by emoemu at 9:29 PM on March 11, 2012

Depression and anxiety go together like pb and jelly. Have you considered talking to a professional about anxiety?

About the dog, are you sure you want a pitbull and all of the anxiety that would go along with its stigma?
posted by just sayin at 12:25 AM on March 12, 2012

Best answer: Life is about opportunities, and millions of them come your way everyday. However, it's not possible to make use of all the opportunities in this world, and in my opinion, it's not and "opportunity" if it's not right for you, meaning if it's not at the right time, on your own terms. The way I see it, if you contemplate, and decide to pass on the "opportunity" for whatever reason, then it wasn't an opportunity to begin with for you, and that's no big deal! Another one will come your way, and it's simply up to you to recognize it, and decide whether you want to make something out of it. As long as you're true to yourself, I don't think you'll look back and regret something deeply. However, if you start forcing yourself to do things that you're not comfortable with, then that's something else.

Also, trusting your instincts and all that is something important to think about, but in the big picture, I don't think it's so relevant. At the end of the day, if you always think "Is this going to be a Good thing, or a Bad thing?", trying to simulate and calculate the benefits and demerits, then you'll always be stuck, whether you think instinctively or rationally. We can never know or predict what anything will mean to you, and what life has in store for you. I think this mystery is what makes life so interesting and beautiful, and I think there is much more to gain from life if we embrace it and let life take its own course, instead of trying to tame your own life.

So next time you find yourself in a situation where you have to make a decision, don't think of it as an opportunity that you're handling, but rather let the result of your decision determine for itself whether that was an opportunity for you or not. In the dog case, if you ended up not adopting it, then that's who you were now, and with your social anxiety and your situation, it just wasn't the right moment maybe. It doesn't mean it's definite either. Many things aren't too late to go back and try again, if you let yourself. I also personally try not to think that I can control so much, and that you can design my own life. That adds pressure to things, and in reality, most of the time things don't turn out the way you expect. So take it easy, and just enjoy the process, try to be aware of what you want, and look forward to what it will bring you!
posted by snufkin5 at 5:10 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I found the book Paradox of Choice useful in helping me figure out how to not freak out about making decisions. The author categorizes people as either "satisficers" (who are satisfied with a good-enough result) and "maximizers" (who feel anxious that they're not making THE BEST POSSIBLE choice in every situation). There's plenty about this on the internet. Might be a useful framework for approaching this problem....
posted by staboo at 6:31 AM on March 12, 2012

There are two separate issues here: making a decision based on incomplete information and correctly analyzing the information that you do have.

The first part is actually pretty easy. All you have to do is weigh the information you have and pick the best one based on that information (which means the least-bad choice if neither one is good and you must choose one.) It takes a little practice being comfortable making this kind of decision, but once you get the concept, it's simple. If you think that the probability of A being correct is 51% and that otherwise A and B are equivalent, then you can be happy choosing A even though it will be the "wrong" decision almost half the time. If it turns out to be "wrong," you don't have to beat yourself up about it, because it was still the right decision based on what you knew at the time.

The second part is the hard one. It's clear from your question that you do indeed analyze irrationally. You jump to conclusions and engage in all-or-nothing thinking, two classic cognitive distortions. Your "instincts" are warped by those distortions, so I would say that no, you shouldn't trust them, at least not blindly. Don't ignore them, but don't assume they are correct either. Take the time to analyze them.

The book Feeling Good, which is targeted at people suffering from depression but is more widely applicable than that, teaches you to identify these distortions and how to reason your way through them. I recommend you read it and do the exercises.
posted by callmejay at 8:50 AM on March 12, 2012

Best answer: One final thought, that I learned from playing poker seriously: if after carefully considering your options it's still almost impossible to know which choice to make, that means that either choice is pretty much equally likely to be correct. If you can't decide between career A and B that means that based on what you know, they'll be about the same level of "good." If you can't decide between marrying the person and not, then either choice you make is probably equally "good."

That means that the most difficult decisions are paradoxically the least important ones.
posted by callmejay at 8:54 AM on March 12, 2012 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm beginning to realize the dog was not was not an opportunity that I was ready for, and thus, not really an "opportunity" at all. Thank you snufkin5, for helping me think about that.

I’m hoping this realization will help me re-frame my perspective on a lot of the past situations in my life that I seem to be looking upon with regret, and viewing as "missed opportunities." In the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself lying awake in bed running all of the events in the past 10 years through my mind and wishing that I could have acted differently in many situations, or chosen a different outcome. My memories of the events are very strong, and that surprises me because I feel that I was largely “not present” during those years. (Long story short: I was very emotionally repressed as a child and experienced an emotional re-birth of sorts in the past ten years that took a lot of attention away from my surroundings.) I think, in reality, my past is not full of missed opportunities, but rather, I took the opportunities that I could at the time, and the rest is a wash.

Partly, I think my decision-paralysis serves as a hypervigilant way to ensure that i don’t make the same "mistakes" I made in the past.
Another part of it is a way to avoid moving forward with my life.
Ironically, it’s the first time in the past 10 years that I’ve begun to feel consistently “present” and capable of achieving my goals/getting want I want out of life. This new problem seems too conveniently timed... Just when I was getting a handle on things, it came to hold me back. Interestingly, small amounts of “anxiety” have acted as a motivating force, rather than something holding me back.

Also, I’m totally a “maximizer.” staboo, thanks for the book suggestion!
posted by emoemu at 7:48 AM on March 13, 2012

The opportunity that you did not miss was the opportunity to find out that you were open to dog ownership. It's a beginning, and I'm sure your girlfriend would be happy to know that it's a possibility for the future.
posted by rhizome at 1:49 AM on March 15, 2012

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