Lots of times when we’re faced with a complicated decision, our heads can start to spin. Usually talking through the issues with a trusted friend and making a list of pros and cons can help. But sometimes, the decision just doesn’t settle.
Maybe the possibilities are roughly equal and, in the scheme of things, not that big a deal. Then, it may make sense to just flip a coin rather than wasting too much energy on the choice.
Other times the decision is a very big deal, but it’s hard to predict the outcome—it’s too far in the future or there are too many unknowns. Then, get as much information as you can about possible outcomes. How likely is each possibility? What variables make each possibility more likely to happen? What would be the implications of each outcome?
The goal is to look as objectively as possible at all the elements so you can make an informed decision. Often, objectivity is enough to create clarity.
But what if it’s not? What if you’re still confused? Then it’s time to dig deeper.
Confusion can come from mixing up your own feelings with those of someone else. Suppose you’re trying to decide what to major in—and your father really wants you to become a doctor. If part of you doesn’t want to be a doctor, it may take some reflection to sort out what are your true feelings, as distinct from your father’s (and from a knee-jerk rejection of your father’s preference). What really are your feelings?
Or, you might be unclear whether a decision should be a shared one or yours alone. It’s not fair to plan a move or quit your job without including your spouse in the decision—but you might make those choices unilaterally if you’ve been dating someone only a short time. How big a role should someone else’s feelings play in this particular decision?
Other times, confusion comes from conflicting goals or two good things you can’t have at the same time. You really want to be a full-time painter, say, and you really hate the stress of financial uncertainty. Or you want to travel the world—and stay with a beloved partner who needs to stay put. Obviously, there’s no easy answer to these sorts of questions.
What helps with this sort of confusion: taking the time to listen to what your body has to say.
Here’s how: Find a quiet place where you can sit (or walk) for a while without being interrupted. Think about one of your possible choices and really visualize it. As much as possible, imagine yourself in that scenario. What would be fun/exciting/interesting about it? What would be difficult or unpleasant? What would be the social or relational implications of that option? Who would be affected, how, by your decision? Are there any moral issues to factor in? What is the whole picture of that possibility?
As you think about all these things, notice any sensations that come up in your body. For instance, does your throat get tight? Do knots or butterflies appear in your stomach? Do you suddenly feel cold, or shaky, or nauseated? Does a hand clench or a foot start to kick? Or do you feel warm, relaxed, energized? Does the sensation change as you think about different aspects of the situation? All of this is information—important data that can help you make your decision.
Repeat this approach as you visualize each option. Make notes (at least mentally) about what you experience each time. Then repeat the process a few times. If you consistently feel, say, tightness in your stomach when you think about Option A, that’s very important to pay attention to. It may be a sign that that option—or at least something about that option—isn’t right for you.
One caution: Be sure to factor in the normal anxiety that comes with doing something new. Butterflies in your stomach when you contemplate doing an audition or taking a new job don’t necessarily mean it’s wrong for you—just out of your comfort zone. Some anxiety may be worth it for something that moves you were you want to go.
Clearly, this process can take some time. But if you want the best possible guidance about a difficult choice, listen to the wisdom of your body—it knows more than you think.