Making difficult decisions: Five considerations
«All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger—it's impossible—but calculating risk and acting decisively. (...) Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.» ~ Niccolò Machiavelli (The Prince)
Making difficult decisions can be stressful and overwhelming. That's why it's very common to procrastinate, which is the same as 'accumulating garbage under the carpet,’ 'forgetting the pot on the fire,’ 'waiting for the candle to burn out’—there are plenty of procrastination metaphors— assuming we have an unlimited time to 'decide later.’
Who has unlimited time to decide, except in the illusory realm of our fantasy? Anyway. But if you choose to break out of procrastination and take action to change from being a victim to the protagonist of your own adventure—although, of course, there are no universal rules in this—the following are points that you should consider to decide in a reflective and down-to-earth manner.
When we are worried about a critical situation to resolve, our mind doesn't rest during the day—and sometimes not even during the night—trying to find out for sure what to do, how, and when to do it. Immersed in searching for a solution to the problem that worries us, we often forget that self-knowledge is essential for making difficult decisions. By understanding our values, needs and motivations better, we will be more precise about what we want and don’t. Then we will be able to orient ourselves better to make decisions that align with our goals and priorities.
«If you compromise your core values, you go nowhere (...) Don't let the expectations and opinions of other people affect your decisions. It's your life, not theirs. Do what matters most to you; do what makes you feel alive and happy.» ~ Roy T. Bennett (2016)
Deciding based on knowing ourselves, in alinement with who we are and what we want, helps us avoid making decisions to compulsively please others or based on fear of being rejected, criticized, or misunderstood by them. On the contrary, we can choose honestly and commit to ourselves by being aware of our potential, fears, and desires.
Increasing our self-knowledge means learning to identify our emotions, thoughts, and behavior patterns and understanding how these affect our decisions and relationships with others. Now, how do we increase our self-knowledge?
Some resources for increasing our self-knowledge are meditation—especially the practice of Mindfulness, serene observation, without judgment, of what happens within us and how it relates to the outside; we can reflect on our personality patterns using the Enneagram; keeping a diary of our thoughts and emotions will also be helpful; and even working with a therapist or life coach for a while.
2. Healthy Pragmatism
When making an important decision, it is advisable to be realistic. I like to call ‘healthy pragmatism’ the usual practice of considering the most viable options among those available, weighing the pros and cons of each possible decision, and the consequences of each in relation to ourselves and others (as opposed to ‘selfish pragmatism’ that would only think of oneself), and keeping in mind the medium and long term.
This last point is very important. Because if we only consider the short term, it is very likely that our decision will be the wrong one. If, for example, an addict only thought about the short term, the immediate pleasurable sensation that she receives from drugs, how would she decide to stop using drugs? She would begin to want to stop using drugs from becoming aware of the harmful effects of addiction— emotional deregulation, decrease in the health of various organs, recurrent difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and decrease in performance in various activities—which are effects that are only seen in the medium and long term.
By looking beyond the short term and analyzing the pros and cons of each possible decision for ourselves and others, we will have more clarity in choosing the best option.
How do we begin the process of healthy pragmatism, and how do we continue?
First, we need to make a list of the available options to clarify which are the possible decisions to be made.
Second, make a list of the pros and cons of each possible decision—and even visualize the resulting scenarios—in the medium and long term.
Third, in some cases, it is helpful to seek professional advice from a therapist or life coach to identify and dissolve (or at least make more flexible) emotional blocks or difficulties that prevent us from taking the final step of the decision. We can also seek the advice of trusted people with experience in the topic that concerns us, but it is crucial to keep in mind that the final decision is always ours.
Fourth, decide and communicate the decision to those involved, if needed.
3. Communication (Expressing and Listening)
Communication is an essential part of making difficult decisions. In any situation requiring important decisions, it is essential to practice clear and explicit expression—without leaving important topics implicit or assuming that others already know—so that we can express what we want and do not want, what we think and feel about it. Being honest and direct about our needs and expectations allows others to understand and respect them.
And remember that communicating is more than talking/expressing; it also implies being open to listening respectfully to what others have to say. By listening mindfully—attentively and non-judgmentally—we can gain a deeper understanding of others' perspectives and how they relate to our own. And from that deep understanding, the right (or least harmful) decision can arise according to the circumstances of each case.
In some difficult situations, the decision must be the result of a negotiation between the parties involved to reach a more satisfactory solution. Negotiation is a particular type of communication in which an agreement is sought between the parties. It is important to be clear in communicating our needs and expectations and to be willing to listen and consider the needs and expectations of others, knowing that in an agreement, all parties must give something to get something.
All negotiations require well-defined limits on how much to demand and yield for both parties. Setting limits allows us to take care of ourselves and maintain healthy relationships with others. It is also important to remember that limits can change over time and that it is okay to re-evaluate and adjust them as needed.
It is also essential to keep in mind that the limit of how much to yield in a negotiation is ultimately determined by our personal values and those fundamental social values that underpin any harmonious and fair human relationship: mutual respect, sincerity in communicating, and word-given commitment. If we yield to reach an agreement or avoid the prolongation of a conflict, but at the cost of our personal values or without considering fundamental social values, the decision will never be satisfactory or healthy for the parties involved.
Self-compassion and setting boundaries are also crucial when making difficult decisions. Being kind and understanding towards ourselves allows us to recognize and accept our limitations and mistakes. It also helps us maintain perspective, not get bogged down in negative emotions such as guilt or shame, and keep moving forward.
«You must make a decision that you are going to move on. It won't happen automatically. You will have to rise up and say, ‘I don’t care how hard this is, I don’t care how disappointed I am, I’m not going to let this get the best of me. I’m moving on with my life.'» ~ Joel Osteen (2004)
In summary, it is undeniable that we need to move forward in life in multiple ways because life is movement, change, adaptation, invention, and reinvention in its most profound nature. And to move forward, we need to make decisions, some as difficult as necessary, because not always maintaining the ‘status quo’ is an option.
And although making certain decisions is of vital importance, it is rarely something simple. Making decisions on truly important matters challenges us because it requires: (1) recognizing our values and deepest motivations; (2) being pragmatic in analyzing options, consequences, pros-and-cons; (3) exercising clear communication, and (4) flexible negotiation with others, establishing healthy boundaries in a timely and appropriate manner; and (5) cultivating an attitude of self-compassion that allows us to go beyond self-reproach and guilt.
After all, as human beings, we can decide, be right and wrong, and learn and evolve.
Ask yourself: What is the next difficult decision I need to make? And I invite you to put these five considerations into practice.
Until next time,
Bennett, Roy T. (2016). Light in the Heart
Osteen, Joel (2004). Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential