Our decisions navigate us through, and throughout, our lives. This blog is not intended to be a comprehensive explanation about decision making, neither is it a guide for how to make better decisions. I simply offer some thoughts about what I see as some of the reasons that decision-making can feel hard or even painful. And why some of us avoid or delay making decisions or get paralysed in the process.
There may be times when a decision is a stark choice between two different things. However, often what happens is we create an either/or split in our minds when making a decision, particularly when we’re anxious.
It is from Melanie Klein’s work that we get the concept of paranoid-schizoid position. This refers to a very early life stage when – as small infants – we were overwhelmed with intense anxiety and developed protective mechanisms, for e.g. splitting experiences into opposing good or bad. Klein thought that this stage never left us and in times of stress and high anxiety we tend to return to this paranoid-schizoid ‘position’. When we’re in this state of mind we return to defences such as polarising. Of course, far from helping our anxiety this kind of stark splitting generally makes decisions harder to make.
The referendum on Brexit is a good example of an either/or paranoid-schizoid type of decision that was created possibly to manage, but more to avoid, complex and painful issues the UK and its government was (and of course still is) facing.
Some decisions are easier than others. Usually, this is either because they don’t have a significant role in the shape of our future, or they are reversible, or repeatable. Generally, these decisions don’t put us in touch with profound feelings about loss.
Life decisions particularly stir intense feelings, and quite real experiences, of loss. Each step we take in one direction involves relinquishing those leading us in others. The older we get the more our lives narrow in direction and focus as we need to accept giving up ‘other’ options. This parallels a growing awareness of our own mortality.
How painful and paralysing the loss of ‘other’ life choices is will partly depend on our relationship with loss and whether or how we are able to tolerate the feelings stirred up by it.
Our decisions are our responsibility. We can all look back on certain choices we’ve made in our lives and wish we had taken a different option.
Bound up with our feelings about this is our relationship to regret. Regret can be a very frightening prospect for some people. This is because of the way they might punish themselves if they feel they’ve made a mistake or got something wrong.
Freud called the part of us that can be self-punishing, the Super-Ego. This is the rule-bound, conscientious part of us and is developed in the main from early experiences of authority figures, particularly parents. We will all normally experience our super-ego at times as restrictive – in a way this is its job. Ideas about
the super-ego have developed over the years to understand how persecutory it can be at certain times and for some people more than others. The degree and constancy to which we feel punished or even tormented by our super-ego will affect how frightening it can feel to us. This fear might generate such an anxiety about making mistakes that it can paralyse us from making even the smallest decisions.
We are making decisions all the time, often without thinking about it. Some decisions are obviously more significant than others and need to be considered carefully. This process can be painful as it means taking responsibility for our choices and sometimes accepting losses. We don’t help matters when we allow our anxiety about this to polarise our options with either/or thinking or attack ourselves with our regrets about past choices.
Claire Barnes is an experienced UKCP registered psychotherapist and group analyst offering psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and groups at our Hove practice.
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