Dilemmas: Why can't I make decisions?

Glenn finds decisions very difficult to make. Not just whether to move house, but whether to go to the movies or out to dinner. He's tried making plus and minus lists, but it doesn't help. How can he stop being the eternal ditherer?
VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

When exceptionally low, I've sometimes stood on the landing outside my bedroom for five whole minutes, wondering whether to go upstairs or downstairs. It's only when I remember my father's dictum: "If you can't make a decision between two things, then it probably doesn't matter much which decision you take. What matters is to make a decision", that I make a move.

It sounds as if Glenn's a little bit depressed, or has, as they say, "low self-esteem". Like Balaam's ass, who starved to death because he couldn't decide whether to eat the hay on the right or the hay on the left, Glenn is becoming stuck. He thinks: "I'll go to the movies." But he's got such a low opinion of himself that he believes any decision he makes must be wrong. So he changes his tack: "I'll go out to dinner." But as soon as he's decided, he doubts that, as well. He ends up doing nothing. So one bit of advice to Glenn is not to worry what decision to make, but make a decision and stick with it.

Alternatively, Glenn could get more information about the options. He should find out what films are on nearby, and see if any appeal. He should ring the restaurants he might want to have dinner in and find out if they're booked. Often you spend ages trying to make decisions about things, then find there is only one answer in practice. This way, with every new bit of information decision-making becomes a process rather than a frightening leap into the dark.

But management training sometimes encourages employees to think about "decision trees" when faced with difficult decisions. So Glenn should first of all go back to the root, which is "Do you want to go out tonight?" If the answer's "No", then small wonder he can't decide on movies or dinner.

Perhaps Glenn learnt in the past to associate decisions with anxiety and pressure. If his parents were overbearing, it would be easier to please them by agreeing with their decisions than put his own point of view, which would end in a row.Rather than suffer the disappointment of having his opinion squashed, he's learnt to have no views.

Or he may associate decision-making with bullying. If his parents took decisions, stuck to them through thick and thin and never compromised, Glenn may have forgotten that you can take decisions and adapt them later.

Decision-taking is putting yourself into the arena and taking responsibility. Glenn may need to realise that he's grown up now, and he doesn't have to please adults. He can do what he likes at last. True, he may sometimes decide not to take a decision. But there's a world of difference between this and just throwing your hands up in the air and leaving everything up to fate in a "Gawd-'elp-us" way.

The art of decision-making can be learnt, but only up to a point. Glenn does need confidence as well. So how can he get it? Well, confidence can be built up. And it can be built up partly by making decisions. Yes, decisions. Right or wrong.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Face the fact: life's not perfect

One of the problems with decision-making is not being able to face up to any unpleasantness.

But we just have to face the fact that any decision means losing the advantages of an alternative. Once we give up the idea that life is perfect and that anything we do is a bit mixed, life becomes much more straightforward. It is also important to become accustomed to some unpleasantness and this can be done by practising doing something unpleasant every day.

MARY GIBBINS

Tonbridge, Kent

My father was just like you

Take heart, Glenn. I was brought up by the likes of you. We moved into a rented house when I was 11 - my poor father couldn't decide which house to buy until I was 18 and had left home!

The end result is that I am fantastic at making decisions. I can't stand the dithering and agonising. Often there isn't a "best' or "right" choice. Sticking a pin in a list has directed my career choice on occasion. Just try it.

Don't get hung up on trying to be a success all the time. "Oops, dropped a clanger!" and "OK it didn't work, but at least I tried" are useful phrases.

ANI HARRIS

New Mills, High Peak

Focus on the big decisions

I too had a recurrent tendency to dither. In a restaurant, as part of a group, I was always last to order, changing my mind several times; I was late going out, unable to decide what to wear; and spent hours walking up and down shoe shops, trying different pairs. For larger questions, such as changing jobs or moving house, I wrote endless lists of pros and cons, more reflective of my mood at the time than objective realities.

Yet, I am slowly getting better. My technique is to say to myself "well, what after all is at stake?" With the smaller decisions - what to eat for dinner, where to go on holiday, etc - life is quite long enough for other options to be explored at another time. When you remind yourself of this, the pressure is removed and the decision is easier.

The larger questions can be resolved with a slight shift of philosophical perspective; at the end of your life you are more likely to regret the things you did not do than those you did, if only on the basis that we'll never know the outcome had we acted. The worst form of your problem, which you must resist at all costs, is the "Hamlet Syndrome," whereby chronic dithering spirals down into despair.

JAN BURNS

Girton, Cambridge

Tossing a coin helps

Try a solution I used with my children when they couldn't make their minds up. Decide "Heads I go to the movies, tails I stay at home." Toss the coin. Whichever way it lands you have a decision. If you feel good about it, fine. Go with the coin and bring a little serendipity into your life. If you don't like it your true preference has become clear, and it's not too late to act on it.

ALAN SILVER

Whetstone, London

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

All my life I've wanted to go to India, and I've just booked a holiday there. But for the last few years I've had a sort of phobia about going away. I can't sleep the night before, I'm frightened of travelling, and I spend most of the holiday worrying. I used to be an intrepid traveller; I've been walking in Nepal, and when I was 25 I went round the world. Now I'm suddenly starting to dread going to India. I don't want to cancel the holiday, but how can I stop these irrational fears? Do others have them, too?

Yours sincerely, Mona

Anyone whose advice is quoted will be sent a bouquet from Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, "The Independent", 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail dilemmas@ independent.co. uk - giving a postal address for the bouquet.

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