People often contact me for therapy because they have to make a difficult decision. They want to know if they should get a new job or change their child's school, move to another city or leave their spouse.
When they can’t make a decision, it is usually not because they don't know the options - it's because of the unknowns. The biggest unknown is the future. We can't see into the future, so it scares us.
Sometimes though, the risks involved feel incredibly intense. We feel confused, we have anxiety, we can't stop thinking about the problem, and no matter how much we talk about it all we still can't make a decision. Friends or family members get aggravated, annoyed and impatient at these times, because we seem irrational.
When things reach this level of intensity is when I can pretty much guarantee that there's a conflict brewing. That means the "unknown" is something you don't know about yourself.
Trying to make a decision when you have an inner conflict is like asking a mother to decide between two of her children. She can’t do it -- even if one of them is obviously smarter or better than the other.
I wish that people could just have an “aha” moment sometimes and just say to themselves “Oh, my – this is intense! I must have an inner conflict!” Then, they could temporarily stop trying to make a decision, shelve their detailed lists of all the pros and cons, teach their families to be more patient, and get on with the business of evolving.
Evolving happens naturally. A mother, for example, usually doesn’t have to decide between her children; sooner or later, they usually grow up and leave the house. This is exactly how it should work with inner conflict: whenever possible, people should not be forced to come to realizations or make decisions they don't feel sure about, until something naturally gives.
Here is an example. A patient of mine was offered a very high-powered executive position. It seemed like a great job but she couldn't decide to take it. Finally, she came into the office and commented about the weather, which led to tears. She remembered how as a teen, when the weather got nice, she had tried to reveal as much of herself as she could, often skinny-dipping and streaking with friends through public places.
She had a lot of shame about this behavior. She had become very "proper" in fact, to counteract it. But now, this new job was very high-visibility. She was afraid she would enjoy being "seen" too much.
After she realized that she had a conflict about exposing herself, she figured out what she wanted to do.
And this is how it should work for all of us. Sometimes, we need time to figure out the worst thing we're afraid of.
There is no formula for how long it takes to resolve an inner conflict and stop feeling anxious. The world of emotion is not cut and dry, like reason.
If you are ever faced with a not being able to make a decision, try to remember that you may have an inner conflict brewing. Then, put your list of logical pros and cons to rest for awhile.
Take out a blank sheet of paper or schedule a session where you can talk freely. Write, or talk, without thinking; free-associate.
Ironically, it may even work not to think at all about your problem at all for awhile. Answers sometimes come to us like forgotten words, unexpectedly. Try to wait for your decision, if you can. Eventually, the decision may just make itself.