One day, a simple invitation arrived in my inbox that provoked an internal crisis. The invitation was from the leader of a writer’s group I belonged to. She was trying to organize a get-together at a restaurant just to socialize and catch up, and she wanted to know who was interested in coming.
I immediately started panicking. Should I go, or not? There was one woman in the group who really irritated me, but on the other hand there were others whose company I really enjoyed. The restaurant was also a distance from home, and I didn’t know if I should commit to the trek, and if I did, whether I should leave from work or go home first. And if I went home first, I wondered if I should change my clothes—and if so, into what. After hours of deliberation, I was still stuck in the cognitive mud.
Ever since I was a child, even the simplest of decisions, like whether to choose Pop Tarts or Froot Loops for breakfast, had always created a maddening tug of-war in my mind. When I was diagnosed with clinical depression in college, I learned that this was one of the hallmarks of the condition and was finally forced to confront my inertia.
First, early in therapy, I realized that my tendency to see both sides of an issue came from parents who were constantly at odds and disagreed on just about everything from who did more for the kids to where to put the ketchup on a dinner plate. That served me well in one sense—I became a journalist and was therefore often called upon to weigh competing views in the process of writing a balanced story. But on the other hand, it definitely contributed to my paralysis whenever I was asked to make a decision—whether it was about something relatively insignificant or a game-changer.
This recognition, in part, fueled my work with my first therapist—a talented psychiatrist who empathized and coaxed me into following my instincts, and making progressively bigger and bigger choices on my own. Gently, he nudged me out of the therapeutic nest until I had the courage to fly (i.e. make a decision) on my own. With a new therapist, that work continues to this day, as does my preference for sugary food products.
Of course, being the dependent type, my natural tendency is to rely on my therapist (or anyone else within earshot) to make decisions for me (and then blame them afterward if things don’t work out). But my therapist usually resists, and for that I am grateful because there are many mental health professionals out there who gladly fall into this “Playing God” trap.
When I have to tackle a decision, my therapist has taught me helpful “thought tools” like asking myself two essential, intertwined questions:
- What is the worst that could happen as a result of this decision?
- How will I ultimately feel about myself if I make this decision?
Now, every time I am confronted with a choice, I ask myself these questions, and I hear a little voice in my head (and no, I haven’t turned psychotic) that helps me reach the best conclusion for me at the time. I believe everyone has this same inner voice buried deep inside of them—they just have to dig for it and have the courage to listen to what it is saying.
Interestingly, I recently read that there is actually a part of the brain that controls feelings of regret–the ventral striatum– and that in a depressed person’s brain, missed opportunities spark extra activity in that region. So, I’m not saying that decision-making is easy, or that I have mastered the process myself. But I am determined to forge onward against all manner of invisible foes.
By the way, I decided to go to that writer’s dinner, and I was glad I did.