Learning to Choose
Teaching people to make good decisions is difficult. There are several methods that can be tried, however, to help someone who cannot make a choice.
One way to make decisions is to leave things to chance. This may mean waiting until something is decided one way or another by fate or the environment. It also can mean taking a more active role in seeking the help of fate. For example, one could put each choice on a piece of paper and put them all in a handy receptacle and pull one out. That is the choice one lives with. A variation is to use the children’s rhyme: eeney-meeney-miney-moe. If the one that is chosen feels wrong then eliminate it and try again. The one that feels right, or the final item is the choice.
People who are afraid of being wrong need to work on worst-case scenarios. What is the worst that could happen if the choice is dead wrong? Can anything be salvaged? Since part of the problem is the fear of humiliation at making a mistake, that also needs to be taken into account. If any bad choice, no matter how minor, leads to extreme humiliation, then the feelings of humiliation need to be part of the decision process. Often people who feel humiliation at being wrong tend to feel an exaggerated version of feelings. Thus, there is no such thing as a little humiliation. Any error brings on a load of self-negation and anger.
Dealing with humiliation as a consequence of a mistake means that few decisions are made. It doesn’t help the person to point out to them how silly their humiliation is, or that they needn't feel this way. They already do. What they need instead is a way to decrease the negative feeling associated with decisions. This requires a two-pronged approach. One prong is to have them make tiny decisions they already can do, and take time to feel the positive feelings associated with having made the choice (not with the result, just with making the choice. It’s important to disconnect the feeling from the result). The second prong is to prepare for bad feelings. How can negative feelings be decreased or tolerated until they dissipate? One way to prepare is to rehearse doing a thing and having it turn out well. Using script, sort of like in a play, the person and a helpful other can rehearse what the choice is, how to make it and how to feel about making it. If the results are negative, they can rehearse alternatives and feelings that would go with them. If results are positive, they rehearse feeling positive about having gone through the process that leads to the good decision. Another aspect of this is replaying past decisions and dissecting them for cues about when feelings of humiliation or anger started. Rehearse the choice as if the feeling were less intense. Over time, with practice, the feelings will become less intense.
Some people have trouble with making decisions because they have trouble setting priorities. To them every choice looks about the same, and there is no way to tell what makes one better than another. Some of these folks then impulsively pick a choice. This results in poor judgment since they pick the choice that stood out in some way - it was novel or interesting or highly stimulating but not necessarily helpful. Others can’t pick anything at all because they feel they have no basis for picking. Both groups of people need help in learning how to weigh pros and cons, look at practical aspects, see the longer-term advantages, or note the big picture. Prioritizing into different types of categories can be helpful. Rank order choices by feasibility. Put them in order of how much fun they will be to do.
If a person really loves novelty and stimulation can they envision how each choice could be made interesting? For example, Aaron, who had trouble with the science fair project, had much less trouble when he was able to reframe the problem into something other than: “I hate science.” Instead, he had to say, “I love...” and the answer was math. Doing a math science project was not nearly so objectionable, and he decided he could have fun looking up math topics on his computer, another positive. This allowed Aaron to find out about the topic he finally chose.
Reframing the decision can often help if the person making the choice can see a positive instead of only the negative. “Suppose making a mistake doesn’t matter?” “Suppose you didn’t feel humiliated?” This frees the person to look at ideas, and choices in which making a mistake might not matter.
Finally, it can help a person who has a fear of making choices to list all the choices they make every day without anything bad happening, from getting up, eating, going to school or work, to what shows they watch on television. Fortunately, it is impossible for anyone to exist without making at least some choices. From those choices already mastered, it is always possible to make more.
It is surprising how fast most people can acclimate to having a lot of choice. People who come to the US from countries with few material goods soon learn to acquire things. Few children have any trouble thinking of toys they want. Most people get used to thinking of what they like. Soon, many things become habit. There can be 25 choices of toothpaste, but there is only one you buy. Of course if that one stops being made, then the choice needs again to be confronted, at last until a new brand is selected.
It might seem easier sometimes to think about life in the olden days or life in a monastery in some religion in which possessions are few, but few of us would really choose to go there for long. We’d miss all our favorite things, all those things we once chose. Besides maybe our goal ought to be not having fewer choices, but allowing others more. That we can do by making good decisions about how we use our world and the things in it for all our benefit.
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