Decision paralysis anxiety is something most people deal with – you are not alone.
Are you at a crossroads? Perhaps you are questioning something big in your life, such as should I have a baby? Should I marry my partner? Or even something smaller such as where should I go on vacation or what color should I paint my walls?
When faced with a decision such as those mentioned, one can easily slip into anxiety from decision paralysis. Coping with decision paralysis anxiety is something we have all encountered at some point. Some people follow their feelings; some people follow their logic.
A sound decision should take both emotions and logic into consideration. We all know the standard decision-making tool of compiling a list of pros and cons, which appeals to our logical side.
This article will provide you with a pros and cons exercise and introduce a method to consult our decision-making feelings utilizing Gestalt decisional chairwork. Chairwork is an intervention used by Gestalt therapists involving role-playing and chairs, representing entities that are not present, such as a person or abstract idea.
What is decision-making paralysis anxiety?
Weighty decisions may lead to immense anxiety. What usually happens when we have anxiety? Most people go into fight, flight, or freeze mode—the first allowing us to decide while the latter two render us in a limbo state. Anxiety tends to lead to an avoidance of making a decision entirely, or we’re frozen in our thoughts and can’t think clearly, leaving us with nagging discomfort. This nagging discomfort will remind us every so often that we need to make a change. For some of us, it is easier to be a passenger in life and much harder to take a risk and make an informed change. However, if we do nothing and remain in decision paralysis, we may end up with regrets.
How our Values Influence our Decisions
At the core of our most important decisions lie our values. When we don’t live within our values, our sense of purpose may wane. For example, let’s say someone is struggling with the decision to have children. The person in the example, let’s call them “Sally,” values what may feel like two conflicting ideas: family and independence. These two values create a potential dilemma for the individual, leading to decision paralysis. Sally’s value of family may lead them to consider having children. However, this may be at odds with the value of independence, which may be compromised if this person decides to have children.
Pros and Cons Exercise to Help with Decision Paralysis Anxiety
The first step for Sally, naturally, is to create a list of pros and cons. In the scenario previously mentioned, a list of pros and cons may look like this:
|Pros to having kids||Cons to having kids|
|Pros to not having kids||Cons to not having kids|
How do the Pros and Cons Relate to your Values?
In this hypothetical situation, let’s say this person has narrowed their values down to independence, creativity, fulfillment, family, and romance. This person may need to reflect on which decision would allow them to live mostly within their values and which pros and cons are more related to fears that might be worth the risk. For example, a pro to having kids might be that “I will have warmth, love, security, laughter, and fun,” which relates to this person’s values of fulfillment, family, and creativity. A con such as “my body will change” might be related less to a value and more to a fear, in which case it might be helpful to take into consideration and understand where the fear is coming from. Of course, there will be many other emotions involved in this decision. Try to be mindful of other emotions that come up. Write them down and decide which pros and cons bring up which emotion.
Checklist of Pros and Cons Exercise
Here is a checklist of the preparation stage before chair work:
- Define the dilemma and develop the choices to pick from
- Dilemma: I have a choice to make that brings up conflicting values: family and independence
- To have children
- To not have children
- There may be more choices depending on what your dilemma is and how many values it triggers.
- Create a list of Pros and Cons
- Copy your list here
- Make a list of your feelings
- List out your values
- Go back to #2, and next to each of them, write the emotion from #3 that pertain to the pro/con
- Go back to #2, and next to each of them, write the values that pertain to that pro/con from #4
Let’s walk through the above example of a dilemma needing a decision utilizing ‘Gestalt decisional chairwork’ often used by therapists practicing Gestalt Therapy. Gestalt Therapy is an experiential therapy that focuses on the here and now. Chairwork usually starts with two chairs. Each chair represents an abstract idea or an absent person in the client’s life. When trying to make a decision, each chair will represent one option of a decision. In the example of the person who is deciding whether or not to have children, one chair would mean having children, and the other chair would represent not having children.
Listen to your Gut Feelings
Once you have reflected on values and pros and cons, it is time to engage in the actual chairwork. Chairwork considers feelings. You are making the logical arguments that you listed in your pros and cons, but additionally, you see what it feels like to embody the decision entirely. In making an argument for one side, though you might make logical arguments, something might not feel quite right when you say your opinion out loud and try to convince yourself to move forward with that decision. Speaking from each side of your decision, typically, one side will start to feel like it resonates with you more. You might also notice the emotions you listed above coming up. Try not to fret if it doesn’t. Your mind often works on problems in the background of your consciousness. You might suddenly wake up one morning from a dream that puts everything into perspective.
Steps in Chairwork
In keeping the objective of tuning into feelings, it is time to start the chairwork exercise. Below is a full checklist of steps to take in decisional chairwork:
- Set up three chairs: a chair for each of your decisions. In the hypothetical situation, the two choices would be: To have kids versus not to have kids. Additionally, set up one for you to sit in and reflect on after the exercise.
- Assign which chair is which decision and which chair is the reflective seat.
- Using your pros and cons list, stand in the back of each chair, and use your list to argue for that decision. You can make this argument out loud. Pretend you are having a conversation with yourself and try to make an argument to yourself from that standpoint.
- In our example, Sally would stand behind whichever decision they want first. Let’s say they stand behind the chair, which represents the decision to have children. Sally should try to speak from their heart and just let the words flow. They would stand behind this chair and perhaps say, out loud, something like this:
- “If you don’t have kids, you may regret it and end up alone in your old age. You will miss out on the joy of watching your children grow.”
- Once you feel you have argued from that side, move to behind the next chair and argue for that decision.
- You can go back and forth as many times as feels right
- After doing this as often as feels right, usually, a side starts to feel more “right.”
- Once a decision has started to form, you can sit in each chair and continue to argue from each side. Sitting in the chair symbolizes fully embodying that decision. It can feel a lot different standing behind the chair versus sitting in the chair.
- After you feel a strong lean to one side, sit in the chair that does not represent a decision and reflect on your experience. Things to think about while reflecting: How does my body feel about each decision? Am I experiencing fear or intuition? Which decision feels worth the risk? What emotions does each decision bring up in me? How do I understand my feelings right now? Does one decision feel better than the other?
Sometimes our subconscious knows our decision before our conscious selves do. Below each pro and con sometimes is an internal conflict that can be related to much deeper fears. For this reason, listening to your feelings can prevent you from having an uneasy feeling after making a decision that didn’t feel quite right. Listening to your heart and mind can help you live the life you most need and desire.
After reading this article, you may be thinking to yourself, “This seems like it’d be helpful but is also complex.” Try the exercise. If you didn’t get what you needed out of it, it might be most beneficial to have an anxiety therapist guide you through making your lists and having conversations between each of the decisions. Or, you feel good about where you got with the exercise but are still struggling to act on the conclusion that you made. You may be experiencing more feelings than you listed and need help processing them.
We are also offering online therapy sessions if you do not wish to seek in-person therapy.