It’s a part of being human . . . we will someday find ourselves in the midst of life-altering decisions we just can’t seem to make. Count on it!
How we talk to and listen to ourselves, how we gain clarity by balancing our emotions and thoughts, how we self-correct from errors in judgment, and how we free ourselves from being stuck when things don’t go as planned are all central to living our best lives. Knowing how and when to make changes, good choices, and/or mid-course corrections isn’t always clear. We can be side-railed by errant GPS directions, speed bumps, road closures, and bumper-to-bumper traffic.
One day we may awaken to realize just how unhappy, hurt, frustrated, and unfulfilled we feel. Boldly declaring, “I can’t go on this way; something has to give!” we begin to entertain our options and the possibilities for change. Some changes, we discover, are complicated. There’s a promising “upside” and a foreboding “downside” that seem to cancel each other out. And then we’re back to square one. Until the next “I’m not happy!” bubble surfaces.
These bubbles surface as part of our emotional radar system (ERS). Our ERS is a brilliantly conceived part of our consciousness designed to tell us how we feel. Some part of our inner being calls us to task, looking us square in the eyes and asking, “Well, what are you going to do about this?” Another part of our inner being that has digressed into a state of abject fear about taking action says, “No, don’t do anything.” And we find ourselves in a standoff, defined by Wikipedia as “a confrontation among two or more parties in which no strategy exists that allows any party to achieve victory.” It’s at this point that we enter the realm of ambivalence. And sometimes, we begin camping out there.
Stuck, imprisoned, complacent, and obsessing about “pulling the trigger” so that we can finally leave a bad marriage, find a new job, go on a diet, move to another city, or sell the business, we find a way of talking ourselves out of doing anything. Simmering in a state of tortured ambivalence, mired in our own internal wars, we grow more scared, discouraged, and confused. A coaching client who has spent a good part of his adult life in “the torture chamber of indecision” joked with me after selling his condo and buying another one closer to his work. “Sure, I have both sellers and buyers remorse” he kidded, “but cutting an hour out of mine and my wife’s commute is wonderful. We love our new place. I just wish I hadn’t waited so long.”
Getting unstuck, we discover, is not simply a matter of “snapping out of it,” “summoning a burst of courage,” or “adopting a more positive attitude.” It takes a heroic and sustained effort over time, a compassionate understanding of our own ambivalence, the support of people who have earned our trust and believe in us, permission to be in less than 100 percent agreement with our own decisions, and a solid plan for doing our best going forward. Let’s break each one of these five steps down:
Step #1: A Heroic and Sustained Effort Over Time
Freeing yourself from the dark, stuck, depressing, and joy-robbing realms of ambivalence is going to take some time and patience. Your willingness to make a few subtle but profound changes in the way you’ve been going about things, such as practicing kindness (that is, taking your foot off your own throat), and putting yourself on a steady diet of support, patience and encouragement are all critical.
Step #2: A Compassionate Understanding of Your Own Ambivalence
Getting unstuck also means changing from a harshly self-critical tone to one of compassion and empathy in the ways you’re speaking to yourself. Self-condemnation, and high-pressure tactics like bullying to force decision-making are counterproductive. So is treating yourself and your ambivalence as the enemy. Newfound self-compassion, courage and understanding empowers, activates, embraces, and frees you to move forward, step by step, in a positive way.
Step #3: The Support of People Who Have Earned Your Trust and Believe in You
The value of support, encouragement, and reality checks from people you trust, who listen to you (as opposed to trying to enable, fix, or rescue you with unsolicited advice), who draw you out with great open-ended questions to help you explore your options, and who have faith in you cannot be underestimated. One good supporter can make all the difference.
Step #4: Permission to Be in Less Than 100 Percent Agreement with Your Own Decisions
It’s okay to make decisions, including life-changing ones, based on the fact that 85 percent of you knows it’s the right thing to do—and have known that for a long time. However, there’s almost always a small part of you that is going to second-guess your decisions in moments of grief, fear, doubt, guilt, remorse, nostalgia, and sorrow. In the case of relationship breakups, for example, there’s nothing wrong or unnatural with experiencing moments of regret and genuine sadness, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing the wrong thing.
Step #5: A Good Solid Plan for Doing Your Best
Starting with death and taxes, there are some things in life that you can be 100 percent certain about. You just need to do your best to think through the long- and short-term consequences of your choices, make good, well-thought out decisions, put together safe and solid plans, and act with integrity. Sometimes you do better than other times. Things can work out well, as you had hoped, but sometimes they won’t. Honoring, rather than shaming and punishing yourself may mean adopting a “You did the best that you could, based on what you knew” agreement with yourself. When you make a tough decision, assure yourself that you have thought it through to the best of your abilities. Then, promise yourself that you will not put yourself on trial for this decision at some point in the future. Keep doing the best you can when facing life’s confounding decisions, dilemmas and difficult choices and learn as you go.
The promised land beyond ambivalence affords us the kind of freedom, integrity, pride of ownership, and confidence we need to become the best versions of ourselves. It takes great courage to break free of the indecisions that imprison and rob us of our best possible futures—and to move forward. So . . . let’s take a deep breath, rise up from self-limiting ambivalence into an era of newfound strength and clarity. And step into our best lives.