"Haven't made up my mind on that one...I'm still on the fence about it."..."Still not sure what I'm doing for the holidays...I need a few more days to figure it out."..."We've been together for a while but I still can't decide whether he's the right person for me."
Ahhh, sitting on fences...a series of spikes, chainlink, or square posts not structurally designed to support a person's body weight. Sound uncomfortable? So why do we choose to stay here, and what's the safety in staying on the fence when the ground is actually right below us? We've all been there - trying to move forward on a decision and remaining stuck in our own indecision. We consult friends, do research, make checklists, recheck our findings, and usually totally ignore our gut. We compile the information, and often stay stuck anyway.
Staying plagued by indecision is actually more harmful than making the incorrect choice, and here's why (and it's pretty simple): We learn tremendous amounts from our mistakes, and choosing helps us fully live. It sounds so simple because we all know this to be true, and there are even a series of postcards and cute crocheted pillows that tell us this every day: "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger."
However, we may conversely hear that terrifying opposite crocheted pillow-message of "We are defined by the choices we make." The thought of making the wrong choice and then having to replay that message while we stew in consequences? Nope! I think I'll just stay on that fence a bit longer.
One of my favorite modern research concepts has been dubbed "The Paradox of Choice," which hypothesizes that as Americans are faced with an endless amount of options and possibilities ("'Swipe left" for more!"), and that instead of being fulfilled by having extra options and more possibilities at our fingertips, we actually respond in anxiety and are plagued by even deeper indecision. This theory has been tested with experiments as simple as a team of psychologists working at a promotional table selling jams at the supermarket: When the table features 24 different flavors rather than only 6 flavors, shoppers were 10 times more likely to walk away empty-handed due to overwhelm rather than reveling in the joy of having so many flavors to choose from.
This is our society: We decide we want to add fitness to our lives, and are flooded with thousands of apps that will measure our every step to choose from. Want to attend a pottery class in NYC? Great...there are 50 to choose from in each borough. A friend suggests dinner? Fantastic, let's find the best place on Yelp! rather than just walking into the first place we see. The irony is not lost on me that I am featured on a database of thousands of other therapists in my zip code, creating a myriad of choices for a connection that is, at its core, so deeply individual and personal!
So often times, instead of choosing one of two (or 24) options, we instead choose to pull out altogether. The reason for this, I believe, is because apathy feels easier and safer than making the "wrong" choice.
However, pulling out altogether harms us more deeply than we may realize, and here's why:
1) It prevents us from truly knowing with completeness that we have exhausted that one option. I see it come up a lot with relationships - one (or both!) partners have been on the fence for a while. This manifests in their relationship through emotional distance, lack of trust, inability to stay in the present moment, and a general ongoing confusion of whether this is "what I should be doing." And then, when the relationship inevitably suffers, one or both partners are thinking, "Well, maybe this confirms it. Maybe we just can't work it out." My statement of response is always (gently) stating: "Get in...or get out."
At any given moment, is the wishy-washy, emotionally despondent, repressed side of yourself going to be the most accurate depiction of who you really are or the most you are able to offer to the world? Of course not! In this same regard, that version of yourself within that relationship is not going to be an accurate depiction of what the relationship could be.
This is not an argument to try to make things work when they are failing miserably. It's an argument to get off the fence. If you know it's not working out, stop trying to save it. Do the difficult thing and pull out - all the way out. It's doing damage to sit on the fence, and creating confusion in yourself and your partner on what you both actually want. But if you have some hope and desire to cultivate, let your walls of indecision come down...and come down completely. Only then will you know that you've exhausted the option of really trying, and get your answer as to whether or not it is something worth saving! Go all in. It's the only way to get an accurate read on anything in life.
2) Selecting indecision rather than choice prevents us from really living. See above. That last sentence. This one is short and sweet: A refusal to make choices in life will keep you sitting on a very safe, boring fence, and you will quite possibly be alone up there because most people are hanging out in a place that's a bit more relaxing. Yes, they might be on the "wrong side of the fence." But they will figure it out and make a different choice. If you're one of those people who tends to place indecision on the reason of "not wanting to hurt others," recognize this: You are keeping others on the fence with you in your indecision, and that's harmful, too. You are doing yourself and others a disservice by staying on the fence. Live. Live fully. Choose firmly, and if it's the wrong choice, take the steps to change it. It is 100% possible but it simply cannot be done if no choice is ever made.
3) Refusing to choose robs us of our autonomy. This one is simple, as well: Do not let the choices win! Don't let a myriad of options beat you into the empty submission of not choosing anything at all. I can't tell you how many times I've walked away from trying something new because I just can't handle choosing, and instead have gone with the same old sushi joint that I order takeout from every couple of weeks. I need to empower myself to make the big bad choice. Because it will remind me that I am capable to do so, even when I am plagued with indecision. The next time you are confronted with a million little options, go with your gut. Or choose the first one you see. Don't play into the "7 pages of Yelp reviews" phenomenon! Before technology took over the world, we just walked into restaurants without knowing their stars. Can you imagine!? It sounds so freeing.
Now, imagine a world where you are rid of the anxiety of indecision. In this same world, you've accepted your potential to choose. You are unstuck and off the fence, and your life is completely by your own design.
That's what freedom feels like.