When we have a decision to make, we tend to focus on making the “right” decision.
We might spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of each choice. Our emotions are in turmoil as we think over and over, “what if I make the wrong choice?”
After all, you don’t want to make the “wrong” choice! What if you marry the “wrong” person or choose the “wrong” career? What if you choose to live in the “wrong” place or buy the “wrong” house?
Notice that I’m using quotation marks around the words “right” and “wrong” here.
That’s because these words are only labels about our opinion about the outcome of the decision.
So what could we do instead?
Start by Deciding What You Want
I experienced this “decision paralysis” when I was choosing my career path.
The three career paths I was considering were Nurse Midwife, Forest Ranger, and Clinical Psychologist.
Those are three very different careers!
I was worried about making the “wrong” decision until I decided to take a look at what I actually wanted.
I started by writing down what factors were important to me in a career.
The list looked something like this:
My Career Must Haves
- Socially meaningful
- Help others
- Intellectually challenging
- Be my own boss
- Flexible schedule that I control
- Quiet work environment
- Financial security-able to support my family
- Mobility – work wherever I want
When I looked at my list, Clinical Psychologist won, hands down. I now love what I do! My career aligns very well with who I am-my values, my sensibilities, and my life-style.
But was becoming a clinical psychologist the “right” choice?
The truth is, there is no such thing as a “right” choice. There are only choices that align with what you want and choices that don’t.
I didn’t make a “right” or “wrong” choice. I made a choice. Period.
In my example, I’ll never know how my life would be different if I had chosen to be a forest ranger. I’ll never know who I would have met along the way or what twists and turns there would have been along my life path.
When we like the way a decision turns out, we think we made the “right” choice.
If we don’t like how our decision turns out, we think we made the “wrong” choice.
When we don’t like the outcome, we play the woulda, coulda, shoulda game. We fantasize about what could have happened if we’d chosen the other option. We create an idealized image of the path not taken.
Because we are fantasizing, we are in complete control of the narrative. Reality has no bearing on this. We convince ourselves that life would have been better if we’d picked the other path.
Just as we are self-critical for making the “wrong” choice, we can also want to take credit for making the “right” choice. As much as we might like the idea of taking credit, again, it is a fantasy.
We’ll never be able to compare the decisions side by side, because at any given moment we can only make one decision.
The truth is, we don’t know the future. Still, we judge ourselves harshly for not having known the outcome when we made the decision.
Think about it.
If you’re out for a drive and come to an intersection, you might wonder whether to go right or left. Say you go left and hit a dead end. You might think you made the “wrong” decision and that you should have gone right.
Can you really know that though?
What if you had turned right and gotten in an accident? Would that then make the left turn the “right” choice and the right turn the “wrong” one?
Even if you had gotten in an accident, you couldn’t have known the result of the other choice. You could have gotten in a worse accident or driven straight off a cliff!
Therefore, there are no right or wrong decisions. We are not in control of all factors. We don’t have a crystal ball. You don’t know the result of a decision for sure, so there is no way to make a right or wrong choice in the moment.
We can’t know the outcome.
The only thing you can do is ask yourself what you want, and which option will most likely take you closer to your values.
Your choice might take you closer to what you want and it might not. Some choices might align completely, somewhat, or not at all, but that doesn’t make them right or wrong.
Think of decisions as mini-experiments. You are exploring, curious, and open to discovery.
There is always inherent uncertainty in life. You have no way of knowing all potential risks and unforeseen factors, therefore there is no way of knowing the outcome, and that’s okay. You can always make another choice if your current path is no longer working.
And you can let go of the judgment for being “wrong.”
Isn’t that wonderful? You are always one decision away from a different path.