There may be some areas of your life where you generally feel more worry or anxiety. For example, some people have fears about running out of money, or about getting sick, or they are afraid of losing love and being abandoned. These kinds of deeper fears or worries are different from general ambiguity because they aren’t specific to any one situation or decision. They are part of how you have been experiencing your life.
If you experience a fear or anxiety like this, it can affect any decisions that you make in that area of your life. For those decisions, you might find that your normal process changes and becomes more conservative and cautious. Like all decision processes, this altered version of your process has its own strengths and weaknesses.
The Good and The Bad
Generally we think of fear as something negative to be conquered, however fear isn’t always bad. In the right circumstances and in small doses it looks like caution or prudence, and it can play a constructive role in your decision making. In the wild, fear helps to protect you from being eaten by bears. In your living room, fear prevents you from buying everything on QVC. Constructive fear can help to balance out any impulsive pushes for novelty and change and provides a stabilizing influence that helps to makes sure you aren’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
When a small, measured dose of fear is added to your decision making, you might adapt your decision process in order to mitigate your risks and keep the benefits of continuity. Too much change can lead to a lack of distinct process, as well as heightened anxiety, and a lot of wasted effort.
A little bit of well-placed fear can emphasize the value of what you currently have, which help to keep people and their communities together, maintain traditions, and increase the feeling of safety. It focuses you on keeping the solutions that are working already, and their existing momentum.
However, the biggest drawback to making decisions under the influence of too much fear is that it takes you out of flow. The ambiguity caused by change can cause you to feel a loss of control, and you may respond by exerting control where you can rather than allowing your life to unfold naturally. You may want to change only what is necessary, look for familiar solutions and work to lock things down and get closure. You may want to settle as soon as a logical option is found. These are protective strategies, and while they mitigate risk, they can also limit you.
How Fear Might Impact Your Decision Process
Constructive fear helps you to look ahead at the beginning of a decision to think through and prepare for the possible risks and dangers that could come your way. The focus is on minimizing risks, so once you enter into a decision process you may look for the nearest acceptable solution.
This means that your decision process may alter to resemble a shortened version the Baseline Decision Making Process, with fewer options to consider and less deliberation time. Under the influence of fear, Stage 1 can be long, but you might compress or bypass the remaining decision stages altogether, instead choosing the fastest available route back to a place of stability and closure.
Fear motivates you to minimize risks and
resolve any open decision process as quickly as possible.
Because you narrow your focus when you feel fear and are oriented toward managing risk, you can become better at quickly breaking down complicated ideas and classifying your options. You may seek lots of data and detail when you are in Stage 1, and this can be a lot to work with. But fear motivates you to process all this data in a narrow, focused way that gets right down to what is essential for your analysis.
At the end of your careful thought process, since you are trying to manage your own perception of risk, you will probably make decisions with your gut.
When Fear Takes Over
To help prevent fear from taking over too much of your decision process, you may want to deliberately take time to explore your alternatives and let go of any idealized, unattainable options.
Explore Your Options
When you are feeling fear, you tend to limit the number of alternatives you consider and to set realistic goals for yourself. These are strategies that can lead to feeling good about your decisions, but if taken too far, they can limit your potential and deprive you of a fuller life experience. When limiting alternatives and goals is taken too far, it’s called satisficing. The defining feature of satisficing is how you find and weigh your alternatives.
If someone is trying to find the optimal decision, looking for the best possible solution, they will reach out to find many alternatives, and then narrow their decision down to the four or five that they will evaluate and consider. They will compare the four or five alternatives to each other at the same time, looking for the pros and cons of each. This increases the likelihood that many factors will be considered, weighed and ranked, resulting in a better decision.
By contrast, when someone is satisficing in decision making, he will take a more passive approach to finding alternatives. He will wait until he stumbles upon a new alternative, like a hermit crab finding a new shell. He will then compare this alternative to his current solution, and will decide if it is better or worse than what he already has.
The satisficer is only considering two choices at a time – the one he has now and the new one he found. This means that the new option doesn’t have to be the best option – it just has to be better than what he has now. The new option has to pass a minimum threshold. If this satisficing decision habit is applied repeatedly in someone’s life, in areas that are impactful, that person will have a life that only meets the minimum threshold of what he could possibly hope for.
Imagine a recent college graduate who has been bagging groceries to earn extra money while he was in school. Now that he has graduated, he is facing an intimidating job hunt. The manager of the grocery store decides to offer him a position as a cashier at the store, which pays much more than most entry level jobs, but has more limited upside potential.
If you were searching for the optimal job, you would evaluate the opportunity by comparing it against several other options, and would most likely weigh any (if any) long-term career potential more highly than the possibility of an immediate income boost. A satisficer, on the other hand, will only compare the cashier position to his current state, which is a part-time grocery bagger looking for a job. The cashier position will win, and the college grad will miss out on whatever other opportunities may have been on his horizon.
When you rush towards closure, not only are you missing out on potential opportunity, but it also introduces doubt and ambiguity into your decisions after they are made because you cut your process too short. In order for you to feel confident about your choices, you have to take the time to explore your options. Make a point of evaluating at least three logical options, and thinking through their long-term implications, before you decide to choose one.
Let Go of Idealized, Unattainable Options
If you have a dream or ideal you don’t pursue, either commit to it or give it up. It is standing between you and your happiness.
I had a friend who kept a photo on his refrigerator of the one that got away – the girl he’d met in Germany years ago. She had moved on, had a child, and lived her life. But he was still exchanging letters with her and keeping her photo there to remind him that perfection was possible.
Whenever he started to develop a relationship with someone else, he would compare this new girlfriend to the German girl. He would think of all the many amazing attributes of the seemingly flawless German girl. These attributes would flower into an undefeatable, 450-pound gorilla of feminine wiles that would crush her poor opponent who by this point couldn’t even eat her salad right.
German-girl was his one-in-the-wings. She was his idealized dream that kept him from having to fully invest in the real life that he had. He had spent years comparing his dates to an idealized, almost imaginary woman. As a result he was perpetually dissatisfied with every date he had. As far as I know, he is still single.
The one in the wings can be any option or idea that we keep and hold on to, but never pursue. It can be anything from a long-desired trip around the world to a steamy friendship that’s loaded with unresolved sexual tension. The purpose of the one in the wings is to protect us from getting hurt or disappointed by the choices we do pursue. It serves as an ideal against which we can compare the options we have chosen. We use it to find fault with our choices so that we feel less vulnerable and exposed to our fear of disappointment, loss, failure or abandonment. It draws us away from commitment just enough so that we never fully get into bed with our choices. It isn’t exactly a fallback position, because we never have any real intention of pursuing it.
The one in the wings is special. The reason it is special is because we make it that way. In order for the one in the wings to be sufficiently magnetic to pull us away from our commitment, it has to have something about it that is unique, superior, fabulous and desirable. It also has to be unattainable in some way. We have to keep enough distance from the one in the wings for it to keep its glossy, blemish-free complexion. If we ever make the mistake of getting too close to it, it loses its special powers and becomes just another alternative - maybe not even as good as the one we’ve already got.
Holding onto unattainable, idealized options is a way of dealing with our fear of decision making. As a delay tactic, it can work wonders for you, but it also can make you miserable. If you have a dream or ideal you don’t pursue, either commit to it or give it up. It is standing between you and being in flow.
Copyright 2016 by Anne Tucker. All Rights Reserved.
Undoubtedly Awesome: Your own personal roadmap from doubt to flow
by Anne Tucker
Don’t let doubt rule your life. Many people are so paralyzed by the fears of tomorrow that they forget to focus on the wonders of today. But with the help of Undoubtedly Awesome, you can conquer your fears and better understand your goals, dreams, and unique decision-making processes—and thereby achieve the personal success your uncertainty and indecision have held you back from.
About the Author
Anne Tucker, a speaker on decision making, leadership, personal transformation, and self-doubt, has developed a unique test to identify an individual’s “soul type” and illuminate the mental processes behind every decision. She is the cofounder of Grey Matter Partners, a leadership-development firm based in Seattle, Washington, whose executive-coaching services have helped senior executives become better leaders and more effective decision makers. She also founded Wisdom Soup, a closely-curated learning community designed to help its members achieve breakthrough spiritual growth and insight in order to achieve practical real-life goals. Visit her website at http://www.undoubtedlyawesome.com/
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