The decision making "golden rule"

One of my least good skills in life is decision-making.

I really admire people who seem capable of picking between options quickly. Those truly admirable people who can decide on a Sunday evening what they will eat for the entire week. How do they possibly know what they will feel like? Those amazing men and women who throw their clothes away if they haven’t worn them in six months. What if they need them later? What about the astonishing individuals who can spontaneously pick up a can of tomatoes from an entire shelf at the supermarket? Without even thinking twice about the other options?

This may sound a bit pedantic, but if we look at the root meanings of the word from the Latin verb it means ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill’. That’s right ‘decision’ shares this root with words like ‘incision’ and ‘homicide’. This makes perfect horrific sense to me. Making a decision often feels like I am going in for the kill.

I’ve always had a tendency to agonise over decisions. And at the moment, it’s not even all that bad. I’m actually pretty impressed with how it’s going. Whilst painful, its way less bloody then it was.

My anxious and depressive and obsessional nature has really made decision making one challenging experience for me.

Indecision can often stem from anxiety. Fear of making the wrong decision and suffering consequences or remorse can inhibit some of us. Worry about making a mistake and feeling guilty, remiss, exposed or ignorant is common. Sometimes we can be paralysed by a fear of hurting or alienating another.

My decision making capacity really hit the skids during my bouts of depression. It is in fact one of the cognitive symptoms that can accompany the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure) and lethargy and listlessness. The fog of depression often includes not being able to make even small, everyday decisions — much less big ones — because every option seems wrong, and we can feel paralysed. I found that following an episode of depression, indecisiveness was one of the symptoms that lingered longest. Possibly its persistence set up a self-perpetuating downward spiral. My perception was so skewed that I had been prevented from seeing clearly or taking action for so long that it felt impossible to take any positive action at all which only led to more inaction.

The other thing that can happen during recovery is that EVERYONE can constantly remind you of the golden decision making rule. The rule is - Never, ever make a major decision while you’re depressed.

This wasn’t all that difficult for me to follow. I was happy to let someone else decide what to have for dinner. I’d managed to avoid and deflect my way out of any conversations about the future for the past ten years. As a result, I do not have any assets.

However, I’ve known people who have made life-changing decisions because they think that the problem is related to something else. They’ve changed jobs, changed careers or even gone back to school.  They’ve left their relationships, marriages or started new ones. They figure that the reason they’re feeling so shit balls is that they’re in the wrong career or in the wrong field, or have the wrong partner.

Here’s the main problem with acting on this type of thinking when you’re depressed: depression can distort your reality. It affects our ability to perceive our life in any kind of positive light. It’s the opposite of rose-colored glasses or beer goggles, which make things look better and more attractive than they actually are. Everything that’s viewed through the distortion of depression is negatively affected by it and seems to be worse than it really is. Jobs aren’t satisfying; relationships are unworkable. Depression distortion can even send older people into nursing homes sooner, since they perceive their health as worsening more quickly than it really is.

What happens when you act on this dissatisfaction? Well, unless you’ve recovered from depression, all that happens is you find another career or partner, and sure as the sun rises in the east, eventually you’ll realize that you’re still unhappy. You’ve changed your situation, but chances are that the situation was not the problem; your depression is.

But I did have to make one pretty major decision. It didn’t feel like a single decision at the time, it felt more like I was giving in, or surrendering or accepting something as it was.

When I began to recover some years ago, I started with a single decision. It was really the decision to stop fighting. To stop fighting against my illness. To surrender to it. To accept that I was really unwell and that I couldn’t get better on my own and I had to listen to what other people were saying. It was more than a survival instinct, or fear of where I was headed if I didn’t stop fighting against it. I had to push hard against the current that was forcing me in the wrong direction, and suddenly the strength and purpose were there. I felt in my bones that I did have a choice, and I’d better make the right one.

Other than that, I’ve managed to stick to the golden decision-making rule. I definitely didn’t make any life changing decisions during my episodes of mental illness. In actual fact, I’ve made hardly any during my recovery too.

My short-term and smaller decisions have progressed. I’m no longer deliberating for hours over what to wear of a morning. This is good news. It means that I’ve started re-wiring my brain.

A depressed brain is stuck in habitual brain circuits loops that don’t help the person get any better. Deciding engages the prefrontal cortex and helps it to override unconscious habit loops. The more you use particular brain pathways, the stronger they get, and deciding beefs up the part of the brain that lets you modulate habits and impulses and work towards goals.

Your prefrontal cortex is responsible for goal directed behavior which means it controls which goals you pursue and how you get there. The first step in successfully achieving goals is making decisions. Once a decision is made, your brain releases dopamine to keep you motivated with every step and achievement along the way. Research shows that reaching the final goal is often less important to happiness than setting the goal in the first place. - Alex Korb.

So over the past couple of years every time I’ve made a decision about what to wear or what to watch on television I’ve been strengthening the decision making circuit in my brain starting a positive cycle making it easier to activate in the future. Similarly, every time that I begin to worry about not investing in the property market, act impulsively at the department store, or procrastinate about longer term decisions, I’m strengthening those capabilities in my brain. It’s like the muscles in my body. My cross-stitching muscles are in fine form, my running muscles less so.

The other night I caught myself telling my friend – How about I make the decision to make that decision next year? It appears my longer term decisions might still need a bit of work.

Two years into recovery, I might be taking the golden rule a bit too far



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