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How to Stop Overthinking Decisions

I originally started working on a completely different topic for today’s article. I was having trouble deciding what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it, and where I wanted it to go. I got frustrated, so I tossed around a few other ideas in my head, including just not doing anything this week. But I couldn’t decide on any of those options either. This whole process reminded me of a YouTube short I recently watched on why we overthink decisions. So, that is what we’re going to discuss today. If you’ve ever gotten stuck in a decision loop, you’re going to want to keep reading.

Way back when I started my podcast, I did an episode on emotions. Now I think many of us believe that emotions, or at least showing certain emotions at work, isn’t professional. Most of us aren’t great at processing or dealing with emotions, both our own and other peoples.’ In fact, some of you are probably thinking, “Whoa there, Anne. What’s going on? I thought we were going to talk about why we overthink decisions. Why are you talking about emotions? I didn’t sign up for this.” Lol.

Yes, we’re going to get to that. Just give me a minute to give you some context. The video short I watched was from Emma McAdam, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She has got a business called Therapy in a Nutshell. And she has a robust social media presence and has quite a few online courses on topics related to mental health and yes, emotions. I realized several years ago that I needed to be better at this emotion business, so her videos have really resonated with me. So much so, that I purchased her course, "How to Process Your Emotions"

In her video (, she explained why we have trouble deciding, “It’s not because the decision is actually that difficult or hard to make. It’s because you’re unsure of how to regulate the emotions around that decision.” Whaaa? That can’t be right. We make decisions based on rational thinking and information, right?

Emma goes on to explain that when we keep going in circles about what to do, it’s really our way of protecting ourselves from feeling a certain way, like disappointment or regret. When I heard that, I was annoyed. Here’s yet another way my emotions are causing me trouble. But at the same time, I could see she was right. I thought back to decisions that I’d had a tough time making in the past, and could definitely see why I had that trouble through this new lens.

So, what about the trouble I was having deciding what I should talk about today? How does that factor in? Well, I didn’t feel confident about my initial topic idea, and I knew I didn’t have time to dig into it deeper. When I checked in with my feelings, I was feeling inadequate and overwhelmed. Between that and the other topics I batted around, I was worried I wasn’t going to be able to create something that you would find valuable or well done. That reinforced my feelings of inadequacy, and I was disappointed with myself for not working on this earlier in the week.

Now, full disclosure, I totally use a feelings wheel to identify how I’m feeling because I’m not great at it. Brené Brown’s and her team surveyed 7,000 people and on average most people could only identify three emotions as they were feeling them. Can you guess what they are? That’s right – happiness, anger, and sadness. If that’s you, Brené has also developed a list of feelings you can use to help you improve your emotional vocabulary. I mention all this because I want you know that it is okay if you haven’t mastered your emotions. Most of us haven’t. But there are tools, like the feelings/emotions wheel or Brené’s list, out there to help you start the process. I actually bought some feelings wheel stickers that I put where I can see them, and have one saved in my phone for easy access.

And why is starting this process important, especially given that most of us think feelings are messy and are better kept at a distance, especially at work? It’s because you can’t actually separate your emotions from your daily life. They’re going to show up and get in your way if you try to just ignore them. That’s what this whole article is about. I felt inadequate and disappointed in myself. I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me by producing something that wasn’t valuable, so I couldn’t decide what to say. In fact, I thought maybe it would be better to say nothing at all to avoid the potential feeling fallout. The thing that got me out of feeling stuck was acknowledging my feelings and leaning into them. Once I realized what was happening and I named my feelings, I was able to move past the block and produce the lovely topic that we’re talking about right now.

Back to the video, Emma says that the crucial skill you need isn’t related to weighing the pros and cons or a better system for analysis, it’s developing your distress tolerance, “which is the ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotions.” Again, naming the emotions associated with the decision you are trying to make is one way to do that. But you can also do this by becoming more comfortable with your emotions. Emma wraps up the video by explaining that being able to tolerate those uncomfortable emotions is “part of living a rich and fulfilling life.”

That is of course very annoying to those of us who have been taught that the best thing to do with emotions is shove them down and ignore them. But Brené Brown’s echoes this sentiment. She says, “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” In other words, when you put off making decisions to avoid those negative feelings, you’re also preventing yourself from living life fully. And even if you give zero BLEEPS about your emotions and just want to focus on doing your job well, your discomfort around your emotions is getting in your way of doing just that.

Now, let’s take this a bit further and discuss how your talents might be impacting this, as well. Folks often think of their talents in terms of output. You look at what you’ve done and think, “Yes, this is a very strategic plan. My Strategic sure did good work.” Or you had a bunch of students who needed to schedule tests for their accommodations, so when you’re done sorting all of that you say to yourself, “Good job, Arranger. You nailed it.” Now that’s very true. Our talents do show up in our behaviors and the finished product.

However, your talents go way deeper than this. They are part of your identity, so they impact your values, beliefs, abilities, and skills. Each of your talents has certain needs and desires and if they don’t get them there can be problems. That means, your talents are all up in your feelings too.

I used Strategic as an example because it’s my #5. When I see decisions being made that are NOT strategic, my emotions can range from disappointed to horrified. I also have Communication in my Top 10. If I’m not getting the information I need, I can feel frustrated, withdrawn, disrespected, etc. Now conversely, when I’m working with someone who is doing things in a strategic way, I feel fulfilled, happy, excited, etc.

Try this on one of your talents. Think about how you feel when that talent gets what it needs, either from you or the folks around you. Even if you’re one of the folks who can only identify those three emotions, happy, sad, or angry, don’t you feel more towards the happy side of things when your talents are getting what they need?

Now think about how you feel when that talent doesn’t get what it needs. A shortcut would be to ask yourself, “When someone is doing the opposite of one of my talents, how does that make me feel?” Again, even if you’re limiting things to those three basic emotions, don’t you feel more towards the angry or even sad part of the equation?

I mention this, because all these things can help you identify what is keeping you from making a decision. When you feel stuck, you can ask yourself, “What feelings am I avoiding by not deciding?” But if that seems too broad, you can ask yourself, “How might my talents be getting triggered in this situation and how does THAT make me feel?” Either way, you’re identifying what’s actually getting in the way of making the decision.

Now that doesn’t necessarily mean just naming them will make the decision easy for you. But it does get you out of a thought loop that isn’t helping you decide. Again, just going back and forth through the data and analyzing it in a new way isn’t going to get you to the answer. In fact, it’s just going to waste your and possibly other folks’ time and energy.

But what identifying those emotions will do is allow you to refocus on working through the actual problem. Maybe that means talking things out with someone to get a different perspective on how options A and B might play out, which will decrease some of those uncomfortable emotions. Maybe that means using a CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) log to break down a story/belief you have that’s driving those uncomfortable emotions.

I couldn’t decide what to focus on for this article. My feelings of inadequacy and worrying about disappointing you were getting in my way. But when I took the time to identify those feelings, their impact lessened. It gave me the bandwidth to remember the video I’d seen that addressed this very phenomenon. Thus. I could pivot and create something I felt proud of and would be of value to you. Decision made.

So, when you’re feeling stuck on a decision, take a step back and remember it’s not actually about the decision. It’s about how you feel about the options or how you feel about possible repercussions from making that decision. Your brain isn’t really focused on trying to make the best decision possible. You’re actually trying to avoid feeling discomfort. When you acknowledge this and address the elephant in the room, or I guess the elephant in your brain, you can fix the actual problem. You can certainly do this in the moment when this is happening. But as with all skills, you’re going to become better at this more quickly if you start actively working on better processing your emotions. Yes, it might feel uncomfortable, but as both Brené and Emma so wisely point out, it will allow you to have a more joyous and richer life.

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