Choosing to choose: How we make choices

Wear the blue jeans or the black? Eat now or regret later? Speak up or shut up? Every waking moment, we’re making choices. Each choice is a fork in our road, where our decision will take us left or right. The power of choice is something that can make or break an individual. Choices can give control over ourselves and our surroundings, but at the same time, the fear of making a choice can push us into a dead-end of our own making.

The thought of the ‘right’ choice is what haunts most of us, especially in the big decisions – academics, career, life partners, relationships. When it comes to choices and making decisions, there are a few illogical traps that all of us fall into:

  • “The past-perfect fallacy”: When Bill Gates insisted on copyrights for operating systems while others were all about hardware, he didn’t know that it would be the runaway success it became. We look at someone’s success and assume that when they made that choice they somehow already knew it would work out. They didn’t. Similarly, we won’t know whether our decision was ‘right’ until later.
  • “All choices are equally possible”: A man chooses a partner, but also carries all his ex-partners around in his head, comparing what he gets/ does now with all the hypothetical results of the choices he did not make. The outcome? Misery for him and his partner, as half his mind is always bound up in evaluating this with that, present with past.
  • “Choose today, change tomorrow”: The flip-floppers of the world pick blue then backtrack and choose green… but then perhaps blue was their colour after all. They tire themselves out thinking of all the possibilities, and exasperate everyone around them with their inability to stick to one decision.
  • “It might have been”: She chose family over career, and now she thinks longingly of all the achievements she could have had and all the glory she would have got instead of being elbow-deep in dirty clothes and toys. Conveniently, the office politics, the backstabbing colleagues and the bloodsucking boss are now forgotten or painted in a glow of ‘that was my life’.
  • “I had no choice”: Even when there is no other way, even when there are people pressurizing you, even when the choice was a default one, there was a choice. Not choosing is a choice that you make. Allowing someone to choose for you is a choice that you make too. When we give our power to someone, that is our choice being exercised right there.

Why are these patterns illogical? Because all that they achieve are doubts about the decision taken and continuous looking over one’s shoulder. The problem is, a lot of the times, we choose without completely trusting our own choice. Then we blame our stumbling on not having chosen the ‘right’ path, rather than on the fact that we’re walking one direction while looking in another. Each of these traps makes us evaluate the present decision not in terms of what is, but what has been or should be.

Think for a moment, what exactly makes a choice right? It should succeed, cause no further problems, no delay, no heartache, should be practical, easy to do, not need to be thought of again, not result in a mess, not cause someone pain? If you’ll notice, all these conditions of being right rest not in the present, but the future. A question we don’t often ask ourselves is: how could we know the future when we are in the present?!

What is important to remember here is that one’s choice has limited applicability in terms of how that changes either the environment or the self. Thus, a woman with a bad boss may choose to quit and join somewhere else, but making that choice does not guarantee that the new boss will be better. A man may choose to exercise, but that choice alone is not going to ensure that he stays fit.

Each choice, whether good or bad, will lead to another choice and another, because that is the way life is. There is no one right choice, just as there is no one way to come to a decision. Whether it’s head over heart or vice versa, making choices that one can be at peace with lies in being able to respect the choice that you make today as the best you can do in the present. That makes it a lot easier to trust yourself in the next round of choices. And there will always be another round of choices, no matter how ‘right’ your decision was.

If you are struggling with making choices in your life, or if it is one particular choice you are unsure about, consider meeting a counsellor and talk it over!

Talk It Over

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About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.