Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Decision Making: What’s Your Style?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 29, 2013


Martha, forty-one, always allows her husband to make their major life decisions: what house to buy, where to send the kids to school, how to incorporate religion into raising their children. For years, working with Martha has made me reflect on this sense of deference. Is it respect for her husband? Is it a lack of faith in her own decision-making ability? is it fear of confrontation? Of course, these are not exclusive and so at different times, different factors may be at play. Consciously, Martha is not aware that she defers to her husband. Her narrative is that they have thought things through together, but upon deeper exploration, it is clear that her husband always steers the family ship. Suddenly, Martha, unrelated to our present discussion states “how do I know what is the right thing to do?” The moment of clarity arrived. Deep insecurity and a lack of trust in her ego, not believing in her sense of right and wrong, has led to a marriage in which she is the more passive participant. Sometimes these marriages work well, but Martha is now suffering from questioning why she cannot form her own opinion. Forming opinions, thinking, deciding, are actions that many of us take for granted because we have to navigate through life. Yet, Martha is now in a period of reflection where she is confused as to why she is never certain, or even reasonably sure, so that she can then decide what is best for herself, and what is best for her children. She is no longer comfortable being passive, but nor is she content with offering an alternative point of view. She is stuck by the constraints of her ego which, at this moment, is unable to guide her towards changing her life. Her paralysis is painful as she does not want to stay the same, and yet, she is frightened to change her interface with the world. This is our work together-building a sense of self that can go forward with her own decisions, and not be inhibited by the overwhelming fear of making a mistake. A strong self knows that bad decisions will be made, but that the “self” can then make another decision which will put the person back on track. In other words, the stronger person can see the arc which includes both good and bad decisions, and with the ability to reflect, a better course can come out of wrong turn. The more vulnerable ego stays in place, so as not to experience regret. Accepting regret is personal growth. Martha and I are working on this big picture, the picture of building a new self, a new brain, which steers her in a way where she can feel proud.

9 Responses to “Decision Making: What’s Your Style?”

  1. Ashana M said

    What interests me is that idea that there is a right thing to do. There isn’t. But people who believe there is one nearly always look for sources of authority who can tell them what it is. It is a hope for certainty and security that isn’t possible.

    It’s interesting that you say a strong “self” can always make other decisions that will put them back on track, but that’s just not true. Everyday, people make decisions that have consequences that cannot be undone. We sometimes make fatal decisions, or simply ones that alter the course of our lives into a direction that will mean we have fewer opportunities in the future. I’m currently pursuing a job with an organization that had an employee die last year because of the conditions in that country. She fell sick and medical resources simply weren’t reachable because of weather typical for that time of year. She will never be able to get back on track again. The decision to take a position with this organization in that country was fatal.

    Trusting yourself means being able to cope with the inherent uncertainty of life, knowing there is nothing in particular you can do to avert danger or even financial disaster. There is no “right” choice and nothing can keep you entirely safe. You just need to live with the fear. How much fear you can manage is directly proportional to the risks you can take and probably to some extent how interesting your life is likely to be. So far, she has aimed for a life she believed was zero risk–although it wasn’t. But the illusion kept her from having to cope with the fear.

    • Ashana M said

      Deferring to authority is just one strategy among many that can be used to cope with anxiety about uncertainty. You may find this bit of research on others strategies interesting.

    • Jon said

      The concept that there is a “right thing” to do is indeed viable, but rare. Only under exceedingly constrained circumstances is there a “right thing.” There can be “more right” or “less right” or just “different” things to do. In the same vein, while some decisions are irreversible, very few are fatal. So, in most cases, even irreversible decisions can help guide a learning sentient person in the greater ensemble that is life. While I agree that absolute certainty and absolute security are impossible, increasing relative certainty and relative security is quite possible by making decisions and paying attention to their consequences – good and bad.

      • Ashana M said

        We all use a variety of strategies to manage our anxiety about uncertainty. The thinking you describe is one of them. There are others. Shirah’s fictional client has used a different one–one that is proving to have other, less desirable consequences. She would probably benefit from a fuller toolbox.

      • Yes, Jon, I agree. You bring up the interesting issue of tolerating the uncertainty of the decision, both during and after it is made. The variability in this tolerance fascinates me. Thanks.

    • Well said, Ashana. I agree.

  2. Shelly said

    I am interested in finding out how this new and improved Martha will function in her marriage. She has always “deferred” to her husband’s judgement and if she becomes more outspoken, perhaps she may upset the “balance” in her marriage. Perhaps Martha hates confrontation and defers to avoid fights? In addition to having paralyzing self-esteem issues and questioning her ability to make decisions, it may be safer to defer to her husband, what kind of marriage will she have once she starts voicing her opinion? It might be a relief to her husband not to have to do everything on his own. Being the chief decision-maker is tiring. He may wish for more input from Martha. But on the other hand, it may lead to an entirely new personality in their relationship and he will have to get used to the new and improved version.

    • Yes, Shelly, the dynamics of the marriage may or may not be able to tolerate Martha’s new-found self-esteem, and opinion formation. Doing individual therapy always threatens a marriage in this way, but the hope is for a stronger couple. As you say, quite pointedly, sometimes the relationship breaks, rather than grows. This is the risk that Martha takes by attempting to change her internal dynamics. Thanks.

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