Dear Therapist:

My son has always had a hard time making decisions. Even when it comes to making small choices, like what to order in a restaurant, it's a whole esek.  He really never had to make too many serious choices in his life, he went to the same yeshiva straight through and to Eretz Yisroel together with his friends. Same with camp, there wasn't much choice. I am worried as he gets ready for shidduchim that he will have a rough time. If he has a hard time with small decisions, I imagine this could be paralyzing for him. Is this necessarily the case? Is this something I can or should address before he starts dating? Thank you for your weekly column.



Your concern is that your son has a hard time making decisions. Of course, as with most such things there is a range for indecisiveness. I don’t know to what extent and in which areas he has been confronted with what types of choices (aside from restaurant ordering). I also don’t know how he reacts, how you and others react, or what the outcomes have been. Therefore, I don’t know severe an issue this is, and I don’t know the causes.

You identified one possible reason that your son has trouble with indecision: He has never needed to make a serious decision. This doesn’t appear to explain why he has trouble with minor decisions, but it may be a factor. Interestingly, some people who have trouble with small decisions find more objectively difficult decisions easier to resolve. One possible reason for this is that more difficult decisions are more pressing. Therefore, the person feels that they don’t have the luxury of escaping the decision-making process.

Have there been important decisions in your son’s life? If so, did he make these decisions on his own? Was he allowed to? When he feels that he needs it, does he insist on assistance (from you or others)? What would happen if he were forced to make the decision on his own? Would he simply not choose, allowing the chips to fall where they may? Or would he ultimately make his choice.

If he would refuse to decide, would this lead to continued refusal to make decisions, or would he learn from the consequences that he needs to be decisive in certain situations? Do you overtly give your son the sense that he needs help making decisions? If not, do you think that he might be getting this message in a more subliminal fashion? For instance, do you typically keep him from failing by swooping in at the last moment to advise him or to make his decision for him? Or do you try and keep him from situations in which he would be required to be decisive?

Your son’s trouble making decisions make be partially due to his never having needed to make serious decisions. But his fear of making decisions may have also contributed to the fact that he has never had a serious decision to make. When people have a fear of something, they can freeze up in that situation. But they also tend to avoid these situations in the first place. This could become a vicious cycle.

It is usually important for people to understand their fears and insecurities so as to focus their mental energies in the proper direction. The unconscious mind often uses misdirection to “protect” the person from stress, anxiety, specific fears, insecurities, and many other thoughts and feelings that are determined (unconsciously) to be problematic. Unfortunately, as an entity created in childhood, the unconscious mind often reverts back to childhood strategies. This can block the conscious mind from challenging the false beliefs and assumptions that are presented by the unconscious mind.

Often, people who are indecisive do not have very good self-esteem. As such, they don’t feel confident in their thoughts and beliefs. Making a decision can feel like a referendum on their decision-making capabilities, and thus a reflection on them more generally. This is not typically something that occurs on a conscious level. But this usually makes the impulse stronger.

Another factor that often comes into play is the need for control. Naturally, it seems that someone who has trouble making decisions is actually not in control of the situation. Again, however, this is typically not a conscious process. Rather, on a conscious level the person simply has trouble making decisions. They get stuck on “fake” concerns, like whether they are in the mood for chicken or beef. To an outside observer, it appears that the level of concern greatly outweighs the consequences of “choosing wrong.”

The person making the decision is looking at the same factors. However, since they are not aware of the real problem—needing to generally feel in control—their conscious focus is on the actual decision (chicken vs. beef) but their emotions are responding to the underlying issue (the need for control). In order to make sense of this discrepancy, the ever-resourceful mind works under the surface to come up with reasons that this decision “should” be difficult. The person may convince himself that choosing the wrong dish will be catastrophic. In fact, if control and self-esteem are issues for the person, the emotions experienced upon making the “wrong choice” may be rather high. This can reinforce the sense that even small decisions are weighty and significant.

Until the person begins recognizing their underlying fears, decisions will be difficult. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they cannot learn to make decisions. Even if they do, however, it will likely never feel easy.

It is possible that your son simply needs to face some important decisions in order for him to learn that they are not nearly as scary as he feels. If, however, this doesn’t occur, or if it otherwise becomes clear that his issues run deeper than decision-making, a therapist can help him to identify and deal with these.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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