Decisions: Why the Struggle is So Real for Highly Sensitive People…And Strategies That May Help.

Dec 24, 2018 | Blog

Have you ever found yourself agonizing over a decision? Maybe it was in high school when you were choosing which college to attend? Or maybe it was when you were trying to decide between two or more prospective jobs? Or maybe it was when you were trying to decide your romantic future (should I stay or should I go)?

I’m reasonably confident there is no one – man or woman – who has escaped at least one tough choice in their life.

But I feel like I tend to struggle more than the average person and with decisions that the average person might not find quite so “agonizing”. Or maybe “struggle” isn’t the right word. It might be better to say that I needle at decisions more. While others may look closely at a set of choices in front of them, I am more likely to grab a magnifying glass and, if needed, even a metaphorical microscope in order to determine which of the options is best.

I used to think it was something that made me uniquely me. It was one of those quirks that others in my life learned to tolerate the way one might tolerate a friend’s habit of biting her nails. But the more I come to understand about what it means to be a highly sensitive person, the more I realize just how not special I am (and I mean that in a good way).

It turns out, at least according to Elaine Aron’s research on highly sensitive people it’s a trademark characteristic of those who have this trait built into their hard-wiring. And there are good reasons for it.

First – it helps to remember that highly sensitive people tend to have a higher than average depth of processing. (And before you start puffing up your feathers in arrogant delight, my dear sweet fellow HSP…just hold the phone)… When I say they have a greater “depth of processing” I don’t mean that in the sense that HSP’s are “deep” while non-HSP’s are “shallow.” I simply mean that highly sensitive people have a tendency to process many layers of a given scenario all at once. When it comes to making a decision, therefore…your average highly sensitive person is likely to spend a great deal of time processing through each and every detail of each choice.  Internally, we are thinking furiously about all the details of a given choice. Externally, we just look perplexed. We look like we are moving at a snails pace.

This has manifested in my life in a number of situations. It can be maddening. I just want to make a decision and be done with it…but something inside of me insists that I consider all the angles. All the stakeholders. Alllll the stakes.

I don’t leave a job until I know I absolutely need to. I don’t leave a relationship until I have exhausted all of my resources (physical, financial, emotional, intellectual). I jokingly say that I have “dead horse syndrome” where I will drag a relationship that is clearly dead across a dessert for miles in the hopes of finding an oasis that could help me revive it…before I finally admit defeat.

The second thing to remember is that highly sensitive people tend to feel things deeply. This means we are going to be keenly sensitive to the possibility of making the wrong choice. Another way of thinking about this is that we, as a group, tend to be supremely risk-averse. Making a risky choice may come with reward…but if it all goes to hell, we will use that handy-dandy depth of processing and very likely self-shame ourselves into despair if the stakes are high enough.

This is a second reason why relationships, in particular, are very difficult for me to cut off. I never want to walk away wondering what could have happened if I had just tried a little harder. It’s the same with a job. I don’t want to walk away from a job simply because it makes me uncomfortable. Just think about all the growth I might achieve by staying!

So what can highly sensitive people do when faced with a difficult choice they definitely do have to make? 

  1. Imagine the worst case scenario of making a given choice. So…for example…let’s say you were offered a new job and you’re trying to decide if its better to stay or better to leave. Imagine yourself in this new environment and working in this new job. What are all the worst possible case scenarios. Maybe you don’t like your co-workers. Maybe you don’t like where you had to move to in order to come to this job. Maybe you struggle with your finances. Maybe you lose your job and end up stuck in an unfamiliar area with few resources… Go to town. Think of the worst possible situation. Ask yourself “can I live with that? Do I have resources that could help me get through all that?” In other words, use your risk-averse mind as a tool rather than allowing it to run you. If you cannot tolerate the worst case scenario, then you have your answer. But if you can either because you know you will have the resources to bounce back or you find that the worst case scenario isn’t really that bad…well now you might really be onto something.
  2. Try and keep a mindset that is open to everything and attached to nothing. You have to remember that wherever you go…there you are. This will be true whether you are in a relationship or outside of one. It will be true no matter where you work. So in all likelihood, whatever choice you make, even if it will dramatically alter your circumstances, it will not likely alter the core of who you are. So stay open to the possibility of something beautiful coming into your life…but just don’t get attached to it. The truth is, the worst case scenario probably won’t happen. And to the extent that it can…YOU will still have the same resilience you have shown so far in your life. Are you afraid that marriage might not work? Maybe it won’t. But does that mean you are going to end the relationship prematurely just so you don’t have to feel that particular sting? I mean…you can. But try not to jump to pessimism too quickly. Try and adopt the attitude of “hey…you never know.” Because the reality is you never really do.
  3. Have an exit strategy. This one is championed by Elaine Aron in her article even though she admits that as it relates to things like relationships…it can be a bit of a liability. The thing is…highly sensitive people LIKE having exit strategies even if they never use them. It is for this reason that I rarely carpool with others to big events. It’s not that I KNOW I will leave early. It’s that I appreciate having the option. Ironically, the more exit doors I know are open, the longer I am likely to remain where I am. In my friendships, it has served me well – since it allows me to have easy empathy with anyone who wants to come and go as they please. I’m very good at allowing other people to be themselves in whatever way that manifests at a given time. I don’t resent anyone who cancels plans with me. Because I know how much I appreciate having that kind of freedom for myself. In my romantic relationships, though, I have to admit that it can be something of a liability. It can come across as being one-foot-in-and-one-foot-out. Which, in reality, simply isn’t true. When I am with you, I am 100% with you. I’m just not likely to promise with absolute certainty that everything will remain the same. People change. Circumstances change. Incompatibilities may present themselves. I need to know that while we both may be committed to each other and to the relationship, we also BOTH have the maturity to be able to let go if need be.
  4. Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth. Make it be a mantra. You might be able to lie to other people, but you really cannot lie to yourself. Highly sensitive people have a tendency to be exceptionally good at figuring out what other people need. To the best of our ability, we are likely to present that for them. It’s not ever intended to be an inauthentic offering. We often truly do get tremendous pleasure from serving others – as harmony with others feels good and conflict can be physically painful. But there are times when a quality that started off as a strength (generosity of spirit) can shift into something ugly (ie codependency). When you are struggling with a decision, you have to admit on some level that you do have a gut feeling about it. Some part of you usually knows what you need to do. Or at the very least, some part of you has a good idea of your instinctive emotional response. You don’t have to make decisions based on emotional impulses (in fact, that’s probably really unwise). But you do have to at least investigate them. Get curious about how you feel. Get out of your head and into your body, if need be. And be HONEST about what you find, there.
  5. Make a list (and feel free to check it twice…thrice…fifty times…whatever you need). As important it is to be honest about your emotional reactions, you also need to balance it out with your rational mind. Start making lists for and against a given option. What is coming up? What do you stand to gain? What do you stand to lose? How does this list measure up against your emotional impulses? Do you think they are in sync? Or are they competing with one another? For example, maybe everything on your rational list says changing jobs would be a terrific idea, even though you’re emotionally terrified. Well think back on other equally difficult choice you have made. Is it worth doing something scary? On the flipside, maybe every rational item on your list says you should stay put, but something inside of you feels compelled to try something new anyway. Which has the greater hold on you?
  6. You will probably seek the advice of others. Great idea! But make sure you have a boundary SOMEWHERE. Highly sensitive people tend to like collecting as much data as possible. That often extends to getting advice from others. Great! Go ahead! But don’t allow yourself to get to the place of information overload. And remember…their advice is often coming from how THEY would decide IF they were in your shoes. They won’t necessarily be thinking about how YOU should decide given that you are YOU. It’s good to get outside perspectives. Sometimes we need that as we can tunnel so far down that we get lost in our thoughts. But don’t allow the opinions of others to dictate where you go. Think of it this way…allow them access to your car and permit them a passenger seat. But do not, under any circumstances, given them the keys.
  7. And finally…to the extent possible…try not to take all of it so seriously. Oscar Wilde famously wrote “life is far too important to be taken seriously.” You have to remember that at the end of the day you cannot know all the information. You could end up making the best possible choice…but for the worst reasons. Or vice versa. You can weigh all the variables, make a choice, only to find the economy goes bust and you fall to pieces. You can marry with every intention of it being forever…only to discover later on down the road that you don’t, in fact, want children and your partner still does. It might not be anyone’s fault. That’s just LIFE. Give a little wiggle room for life to happen. It might be frightening to remember that you are not in control, but it can also be liberating. Because at the end of the day, all you can do is the best you can.

What kinds of decisions do you find most difficult to make? Are there times in your life when you have been super decisive and found you made a choice easily? Or do you agonize even over the kind of coffee beverage you want to order?