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Into the Unknown! Making Big Choices and Life Changes
Part 2: A Song of Ambivalence and Uncertainty

March 6, 2021
By Maryann Joseph, PhD, Psychologist 

In the Disney movie Frozen, Queen Elsa learns to embrace her unique ice magic, belts out the instant hit “Let it Go,” and wins over my kiddos’ hearts (and living room concert set-list). In Frozen 2, our magical protagonist is faced with a life-altering choice: she can stay in the newfound comfort of her role in Arendelle, or listen to the little voice calling her to go beyond. 

Personally, I often struggle with big decisions (and sometimes smaller ones too!) unless I have a super clear gut feeling or obvious rationale for one option over another. I’ve also seen others torture themselves for ages with potential big-change decisions and neglect to actively choose how to move forward one way or another. 

Do I leave my stable but unfulfilling career to pursue an uncertain dream job?

Is it time to relocate? 

Do I work to resuscitate a relationship I’ve invested in, or cut my losses and move on?

Part 1 of this post about making big choices covered some key basics. We acknowledged that change can be hard, looked at how to maximize your decision-making resources to tackle what matters most, how to counterbalance your deliberative (analytic) and implemental (action-oriented) mindsets in a useful way (Gollwitzer, 2012), and how to declutter your mind and hopefully come to a conclusion with a Decision Balance Sheet (Janis & Mann, 1977). 

If you are struggling with a big decision, Part 1 may be all you really need. At the very least, it’s a practical place to start. But if you are still feeling stymied by a particular decision after Part 1, I invite you to come along for a deeper dive(1) down this forking rabbit hole. 

Part 2 of this post offers more process-level help for getting closer to a decision when you feel really stuck. It’s a bit more like taking a step back and clearing a helpful workspace for making the decision, rather than focusing on the specific content of the decision itself. 

Acknowledging Distress

If you’ve been feeling really torn between options, take a step back to acknowledge any distress before forging ahead with your active decision-making. We’re not merely rational information processing units that take in unbiased data and spit out an impartial result. Rather, emotion can influence and interact with our decision-making in complex ways (Luo & Yu, 2015; Schwarz, 2000).

To reduce the potential for regret, it’s important not to make a big decision in a moment of heightened distress. This is particularly true for those prone to impulsivity, high anger/anxiety or other intense emotions. After a triggering event, you can ride out the wave(2) of emotional intensity and allow it to subside before making any big decisions. 

But what if your distress is about the process of making the decision itself? Ask yourself the following question, giving yourself some quiet reflective space to see what comes up: What is most uncomfortable, painful, or scary about the process (not the content or specifics) of this decision? Is it:

– a sense of internal or external pressure

– a defeated sense that you just suck at decisions

– a fear that you won’t be able to decide

– an aversion to the ambivalence, tension, and suspense of the process itself

– intolerance for the uncertainty and risk inherent in the process

– and/or some other issue?

Once you identify the source, you might be better able to respond, reframe, or simply hold mindful space for this process-related distress, allowing it to settle or transform before proceeding with the actual decision-making itself. 

Before we delve into the perennial human issues of ambivalence and uncertainty below, perhaps we can draw a little inspiration from Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (De Shazer et al., 2007). For whatever specific process-related sore-spot you just identified above, look for links to a prior time or context where you managed that very component of the process more successfully. For instance, recall a time when you:

– achieved something despite pressure

– managed to accomplish something you initially thought you couldn’t do

– were able to take a calculated risk, etc. 

Looking at the current process sore-spot in another context you might identify the factors that were helpful for you before. How did you manage to do that, there/then? And could those factors be adapted to serve again as resources here/now? 

For example, let’s say Joan Snow is struggling with a game-changing decision involving her romantic partner and the prospect of baby-making. She notices her process-level distress is tied to a sense of being overwhelmed by the risks involved. 

An avid outdoors enthusiast, she recalls that she was able to successfully calculate and manage risks while mountain climbing. She then identifies the essential resources for her success in that context: 1) evaluating and matching her skills and experience to the technical difficulty of the climb route, and 2) having certain safety measures in place. 

Joan’s next step would be to find ways to import those mountain climbing resources into her current decision-making situation: what skills, experience, and information does she need to move forward with each of her options? What safety measures could she put in place?  

Accepting Ambivalence

Like many of our own big decisions about work, home, health, and relationships, Elsa’s dilemma in Frozen 2 is essentially between sticking with the status quo or opting for change. The choice is captured in Disney-meets-Broadway style with the inspirational power ballad “Into The Unknown.” (Yes, yes, you do need to check it out! Idina Menzel delivers a cathartic tour de force.) 

A part of her wants to stay; a part of her wants to go. A part of her fears change; a part of her longs for change. We can hear Elsa’s ambivalence in the lyrics: 

I’m afraid of what I’m risking if I follow you, Into the unknown

Don’t you know there’s part of me that longs to go, Into the unknown?

If this mounting inner tension feels uncomfortable we can end up struggling against the experience, feeling mentally stuck, struggling even harder, and panicking at feeling even more stuck. Instead, can we just notice and acknowledge this ambivalence? Can we accept that currently we feel torn between the options? 

Can we just sit with that inner tension, mindfully, non-judgmentally for several breaths? With gentle curiosity and without trying to eradicate it in any way, we can explore where we feel it in our body and what exactly the accompanying physical sensations feel like. 

We might even imagine reflecting on our sense of stuckness in this decision from the compassionate perspective of a wonderfully wise, strong, caring being who accepts us whole-heartedly as we are (Gilbert, 2010). We can use that wise compassionate understanding to validate that the ambivalence is simply human and that the decision really matters to us.

As we make a compassionate space for the tension of ambivalence, the associated distress may settle. The decision may begin to feel less stressful, less uncomfortable, and less impossible. Though grappling with a tough personal decision isn’t easy, with practice we may come to see that very struggle as an opportunity for self-compassion and curiosity. 

Perhaps, as entrepreneur Bob Moesta puts it, “The struggling moment is the seed of innovation.” Perhaps we can make room to grow.

Befriending Uncertainty

Where are you generally on a 0-10 continuum of tolerance for mild uncertainty, where 0 means total discomfort and 10 means total comfort? Would your rating vary over time or in different situations? At one extreme, we might observe the unhelpful belief that uncertainty is always catastrophically harmful (Herbert & Dugas, 2019). We may note some obsessive-compulsive tendencies like intolerance for and amplification of uncertainty, combined with distrust of past experience (Fradkin et al., 2020; Toffolo et al., 2013).(3) 

If this intolerance is left unchallenged, the experience of decision-making may come to feel like endless internal team meetings where some information is presented and analyzed, the team seeks more and more evidence but never trusts it, sends all team meeting minutes through the shredder, and starts the process all over again at the next meeting. Only next time the board room feels a little more stifling, or we’re battling accumulating Zoom-fatigue. 

There is a certain degree of uncertainty running through all things at all times—we can not find a way to get rid of it completely or we will be stuck there forever. Ultimately, we need to accept that every choice, including putting off choosing in pursuit of making the “perfect” decision, will have drawbacks and trade-offs.  

Instead, we might begin to see growth as an iterative process of moving forward. After some deliberation then we focus on implementation and see how that goes… leading to more deliberation and more implementation building on that (Gollwitzer, 2012). So it’s not that internal team meetings are inherently useless, it’s just about finding your own useful balance between analysis and action. 

Reclaiming The Poetry Of The Unknown 

No, I won’t tell you what Elsa decides or how Frozen 2 ends! Instead as we wrap up for now, I’ll give the last words to some ingenious, poetic souls who helped reframe and refresh my own relationship to uncertainty.

As Sheenagh Pugh asks in the culmination of her poem, “What if This Road”

…Who wants to know

a story’s end, or where a road will go?

It’s a poem prescribed frequently by William Sieghart in his inspired Poetry Pharmacy(4). Sieghart notes that the fear of the unknown goes back to our primordial origins as a species and has likely been exacerbated over time by ever-increasing access to information and certainty. While uncertainty can be uncomfortable, Pugh’s pointed question offers a powerful reframe. As Sieghart (2017, p. 78) puts it so beautifully: 

It turns fear of the unknown into gratitude for a life which may yet contain unforgettable surprises. When you really think about it, it’s a wonderful thing that our lives are so rich with different possibilities. If you had the chance to know how things were going to turn out, would you really take it? Or would you prefer to reach the ending the long way around, delighting in the suspense and even, if you’re lucky, the coming together of the plot’s different strands before each of the big climaxes still awaiting you? I know which I’d choose. To use a very modern phrase for a very old thought: no spoilers.

references

De Shazer, S., & Dolan, Y., Korman, H, Trepper, T. S., McCollom, E., & Berg, I. K. (2007). More Than Miracles: The State of the Art of Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. New York: Routledge.

Fradkin, I., Ludwig, C., Eldar, E., & Huppert, J. D. (2020). Doubting what you already know: Uncertainty regarding state transitions is associated with obsessive compulsive symptoms. PLOS Computational Biology. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007634

Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy: Distinctive Features. UK: Routledge.

Gollwitzer, P. M. (2012). Mindset theory of action phases. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology (p. 526–545). London: Sage.

Hebert, E. A. & Dugas, M. J. (2019). Behavioral experiments for intolerance of uncertainty: challenging the unknown in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 26(2), 421-436.

Janis, I. L. & Mann, L. (1977). Decision Making: A Psychological Analysis of Conflict, Choice, and Commitment. New York: Free Press.

Luo, J. & Yu, R. (2015). Follow the heart or the head? The interactive influence model of emotion and cognition. Frontiers of Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00573

Schwarz, N. (2000). Emotion, cognition, and decision making. Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 433-440.

Sieghart, S. (2017). The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried and True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind, and Soul. UK: Penguin. 

Toffolo, M. B. J., van den Hout, M. A., Hooge, I. T. C., Engelhard, I. M., & Cath, D. C. (2013). Mild uncertainty promotes checking behavior in subclinical Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Clinical Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702612472487

BONUS STUFF

(1) Speaking of diving… For a fascinating glimpse of what difficult decision making feels like check out Ten Meter Tower by Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck. By filming the reactions of 67 Swedes on a 10 meter high diving platform, they’ve captured the age-old human dilemma of caution versus exploration. Danielson says, “Our interest was in catching with a camera the part where the people are undecided, and the body is expressing what is going on in the head.” The New York Times called it “mesmerizing” and I agree. https://www.facebook.com/nytopinion/videos/1584642251550725

(2) The skill of “riding the wave” of emotional distress is drawn from DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy). Here’s a brief description: https://www.mindsoother.com/blog/riding-the-wave-of-emotions

(3) Please contact a mental health professional for evaluation and treatment if you believe obsessive-compulsive tendencies, anxiety, an eating disorder, depression, or other mental health issues are interfering with your decision-making, your productivity, your relationships, or your well-being. An intense and pervasive intolerance for uncertainty may underlie these conditions. Unhelpful beliefs about uncertainty often include beliefs that uncertainty has negative implications for oneself and one’s behaviour, and beliefs that uncertainty is unfair and spoils everything. These unhelpful beliefs can be targeted directly in therapy with behavioural experiments (Herbert & Dugas, 2019).

(4) Just what it sounds like! You can go into Sieghart’s little Poetry Pharmacy and after a brief consultation he will prescribe a poem tailored to your “condition” (e.g., Fear of the Unknown). His 2017 gem of a book (in References) gathers together many of these poems for reflection, solace, and inspiration.

About the author

Maryann Joseph received her PhD in Clinical Psychology at McGill University, in Montreal, Quebec, and is a psychologist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.
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