Anne was trying to decide whether to stay in a relationship or go. There were plenty of reasons to leave–she didn’t feel heard, she felt belittled, her boyfriend didn’t want to go for counseling and didn’t want her to go either. On the other hand, she had spent a year in the relationship and had put effort into making it work. Her boyfriend was funny and made her laugh, even at herself.
To stay or to leave? Would leaving seem like giving up? Was she being a quitter instead of someone who worked out problems? Was staying in a bad relationship a sign she didn’t care about herself? Couldn’t admit she had made a mistake and move on?
Anne was tortured with her choices. And she kept piling up more reasons without knowing which direction to take. Watching this was torture. I suggested she might feel comfortable writing Carolyn Hax, who writes the syndicated column, “Tell Me About It” for the Washington Post.
“I should be able to sort this out by myself,” Anne said. “I don’t know how come I can’t make a decision.”
Sometimes making a decision is tough because with the decision comes the consequence. Either staying or leaving brings on a pile of consequences that you choose the instant you make the decision, and often you are afraid of consequences you don’t know about yet. So you put off the decision, and begin to drown in your own life.
I gave Anne a coin. “Heads you stay, tails you leave,” I said.
“You’re kidding, right?” she said, looking at me as if I were nuts.
“Well, this is the simplest way for you to get to a decision. It takes thinking out of the problem. Let’s see what happens,” I said.
She flipped the coin. Heads. Anne broke into tears. Hurts and agonies months in the making poured out. I handed her a Kleenex. At the end of the sobbing came the sentence, “I can’t stay. I’ll die if I stay.” As soon as she sobbed it out, Anne had her answer. By coming up with endless possibilities and choices, Anne has supressed the answer she already knew. By taking thinking out of the pattern that she had developed, she suddenly collided with her emotions and knew the answer she had been suppressing.
Anne left her boyfriend, and although there were many tears and a few hard days and nights, over time she knew the decision had been right. Looking back she saw that a lot of her indecision was rooted in not wanting to change because change made her feel as uncertain as she felt in staying.
It’s not the tossing of the coin that helps you make a decision, but the emotions that follow it. Emotions often inform clear decisions, because they allow you to focus on what is important to you. We often block our values because we are scared of honoring them. The coin toss works, even if you know about its purpose, because it make your own feelings clear to you. Our ability to provide many scenarios of the future blocks a clear view sometimes, and tapping into raw emotions provides the only clear view. A coin toss will put you in touch with what you are hiding from yourself. The coin isn’t leading you, the coin gives you permission to see one decision and gauge your choices instead of balancing one pro with another con.
It clears the way to sorting through the issue at hand instead of the fear of making a decision.
—Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach. She knows that choosing can be as hard as admitting a bad choice. And she loves the thought of the sufi poet and fool, Mullah Nasiruddin, who said, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” (c) 2007-9 All rights reserved.