4 Psychological Reasons You’re Indecisive

A reader asks:

I struggle with being indecisive, but I don’t understand why. I’m confident in most areas of life, pretty smart, and typically make good decisions. So why do I constantly second-guess myself or defer to other people when I know that I’m perfectly capable of making good decisions? I wasn’t always this way, but I’ve just slowly morphed into this weirdly indecisive person—sometimes I don’t even recognize myself!

The key to understanding—and eventually overcoming—indecisiveness is to get clear one very important distinction:

Regardless of what caused or triggered your indecisiveness originally, it’s your habits in the present that are maintaining it.

As a psychologist, I’ve worked with a lot of smart, thoughtful people who frustratingly struggled with being indecisive. Luckily, the causes of indecisiveness are simpler and less complicated than you think. In fact, they’re often so obvious that we miss them because they’re hiding in plain sight.

In the rest of this article, I’ll walk you through four of the most common habits that maintain indecisiveness. Once you know where to look, you’ll be well on your way to undoing them and becoming more decisive.

1. Self-Doubt

Self-doubt is the mental habit of chronically and excessively questioning your abilities, character, or decision-making.

For example:

  • You’ve got to buy a present for your mom on her birthday.
  • You think about that restaurant she really likes in the next town over and hop on their website to buy a gift certificate.
  • But just before you hit purchase, a doubt creeps into your head… “Does she still like that restaurant?” And you start to feel a bit anxious…
  • So you call your sister to check with her. And despite her reassuring you that your mom does indeed still love that restaurant, you continue doubting your decision and feel more nervous: “Maybe I should get her some earrings instead… she does love earnings. Or maybe she’d want something more personal? Should I make her something? But what could I make? This is crazy, I should know what my mom likes! Why can’t I just make a decision? Maybe I should ask my dad what he thinks? No, that’s dumb… he’s a terrible gift giver! Should I just ask my mom what she wants? No, that’s lame! Maybe a gift card so she could decide what to get herself? Should I get an Amazon gift card? That seems boring…
  • At this point, you’re even more indecisive and anxious despite having thought much more about it.

See, it’s perfectly normal for some doubts to pop into your head before a decision—and as a result, to feel a little nervous or anxious.

The problem is how you respond to that initial doubt and anxiety…

People who are indecisive are often in the habit of doubting themselves in response to an initial doubt.

It’s not the initial doubt that makes you indecisive: It’s the habit of following up an initial doubt and anxiety with a string of doubting and worrying and all the additional anxiety it generates. That’s what causes you to lose trust in yourself and become indecisive.

People who are decisive still experience those initial doubts, they just feel confident making the decision anyway. They mostly trust their decision-making and go with it.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself:

Well, that’s great for them that they trust themselves and feel confident, but how do you do it if you don’t trust yourself or feel confident?!

To which I’d respond that you’re thinking about this backward…

Sure, trusting yourself makes it easier to be decisive. But it’s not a prerequisite. And in fact, the way you start to trust yourself more is the very act of making decisions despite uncertainty and doubt.

Think about learning to play a musical instrument…

  • How do you get to be confident playing guitar?
  • Are some people just born confident and trusting of their guitar playing abilities?
  • No, of course not.
  • Everyone starts off lacking confidence playing guitar.
  • They only become confident by playing anyway—despite their self-doubt, lack of confidence, insecurities, etc.

It’s the same with making decisions…

  • It’s normal to feel anxious or indecisive.
  • The only way to build trust and confidence in your decision-making is to make decisions despite not feeling confident!

Decisiveness is a skill. And like any skill, you only become confident with it through practice.

So, if you want to become more decisive, the first step is to start to see and become more aware of your habit of self-doubt and how it’s interfering with your ability to practice making decisions despite some doubts and anxiety.

A good first step is a seemingly silly little practice that’s actually quite powerful:

Give your self-doubt a name and a bit of personality.

Like all bad habits, self-doubt thrives in the shadows. But the more you can shine a light on it and catch it “in the act,” the more control you will have over it. And that’s why giving it a name and personality is so helpful: Instead of self-doubt being a thing that just happens to you, by making it a character, you externalize it and begin to have some control over it.

So, for example, you might call your self-doubt: Doubting Dave, a nervous little guy in a gray cardigan and slightly disheveled hair who pops up on your shoulder anytime you need to make a decision.

Now, anytime you’re faced with a decision and are feeling indecisive, label the self-doubt by saying “Oh hi, Doubting Dave. I appreciate your concern, but I think I’ll just make the decision and go with it.” Or something like that.

To sum up:

  • The habit of self-doubt is one of the biggest drivers of indecisiveness.
  • And one of the best ways to break the habit of self-doubt is to become more aware of it.
  • A small way to start to become more aware of your self-doubt is to give it a name and personality, then practice acknowledging it in a humorous way whenever it shows up.

2. Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing is the mental habit of imagining worst-case scenarios.

For example:

  • In response to some initial worry about a colleague at work not liking you, you start imagining that everybody in the office dislikes you, that you’re about to be fired, that you’ll never find a good job again, etc.
  • Or, in response to a bit of worry that pops in your head about not being able to fall asleep quickly, you start worrying about how it’s going to take you hours to fall asleep, how you might not sleep at all, how awful you’re going to feel tomorrow as a result, how terrible your big day is going to be because you didn’t get any sleep, etc.

Now, you might be thinking: Okay, but what does this have to do with indecisiveness?

Well, if you’re in the habit of responding to any type of worry with more worrying and catastrophizing, you’re establishing a habit:

A worry → catastrophizing

This means that whenever you’re faced with a decision—big or small—and a worry pops into mind about that decision or your ability to make a good one (which is totally normal, btw), you’re going to immediately start worrying more and catastrophizing.

Now, instead of a little bit of initial nervousness and anxiety, you’re immediately overwhelmed with anxiety because of this habit of catastrophizing which generates huge amounts of anxiety.

And all that anxiety (which came from the habit of catastrophizing) interferes with your confidence and ability to act decisively.

If you struggle with chronic anxiety, there are a lot of things you can do to overcome it

But to get started, here’s a small little technique for dealing with the habit of catastrophizing that I call Jackpotting.

Basically, anytime you find yourself catastrophizing and imagining the worst-case scenario, you pair it with briefly imagining the best-case scenario (i.e. What if I hit the jackpot?)

For example:

  • You’re in that work meeting when you start catastrophizing about a coworker thinking your comment was dumb. Well, a little bit of jackpotting might look like briefly imagining your boss thinking the idea was brilliant and promoting you.
  • Or, you’re thinking about leaving your job and switching careers. But you find yourself catastrophizing about how terribly that decision could go. So you briefly pair it with some jackpotting: Imagining your new work as a teacher and how fulfilled and excited you are in it.

Now, be sure to keep in mind:

The point of this jackpotting exercise is not to feel less anxious, to cultivate positive thoughts, to manifest your dreams, etc. The point is simply to foster mental flexibility.

See, the real problem with catastrophizing is that it’s a rigid response to anxiety. By pairing your catastrophizing with a very different mental activity of imagining the best possible outcome, you’re essentially stretching your mental faculties and forcing them to loosen up and become more limber, so that in the future you’re not so rigidly tied to this one way of thinking.

To sum up:

  • The mental habit of catastrophizing or imagining the worst-case scenario produces a tremendous amount of anxiety.
  • All that anxiety interferes with your ability to make decisions confidently.
  • You can foster mental flexibility and resist falling into catastrophizing by practicing a little habit called jackpotting which involves pairing your catastrophizing with imagining the best-case scenario.

3. Rumination

Rumination is sort of the inverse of worry and catastrophizing… Instead of worrying about all the terrible things that might happen in the future, rumination is the mental habit of dwelling unproductively on mistakes or injuries in the past.

For example:

  • You’re considering buying a new brand of toothpaste. But you hesitate to grab the tube and put it in your basket because a memory pops into mind of the time 10 years ago when you tried a new type of toothpaste and it was awful. You find yourself replaying memories of how nasty it was, wondering why you didn’t just toss it and go back to your old one, criticizing yourself for being so indecisive, etc.
  • Or a slightly more weighty situation… You’re thinking about asking your friend to set you up with their friend whom you briefly met at a party the other week. But then you remember how your last romantic relationship ended so poorly because of some mean/nasty thing they did to you. You start ruminating on how awful it was that they did that to you, wondering how they could have changed so much, or what you could have done differently, why people are such jerks, etc. At this point, you’re so overcome with anger, regret, and sadness, that you’re not even sure you want to get set up in the first place.

In both these cases, a thought or memory from the past popped into mind. Which is normal! But in response to that thought or memory, the habit of rumination kicked in, which involves unproductively dwelling on the past. This rumination generated a ton of difficult emotions like regret, sadness, anger, maybe fear, which then interfered with your confidence and ability to act decisively.

Notice how despite the content of catastrophizing and rumination being very different, they’re essentially the same behavior: You’re allowing your mind to get hijacked by unhelpful thinking patterns which then interfere with your ability to act decisively.

Now, one of the reasons we get stuck in this habit of rumination is because we justify it to ourselves as being true…

  • I did screw up this decision last time…
  • I was hurt the last time I tried this…
  • People are jerks to me most of the time…

But here’s the thing:

Just because a thought is true doesn’t mean it’s helpful.

If you allow your mind to chase after any and every true thought that pops into consciousness, you’re in for a lot of pain and suffering.

On the other hand, a better question to ask of your thoughts is whether they are helpful or not…

  • Is thinking about that terrible mistake I made last year for the 200th time helping me right now?
  • Is reminding myself that people can be jerks helping me right now?
  • Is dwelling on the way other people tend to let me down helping me do what I really want to do right now?

Your decision to engage with your thoughts is an important one, especially when it comes to decision-making and being decisive. But if you’re in the habit of engaging with every thought that pops into your head—or any thought that’s true—you’re very likely to end up running around in unproductive circles of rumination which only take you further and further away from your goal of making decisions decisively.

But, by betting in the habit of asking yourself whether a line of thinking is helpful or not, you’ll find it much easier to let go of those unhelpful thought patterns and stay focused on making the decisions you want.

To sum up:

  • Rumination is the mental habit of thinking unproductively about mistakes or offenses against you in the past.
  • Like catastrophizing, rumination tends to interfere with your confidence in making decisions.
  • You can get better at letting go of ruminative thoughts by asking yourself not whether they’re true or not, but instead, whether they’re helpful.

4. People-pleasing

People-pleasing is the habit of chronically putting other people’s wants and needs before your own because you’re afraid of how they’ll think or feel about you.

For example:

  • Your partner asks if you want to get Chinese take-out for dinner.
  • You don’t because you’ve had Chinese a lot lately.
  • But you’re afraid of your partner feeling disappointed if you say no or suggest something else.
  • So you smile and say “sure!”

Or, here’s another example:

  • A client emails you asking to reschedule a meeting for the third time.
  • You don’t want to. And you also know that the more you go along with this kind of behavior the more you enable it.
  • But you’re afraid that they’ll be angry with you if you say no to the reschedule.
  • So you email them back: “Yeah, no problem.”

Now, sometimes people-pleasing can directly interfere with your ability to make decisions and be decisive. If you’re trying to break up with your boyfriend, for example, but you don’t because you’re afraid of how sad and disappointed he’ll feel… Well, that’s obviously making it hard to be decisive.

However, the more common but subtle way people-pleasing interferes with decisiveness is more indirect…

Chronic people-pleasing teaches your brain that you’re less important than other people.

After all, if your brain constantly sees you deferring your own wants, needs, or decisions in favor of other people’s out of fear, is it any surprise that your confidence deteriorates?

In other words,…

Chronic people-pleasing lowers your confidence generally. And low confidence makes it hard to be decisive.

So, if you struggle with decisiveness but don’t necessarily struggle too much with the first three habits here—self-doubt, catastrophizing, and rumination—there’s a good chance that you have a habit of people-pleasing which indirectly affects your decisiveness by lowering your confidence.

Ultimately, the way out of this people-pleasing trap is to build the skill of assertiveness.

But a very simple, small way to get started being more assertive and doing a little less people-pleasing is to ask yourself a simple question when faced with other people’s requests:

What do I really want in this situation?

Think about it:

  • A lot of chronic people-pleasers have been doing this so long that they don’t even stop to ask themselves what they really want in most situations.
  • And if this has been the case for a long time, you might not even know what you really want.
  • But how are you supposed to be decisive and act on what you want if you don’t even really know what you want?!

So, without putting any pressure on yourself to actually ask for or choose what you really want, try to get in the habit of at least pausing and making space to ask yourself what you really want.

This won’t magically make you more decisive right away.

But over time it will create a foundation that will help you to be more decisive. Because the clearer you are about what you really want—including your values—the easier it is to be assertive, including making decisions for yourself assertively.

To sum up:

  • People-pleasing tend to lower your confidence in general.
  • And low self-confidence makes it significantly harder to be decisive.
  • A small way to begin breaking the habit of people-pleasing is to make time to ask yourself what you really want whenever someone makes a request of you.

The Deep Cause of Indecisiveness

Before we end, I want to make a quick observation that I hope you’ll reflect on:

In every cause of indecisiveness I’ve mentioned, the common denominator is anxiety intolerance.

Anxiety intolerance is the unwillingness to feel and have anxiety, and usually leads to various coping strategies and behaviors which may or may not alleviate some anxiety in the short-term, but always make it worse in the long run.

For example:

  • Self-Doubt. When faced with the anxiety of making a decision without perfect information, engaging in self-doubt briefly leads to a sense of control, which distracts from the anxiety momentarily but increases it in the long run by lowering confidence.
  • Catastrophizing. Similar to self-doubt, worry and catastrophizing feel productive because they resemble problem-solving; and as a result, we use them as a coping mechanism for simply allowing the anxiety to be while making a decision anyway.
  • Rumination. Time traveling back into the past is a convenient way to temporarily escape the discomfort of anxiety in the present. But ultimately, it chips away at confidence and increases anxiety about decision-making in the future.
  • People-pleasing. By deferring what you really want and “going with the flow,” you can briefly escape the anxiety of potential conflict with another person. But just like in the previous examples, that brief respite from anxiety exacts a much greater toll long term in the form of low assertiveness, lack of self-confidence, and more indecisiveness.

One way or another, indecisiveness is always a symptom of the unwillingness to have anxiety.

Because we view anxiety as bad or dangerous, we default to coping with it, which only makes it more intense in the end—and makes the goal of being more decisive that much harder by eroding confidence.

The solution is to radically rethink your relationship with anxiety; and instead of treating it like an enemy to be eliminated or avoided, think of it as a friend who, however uncomfortable, deserves to be tolerated.

Learn More About Managing Anxiety

If you’re interesting in learning more about creating a healthier relationship with your anxiety, here are a couple resources from me that might be helpful:

All You Need to Know

Four of the most common causes of indecisiveness include:

  • Self-doubt
  • Catastrophizing
  • Rumination
  • People-pleasing

But all of these are driven primarily by anxiety intolerance and an unhealthy dependence on coping skills to alleviate anxiety.