If I had to pick one phrase I’ve heard more than any other over the years (other than “I don’t know”), it’d be some variation of “I didn’t make a good decision.” If I could charge everyone a dollar each time they said that, I would have zillions by now. And although people admit to making a bad decision after the fact, I am convinced that most of them know the decision was not a good one at the time, but did it anyway.
I don’t think people who tend to make bad decisions are really stupid or uninformed. Usually if they say they were uninformed, it’s just denial. Bad decision-makers typically know they’re making poor choices, and they make them because they want something in the moment. They don’t project into the future or think, “When I look back on what I’m about to do, will I be proud of it.”
About 25 years ago when I was on the radio at night, I remember a young man in his 20s calling in to my show. His parents had just died in a car crash, and he was left to take care of his little sister. He told me, “I’m in my mid-to-late 20s and it’s time I started my life, but on the other hand, I feel guilty [that's the way people phrase it] about not taking care of my little sister. There are no other relatives to do it.” After listening to him, I responded by saying, “OK, by the power vested in me, I am projecting you 20 years into the future. You are now looking back at yourself right now. What would you like to see yourself doing that would make you proud?”
The guy instantly started tearing up. “Taking care of my sister,” he said. And that was the end of that.
A lot bad decisions usually come from wanting to feel good at that particular moment, and it all goes downhill from there (e.g. “I know he/she is not really for me, but I’m lonely”). However, a lot of times people end up making poor choices because they’re overly self-critical. Negative self-talk – “I’m useless,” “I’m a loser,” “I’m a failure”) – results in people feeling like there’s no point in even trying to behave positively or solve problems because if they’re already “a loser” and “a failure,” how can they possibly be successful? Self-criticism and ruminating on the negative are things people just tend to do. They go on and on and on about the negative, and it strips them of all their motivation to take any positive steps forward. For example, if you’ve just spent an hour in therapy bitching about your life, your parents, your brother/sister, or your husband/wife, do you really think at the end of the hour you’re going to feel motivated to do anything positive about it? No. That’s why I ask people to be careful about how much time they spend “feeding the angry monster.”
Another reason a lot of you end up feeling sorry for yourselves is that you say “yes” to things you should say “no” to. You spend time with people you don’t want to spend time with so they’ll be happy with you, allow others to treat you poorly, and live the life that others want you to live. All of these are part and parcel of bad decisions, and they have to do with being cowardly.
Usually when I tell people that they are going to have to talk to the person they’re trying to please, they say, “Oh no! I’d do anything to avoid that.” However, unless the person has got a sawed-off shotgun or some other equally lethal weapon, you’re going to have to face your fears. Take responsibility for your decisions. They are your decisions. It does no good to make excuses or rationalize or pretend that you aren’t to blame. If you want to move forward, you have to take responsibility for your choices, your actions, and the consequences of those actions.
In addition, some people tend to get stuck in making bad choices simply because they want to stay stuck. It gets them off the hook from having to take risks and working hard to apply themselves. I’ve had a lot of people call my program over the years about their weight. They always have a million excuses, or want to look back and see how their childhood has affected their eating habits. But it’s today and tomorrow they should be looking at. It doesn’t matter how they got there. We can’t fix yesterday. (F.Y.I., when I ask things about people’s childhoods, it’s to find out information and understand, not to blame.)
So, now that you know why people make bad decisions, how can you ensure that you don’t make them yourself?
Whether it’s deciding on who you want to be in a relationship with or simply where you want to go to lunch, make it mechanical. “Life is the sum of your choices” (remember your Camus from college?) There could be times in your life where you make about 10 really bad choices in one week and then sit there thinking that there’s no way out. However, what you need to do instead is say, “Oops! I guess those were bad choices. How do I find a way out of this?” Frankly, there’s not always a way out. Some things, unfortunately, can never be fixed. Yet, even if your situation seems finite to two options, there’s probably some alternatives you’re overlooking. If you’re thinking you can only decide between “A” and “B,” that’s wrong. It may seem like only “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “E” are available, but you’re probably not considering “F” and “G.” Brainstorm and make a list of your possible options, put down crazy ideas, and ask other people for suggestions. No matter how dumb you think some of them sound, write them down anyway.
Now here’s the tough part. For each one of those situations, think about whether the best possible outcome of making a particular decision outweighs the risk of the worst possible outcome? When coming to a decision, go through the following steps: What’s the best possible outcome? What’s the worst possible outcome? Is the best outcome so valuable and so likely that it’s worth risking the worst outcome? For example, “The best thing that can come out of this is I make a million dollars, and the worst thing that can come out of this is I damage my entire family for life.” Of course I’m just making up a silly example, but it clearly illustrates the process. Is the million dollars worth the possibility of damaging your whole family for life? It’s a decision you have to make. Be honest – is the answer “yes” or “no”? Most of you would say “no,” moan and groan a little bit over what you could have done with the million dollars, and then move on. Some of you would say “yes.” Nevertheless, that’s how you make a decision, and then, you have to be willing to live with the outcome.
Recently, a man called into my show with a situation that you’ve all heard many times before: he’d knocked up a girl he wasn’t married to. They had the kid, and while he was off in the military she found another guy and got knocked up again, except this time, this guy married her. Our original guy got all angry and upset that some other guy was going to be Daddy. Do you want to know what my answer was? “I hope the new guy is cool, nice, loving, and a good dad. I really don’t care about your feelings. Sorry.” He didn’t care about the risk of bringing a new person into the world that he wasn’t going to take care of. He was willing to risk the life and well-being of a child for instant gratification and sex. It was a poor decision and there were consequences. He needed to just accept responsibility for his misbehavior and not be angry with this woman and the other guy. He was the one who caused the problem.
Everyone needs to think through their decisions because down the line, there are huge prices to pay. Be prepared to accept responsibility for every outcome of your decisions. And when you do make a bad decision, don’t just sit there feeling sorry for yourself.