Breaking Free From Decision Anxiety

Michael GembolaBy Michael Gembola10 Minutes

Not so long ago I was talking with someone who said she’d taken on almost a hundred-thousand dollars of college debt for a degree in the humanities. As an English major myself, I’m all for people studying good and beautiful things, even when they’re not obviously or immediately useful. But the person who’d gotten into this much debt regretted it profoundly. She felt hopeless that she’d ever get out from under it and wished she could go back and make a different decision about her education.

One of the reasons some of us feel so much anxiety about our decisions is that we know they have consequences like this — negative and maybe lifelong. Ten years from now, once I have more perspective, will I regret decisions I’m making today?

Giving “what if” questions any space in our minds easily takes us to very scary places. How do you face these possibilities without feeling paralyzed?

Here are several principles to break up the gridlock of decision anxiety and take meaningful action in our world.

1) Face the risks directly.

Anxiety holds so much power because it persuades us that we can avoid risk. The goal of anxious thinking is risk elimination. Even if the likelihood of the risk is only 1% or 0.01%, we anxiously ruminate about how to totally get rid of risk.

Eliminating risk is of course impossible, and trying to leaves us feeling frantic, as though there’s no alternative response to the unknowns ahead.

But the alternative choice is to wisely and prayerfully face risks, incrementally where possible. This approach works especially well for anxiety about the smaller decisions that sometimes get people stuck — what to order off the menu, what to wear, what class to sign up for, what to do with your weekend. Facing risks can look like acceptance or even resignation to our inability to prevent feared outcomes.

This approach is helpful for bigger decisions too. The other side of the coin of risk is trust. Making decisions prayerfully is less about asking God to make the decision for us and more about asking him for wisdom, entrusting outcomes to him, and stepping forward in faith.

2) Take individual decisions less (and more) seriously.

Although God doesn’t make our decisions for us or always tell us clearly what to do, at least when we’re not talking about decisions between right and wrong, he does equip us to make decisions and to grow as decision makers. Decision making is an arena for our discipleship and Christian formation. Growth in decision-making functions like the rest of the Christian life: it happens in process and progress. In this life it can reach faithfulness but not perfection.

This means that growing in decision-making is part of growing in maturity. Christian maturity means we are less tossed around by bad ideas (Ephesians 4) and we become more steady on our feet. Maturity also involves growth in wisdom or skill in living. We anticipate getting better at decisions, so we expect our skill in decision-making today not to be quite as good as it will be in five or ten years, and there’s a steadiness and humility in this awareness. We know we won’t get all of our decisions right, because perfection is not possible. But humility and faithfulness are.

So we don’t over inflate the importance of every decision, even significant ones like a relocation, job change, or the start of a dating relationship. Yet we also see a new significance in them.

The original call of humanity that we see in the biblical book of Genesis is to tend the creation, to order and name and arrange it for fruitfulness — to make decisions about the creation. Similarly, each of us is a steward of a small corner of creation. It belongs to God, but we manage it and have the privilege of working with our one little life so that the plot we oversee, however small, bears fruit.

3) Don’t go at it alone.

Most of what I’ve shared so far can be applied individually, but it’s more difficult and less effective if you try to address decision anxiety alone.

A touching story I heard years ago was from a man who struggled profoundly with OCD. He was working through a focused plan of exposures, which is a manualized form of incrementally facing risks. When looking back, he said what was more helpful than the exposures was how much his friends came around him and helped. He felt that the burden really was being carried by others as he, on purpose, tried to do things that were scary for him, like washing his hands only once, or touching “germs” and then just sitting there with no rituals.

Addressing decision anxiety, especially the more severe forms of it, works similarly. When we know that we are not alone, it makes a world of a difference. On the one hand, it is difficult to face the truth that in most cases, God or other people are not going to make our decisions for us, and they often won’t help us think through things in such a way that one option becomes obviously better. We don’t usually feel rock-solid certainty, and sometimes even confidence is elusive. On the other hand, this is clarifying, because it opens the door for us to consider other ways that we will receive care from God and others.

If I cannot extract certainty about my decisions from others, what can they provide? The most meaningful answer that God gives to fearful people is his presence (Psalm 23). Likewise, the words of Jesus to his worrying disciples is a strong assurance that he will never leave or forsake them.

This ministry of presence is more (but not less!) than physical proximity to us in our seasons of decision anxiety. It involves walking together through imperfect decisions and at times mixed outcomes. We weep together when there is an outcome to grieve, and we rejoice when there is an outcome to give thanks for (Romans 12).

This message of solidarity runs deep in the Bible. As part of a body, we have Christ as the head, and we’re tightly connected with joints and ligaments, staying connected for our growth and good, and hurting together when any one member hurts (Ephesians 4, 1 Corinthians 12).

But we’re not just sitting back waiting to see how decisions turn out. We also want to help others before they make decisions too. The older helps the younger with meaningful mentoring and advice (Titus 2). We’d like to help each other avoid six-figure school debt that doesn’t lead to a job that will pay for it. But we also refuse to simply leave people to the consequences of their decisions, as a cautionary tale or I-told-you-so, as though they are now to bear it all alone. We are to engage in bearing the burden together here and now, and for the days to come.

By walking together in this way, we model the conviction that our “what if” worries can be turned into “even if” prayers (Psalm 139). Our “even if” prayers are more credible when we are walking together when “even if” happens. And that is the best help we can provide to each other in our worries about decisions: a faith that doesn’t lose caution but adds boldness, that sees decisions more as skill-building opportunities than tests to pass or fail, and that ultimately finds trusting God in community to be better than the feelings of certainty.