Theodore Rubin and indecisiveness
(Note: this article is an excerpt from Foundations – A Synthesis of Science, Psychology, Spirituality, and Psychology, by RG Martin.)
Theodore Rubin, a psychoanalyst and a follower of Karen Horney, wrote one of the best books on the analysis of existential decision-making, Overcoming Indecisiveness.
His mentor and inspiration for the book was a Navy officer who was responsible for the death of many sailors and the ruin of his career. During World War II, he caused a shipwreck because he couldn’t make a quick decision. Rubin’s mentor spent the rest of his life teaching naval officers how to make decisions.
Any decision is OK
Rubin made the radical statement that, usually, which decision you make doesn’t matter as long as you make one. The most common decisions—and the hardest—are the “good-good” decisions. It is usually much easier to make a decision when one choice is clearly good and the other decision is clearly bad. Good-good decisions are difficult because both decisions could have good outcomes, and you can never know what the outcome would have been if you had made the opposite decision. Life is a one-way street.
Foundations presents an antithesis to Rubin’s hypothesis that “it usually doesn’t matter what decision one makes.” As an antithesis, Foundations argues that with the informal scientific laboratory of experience one can often test whether a particular decision was the best one or not. After the authentic decision has been made—that is, the decision has been followed through and made real—the person can assess the consequences of the decision. The consequences can support or disprove the hypothesis that “the decision was the best one.”
Good decisions can be made only from experience. And experience often comes from making bad decisions.
A problem with the personal philosophy of non-forgiveness is that often a person has the same difficulty forgiving himself as he does in forgiving others. Perhaps there is no more important need for forgiving oneself as in the case of wrong decision-making. We all make wrong decisions, even when they are “good-good” decisions.
For instance, a person might turn down a good job opportunity when, in retrospect, the job could have resulted in a promising career move. Other examples include almost weekly news items where a famous person “had it all” and “blew it all” with a simple bad decision. A good example of this is Anthony Weiner, a congressman from New York City, who, in 2011, destroyed his whole promising career because he made a simple decision to text lewd pictures of himself to women with whom he had online virtual relationships.
People who have developed the skill of authentic decision-making have learned, even after having made bad decisions, one often has to still follow through with the decision and make the best of it. This is often better than going back and reversing the decision.
These existentially skilled people also learn that one has to move on in life. Moving on in one’s life after making a bad decision includes forgiving oneself. A person could say to himself a version of the following:
OK, I made another bad decision. Every successful person does the same thing. I can’t make any decisions without periodically making bad decisions. Now how can I learn from this mistake and how can I modify my thoughts and behavior to avoid this kind of consequence in the future?
I’ll just try to make the best of the situation. I’m going to fully experience my spontaneous feelings of sorrow, guilt, and self-contempt, and then I’m going to forgive myself and gradually let go of these negative feelings. I’m not going to beat myself up for the rest of my life, nor let others criticize me for months on end.
However, the person who doesn’t forgive others often can’t forgive herself either. She can spend a whole lifetime in grief, regret, and self-recrimination over a wrong decision. For instance, a woman who can’t forgive her father for being a bad parent may not be able to forgive herself for having an abortion when she later wishes she had given birth to the child. She could spend a lifetime in guilt and depression because of her inability—or unwillingness—to forgive others as well as herself.
Forgiveness is a skill like any other skill. It can be learned and mastered. One can also choose to not learn the skill. A person can choose to believe in the hypothesis that one can be forgiven for wrongdoing. One must often have faith in the phenomenon of authentic forgiveness in order to fully experience interior cleanliness and peace.
The learning of this skill is mandated in the prayer that Jesus gave to humanity: “Forgive me as I forgive others.”
As an antithesis, one can believe that certain behaviors cannot be forgiven. If a person commits of one these unforgiveable “sins,” she can live a life with some guilt, shame, and oppression. If another person commits one of these “sins” against this person, she can try to get that person to live a life with some guilt, shame, and oppression with her grudge.
Rubin makes the interesting point that there are basically two kinds of decisions: pseudo decisions and authentic decisions. In an authentic decision, a person makes a decision and actually does it. Or, in the case of being unable to do it, the person does everything possible to keep the decision, but life makes it impossible.
In the case of a pseudo decision, people try to fool themselves and others into thinking that they made a decision when, in fact, they haven’t. The person decides to do something, but pursues it half-heartedly, allows other things to interfere with the goal, or simply forgets about the decision.
This could even be seen as a lie to oneself and to others. Some people characterize those who say that they are going to do something and then don’t do it as being dishonest. A milder description of a pseudo decision is that it is an illusion.
How to make a decision
Rubin listed the following stages of authentic decision-making:
- Evaluate all the pros and cons of each choice. List all the emotional pros and cons as well. Accept all the feelings involved with each choice and give them respect. Allow your feelings to influence your decision, but let your reason be the leader in the decision-making process.
One skill in this evaluation is to take a fantasy trip into what your life would be like if you made one decision. Experience how you would feel. Then do the same for another decision, and another, and another. Then compare how you would feel with each alternative. Of course, this is not a fully accurate prediction of how each decision would turn out, but it is one set of indictors that can help you make a decision.
Make a decision. Realize that usually any decision is better than indecisiveness. Wisdom can come from making bad decisions. If you are in a chronic state of indecision, you can simply do an act of will and make the decision.
- Make a firm commitment to see the decision through. Let go of all emotions and thoughts that work against accomplishing the goal of the decision. Accept and integrate all emotions that contribute to the goal.
- Accomplish the goals of the decision. Or try your best to accomplish it, making all the necessary sacrifices and doing all the necessary work. Even if you fail, others will see this effort as your having made an authentic decision.
- Experience the satisfaction of accomplishment and evaluate the consequences of the decision, especially the emotional consequences. Learn from the experience and make slight modifications in your thoughts and behavior as a result.
- Start by making small authentic decisions. These decisions will develop your skill in making good decisions. Simply start with developing these skills: exercising small acts of will; following through with a decision until completion; developing the virtues of fortitude and courage; making necessary sacrifices; doing the hard work; and then making bigger and bigger decisions.
Two hypothetical decision makers
Let’s explore two different kinds of decision makers, the first person making authentic decisions and the second person making pseudo decisions.
After completing high school, Tim can’t decide which college to attend. After evaluating the pros and cons of many schools, Tim visits the most appealing schools and evaluates the feelings connected with each visit, writing them down and discussing them with trusted friends and relatives.
After making a decision, he follows through with the decision with courage and lets go of arguments and feelings in favor of the other schools. Tim is fully invested in experiencing the chosen school. He makes the necessary sacrifices and does the difficult work to pass the courses. When he graduates from his school, he has the clean feeling of accomplishment. After evaluating the experience, including the mistakes and achievements, Tim goes out into the world armed with experiences that will increase the probability of success in future existential projects.
Here is an example of another person in the same situation who makes a pseudo decision.
Randy, a high school student, can’t decide what college to go to. He is beset with conflicting emotions, and the arguments for and against various schools seem to balance each other out. Unable to make a decision, he goes to no school.
After a few years of working in unprofessional jobs, Randy finally decides to attend a certain college and settles on some career goals. He shares this decision with friends and relatives, speaking with conviction, enthusiasm, and determination. He has a strong belief in a positive outcome.
Once at the chosen school, however, Randy has conflicting feelings and longs for another school. He doesn’t do the necessary work for passing the courses and eventually drops out. In future years, he enrolls and flunks out of a couple more schools. Despite the several changes in schools and career goals, he always ends up being dissatisfied and unhappy with his choice.
Relationship problems, financial problems, and family problems always seem to interfere with Randy’s schoolwork. When things are going wrong, he becomes depressed and neglects homework and class attendance.
Randy also often puts social life ahead of academic goals. He fails to make the sacrifices and do the hard work needed to pass his courses. In the end, he fails to graduate from any school.
Feeling like a failure, Randy experiences the wasted money and the loss of precious years of his young life. He learns nothing from these experiences and retains many of the same thought patterns and behaviors that he had in high school.
At age 30, Randy is still working at unprofessional, low-paying jobs, and he is still living at home. He continues to expend much emotional and intellectual energy trying to decide which school to graduate from and which career to follow. But the real problem is that he has never developed the skill for making authentic decisions.
He has never developed one of the main skills in life:
Decide what to do and then do it.
Here are a few blockages, of the many that Rubin discusses, that get in our way of making authentic decisions. He calls them decision blockers.
- Striving for perfection. This neurotic demand is the unwillingness to make a decision without absolute assurance that it is the right one and without a certainty of its consequences. This neurotic demand could be one manifestation of a person striving to be an idealistic person rather than an authentic person.
An antidote to this perfectionism is the acceptance of reasonable probability of success. As we have seen in quantum theory, all life is probability. For instance, in business, if there is a 95% chance of success, it’s a go. There is never a 100% chance of success. Another approach is to make a decision and accept the fact that we can’t control reality. We do our best and leave the rest to fate. Lessons learned from the experience will help us modify our future thoughts and behavior.
- Negative thoughts and emotions. Thoughts and emotions that work against the decision being accomplished sabotage its authenticity. An antidote to this decision blocker is accepting and understanding these negative thoughts and emotions, but gradually letting them go as an act of free will. The person can also respond to these negative thoughts and emotions and lines of reasoning that support the decision.
- Wanting it all. Wanting everything that life has to offer and willing to sacrifice nothing is a neurotic demand that is pervasive in our present society. (This neurotic demand is made manifest in the contemporary use of the smartphone. Having a good conversation with one person is not enough for some people. They want to have a good conversation but also text three other people at the same time.)
The problem with the neurotic demand “to have it all” is that the clock exists! We have limited time in our lives. Also, even the smallest duty of the present moment often takes our full attention, that is, if we want to do it right. This idea is expressed very well in the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. We often can do only one thing well at a time. Multitasking is an illusion. A person can do many things at once, but usually can’t do them all well.
Michel Quoist, a psychologist and spiritual writer, once said that with every person who accomplished a great task in history, they only had one main focus. For Einstein, it was physics; for Dylan, it was song writing; for Napoleon, it was military conquest. Most of us are in the same boat. We can only do a few things in life if we plan to do them well. And if we want to be a historical person, we probably can only have one main project in life.
Also, we can only do a few things in any specific time period. Trying to do it all only puts our focus in 10 different directions, and nothing worthy gets accomplished.
To get any project done, we must let go of many other possible projects. For instance, to have a good marriage, we must let go of all other potential romances. To have a good career, we must let go of all other careers that we could have pursued. To develop one talent, we must let go of the many other talents we have that could have developed. To grow spiritually, sometimes we have to give up damn near everything. In fact, in meditation we try to give up everything for a short period of time. We even give up our thoughts!
Finally, when we face death, we do give up everything. And if we want to have a “good” death we must surrender everything, even our lives. We could choose to surrender ourselves to God, as we understand Him, to another mythological being, or to nothingness. We could surrender ourselves to a mythological afterlife that we have chosen: an eternal paradise, reincarnation, nothingness, or something in-between. If we haven’t prepared ourselves for that inevitable event, we might have a “bad” death, one filled with resistance, denial, anger, depression, and existential pain.
Humility and the clock
People who are successful in accomplishing a great goal are often humble. If they are realistic about the time and the sacrifices it takes to achieve a great goal, they realize how little they can accomplish in the short time of their existence. They can only do a few things and perhaps only one big thing. As an existential antithesis, the immature person who is trying to do it all is often arrogant because, in his imagination, he will accomplish much more than the successful realistic person.
Note: A student of Einstein’s once suggested that Einstein meet a friend of his. The student said that his friend was very bright but also very humble. Einstein replied, “How could he be humble? He hasn’t done anything.”
The ability to give up things for a greater good can be seen as a necessary life skill.
Sacrifice is the name of the road.
—Bob Dylan, from the song, Idiot Wind
 See pp. 212-227 for Roberto Assigiloi’s analysis of the human will.
 See p. __ for a discussion on the neurotic demand.
 See pp. 63-71 for discussions of how to use cognitive theory to modify one’s thoughts to be supportive of an authentic decision.
 See his book, The Meaning of Success.
I like your point about forgiving yourself. Sometimes the only thing that’s keeping us from reaching our goal is our doubts, regrets, hatred to our self for making decisions that we think are “bad”. But at the end of the day, it’s just a decision, and what we do after it is what matters most. So I think we should be easy on ourselves.
I agree. Another aspect of “bad” decisions is that we can never predict the long-term effects of any decision. Often what looks like a bad decision in the short-run, turns out to be a good decision in the long-run. But this doesn’t matter much — life is a one-way street. And some religious mythologies state that God has a way of turning all bad decision into good results, for those who love Him.
I also agree with you on the concept of forgiveness. As I see more and more people becoming emotionally handicapped because of grudges, I’ve come to believe that universal forgiveness — forgiving everyone, especially yourself — is essential for living fully.
Rachel Moss says
Good article, RG. This is something that you would consider thinking, and makes you questions about life.
Davina Johns says
I love the part where you said about weighing the emotional pros and cons, because sometimes when I list them, I’m more considering it on the practical side of things, and not dealing with how emotionally a decision will take toll on me.
I like the part where you mentioned we should start by making small authentic decisions–which I feel are decisions we make for ourselves, having been able to list its pros and cons, and what we are willing to push through even after the decision making.
You’re right about the part where you mentioned “striving for perfection” I think the more we want out decisions to be perfect, the more we limit ourselves with making the authentic decisions.
David, Davina, and Rachel,
Tx for your comments.
You add a lot for all of our readers. Let’s make an authentic decision to keep thinking about how we all can become better decision-makers! One thing for sure, in the future we will all face important crossroads in our lives where we will have to make authentic decisions. Let’s try to learn how to make the best ones! And if we don’t, how we can learn from our wrong decisions.
One writer said, “Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from making poor decisions.”