For many of us at the moment, things are undoubtedly tough. And, as human beings, we have developed many ways to make it even tougher than it needs to be. For example, sometimes we catastrophise, taking a bad situation and imagining everything getting worse and worse with each decision we make. Or we can generalise strife in one area of our life into every area, by feeling upset about a work issue and then compounding it by picking fights with loved ones.
The best way to deal with both of these is to notice what you are doing and step back to see if you can find other ways to deal with or express your feelings.
What I want to consider in this blog though, is the way many of us narrow our choices in a complex situation down to just two option – I’ll call them X or Y. I remember working with a client who had a huge argument with their partner. They only saw two options: either to leave their partner of ten years or put up with their behaviour. Imagine being that person who has narrowed their choices to such dramatic extremes. I can disrupt my entire life or, I can put up and shut up. That is a difficult decision to make but also perhaps an unnecessary one.
And who amongst us has not put themselves in this sort of position where we only see two choices? I know I certainly have. I remember when I graduated, the country was in the middle of a recession and I couldn’t get work as a graduate. I finally got a Christmas job in a jeweller that went on to become permanent position. I was desperate to move on but convinced myself that it was that job or no job at all. It wasn’t until I got a last-minute opportunity to do Camp America that I suddenly realised that there were many other options open to me. As it turned out, ditching the job and going to America for four months was one of the best things I ever did.
So, if you ever find yourself narrowing your choices down to X or Y, you should train yourself to set off a warning flag in your brain. Having two options is not a choice, it is a dilemma! It is actually the structure of a problem. It shuts down all possibility for creatively searching for new possibilities. You just mentally stand there going, “On the one hand… on the other hand.”
So, if you notice you are doing this, stop, sit back and find some other options, three is the bare minimum, but aim for five. When we are thinking like this, it can be hard to come up with options, because usually we have convinced ourselves there are none. So it may be helpful to ask a friend or family member to brainstorm options with you. It doesn’t matter how seemingly bizarre some of those options might be because an outrageous suggestion can sometimes spark other more practical ideas or, when considered seriously, be a fantastic innovation that changes your life.
Going back to the client I mentioned earlier, I pointed out how her two options, leave or stay with no room to manoeuvre, were at two extreme ends of a continuum. We worked together to create other options, such as talking to the partner directly or with the help of a couple counsellor to consider how their behaviour might have contributed to the situation and what they could do about that, as well as talking about other events that were going on in other parts of both their lives.
As with most things in life, the main issue was one of poor communication. At the end of the conversation, neither of the two original options were even on the table as first steps. There was no guarantee that they would sort out the relationship, but my client had a range of options to try before they called it a day. This meant, instead of being stuck with a dilemma, they could take action to change things for themselves.
So, even though things at the moment might be tough, learning to pull back from narrowing your options down to X or Y and challenging yourself to come up with others is a useful way to ensure that you keep moving forward.