I spend too much time second-guessing my decisions. Not all of them, mind you. And not usually during my decision-making process itself. I’m an after-the-fact second-guesser, and I’m curious to know if others are similarly inclined, and if so, does second-guessing provide you any value?
We all suffer the occasional regret over our choices. But we don’t necessarily second-guess ourselves on a regular basis. Sure, we feel some buyer’s remorse after succumbing to the Pop-Tarts near the checkout display at the supermarket or the third pair of ankle booties in a month (ahem)… not that I would know anything about the latter.
Relatively speaking, examples like a spontaneous discretionary purchase are insignificant. You blow out your calorie count for a day or your budget by $40 for the month.
In my examples, the outcomes, while not optimal, don’t yield terrible or long-lasting effects. However, what if your one Pop-Tart leads to downing the whole box in a pattern of overeating? What if you blow your budget by $400 and not $40, or $40 every other week, each and every month?
The calculus is different, not only because the outcome is different — but there is a damaging pattern of behavior that needs addressing.
So what about decisions that have to do with serious issues of family or relationships or work? What about life-altering choices like marriage, divorce, or leaving your “safe” but abysmal job, or relocating to a new part of the country?
What Psychologists Tell Us About Revisiting Decisions
At first blush, we might assume that second-guessing is always about insecurity.
The American Psychological Association tells us that second-guessing jeopardizes our mental health.
The APA article refers to a study of college students — personally, I always wonder when college students are used in studies but setting that aside — and individuals they term “self-doubters” whom they describe as experiencing
… more discomfort with uncertainty and a greater need for the approval of others, according to the study. They also had lower self-esteem and higher degrees of anxiety, depression and procrastination.
I might agree if we’re talking about a chronic second-guesser — someone who doubts and revisits every decision. Not only would that be crazy-making (in my opinion), but it seems to me it would be terribly distracting from dealing with matters at hand.
But chronic second-guessing isn’t the same as second-guessing in specific contexts.
I found this phrase in an old Psychology Today post — “rational reconsideration.” Think about it. There are times when revisiting a decision is a wholly rational act, and potentially beneficial. It is all about “what could I have done differently” in order to learn from one’s mistakes.
In “When you should second-guess yourself” — legitimately and with value to be gained — Psychology Today makes precisely that point.
… [T]here are times when second-guessing is appropriate, namely when some circumstances or standards have changed, which represents good reasons to revisit the original choice. But second-guessing is not appropriate, and is likely to be detrimental, when nothing has changed to invalidate the original decision…
The main value to second-guessing, after the fact, is examining what we could have done differently so we do better the next time.
Uncertainty. Sometimes, You’re Stuck With It.
In most cases, we cannot predict an accident or illness. We cannot predict a layoff. We cannot predict a natural disaster. And we cannot predict the behavior of others much of the time, though sometimes we hope that we can. These and other factors beyond our control can conspire to alter the effects of seemingly good decision-making.
What can we do? We can look honestly at ourselves.
- Are we being overly reliant on others?
- Are we not gathering enough or the right types of information?
- Are we relying on a prevailing attitude of positivity (“everything will work out as it should”)?
- Are we relying on an equally problematic attitude of negativity (“what does it matter — nothing works out anyway”)?
- Are we repeating an old, unhelpful pattern?
- Is the timing right?
- Do we have a backup plan/support system if things don’t work out?
Clearly, we do what we can with uncertainty. However — and this is me, in a nutshell — some of us torture ourselves over some aspect of our decision-making, even in the face of great uncertainty, unable to “forgive” ourselves for a good faith judgment that didn’t pan out.
Indecision or Introspection?
Let’s make a distinction between indecision and after-the-fact second-guessing. I do not suffer from indecision. Make a menu choice at a restaurant? No problem. An editing selection on a tricky paragraph? Done. A “major” decision like choosing a school or a job? I will work out the pros and cons, and act accordingly. But pros and cons can be murky and even contradictory. Sometimes, we simply choose wrong. Second-guessing then, for me, is about introspection, self-awareness, and changing unhelpful behaviors or the decision-making process that led me astray.
But introspection on steroids is of no help whatsoever. And this seems to be where I find myself these days — stuck in a loop of “what if” and “if only” and “why didn’t I pay attention to that red flag” with regard to last year’s relocation. This process, theoretically, should assist in deciding what comes next as I attempt to turn my “what ifs” away from beating myself up and instead toward concrete lessons to rectify my situation.
I can look back and remind myself of all the uncertainty I was faced with, my “data gathering” process which was long and thorough, and the bravery (or stupidity?) of taking a giant leap of faith. I still feel good about that bravery, but wish I had paid greater heed to the red flags. There were some holes in my reasoning that I only saw once I landed. And of course, sometimes, especially when none of our options is a clear win, all we can do is take that leap of faith and deal with the consequences.
Kicking Yourself Over a Poor Outcome?
It’s one thing to second-guess in order to glean some insight, and another when you’re beating yourself up. Sure, it’s human nature to ask: Why didn’t I see x or y? But more often, I’m asking: Why didn’t I listen to the little voice in my head? Why didn’t I pay attention to the red flags? And that in and of itself isn’t constructive.
I’m thinking about my current living situation, which has turned out to be isolating, more expensive than anticipated, and challenging in some other key ways as well. I’m also considering other decisions in my life that haven’t worked out as I would have liked.
In some instances, sufficient time has passed for me to be able to say that while an outcome was difficult and complicated — the way things turned out is fully acceptable. I can say that with regard to a relationship that came to an end last year. (No second-guessing there.) I can say that with regard to a job I held some years back. (Again, no second-guessing.) Where my second-guessing plagues me has to do with timing that could have greatly improved my situation (or that of people I love), and how I handled my decisions. Had I listened to my inner voice sooner, I would’ve had — most likely — a much better outcome.
Second-Guessing? Yup. Still Good. In Moderation.
I still believe in a small amount of “judicious” second-guessing. If I’m having second thoughts over the Pop-Tarts or the new shoes, it’s likely because I know I shouldn’t be reaching for the extra calories or the extra item on my credit card. Even after the fact, if I’m still bothered when I get home, second-guessing is a protective warning system. The Pop-Tarts go in the trash. The shoes go back to the store.
When you take a course of action with your spouse, your lover, your children, your boss, your finances, your “big move” — the ripple effects are both wider and deeper. Second-guessing, to the extent that it offers valuable insights into what you genuinely could have done differently that you can learn from, is extremely useful.
Otherwise, aren’t you pointlessly beating yourself up? Are you distracting yourself from making new decisions to change your situation?
What irks me is that I keep having to learn this lesson time and time again: When I don’t listen to the little voice, when I don’t pay attention to red flags, when I allow myself to be swayed too much by pleasing others — I go astray — and then pay a price. And by the way, in case you were wondering, sale or no sale, I took the third pair of booties back.
I welcome your thoughts.
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