Jack was an exceptionally bright middle-aged man who had inadvertently fallen in love with a woman he’d met not long ago at an annual conference for civil engineers. Although he’d originally been fairly content with his current wife of 20 years, their relationship had become increasingly distant; they seemed to almost be running on separate tracks. His new interest, on the other hand, seemed ideal—the love of his life, the one he had always hoped he would find. He wasn’t sure what to do in view of all this.
He consulted me about it, hoping I had an answer to his dilemma. I did have one, but it was not what he was expecting to hear.
Jack was strong-willed, independent and decisive. He had little respect for those who seemed to be frequently lost in endless reflections. He analyzed his dilemma rigorously and concluded—an intellectual decision—that the best thing for him to do was to go with his girlfriend. The problem was that this solution just didn’t feel right.
This is what I told him: there is a big difference between indecisiveness and vacillation. People who are indecisive usually have difficulty making decisions because they question their competence or self-confidence. Their doubts usually stem from a fear of making a mistake and the resulting consequences. In contrast, vacillation is an instinctual response that is triggered whenever a person finds themselves in a situation where they are torn between two options, both of which are mutually exclusive, so that choosing one automatically excludes the other.
For example, in Jack’s case, if he decided to be with either his wife or his woman friend, he would have to reject the other—he could not ordinarily choose both of them. Moreover, this decision was a crucial one for both women as well as for Jack. So he felt he had to make a decision, yet he found it impossible to make one and actually enact it if it meant that he would have to lose the one he didn’t choose.
In a case like this our instinctual response is to desensitize our fears and anxieties with regard to losing one of two options by repeatedly imagining what it would be like to live without one or the other. For example, let’s say Jack imagined what it would be like to reject his wife and move in with his woman friend—then, his fear of losing his wife would become so aversive, he would be forced to reverse his decision. Likewise, after imagining rejecting his woman friend in favor of his wife, he would find that his thoughts of losing his woman friend were also too much to bear.
At first, his thoughts would quickly race back and forth. But in time, as he gradually desensitized both possibilities, he would find that he was able to contemplate both options for progressively longer periods of time. Eventually, he would be able to face each option without triggering a need to reverse his decision. At this point, he would have essentially stripped each option of its emotional content and thereby enabled himself to make a rational choice without the fear of having to reverse himself.
The reason people find themselves constantly reversing their decisions in cases like this is that we are instinctively more interested in preventing a loss than achieving a gain. Nature has determined that losses are far more important to us than gains. Studies have shown that we soon take our gains in stride, but take much longer to get over our losses. Say, for example, that a person buys a lottery ticket and wins a thousand dollars, but later the same day he loses the ticket. At the end of the day he is no worse off than he was originally, but he would be extremely upset about his loss, much more affected by it than he was by his temporary gain.
Vacillation is an ingenious response to dilemmas like the one Jack encountered. It provides an invaluable means of resolving our dilemmas, but since the brain can’t explain all of this to our intellectually based mind, most of us have a difficult time utilizing this tool. Once we understand what our brains are trying to accomplish, we can assist it by not opposing our instincts and allowing them to proceed to help us.