OCD and Decision Making

Many years ago, I saw the movie Moscow on the Hudson, about a Russian musician named Vladimir Ivanoff who defects to the United States. One scene in particular has always stuck in my mind: Vladimir (played by Robin Williams) goes to the supermarket and has what seems like a panic attack over all of the choices. Coming from a country where he had to stand in line for hours to get a ration of coffee, he now had the freedom to pick and choose from an entire aisle of seemingly endless choices. It overwhelmed him, to say the least.

Many of us can relate somewhat to this scenario. Our culture is one of freedom and abundance, and those two factors lead to decision making in every aspect of our lives. From what to eat and where to live to whom or if to marry, to Kindle, Nook, or actual book, to career goals and travel plans, we are faced with a myriad of decisions daily.

Now add obsessive-compulsive disorder into the equation, and it might be a recipe for disaster. Since doubt is the cornerstone of OCD, sufferers often have the need to know, for certain, that all these decisions they are making are the right ones. They may worry how their choices will affect others, and agonize over even the most  minor decisions. Or they may make a decision right away, only to have OCD sabotage it. The weight attached to decisions can be too much to bear, at which point the sufferer may avoid making decisions whenever possible. Unfortunately, avoidance is never the answer, and while this tactic may temporarily quell anxiety, in the long run it will make OCD stronger. Exposure Response Prevention Therapy can help sufferers learn to accept the uncertainty that comes with decision making.

But those with OCD are not the only ones affected by having to make too many decisions. Barry Schwartz, a psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice, explores the connection between depression and the abundance of choice. I recommend checking out his talk here. His ideas make a lot of sense and he is enjoyable to listen to. He brings up the point that when we have no choice in a matter and something goes wrong, we have no reason to blame ourselves. When we do have choices to make, whether it’s something as trivial as which jeans to buy, or something more significant like a career move, we have high expectations and expect everything to be perfect. When our expectations inevitably fall short, we blame ourselves. After all, we are the ones who made the decision. Maybe we should have made a different choice?

According to Dr. Schwartz, too much choice undermines happiness. I think this is as good a reason as any to simplify our lives as much as possible. And whether we have OCD or not, we need to be able to accept the decisions we make and go on with our lives. If we don’t, our mental health will surely suffer.

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18 Responses to OCD and Decision Making

  1. 71º & Sunny says:

    Totally awesome post, Janet! This makes incredible sense to me. I have berated myself for “bad choices” sometimes for years on end. How ridiculous to waste that much energy on something long gone.

    It is true that being afraid of making a wrong choice just paralyzes you. Plus, I’ve often found that when you don’t make a choice, you’ve actually made a choice by your in-action and there are consequences from that too. Good stuff here and lots to think about. Thanks!

    • Janet Singer says:

      Excellent point, Sunny, about making a choice not to make a choice. It’s interesting how it’s so clear to look back and realize how agonizing over a choice was such wasted energy, but when you’re in the “thick of it” you don’t see it that way. Thanks for your insight!

  2. Choices can be one of the hardest aspects of OCD… I agonize over so many decisions…because like you said if I make the “wrong” choice it will be “all my fault”. I have been stuck in this cycle for a decision now… I must make a decision and like Sunny said I know by not making a choice I have already made a choice…Ugh..sometimes it is so exhausting.

  3. Janet Singer says:

    I’m sorry this is an issue for you now, and hope you can make a decision to make a decision :). I’m exhausted just thinking about it and I’m not even going through it. Good luck…you can do it!

  4. Great post, Janet–very insightful and helpful. I have beaten myself up over career decisions (and other decisions) I made in the past, believing that I “must” have made the wrong decision if I’m not perfectly happy with the results. Which really doesn’t make sense, because we’ll probably never be perfectly happy with the results of any decision. It’s just so easy to blame myself. And in order to avoid feeling guilt, I have avoided decisions.

    • Janet Singer says:

      I think you’re right, Tina. No decision is perfect and will make us perfectly happy. We need to remind ourselves of that and stop assigning blame. Thanks for sharing!

  5. krystallynn says:

    I so agree with too many choices undermining our happiness. Maybe that is why I like nature so much and spend as much time outdoors as possible..I get what I get in nature and there is nothing I can do about it but deal with it.

    • Janet Singer says:

      That’s so true, Krystallynn. I actually just used the example of a tornado destroying a house in another piece I wrote. We wouldn’t blame ourselves for that as the weather is in no way our “decision.” Maybe that’s why nature is so calming for so many people. It just “is”.

  6. Sparky says:

    In the true spirit of an OCD sufferer…
    What happens if the decision to simplify things doesn’t work? What about all those abandoned choices? What happens when you discover that you’ve “locked out” all your options? How much do you simplify…do you just decide to buy only one brand of coffee? Or do you get rid of all your things in the name of clearing clutter?

    And on and on and on….

    Lol, sorry but I couldn’t resist. “Oscar” (the name I gave the OCD personality inside my brain) immediately began asking questions.

    Ahhh…the joys.

  7. Janet Singer says:

    Wow, Sparky, “Oscar” has a lot of questions (lol). Of course I’m not a therapist, but somehow I think the answer to all your questions comes back to accepting the uncertainty of our decisions. Yes, another choice that is now gone may have been the better one, but so what? It is what it is.
    As far as how much do you simplify, I think that is such an individual answer, and also depends what your starting point is. I often imagine selling my house and living in a tent……..of course that would come with its own set of problems…….and decisions!
    Thanks to you (and Oscar) for commenting!

  8. Roy says:

    Thank you fr the blog i came to know problem lately in my life guess thats why i m still unmarried and unable to make choice or in career

  9. Worried Husband says:

    I have a similar problem with my wife.

    I believe that it is not just simple indecisions but maybe something deeper that is effecting our marriage, and other children. She does not want to get professional help as she states there is no problem with her …. what can i do?!

    I love her but this thing is ruining our life.

    • Thank you for sharing, and I am so sorry to hear things have been so difficult for you and your family. I wish I had the answer for you, but I’m not a therapist and don’t really feel comfortable offering advice. Perhaps you could talk to a professional, even if your wife refuses to? You would get a different perspective on the situation, and hopefully the therapist could help you figure out how to appropriately respond to your wife. I wish you all the best and hope to hear from you again!

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’m in love with someone who can’t make a decision – I say this but he really has made a decision – to do nothing. He’s paralysed and he can’t decide.

    Sixteen months ago we did something wrong and had an affair (no sex, strongly emotional and some physical). He was so unhappy in his marriage. He married young and for all the wrong reasons. I’m not trying to make excuses, we let our strong feelings override the right thing to do.

    He told his wife; we stopped the affair and he saw a counsellor for many months. He made the decision to leave his marriage.

    We started again but it didn’t last. We ended about four months ago.

    He can’t forgive himself for the decision he made to start the affair. He knows he should have made a different decision. He has a major conflict between what he believes and how he (we) acted. He hates the notion of a relationship founded on an affair.

    He doesn’t want to be with his ex-wife. He always described the decision to leave as one of want vs obligation (the vows he made), regardless of how bad it was.

    Now, he’s alone. He still loves me. He says he always will. We were good for one another – brought out the best in us as individuals. He desperately wanted someone to understand him and that’s what we found. On the few occasions I see him, I can still see in his eyes how he feels. We agreed to have lunch one day about a month ago and it turned into 10 hours together in the city.

    I can’t understand why he can’t forgive himself. Every time he looks for a way forward he’s paralysed. He can’t sleep, he can’t decide so it’s easier to do nothing. He’s petrified of making a wrong decision.

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