A friend of mine posted an article about the newest challenge we are facing as businesses start reopening this summer. The author referred to “decision fatigue,” and as someone who always has had a tough time making decisions to begin with, this really resonated with me. I reflected on my weekend in light of this article; tensions were high in my house as we negotiated the boundaries of a visit with my extended family. Would we be allowed inside to use the bathroom? What if it rains, can we be together indoors without masks on? Does going to the grocery count as potential “exposure”? Should we just reschedule for a day with less chance of rain? Should we bring our own food and eat far apart from each other? This planning process spanned multiple texts and two phone calls, and a lot of circular conversations about wanting to be together yet also fearing for the safety of my 70-year-old parents. Remember when going out to dinner with someone just involved… going out to dinner?
As a therapist working with teens and families in Washington, DC, I’m listening to similar patterns play out repeatedly in recent days with my clients as they try to navigate their plans for the week, the weekends, their summer vacations, their returns to work and school and daycare. I was frustrated and overwhelmed planning one dinner with one family – one uncomplicated plan required that much thought, risk calculation, and conversation. We are all being forced to put thought, conversation, and planning into place for hundreds of small decisions now, as well as some much bigger decisions that impact our families health and safety. And we are doing so with unreliable data, very little leadership, mixed messages on “shoulds” and safety, and no previous experience guiding our process. To say that this is challenging is an understatement.
Decision-making is work, and right now it is especially exhausting. I like the term “decision fatigue” because it honors the exhaustion of the effort it currently takes to make even simple plans. In thinking about this, I wished I had been more mindful of what was really going on for me as I got snippy with my family members. So I took time to reflect some more and came up with some points to share in this blog, to help us all give ourselves a little grace and get through these tough decisions in the weeks to come:
- It’s okay to not be okay. In my mind, we were all going to emerge from our quarantine cocoons as beautiful butterflies who had all sorts of new strengths and skills as we had honed our resiliency and baking skills for the past few months. In reality, we are emerging from our safety bubbles into a not-yet-safe world where we might not feel or be completely okay for a while. If it feels hard to go places and the decision-making process is exhausting for you, that’s okay because it’s normal to feel that way. Accepting that we feel “not okay” means that we have permission to feel our feelings and then to take care of our feelings. Which then makes us feel more okay again.
- Take your time. If you aren’t sure that it’s safe to be in physical contact with your elderly parents, or you’re wary of letting your kids interact with multiple friends – allow yourself to listen to your instincts and take the time you need to make a plan that would feel safe for you. Be patient with yourself as you navigate new decision-making territory for the first time. Don’t just shut down the decision process on things that feel scary, and don’t push yourself into decisions when your instincts say not to; slow down, take time to listen to your gut, and think about what you would like your plans to look like given your set of circumstances.
- Be kind – this is hard. There is no clear right and wrong here; there is only trying our best, using what we can know for now, and using compassion for ourselves and others. As I argued with my sister this weekend, I kept thinking, “Why is it so hard for me to make up my mind about what to do” at the same time as being angry at her and thinking “Why won’t she just make a decision?” Anger is a secondary emotion that kicks in when we feel discomfort, as a way to protect ourselves emotionally. When you get mad, get curious and figure out what pain is underlying that anger. And then kindly tend to that pain. When your loved one gets mad at you, get curious, and then kindly tend to that pain. Try asking, “What part of this is really hard for you right now?” and giving compassion.
- Relax your body. When you are faced with a challenging decision, you tense up. If something is anxiety-producing, you kick into fight-or-flight mode. Your body is on alert because it senses danger, and when that happens, our thinking skills are not fully functioning. Ever try talking to someone who was in a full state of panic or rage? Pretty useless. There’s no talking at that point- there is either acting out, or calming. Fight-or-flight mode is for our survival, and by design, our bodies take over and our minds don’t work at full capacity. The best way to get your brain fully online again so that you can think through your decisions is to relax your body, which is like an automatic override button for the fight-or-flight response. Take deep breaths using 4-7-8 breathing: breathe in through the nose for a count of 4, hold for 7, out for 8. If you are tense, stretch and relax your muscles by doing a short yoga video or a guided meditation with a full body scan.