Continuing my “thank you to Dr. Irvin Yalom” blogs leading up to his appearance at our ACA Conference this month, I decided to highlight his take on the issue of hesitancy in therapy. In his book, “The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients,” Dr. Yalom asks the question: “Why are decisions hard?” So let’s think about this, why are decisions sometimes so difficult for people (us) to make?
Your brother constantly complains about hating his job but never attempts to find a new one. Why? Your friend meets someone who seems perfect and amazing but just can’t stop pining away over the ex. Why? Your coworker complains about being overweight yet she can’t seem to put down the unhealthy foods or to start working out. Why? You dream of traveling the world but have never left the States. Why? And on and on we go…
I love these blunt yet inspirational words from Amelia Earhart: “The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life.” I’m sure we can all think of times not only in a client’s life but our own lives as well when there was hesitancy to act or a refusal to make a decision to change. But if we go deeper than that, the hesitancy actually lies within one’s decision to act or change, right? Someone receives perfectly logical, sound advice but refuses it anyway…what’s the deal?
In “Gift of Therapy…” Dr. Yalom cites a character from a novel who pointed out that in life, “everything fades and alternatives exclude.” Dr. Yalom suggests the second part of this revelation addresses why we as humans find such difficulty at times with making a decision. “Alternatives exclude” means that once a “yes” decision is made, inevitably this means that other options were eliminated. The elimination of other options doesn’t always produce a warm and fuzzy feeling.
As Dr. Yalom points out, this same perspective has been noted by great minds throughout history. He cites Aristotle’s illustration of a starving dog who is unable to choose between two equally attractive portions of food. He suggests that “making a decision cuts us off from other possibilities. Choosing one woman, or one career, or one school, means relinquishing the possibilities of others.” Wow, that statement hit me hard the first time I read it!
Dr. Yalom goes on to propose that “the more we face our limits, the more we have to relinquish our myth of personal specialness, unlimited potential, imperishability, and immunity to the laws of biological destiny.” OUCH! Does that speak to anyone’s “why?” I think probably so. Dr. Yalom mentions Heidegger’s reference to death as the “impossibility of further possibility” and says that “the path to decision may be hard because it leads into the territory of both finiteness and groundlessness—domains soaked in anxiety. Everything fades and alternatives exclude.”
So does everything boil down to our refusal to face inevitable fading and death? Let’s not over-simplify things too much here—clearly there’s more than one core reason for the “why” of someone’s hesitancy to make a positive life change. I don’t think Dr. Yalom’s intent is to deny that….or is it? Whether you agree with Dr. Yalom or not, what he offers is an important point of view that is at the very least a possible starting point to provide insight so that the work can begin: One’s work on self on the pathway toward the decision to act.
Natosha Monroe is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.