When it comes to foraging sales racks for deals or sharing my opinion when asked, I’m pretty decisive and straightforward — I know what I want and I know what I want to say. But when it comes to ordering dinner or prepping for a confrontation of some sort, I'm always wondering if the decision I made was the right one.
I can’t help but wonder if our digitally-driven culture — where we’re constantly faced with endless options of people to meet, or things to buy, think or do every second of every day — has somehow also facilitated second-guessing as sort of a side-effect. With so much of everything to choose from in every aspect of our lives, it’s hard not to wonder if a better option might be right around the corner.
Why do we second-guess ourselves?
“People second-guess themselves because they think there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers or ways of doing things. Since they believe there is the perfect answer to a problem, they get caught in a conundrum of questioning their decisions and wondering if they chose the ‘right’ course,” says Jennifer Guttman, a clinical psychologist based in New York City and Westport, CT and author of “A Path to Sustainable Life Satisfaction.”
Second-guessing can demonstrate a fear of commitment to an outcome. “It’s a form of not owning a decision,” explains Guttman. “Externalizing responsibility for decisions to others undermines our ability to believe in our ability to cope with unexpected outcomes and develop self confidence and self-esteem.”
Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, feels similarly. “Second-guessing oneself is a form of insecurity, anxiety and lack of self-confidence about whether you have made the right decision or not,” says Hafeez, adding that the tendency to second-guess is somewhat pervasive for people who do it. “People who tend to second-guess themselves usually don’t do so in an isolated manner. It tends to permeate much of their life. It can be as trivial as whether you should have bought the shirt in red instead of black, or as serious as whether you should have taken job X instead of job Y, or even if you married the right spouse.”
The urge to second-guess might be inherited, or a byproduct of your upbringing. “Some of it may go back to family-of-origin issues,” Hafeez says. “Did your parents doubt your decision-making abilities? Have your parents belittled you for ‘wrong’ decisions you made in your life? Have you lived with a spouse or partner who constantly tells you that you ‘can’t get anything right?’”
It might also be amplified by a sense of regret. “When people get to be a certain age, they can look back at the choices they made and decide if they were ‘good’ or ‘bad,’” says Hafeez. “People who feel they made unwise, unsafe, foolish or rash choices are more likely to second guess themselves. Those who feel they made sound choices in their lives thus far are more likely to have confidence in their decision-making.”
It gets worrisome when it's excessive
According to research, chronic second-guessing may indicate a more serious mental health issue. A 2003 study published in the journal "Personality and Individual Differences" found that “those who constantly doubt their own judgment are especially prone to a wide range of psychological problems such as mood swings, lower self-esteem, anxiety and depression.” It also found that “self-doubters might be more susceptible to depression because they often feel life is out of their control.”
Constant or habitual second-guessing can also be a paralyzing form of self-sabotage, disrupting our sense of inner peace and driving us to overanalyze what we say, email, text, choose and communicate, says Hafeez.
Ironically, Guttman says all that worry is usually a wasted effort. “It is a waste of precious mental energy that could be used to cope should the choice you made go awry instead of dithering over what choice was or wasn’t made,” she says.
Some second-guessing isn't always bad
The upside to second-guessing occasionally is it can indicate that you’re thoughtful or a perfectionist — and that might sometimes serve you well. “Second-guessing can be positive (in moderation) when it prevents impulsive actions,” says Hafeez. “For example, if you’re in the market to buy a home and you see one you love but it’s a bit above your budget, stopping to think about not buying that home can be helpful. Another benefit is that it helps you to pause and weigh pros and cons. It can make us more self-aware and able to learn from our mistakes.”
3 ways to stop second-guessing yourself
So how can we learn to stop second-guessing ourselves if we do it too much? Here are a few ways to adjust your thought process.
1. Create a list of pros and cons
Hafeez says, when faced with a decision — no matter how small or large — it helps to negate indecision and catastrophic thinking with a list of pros and cons. “Practice with small decisions that won’t impact your life,” she says. “Learn to trust yourself more and go with your gut instinct. Don’t focus on past mistakes where you might have made a poor decision. Realize that most decisions are not irreversible. Nobody is right 100 percent of the time, and you won’t be either.”
2. Remind yourself that there isn't always a wrong or right answer
Guttman similarly says to remind yourself there is no right or wrong answer to whatever you might be second guessing. “Anyone who acts like there’s a right or wrong answer is only acting that way because they either want to legitimize their position by having someone else do as they do, or because they’re trying to rescue you from a fear they have that you could experience a negative outcome from a decision you make. However, anyone who interferes with a decision you make is undermining your belief in your ability to a) make decisions and b) cope with the outcomes of those decisions. All decisions can be modified if you have the flexibility of thought to problem solve your way through an outcome you don’t like.”
3. Remember, no one has a crystal ball
Above all, and forgive the clichés, but there’s no crystal ball and hindsight is 20/20, so you may as well harbor some faith in your instincts. “You have your own fingerprint and your own DNA, and no one knows the best course of action for you, except you,” says Guttman. “All decisions are based on guessing to the best of our ability with the knowledge we have of ourselves. Anyone who tells you that a large part of decision making isn’t based on guesswork is not being honest with you or themselves.”
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