Should she take a shower? Go to the concert? Stare at the dog? How one woman learned how to make up her mind.
I used to be unable to decide anything. I brooded and agonized, terrified of making a mistake. Should I meet my parents at three o'clock to go clothes shopping, or should I stay home and work? If I stay home, I'll probably be tired by afternoon and won't get much work done anyway. Still, isn't that better than accomplishing no work? But do I see my mother and father enough? I won't have them forever, and it's always sweet to see them.
And so it went.
Then one morning, I was sitting at my kitchen table in Salem, Massachusetts. I was 32 years old, and I couldn't decide whether or not to eat a slice of whole wheat toast. I was hungry, but I'd already eaten two slices. I'd feel disgusted with myself if I ate a third. Yet if I didn't, I'd continue to feel hungry and light-headed, unable to focus on my work. I stared at some sharp, glinting crumbs on the peach cotton tablecloth. And then it occurred to me: two ways wrong! Either course I took, I'd make a mistake—the verdict preexisted the action. I laughed.
I was so used to self-recrimination that I infused my environment with it. Apology poured from my lips. I often walked hunched over with regret. As a child, I believed I cost my parents too much—nursery school was exorbitant, a winter coat represented several days of my father's labor. (He was the plant manager for a factory.) I gnawed my thumb as my mother counted out the dollars in Alexander's department store, and some obscure worry worked away in me the next day as I sat in my oak seat at P.S. 24. The anxiety was a tapeworm that coiled inside me and that somehow connected me to my mother. As long as I worried, we were linked.
My mother used to sit in our Bronx kitchen listlessly turning the pages of McCall's. She looked abstracted, lost in memory and unable to find the door out. She was, in fact, depressed.
I'd sit at her feet with my alphabet blocks. I wasn't interacting with her—she was troubled and remote—and I feared that if I played so intently that I forgot about my mother, she might vanish. I yearned to hold on to her bony ankle. I inhaled as hard as I could her scent of stale Arpège and wool. Together, she and I floated in an irresolute space between lunch and dinner, talk and no talk, connection and separation. Since we'd begun nothing, nothing could end. How hopeless yet comforting it was.
I carried this mood with me into my adult life, with the result that I couldn't ever decide if I wanted to go one way or the other, and the aura of remorse seemed to be the truest thing about me.
Two ways wrong!
I asked everyone for advice—an assertive cabbie, an acquaintance from college who happened to phone, all sorts of experts who declared, "This Is What to Do." I always nodded, but as soon as I heard their counsel, the opposite point of view formulated itself in my mind.
Whatever direction I took ended in regret, I now saw. So, of course, I mostly stayed in place.
And surely I wasn't the only person tangled up in Two Ways Wrong. I considered my friend George. The night before, he told me he'd been invited to participate in a panel of writers in San Francisco. The airfare was $400, which he would have to cover. He decided to go—it would make him feel like a real writer, he said. Yet he felt belittled by having to pay his own way, as if he were a desperate person who needed to scramble for professional recognition.
Two ways wrong! He hadn't even bought his ticket, and already he'd taken the recognition away from himself. It was the opposite of the Wizard of Oz, with his magical diploma. Some of us have an anti-Wizard inside us declaring that our very real diplomas and certificates are all humbug. "Either way is wrong!" declares the anti-Wizard.
The solution, I realized, is to choose success. Fly off to sit on a dais, or stay at home $400 richer—both are success. Enjoy the toast, or skip it and feel skinny. Success isn't objectively verifiable like the height of the Empire State Building or the location of Missouri. It's a matter of attitude, of interpretation.
Some people tend to notice what's right in what they do. The rest of us must cultivate this trait.
The sense of being correct or incorrect resides in each of us. We project our verdict onto the world. I am essentially right, I told myself. A big mistake wasn't made when I was placed here on this planet. I am filled with more kindness than greed, more good thinking than stupidity.
That morning in my kitchen, I got up from the table and slung another slice of bread into the toaster, and when it popped up, I buttered it and munched away. I licked my lips. I decided to feel satisfied. And I was.
Bonnie Friedman is the author of The Thief of Happiness: The Story of an Extraordinary Psychotherapy (Beacon Press).