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Photo: David Ellingsen
One scenario: Due to budget cuts, you may—or may not—be losing your job, and you're not sure if you should take the much-lower-paying job at another company or just stay where you are in case things work out. Another: With the birth of your new baby, you need to move, and you can't make up your mind between the neighborhood with the good public school and the one where the houses are actually in your budget. Yet another: After seven years together, your marriage has turned into a relentless series of bitter arguments, but you're not certain if you should try to reconcile or finally end the relationship.

All of us have had these kinds of experiences—times when we have to decide something and we just don't know what to do.

The first step is usually to collect information. You have to look at the facts of the situation: What's for and what's against. But even then, you still may not be able to come to a conclusion. For example, if you're choosing between two three-bedroom houses, and they're just about the same price, and they're in just the same kind of neighborhood, you're not going to get very far. Pros and cons are one level of decision-making but not the most vital one.

When we can't make up our minds, it's because of our minds, or what I call "the voice in your head." Many people don't even know they have this voice. But it's talking away, creating a never-ending inner monologue. Sometimes the voice is even engaged in a dialogue, because it splits into two and you start talk to yourself. The chatter is so incessant it's like having a continuous humming sound from a refrigerator or an air conditioner in the room with you and after a while, you don't hear it anymore.

During tough choices, this voice isn't very helpful. Often it criticizes, keeping a running commentary about you and all the things you did wrong or you just didn't do. It criticizes others as well. It's like living with somebody who can't stand you, much less anybody else. You wouldn't want to live with a person like that. You would walk out of the relationship. But since you can't get free of your mind, you're stuck. The result? You get discouraged. You can't see the positive side to what might come from your decisions.

The voice in your head also creates a huge amount of problems that aren't really problems. They're just things that haven't happened yet, things that could happen tomorrow or next week. Listening to unreal problems has another name: worrying. That's what the voice in your head does. It what-ifs. It frets. It agonizes, and you can no longer sense the joy of life.

Next: When the voice in your head begins to complain