What Makes Decision Making So Difficult?


Our decisions navigate us through our lives. This blog post isn’t intended to be a comprehensive explanation about decision making (it can be quite an in-depth discussion… power of experiences, language, cognitive processing, interpersonal dynamics, emotional state, etc…), neither is it a guide for how to make better decisions. I simply want to offer some thoughts about what I see as some of the reasons that decision-making can feel hard or even painful at times, and why some of us avoid or delay making decisions or get paralyzed in the process.

Either/Or Perspective

There may be times when a decision is a clear choice between two different things, but often what happens is we create an either/or split in our minds when making a decision, particularly when we’re anxious. At a very early stage of life (as small infants) we were overwhelmed with intense anxiety  and frustration (being hungry and tired) then developed protective mechanisms, a main one being the behavior of splitting experiences into good or bad. Check out a prior post on how splitting plays a role in our adult relationships. This stage never leaves us and in times of stress and high anxiety we tend to return to this position (paranoid-schizoid). When we’re in this state of mind we return to defences such as polarizing. Of course, this does nothing to help our anxiety, instead this kind of stark splitting generally makes decisions harder to make.


Some decisions are easier than others. Usually this is either because they don’t have a significant role in shaping our future, or they are reversible or repeatable. Generally, these decisions don’t put us in touching distance of our intense feelings about loss. In particular, life decisions stir up intense feelings of loss. It becomes evident (even if not cognitively) that the choice to say ‘Yes’ to one thing, inevitably leads to saying ‘No’ to something else. The older we get the more our lives narrow in direction and focus as we need to accept saying ‘No’ to some things that are beyond our control. This comes with a growing awareness of our own mortality.

How painful and paralyzing the loss of ‘other’ life choices is, will partly depend on our relationship with loss and how well we are able to tolerate the feelings stirred up by it.


Our decisions are our responsibility. We can all look back on certain choices we’ve made in our lives and wish we had made a different choice. Bound up with our feelings about this is our relationship to regret. Regret can be a very frightening prospect for some people. This is because of the way they might punish themselves if they feel they’ve made a mistake or got something wrong. This penchant for punishing is likely to be the way in which we were treated by caregivers for making mistakes. This self-punishing part of us is commonly called the Super-Ego based on Freud’s work. The severity and consistency that we feel punished or even tormented by our Super-Ego will affect how frightening it can feel to us. That fear might generate so much anxiety about making mistakes that it can paralyze us from making even the smallest decisions.


It’s important to remember that we are making decisions all the time, often without thinking about it. Some decisions are obviously more significant than others and need to be considered more carefully. This process can be painful as it means taking responsibility for our choices and sometimes accepting losses. As difficult as it can be to avoid reflexive anxiety in cases of important decisions, it’s important to recognize the power it has to cause us to polarise our options with either/or thinking or attack ourselves with our regrets about past choices.

If you, or someone you know, would like help with processing anxious reactions to decision-making, consider contacting me at (717) 288-5064 / gregghammond@restoringbalancelancaster.com and schedule an appointment today.

Why Do We Get Stuck in Abusive Relationships? The Power of “Splitting”


Have you discovered that you’ve become stuck in an abusive relationship? Have you started to notice that you seem drawn to partners who mistreat you even though you keep telling yourself that it will “never happen again?” Is there something that makes you choose these relationships? Let’s take a closer look...

We hold on to abusive relationships to stay attached with our past…

Sometimes, we attach ourselves to an abusive relationship as a way of trauma bonding (loyalty to a person who is destructive). When we’ve endured abusive treatment in our childhood, it can be the only way we know how to receive love. So, there can be some comfort in staying attached to the abusive loved object. Later in life, abusive treatment keeps you stuck in feeling loved, because that might be the only familiar way you received love. So, you repeat the pattern of accepting abuse in exchange for getting love. As distorted as it sounds, holding on to an abusive relationship can feel like you’re being loved and can feel comforting.

On a different level, this can be a way of acting out an unconscious yearning to reunite with the abusive or a rejecting parent. A way of repeating or opening up your past wounds through mistreatment and abandonment. There are certain ways of coping/surviving an abusive home as a child and one is called “splitting.” In order to preserve the image of “the good parent,” the child “splits” off any bad feelings towards them, by internalising the bad as existing within them instead of in the parent. Instead of seeing the parent as mistreating them, they end up feeling bad about themselves (feeling worthless, unwanted, and unlovable). With the hope of feeling loved, the child maintains a fantasy of the positive image of the parent, by shutting out the bad memories towards the parent (splitting). These bad feelings stay repressed and end up forming the distorted way in which we see ourselves and our loved ones. Secondly, a person can attempt to “hold on” to the parent who mistreated them, by seeking abusive or unavailable partners, in order to remain attached to the parent. This pattern of searching for unmet love can be destructive to an person and can be difficult to recognize as happening without a trained professional to assist in growing a person’s awareness and insight. Let’s face it, at face value, this process can seem somewhat far-fetched, but it is a very real pattern of behavior. It’s just another fascinating way in which our mind protects us from very horrible experiences. The renewed splitting in our adult relationships occurs when we are triggered or reminded of our past feelings and physical sensations as they reoccur in our present relationships.

Those that have grown up in abusive homes and use splitting as a coping mechanism have a distorted perception of their relationship (either idealised or devalued). In a very “all or nothing” manner, they feel either “all good” or “all bad” about themselves and their partners. They struggle to see the good and bad aspects of a person at the same time. This leads to a very familiar rollercoaster of emotions by swinging from despair to euphoria based on the behavior of their partners.

Why you cannot let go of bad relationships…

Splitting is another reason why individuals stay stuck in bad relationships. In splitting, when people feel bad about themselves, they’ re ignoring all the good qualities about themselves; leading to a belief that they are not “good enough” in relationships. When an individual sees all the good traits in a partner, they are denying the unhealthy traits in the person. This can protect them from feelings of abandonment by only seeing the good aspects in a partner, ignoring the abusive aspects. A healthy relationship means you can see both the healthy and unhealthy aspects of a person.

Splitting can cause a person to hold on to a toxic relationship, because they acknowledge the positive image of the abuser (good), denying any mistreatment (bad), so they can satisfy their unmet needs to feel loved. As a therapist, my role is to help the person see the other part of the split, so they can make a clearer decision and see the whole picture moving from denial to action by bringing the ‘split’ back into one whole image. Often, splitting occurs in adult relationships, because the person is hoping a partner will get rid of the feelings of self-loathing or feelings of abandonment from past loved ones. Instead, they repeat the wound and re-live the pain, re-enacting the past, until these patterns are worked through in therapy.

You can see that our early attachment experiences in life have a great impact on the relationships we share as adults. Often, we don’t realize the patterns that exist in our current relationships, because they feel normal when they are similar to early abusive or dysfunctional periods in their lives.

If you think that you (or somebody you know) may benefit from learning more about the ways their abusive childhood keeps them stuck in abusive relationships as an adult, a trained professional can help. If you are in the Lancaster, Pa area, feel free to contact me at (717) 288-5064 / gregghammond@restoringbalancelancaster.com and schedule an appointment today.