Do You Have a Hard Time Making Decisions?

12/01/2011 10:24 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2012

A recent survey of entrepreneurs and small business owners that I conducted revealed that most of them were afraid of making a decision. One of their biggest regrets was the decisions they hadn't made or the ones they had made "too late." Many of them complained about taking too long to make important decisions.

Why would people whose essential job it is to make many decisions daily put off making decisions?

Fear of Making Decisions Comes from a Belief

The answer probably lies in the fact that, based on my work with over 13,000 clients, including a great many executives of small companies, most people leave childhood with the belief that mistakes and failure are bad.

Because parents rarely get parenting training, they tend to have unreasonable expectations for their children. They expect toddlers to be quiet, to be neat, to come when called, etc. These tasks are virtually impossible for children under the ages of four or five. But because parents expect their children to do these things, most parents get annoyed or even angry when their children "disobey."

Parents commonly use some phrases so frequently that they have become clichés: "How many times do I have to tell you?" "Don't you ever listen?" "What's wrong with you?"

If you were a young child and repeatedly heard those phrases thrown at you in an annoyed or angry tone of voice, can you see that you probably would eventually conclude: if I'm not doing what Mom and Dad want time after time, I'm making mistakes and failing. And if they are upset, that's obviously bad. So, mistakes and failure are bad.

Once you form this and other similar beliefs (such as, "If I make a mistake, I'll be rejected"), you become afraid to make a mistake. And every time you make a decision, there is the possibility of making a mistake.

Now if the decision to be made is similar to one you've made many times in the past, or if the chance of a mistake or failing in a specific situation is slim, you are unlikely to experience anxiety in these situations.

But if you need to make a decision about something brand new, or if the consequences of a wrong decision are significant, the belief kicks in, and anxiety results. And because most of us tend to avoid things that make us anxious, we do whatever we can to put off making this type of decision.

Steps of a Process to Eliminate Negative Beliefs

The simplest way to deal with this problem is to eliminate the belief that mistakes and failure are bad. A process I developed about 25 years ago will help you do this.

Step 1: State the belief ("Mistakes and failure are bad") out loud. You might disagree with the statement, but doesn't it feel true on some gut level? You know you have this belief if you would not want others to know about a mistake you made.

Step 2: Identify the source of the belief. In this case, it usually was Mom and Dad being critical and annoyed when you were a kid, not because they didn't love you, but because they had unreasonable expectations and a lack of parenting training.

Step 3: Recognize that the belief you formed is one valid interpretation of Mom and Dad's behavior, but there are other valid interpretations of the same childhood events, such as:

  • Mom and Dad weren't angry because we made a mistake, but because they had unreasonable expectations.

  • Mom and Dad thought mistakes and failure are bad, but in fact they are the best way to learn.
  • Mistakes and failure were bad in my house, but they aren't necessarily bad everywhere.
  • Mom and Dad's anger was the result of their lack of parenting training, not because mistakes and failure are bad.
  • Can you see that each of these alternative interpretations explains Mom and Dad's behavior as well as your interpretation that mistakes and failure are bad? If they do, then what you said as a child isn't "the truth" but merely one arbitrary interpretation.

    Step 4: Imagine being a young child, and remember Mom and Dad being annoyed because you didn't do something they wanted. As you imagine this, doesn't it seem as if you can see that mistakes and failure are bad?

    Most people do have a clear sense that they can see "mistakes and failure are bad" as inherent in Mom and Dad's comments and behavior.

    Step 5: Can you really see that mistakes and failure are bad? If anything you can see you can describe with a shape, color and location, you should realize that, in fact, you can't see that mistakes and failure are bad. All you can see is Mom and Dad's behavior.

    Step 6: If you can't see that mistakes and failure are bad in the world, where has it been? Do you realize it has only existed in your mind?

    Step 7: Mom and Dad's behavior and comments had a consequence. It might have scared you or upset you. But does Mom and Dad's behavior have any inherent meaning? By which I mean, can you draw any inferences or conclusions, for sure, about mistakes and failure from Mom and Dad's behavior? You can't, can you?

    Step 8: If the only place that "mistakes and failure are bad" has ever existed is in your mind, and what you really saw has no inherent meaning, say the words of the belief out loud: "Mistakes and failure are bad." Really, say these words out loud.

    Do they still sound true? We've used the Lefkoe Belief Process with clients literally hundreds of thousands of time, and it almost always results in the belief being eliminated.

    Try it. You have nothing to lose except your fear of making a decision.

    Then let me know in the comments section below your experience of eliminating the belief and your experience of making decisions when you get back to work.

    Morty Lefkoe is the creator of The Lefkoe Method, a system for permanently eliminating limiting beliefs. For more information go to