How to get unstuck when facing tough decisions

In blackjack, when you have 16 and the dealer is showing 10, you have a tough choice. You can either “hit” or “stand,” but regardless of what you choose, you’re more likely to lose than win. In a situation like this, it’s helpful to have a decision-making framework based on the science of probability. When you think in terms of probability, the decision to hit or stand is less likely to be influenced by how you’re feeling or whether or not you just had a bad hand.

Having a decision-making framework in place is also helpful when you’re faced with bigger questions. Should I move to a new city? Do I want to end my relationship? Should I quit my job? Should I have a third child? These are stressful, anxiety-provoking situations. It can easily feel like everything will fall apart if we don’t choose correctly. So we make long lists of pros and cons, seek advice from everyone around us, and endlessly think it over.  Before we know it, we can become stuck weighing all the options. Having a framework can help us get unstuck, and the framework I recommend is based on your values.

What do I mean by values?

Your values are what you want your life to be about. They act like a compass, pointing you toward the life you want to build. For example, you may decide that your values at work are “to be dependable, creative, and a team player.” Notice that I didn’t say “to be successful” or “to be the best marketing director.” Those are goals. Values specify a direction, not specific destinations. But if you use them as a framework for decision-making, they can help you achieve your goals.

“Your values are what you want your life to be about. They act like a compass, pointing you toward the life you want to build.”

Let’s look at an example of how your values might guide you in a relationship. If you decide that your values are “to be supportive, authentic, and to connect,” you can bring that to every moment with your partner, whether you’re going for a walk, planning a vacation, or having an argument. Even if you’re angry, you can still be supportive, authentic, and connected. Values inform how you act, not how you feel. And they don’t specify actions. There is a multitude of ways to act in alignment with your values in any situation.

Applying values to big life decisions

Let’s connect this to bigger life decisions—the kind that keep us up at night. If you’re deciding whether or not to stay in your relationship, you might ask yourself how present your values are in that relationship. Does it feel possible to be supportive, authentic, and connected with your partner in an ongoing way? Your partner might have his or her own values—are they compatible with yours? When things are tough, do you still feel like you’re both pulling in the same overall direction?

The answer might not be immediately clear. Again, values don’t tell you exactly what to do. They connect you to the big picture: who you want to be and what you want your life to be about. They also dignify the pain and discomfort that comes with making difficult decisions. If you make a choice based on your values, it may still hurt, but you will know your choice is grounded in something deeply meaningful to you.

What to consider in the process of making values-based decisions:

  1. Don’t wait for the “ideal” feeling. 
    It’s likely you won’t feel completely comfortable with any big decision. Change is hard. We often fall into a trap of thinking that making the “right” choice will immediately eliminate all stress and anxiety. But the reality is that as we move continuously toward building the lives we want, uncomfortable and/or painful feelings will accompany us. For instance, if you decide to switch jobs, there will probably be an adjustment period, and no matter how good the new job is, there will be things you don’t like about it.
  2. Acknowledge that you are always making choices.
    Whether or not you make a big decision and act on it, you are always making choices. For example, if you’re considering leaving your job, until you make a final decision, you are choosing to stay. Doing nothing is still a choice. But you can still make small choices to act on your values while you are deciding, whether that means attending to your self-care by taking periodic breaks, supporting your team as you work toward a deadline, or being honest with your colleagues.
  3. Imagine what your future self will think of your decision.
    Try imagining yourself 20 years from now looking back on your life today. What would this decision look like in the overall arc of your life? For example, let’s say you value being courageous and bold. If you were to fast forward 20 years, what would that older you think about the decision to switch jobs? A bold, yet positive move? Or a choice driven by fear and self-doubt? Sometimes connecting to a wiser version of ourselves, one that has a better sense of the big picture, can lead us to knowing the right decision.

If you approach decisions with a values-based framework, you’ll likely feel more empowered because you are acting with integrity. Some decisions won’t work out, and you’ll have to readjust. But along the way, you will grow and learn, and you’ll know that whatever you decide, your choices are based on what’s most meaningful to you.


If you’re struggling with being able to make a life transition or a big decision, Lyra can connect you to a therapist. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.

And check in frequently here or follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter for more insights into optimal well-being.

The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Rebecca Aptekar, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in using acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and other evidence based therapies. At Lyra, she manages clinical programs, develops content for workshops, and conducts therapy for high-tech employees.

By Rebecca Aptekar, PsyD
30 of March 2017 - 5 min read
Mental health tips
Share this article

Prioritize your emotional well‑being.

Join Lyra today

Prioritize your emotional well‑being.