Sensitive people (HSPs) are deep thinkers. We take in more information from our environment than non-HSPs, and we meditate and ponder on it, both consciously and unconsciously. This HSP trait is called depth of processing.
With lots of information coming in and lots of processing going on, you’d think decision-making would be a piece of cake for us. But it isn’t. In fact, I’ve never met an HSP unfamiliar with that dreaded mind state, “paralysis by analysis.”
At our best, our thinking and our action are like a Möbius strip—a ribbon of paper twisted once and joined end-to-end so its two sides flow in a single seamless surface. But “paralysis by analysis” tears the strip, breaking the flow between our thinking and our actions and marooning us on the thinking side.
Elaine Aron uses the term “decision trauma” to describe this reaction many HSPs have to decision-making. In Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person, she writes, “Sensitive people strive so hard to make the right decision that the entire process, especially if it is later regretted, can become something they dread.”
How is it possible that we have exceptional decision-making resources at our disposal, yet find it so challenging to use them? What turns an HSP into a deer frozen in the headlights when a decision looms? To answer these questions, let’s start by taking a look at your decision-making history.
Remembering your early decision-making experiences
Are there decision-related moments that stand out in your memory? Perhaps you were pushed by people or circumstances to override your HSP “pause to check” habit altogether, bypassing your natural tendency to observe a situation for a while before engaging directly in it.
Perhaps you had to make the decision on the spot. You even paused, but you had no time to reflect on your observations.
Or perhaps you had a chance to pause and to reflect, but you ignored or dismissed your fears, with scary results. In The danger of overriding your HSP “pause to check” habit, I describe the minor catastrophe that resulted when I ignored my fears in my seventh-grade gym class. This incident left me convinced that if I felt any fear at all, it was not safe to act—a belief that handicapped my decision-making ability for years.
Whatever the source of your decision-making challenges, it’s important to understand how much your conditioned responses can hamper you. Decision stress can send you into a mild state of trauma where elevated hyper- or hypoarousal impairs the function of your pre-frontal cortex. Then you experience the “deer in the headlights” feeling I mentioned earlier.
Since your HSP mind got you into this mess, it’s only fair it should get you back out. But how? The key is to recognize the kind of thinking that holds you hostage. You have to see what you are doing before you can change it. Then you can choose a new way of thinking that will empower you to make decision from your best HSP intuition and experience.
Rumination vs introspection
First, let’s take a look at the thinking that tightens the knots in your paralyzed brain. It is called rumination.
Merriam-Webster tells us that to ruminate is “to go over in the mind repeatedly…rumination implies going over the same matter in one’s thoughts again and again but suggests little of either purposive thinking or rapt absorption.”
In other words, rumination is habitual, conditioned thinking. It’s like the grooves on an LP record: it goes ’round and ’round, playing the same tune every time. This kind of thinking gets you into decision paralysis, snagged by your old fears.
Introspection, by contrast, is purposeful thinking. Merriam-Webster defines introspection as “a reflective looking inward: an examination of one’s own thoughts and feelings.” When you introspect, you do it from a “bigger you” who has the capacity to be aware. Introspection gives you the mental space and mobility to rise above your old patterns of thought.
Three steps to move into introspection
- Create a mental sticky note and attach it to the inside of your forehead (to be safe, you can stick a copy to your desk too.) On the note, write the following: “If I start to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, like a deer in the headlights, I’m on my way down the rumination rabbit hole.” Those overwhelmed feelings are a sign you are merged with a part of you, and parts can’t introspect: they can only ruminate.
- Take responsibility for noticing when you start down the rumination rabbit hole. If you can muster just enough self-awareness to notice you are ruminating, then you are already halfway out of the hole.
- Move into the mind state that Focusers call Presence (Inner Bonding calls this mind state the Loving Adult.) Presence is the spacious place in yourself from which you can observe and relate purposefully to whatever is going on in you. If you’ve noticed you are starting to ruminate, you already have some Presence. You can strengthen that even more if you do a whole-body grounding process. Then, use Presence Language to describe what you are experiencing.
Now you are ready to engage in true introspection. From the “bigger you” of Presence, you can discern freshly whether your fears and hesitations represent real-and-present dangers or whether they are the “grooves” left behind by past experiences. You can sense a deeper knowing underneath the “noise” of your past conditioning, and if that knowing tells you to act, you can act with confidence.
Once you take action from Presence, you enter an “upward spiral”: your action brings results, and those results.stimulate a new round of introspection. This in turn reveals the next right action. And so on. In this way, your Presence mends the torn Mobius strip of your “introspection/action loop”. This is how we bring our HSP intuition into the world of action.
This comes at a perfect time. I realized reading this that most of my decision making difficulties stem from past traumas. Thinking back I realize that my issue is letting the “good girl” override my “this is not good” awareness. Now I can take this into my Focusing sessions. Thank you 😍
FYI, I tried to watch the Whole-body Lead-in and it wouldn’t play. You might check it. The other videos seem to load and play ok.
Hi Mary, I’m excited you’ve made this discovery that you learned early on to override your body sense of “this is not good” when making decisions…trying to be a “good girl” or a “good boy” is a way we so often tried to cope as sensitive kids—trying to avoid conflict, shaming, etc by doing what others around us wanted us to do.
I’m puzzled what might have been going on with the whole body lead-in. I believe you that it wasn’t loading yesterday, but it is loading today so I have no way of telling why that was. Do try it again and see if it works now.
“If I start to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, like a deer in the headlights, I’m on my way down the rumination rabbit hole.” Those overwhelmed feelings are a sign you are merged with a part of you, and parts can’t introspect: they can only ruminate.”
Hi Emily, What a nice insight. To me it also applies to compulsive action. Your sticky note suggestion inspires me to pause, notice what happened right before I find my self heading toward some sweets, and take the “30 seconds” to get the whole feel of that. There’s no “i will or will not indulge’. Just pause in the present moment and get a read on what’s really going on.
Taj, you are welcome, and thanks for pointing out that this applies also to compulsive action…the power of pausing!