Have you experienced HSP decision paralysis? Read on to understand the cause and cure for this painful and all-to-common HSP experience.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are deep thinkers. We take in more information from our environment than non-HSPs, and sort, digest, and react to it in a deeper way. This aspect of the HSP trait is called depth of processing.
Given that we have so much information coming in and so much processing going on, you’d think decision-making would be a piece of cake for us. But it isn’t. Many HSPs are all too familiar with the dreaded mind state known as “paralysis by analysis.”
When we are at our best, our thoughts and our actions flow into one, just 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. This breaks the flow between our thinking and our actions, marooning us on the “thinking side.”
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 you can have exceptional decision-making resources at your disposal, yet find it so challenging to use them? What is it about decisions that makes you freeze, like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car? We’ll look for answers in your decision-making history.
Remembering your early decision-making experiences
HSPs strongly prefer to pause to check before we take action. Unfortunately, this process can be interrupted or compromised by our circumstances in the moment. Perhaps you’ve experienced one, two, or all three of these compromised decision-making scenarios:
- You were pushed by people or circumstances to override your “pause to check” habit altogether. That is, you bypassed your natural tendency to observe a situation for a while before engaging directly in it. You made a decision with no pause and no reflection, and it didn’t go well.
- You had enough time to pause, but not enough time to reflect on your observations. You had to make your decision on the spot, knowing you were making it without full consideration. You weren’t happy with it afterwards.
- You had enough time both to pause and to reflect, but you ignored or dismissed your fears. I did that in my seventh-grade gym class, and nearly broke my neck. 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.
What beliefs did you develop as a result of your formative decision-making experiences? Pause for a moment to ponder this.
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 (or not-so-mild) state of trauma in which elevated hyper- or hypoarousal impairs the function of your prefrontal cortex. This causes 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.
Rumination vs introspection
First, let’s take a look at the thinking that ties knots in your brain, leaving it paralyzed. We will call this 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. Rumination is not purposeful. Rather, it’s like the grooves on an LP record, going around and around. No matter how many times you put the record on, you’ll get the same tune. When you ruminate, you are caught in the loop of 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”—that compassionate, witnessing “you” who has the capacity to be aware of your own thinking.
In other words, introspection gives you the mental space and mobility to rise above your repetitive thought patterns. Once you see these patterns, you can change them. Here are three steps to move into introspection:
1—Create a mental sticky note and attach it to the inside of your forehead
You can stick a hard copy to your desk, too, if you like. 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.
Your sticky note will remind you that those overwhelmed feelings are a sign you are merged with a part of you. Why is this important? Because parts can’t introspect. They can only ruminate. If you are ruminating, you are not in your Loving Adult.
2—Take responsibility for noticing when you start down the rumination rabbit hole
Even with your sticky note in place, you are bound to fall into your old habits of rumination sooner or later. However, if you can muster just enough self-awareness to notice you are ruminating, then you are already halfway out of the hole.
This might seem like a minor step. It isn’t. For many HSPs, rumination is a form of vigilance, serving to (supposedly) keep us safe while simultaneously distracting us from feeling our intense feelings.
If this is true for you, then before you’ll be able to let go of rumination, you will need to address the trauma that led you to become vigilant in the first place. This requires a high level of willingness, self-responsibility, and intentionality, but you can do it.
3—Move into the mind state that Focusers call Presence
In the Focusing world, Presence, or Self-in-Presence, is a name for the spacious place in yourself from which you can observe and relate purposefully to whatever is going on in you. (In Inner Bonding, we call this mind state the Loving Adult.)
If you’ve noticed you are starting to ruminate, you already have some Presence. You can strengthen that even more by using Presence Language to describe what you are experiencing:
I’m sensing something in me that feels…
I’m aware of a thought that…
I’m hearing a voice in my mind saying…
From HSP decision paralysis to freedom
Now you are ready to engage in fruitful 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.
When you are in this state of inner spaciousness and heightened discernment, you can sense a deeper knowing underneath the “noise” of your past conditioning. This is your spiritual intuition. Your spiritual intuition includes all you’ve ever learned and pondered, and vastly more. The more you act on it, the more you will trust it.
Once you take action from your spiritual intuition, in Presence, you enter an “upward spiral.” Your action produces feedback in the form of results. This feedback gives you fresh fuel for a new round of introspection. Your introspective process will, in turn, reveal your next “right action.” And so on.
When you relate to your inner world from Loving Adult Presence, you mend the torn Mobius strip of your “introspection/action loop.” Now you can move out of HSP decision paralysis, to bring your deepest wisdom into the world through action. This is not easy. but nothing could be more important.
Note: This article originally appeared on Jan 10, 2019. It has been substantially updated.