President, Lefkoe Institute
February 17, 2011

A recent survey I conducted of entrepreneurs and small business owners revealed that most of them are afraid of making decisions. Yet one of their biggest regrets was the decisions they hadn’t made or the ones they had made too late.

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

Fear of making decisions comes from a belief

The answer probably lies in the fact that 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 of 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.”

Some of the phrases parents commonly use have become clichés since they are used so frequently:

  • “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, you can see why, as a child, you would probably conclude: If I’m not doing what mom and dad want, I’m failing. And if they are upset, that’s obviously bad. Therefore, 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 in the past or if the chance of a mistake or failing 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 ensues. 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.

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Steps to eliminate beliefs

The easiest 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?

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 a 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 I 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, they aren’t necessarily bad everywhere. And finally, 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 you 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 have a clear sense they can see mistakes and failure are bad as inherent in mom and dad’s comments and behavior.

Step 5: Can you really see mistakes and failure are bad? If you can’t see that mistakes and failure are bad in the world, then where has it been? Do you realize it only existed in your mind?

Step 6: 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 inferences or conclusions about mistakes and failure from mom and dad’s behavior?

Step 7: If the only place 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 again: Mistakes and failure are bad.

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

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