Decision-Making Tool: The Weighted Pro/Con List

In a previous blog (here), I introduced a tool for helping us make decisions that have us stymied.  When we are facing a complicated decision, we can become stuck and paralysis by analysis can set in.  This post will introduce a spin on a common tool that may help you clarify which option is best for you and will hopefully help you to take steps in that direction.

We are all familiar with the tried-and-true pro/con list.  It is one of our most fundamental decision-making tools and is usually very helpful for us to see which option is more heavily weighted.  But I have often spoken with folks who have completed a pro/con list and still have no further clarity over which option is ideal for them.  Some of the choices we face are so nuanced and complicated that a traditional pro/con list may not pierce the fog of indecision.  It is these types of situations in which the following augmentation to a pro/con list may be helpful.

The procedure is as follows:

  • Make a traditional pro/con list (or multiple pro/con lists if your decision has multiple options).  Be thorough.  Brainstorm as many items as possible, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the factor may be.
  • Assign a numerical value of 1 through 3 to each item on the pro/con list based on how important that factor is to you.  1 would indicate that this is a minor or fairly insignificant factor, not closely aligned with your values or priorities.  2 would indicate a moderate level of importance or alignment with your values or priorities.  3 would indicate a high level of importance or alignment.
  • Now we do some math.  (eek!  But worry not, it is just simple addition) We add up the numbers in each column (add all of the pros and then all of the cons).  We can now compare the ratio of pros to cons.

What we have now is all of the benefits of a traditional pro/con list with the added benefit of a numerical representation of how important and impactful each category is.  And if we had multiple choices and therefore multiple pro/con lists, we now have a way to compare these lists.  If you feel comfortable with these math concepts, you can also use the ratios or fractions of each list to further compare the multiple lists.  But even if you do not feel confident in these math skills, simply comparing the raw number is often telling enough for this to be a useful assignment.

Let me provide an example to show this process and the math involved works.  Let’s say that we are trying to compare options for an upcoming vacation.  We have 2 options: Disneyworld or a visit with family in a nearby state.  Here is the pro/con list for each option with the weighted values:

In this example, if this had been just a traditional pro/con list, the outcome would have been unclear because the lists were equal in terms of how many items were either pro or con.   But when we weighted each item, the numbers revealed that there was a significant difference in terms of which option held more important items in each category.  When we take into account our values and what we find important, a clear decision emerges. 

When this is the case, it can allow us to easily move forward with the option that was the clear winner.  But what about the scenario when both/all options still end up either closely or evenly weighted?  In those situations, I often advise people to rely on either the coin flip strategy detailed in the previous blog post (here) or some other way of randomizing the choice.  We can have fun and be creative with this (throw darts, spin a bottle, etc.) and remind ourselves that we are choosing between identically attractive options, so there is no wrong answer. I hope that you find this strategy to be useful and helpful in your future decision-making quandaries! 


The Workings of Our Minds Series: Emotions

               Many sessions with clients are spent, either directly or indirectly, exploring the dynamics of the workings of the mind.  One of the foundational understandings in this area is that there are 3 inter-related domains of our being: behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.  This post will briefly dive into the third of these aspects: our emotions.

               One powerful realization is that while we do not have direct control over our emotions, we do have a significant degree of control over our thoughts and behavior.  And, as these 3 domains are inter-related, exercising this control over our thoughts and behaviors results in a degree of indirect control over our emotions.  The implications of this understanding are profound, especially if we find ourselves struggling with issues like depression or anxiety.  It points out that we cannot snap our fingers and make a decision to feel better, but there are things we can do (either behaviorally or thought oriented) that can move us in the direction of feeling better.

               The other aspect of our emotions that bears some attention is that our emotional landscape is nuanced and multifaceted.  Therefore, we will not always have easily understood reactions and/or feelings to the events in our lives.  To respect this reality, it is often more productive to use language that emphasizes “both/and” rather than “either/or” dynamics.  When contradictory emotions arise, it can be a confusing and disorienting experience.  But if we keep in mind the “both/and” principle, it can allow us to more easily acknowledge and navigate our nuanced reactions.

               There is a wonderful analogy that captures this: thinking of our emotions like the weather.  This analogy yields 3 powerful realizations:

  1. Multifaceted – as previously discussed, we can experience several emotions in different combinations, much as the weather can combine in an infinite number of combinations.  Think of the combinations of variables of: temperature (hot/warm/cool/cold), atmosphere (sunny/cloudy/gloomy), wind conditions (still/breeze/wind), precipitation (clear/drizzle/rain/storm).  So it is with our different emotions.
  2. We cannot control the weather, but we can prepare for it and react to it appropriately.  If it is rainy, we can grab an umbrella.  If it is cold, we can grab a jacket.  So it is with our emotions.  If you are sad, you can engage with things that will be uplifting.  If you are angry, you can employ things that can help you calm down and look at things from a different perspective.
  3. It won’t last forever.  I live in Arizona and the summers are long and hot.  When it is the middle of summer and it feels like it will never end, I remind myself of the beautiful weather that we have in the winter.  While it doesn’t make it any cooler outside, it does help to persevere.  Knowing that it will not be like this forever can make it more tolerable.  And so it is with our emotions and moods.  Knowing that a depressed mood will not persist forever can make it possible to better tolerate these lows.

Keeping these dynamics of our emotions in mind can aid us in weathering the storms that difficult emotions represent.


The Workings of Our Minds Series: Contemplation, Predictions, and Fantasies

               This will be the first post in a series that explore the many different aspects of the workings of our minds.     

               Please allow me a moment to state the obvious: our minds are complex.  In my counseling practice, most of my day is spent helping people understand these complexities.  To understand the inner workings of our minds allows us to know how to best harness the power and strength that the mind offers.  I would like to focus on one aspect of our mind’s working in this post, and that is the concept of mental rehearsal.

               This concept is relatively straightforward; anytime that we are anticipating events or thinking about the future and possible outcomes, we are engaged in mental rehearsal.  Sometimes this is a purposeful act such as when we are weighing our options on how to handle a situation.  Other times it takes on the more mindless (or not purposeful) form of daydreaming or getting lost in mental fantasies.

               We often regard this latter category as benign and harmless, but it is important that we realize that our mind uses this as rehearsal for performance.  If you find that your mindless fantasies often drift to worst case scenarios and bad outcomes (such as: “I imagine that I won’t be able to reach the goal that I have in mind” or “I can picture how badly it will go when I try to talk to my coworker”), we are inadvertently preparing to make that outcome a reality.   We would be much better served to rehearse success and scenarios with a positive outcome.  Our minds can be a very powerful tool in deciding whether we approach a fearful situation or not and whether or not we successfully navigate the situation.  Our minds can keep us stuck in fear, powerlessness, and anxiety or it can help us to overcome these emotions.

               Now, that doesn’t mean that we need to take optimism to an unrealistic level to where we picture complete smooth sailing with no struggles or barriers to success.  In fact, it can be helpful to try to anticipate some of these hardships, but to focus on our strength and resiliency to cope with and overcome them.

               The main idea here is to remain mindful of the fact that our mind uses our contemplations and fantasies as rehearsal, and we are likely to perform in ways that are influenced by how we have rehearsed.

               Another way that I have heard this framed is using the analogy of going to a gun range.  One of the very first things they tell you in such a setting is to always keep your gun pointed down range.  It is an easy mistake to make to turn around and point the gun somewhere other than down range.  This presents a potentially dangerous situation where you could accidently fire the weapon and hit an unintended target.  If we think of our minds as the gun in this analogy, we want to ensure that we keep it pointed towards the intended target and not let it drift onto unintended targets.

               Our minds operate to help us execute and pursue our goals in ways that are both conscious and subconscious (meaning operating outside of our direct awareness).  Therefore, if we allow our minds to fixate on fantasies or predictions of negative outcomes, we may inadvertently activate the power of our subconscious mind to bring about those outcomes.

               Remaining mindful of which targets we are aiming our minds at can help us harness the full power of our minds to work towards desired outcomes and achieve our goals.


Uncertainty: The Only Certainty In Life

Image result for college professor female

“If you want to be successful in this field, you’d better learn to love ambiguity.”  A professor said this to her class 12 years ago.  As a student in that class, I can almost hear these words today as clearly as they were spoken over a decade ago.  This has stuck with me because it has proven to be true.

In my job I work closely with people, come to care for them deeply, watch them struggle and triumph.  And then, in the majority of cases, we stop seeing each-other.  This is the natural progression of therapy.  In the cold clinical sense it is meet, assess, treatment plan, intervene and then terminate.  I usually invite (if not outright plea for) follow-up calls, periodic check-ins.  Perhaps naturally, seldom is this invitation accepted.  Here is the ambiguity that my professor identified.  Did this person maintain their progress?  Did that issue ever resolve?  What happened with their spouse?  These questions rarely receive an answer.

But this post is not about me or the ambiguity that therapists encounter.  It is about how we all come to terms with the ambiguities and uncertainties in our own lives.

Continue reading

The Search for the Positive

Image result for detective

This post is aimed at helping you through struggles.  Not of the external variety such as financial stress or interpersonal problems, but targeting those struggles that reside within our own minds.  This is about the way that we see and interpret the events that are happening around us.  The manifestations of these struggles may be as mild as being in a bad mood or a bit grumpy for a small spell all the way to a full-blown depression that lasts for months on end.  While these endpoints are quite different, the same process underlies both results.

On a surface level, you are likely familiar with what this discusses.  People may have told you to “search for the silver lining”.  Others may have attempted to encourage you by saying that “things are not as bad as they may seem.”  Heck, even Monty Python told you to “Always look on the bright side of life.”  While well intended and on the right track, these suggestions and advice have likely been ineffective in pulling you out of the negative that clouds your thinking when you are feeling down.  Why is this?

Basically, this is prescribing the very thing that is most out of reach to you at that moment.  It’s like telling someone who is lost in the desert and dying of thirst to “just drink some water.”  When this suggestion is presented without appreciating the difficulty it entails, we are likely to reject it out of hand.  This is quite unfortunate, because the wisdom behind the suggestion being offered actually has some value in terms of the behavioral health benefits.  I will attempt to dig beneath the surface of what is being said when someone offers this type of advice and transform it from quickly discarded tropes to something that may be meaningful and helpful.

Continue reading

Should I Stay or Should I Go: How to Decide What to Do With An Unfulfilling Job


Chances are, we’ve all been there: dreading to go to work the next day because we just absolutely despise our job.  Perhaps it is due to the work itself: too boring/unchallenging or stressful/overwhelming; perhaps it is due to your co-workers or boss; perhaps it is due to the clientele you deal with.  Whatever the reason, nothing can be more dispiriting and have a stronger impact on your overall well-being than being stuck in a job you hate.  The connection between work stress and negative effects on both mental and physical health is well established, even if all other aspects of your life are fulfilling and healthy.  Hopefully, these suggestions will help you to navigate what to do if you are currently in a negative work situation.  Instead of reading this article word for word (which you’re welcome to do if that is your style), I recommend that you skim through to the sections that apply to you and your particular brand of job dissatisfaction and then read the section on coping efforts.  After doing so, you will hopefully have a clear answer to the question posed by The Clash in their 1982 song “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”

Continue reading

Grief & Loss – Understanding and Coping with the Pain

There may be no life experience that is more profoundly painful than the loss of a loved one.  Unfortunately, it is an incident that we all must face at numerous stages in our lives.  Even though these are losses that we must all go through, we often find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the depth of the suffering that we may experience.

While we will focus mainly on loss in terms of the death of a loved one, it is important to note that the grief and loss response can be triggered by the loss of anything we hold dear.  This could be loss of a valued job, moving away from a neighborhood that we were connected to, or the break-up of a relationship or friendship.

Continue reading

Defeat the Worry Beast


We have all, at one time or another, been overpowered by the beast that is worry.  We are bombarded by “what if” thoughts, attacked by nightmarish fantasies about every possible thing that could possibly go wrong.  This may be triggered by hearing an awful story, a stressful situation that has arisen, or just a random thought that comes to us, seemingly from nowhere.  We feel the weight of this worry: physically, emotionally and mentally.  We end up tense and exhausted, anxious and nervous, overwhelmed and fearful.  In short, the worry beast can wreak havoc in our life.

At best, we may attempt to distract or calm ourselves from this onslaught of negativity, but there is a nagging feeling that our efforts have been futile and we will be a victim of these thoughts indefinitely.  It is difficult not to feel despair when this seems to be the case.

However, the good news is that there is a way to defeat the worry beast.  We can learn to work through our worried thoughts to where they are not out of control and creating these negative side-effects.  Before we can get to the specifics of what to do to handle worry, we first must understand a little bit about what worry is.

Continue reading

From My Bookshelf: A Review of the Most Often Recommended Books


Books have tremendous power.  They can move us to feel deep emotion.  They can educate us.  They can allow us to travel back or forward in time.  They can help us address and overcome challenges we may face. There are countless excellent books available that address behavioral health issues.  This post is here to highlight some of the best of those works that I have read.

I am nearly constantly reading books from the field of behavioral health, reading novels only when on vacation.  The bookshelves in my office are full of the titles I have read and there is a special section in my bookshelves where I keep the books that I have found to be particularly enlightening and helpful.  It is from this selection that I culled my “most recommended” titles to review and share with you.  While I probably could have done a write-up on each of these books, I have limited myself to a “Top 10” listing.

Continue reading

Stress Management


         Stress:  that ever-present, life-span shortening, ulcer-inducing, pull-out your-hair condition that is part and parcel of our modern lives.  If there is one issue that I seem to talk about with every client, this is it.  Stress has an immediate impact on our well-being and is therefore one of the most vitally important things to learn to manage as well as we possibly can.  This article will help you to learn more about what stress is and how to work towards minimizing its negative impact on our lives and our health.


Continue reading