On oppressive optionality and fear of failure.
Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today
Originally published on 21 November 2023 on Psychology Today/The Art of Self-Improvement
What’s trending on TikTok? That is not a trivial question. Social mediatrends are portals into our now strangely public collective unconscious. They can yield fascinating insights into what is preoccupying us right now and invite speculation about why that might be the case.
Lately, there has been a steep rise in posts about decision paralysis. Many of them have gone viral. Also known as "choice paralysis" or "analysis paralysis," TikTokers and other commentators understand decision paralysis as a state in which, overwhelmed by potentiality, we are unable to act. Confronted with too many options to evaluate and impotently looping around the same circuits, our minds go into freeze mode. Mentally stuck, we remain frozen in the planning stage and get ever more confused about what good and bad paths forward might look like. This is a highly stressful state—often, we feel guilty and ashamed about our inability to take action. Hounded by "shoulds" and "coulds," we just can’t make up our minds.
Normally, decision paralysis occurs when we are faced with complex or else with consequential decisions. What is new is that ever more people appear to experience decision paralysis when it comes to the seemingly simple and trivial things in life. There are videos of people crying on TikTok because they are starving—they simply cannot decide what to eat. Others cannot get started on their ordinary daily to-do lists because they cannot prioritize the tasks on them. Some people cannot decide what clothes to wear and stay in their pajamas. Some cannot make up their minds on when in the day to have a shower or to brush their teeth, and then they don’t do either. What is going on?
Neurodiversity and Perfectionism
Some of the people who are posting these TikTok videos identify as neurodiverse. They explain their decision paralysis as a core symptom of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is in itself a trending diagnosis—no doubt because of a growing cultural concern about our diminishing ability to focus, concentrate, and resist the machinations of the attention industry. But there are many others who do not identify as suffering from ADHD and who are struggling with the exact same issue.
To some extent, decision paralysis is fueled by an overwhelming sense of information overload. But, ultimately, decision paralysis is related to perfectionism—a strong desire for maximizing the effects of our choices and for optimal outcomes, as well as a crippling fear of making bad decisions that we might later regret.
What is at stake, then, is failure and damage to our sense of self and our self-esteem. As a result, we may experience high stress and anxiety levels when faced with decisions of any kind and procrastinate. Given that the psychological risks are so high, and that we might castigate ourselves harshly if we make suboptimal choices, it feels safer not to make any decision at all.
But there is also a deeper cultural reason for why decision paralysis is trending right now: Having grown up in neoliberal, techno-capitalist societies that cherish extreme individualism, most of us will subscribe to certain beliefs in personal agency, responsibility, and willpower.
We are, for example, likely to believe that we can exercise much more control and mastery over our environments and other people than people from most Asian cultures. We tend to hold ourselves personally responsible and often feel guilt and shame for many experiences that also have measurable structural causes (burnout is a case in point, but we can also mention the impact of sexist, racist, and classist prejudices here).
Above all, we believe it is our duty always to strive to become who we are meant to be—to self-realize and self-actualize, to pursue our dreams and passions, and, ideally, to turn them into money-making ventures. We seek to express our true selves authentically and courageously at all times. If we fail at that, we think of it as a failure of willpower and commitment. Understanding ourselves as the active designers of our lives, we often tend to underestimate how much we are shaped by broader cultural dynamics and values, by mimetic desires (that is, wanting what other people want), by the economic systems in which we operate, by our subconscious, and by our upbringing and our genes.
What is more, the civil liberties menu from which we can choose these days has become infinitely greater than it ever has been in the past. In Western democracies, we cannot just freely choose our professions and our political, spiritual, and metaphysical beliefs, but we can now also express our sexual orientation and even our gender and sex. We can alter our bodies if we don’t like them. We can choose our lifestyles, our diets, and our aesthetics. Each day, we find ourselves confronted with infinite options to define, express, and distinguish ourselves.
The ability to choose from so many possible templates about how to live and who to be is a wonderful gift, of course. The liberties that we have available today are a sign of remarkable social progress. And yet this freedom can also become oppressive. The sociologist Alain Ehrenberg wrote about the “weariness of the self”—the psycho-social pressures of constantly having to self-realize and self-actualize. Freedom is a privilege, but it is also an obligation. And exercising it all the time can be tiring.
I think that the current resonance of decision paralysis is directly related to the ever-growing freedoms we have. Historically speaking, the vast field of self-making options we now have is still relatively new. Perhaps our brains, psyches, and souls have not yet quite come to terms with it. Before the modern period, the options to remake ourselves according to our personal ideals were severely limited for the vast majority of the population.
Social mobility only really became possible in the 19th century, when it resulted in a weakening of formerly fairly rigid class hierarchies. The declining influence of religion and the rise of the scientific paradigm meant that people gradually became freer to select what beliefs they wanted to adopt. Just a few centuries ago, professions were not freely chosen, either, but passed on from father to son: If your father was a locksmith, a farmer, a minister, or a cobbler, chances were that you would adopt the same trade. Women only really began to enter the workforce toward the end of the 19th century. Men were the only ones with a degree of sexual freedom, and in most cultures, this did not legally include nonheterosexual encounters or changing gender until the 20th century.
Rules about what to wear and how to behave were clearly defined. Food choices were limited. Obviously, our ancestors also didn’t get distracted by information overload from social media, and any potential role models were from their immediate circles. It is therefore reasonable to assume that our ancestors had more headspace and attentional energy for many of their cognitive and spiritual activities because they simply did not have a lot of choice in most lifestyle- and profession-related domains.
How, then, can we live better with the gift of choice and not drown in a sea of optionality? First, we need to bring back a degree of simplicity into our lives. That means eliminating or putting into perspective choices that simply don’t matter that much. Some famous creative people, for example, wear a kind of signature uniform, so that they don’t have to waste their mental energy on thinking about what to wear each day. They include Karl Lagerfeld, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson, and Geri Halliwell (who only wears white now). Most highly successful people have firm habits and routines in place. They seek to eliminate all inconsequential decisions so that they can focus their decision-making energy fully on their truly important tasks.
Secondly, we have to manage our horizon of expectations. We will inevitably get things wrong and make some bad choices in life. The more important point is this: How can we learn from our past mistakes? What are certain patterns that we can see in our behaviour and the structure of our feelings that may not be helpful? Our aim should not be never to make mistakes but, rather, not to keep making the same ones.
Last but not least, we should seek to move away from wasting our energy on superficial matters and relatively trivial micro-decisions, and focus on the bigger picture: What are our deeper values? Who do we want to be in our relationships? Who and what makes us feel fully alive? What is our unique contribution to making the world a better place? If we are more firmly connected to our deeper why, we can trust our inner compass more when it comes to the daily how.
And this may well be another reason why decision fatigue is trending on TikTok: Because so many of us feel lost regarding the bigger social challenges we all face, as well as our personal existential ones, we are much more vulnerable to losing our way in the labyrinth of daily trivial choices. Because the macro is so daunting to contemplate, we focus too much on the micro.
Image: Uday Mittal @Unsplash