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Obama and the 51% that made me think

Often when people book in to see me for anxiety issues they also mention a lack of confidence. It makes perfect sense that anyone struggling with unhelpful thoughts or feelings is pretty unlikely to be feeling strong and confident in themselves. It’s really a lack of trust in themselves and this feeling can show up in many people who aren’t necessarily battling a general tendency to worry or worse.

Where this most reliably turns up is in decision making. Stands to reason that if I’m unsure of myself, then I’m highly unlikely to trust my judgement well enough to be comfortable in making a decision. I heard a story recently about how when Obama was US President he made decisions using a process that really made me stop and think. As President we can bet that Obama had a barrage of decisions flying at him not just daily but constantly. He didn’t have the luxury of dodging them or delaying them (ok, hands up all you procrastinators!): he HAD to

make those decisions.


His approach was to reach a 51% degree of certainly about the decision and then act. That sounded pretty shocking to me, despite the fact that in our house we make light work of decisions. Obama’s philosophy is that procrastination is likely to cause more damage to the overall effectiveness of the Office of President than making some of the wrong decisions ever could. It set me thinking… if I had to assign a pe

rcentage of certainty to the decisions that I make, what would it be? Certainly more than 51%! I plumped in the end for an average of 65%.


Discussing this with my husband (also ‘Mr Speedy’ when it comes to making decisions) we began to speculate that degree of certainty that a couple of our close friends appear to need before jumping in and choosing an option, or making a decision. We both had a ‘lightbulb’ moment in realising that the only percentage these people were comfortable with was 100%! Ah, OK, and how often can we actually have 100% certainty that a course of action is the right one? Surely NEVER? So looking in more detail at the thoughts and feelings they might go through when attempting to reach a decision it seems to be very different to ours… and ours in turn looks pretty risk averse compared to Mr Obama.

What we and the ex President have in common is the expectation that 100% is not realistic.. after that it’s just a matter of degree. Our friends on the other hand painfully and lengthily work up the scale trying to get to a place of comfort in making a choice, but in reality only 100% will bring the comfort they’re seeking. So even 99% brings discomfort if only 100% will do.

I think there’s at least a couple of things going on here.. anxious thoughts are often scattered, making it harder to systematically work through an issue and often people who get caught up in cycles of unhelpful thinking learn to fear the feeling of discomfort or lack of certainty that for others might actually be exciting (adrenaline junkies you know who you are).

Another aspect is personalisation. When I make a decision and it turns out to be the wrong one, I can accept that without it needing to be connected in any way to my identity.. to who I am. Conversely, exploring this with a client lacking in self confidence, I asked her what it would it mean if SHE made a decision that turned out to be the wrong one. “That I am rubbish..that I can’t get anything right..” She could have gone on and on. You see the difference? My bum decisions (and some of Obama’s too) are just that … but hers feels like an indictment of who she is. And that’s why the therapy room is a helpful place for her to be right now.
What percentage certainty do YOU need before making a decision?

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