Living with a leak in the tank

I wrote last year about a friend of mine who has enormous problems with making, and sticking to, decisions. I called her A and mentioned that she has various other problems.

I thought it was a separate issue that with her, conversations don’t seem to follow the flow that they do with other people. There’s a disjointedness to them, and I often find myself feeling frustrated – why isn’t this conversation working? (What does it take to make a conversation “work”, anyway?) Part of the problem is the non-linear nature of her thought patterns, combined with deafness she doesn’t like to admit to. Both those things lead to abrupt changes of subject. But the thing that bothers me the most is how often I feel defensive when I’m talking to her. And recently, I worked out why.

I started telling a funny story and A jumped in with: “But why doesn’t she just buy a breadmaker?” Obviously, I don’t know why the person I was telling the story about doesn’t just buy a breadmaker. Other people’s purchases of kitchen gadgets aren’t really my business. I was just trying to tell a funny story about someone making bread. But I stopped the story to try to answer the question, even though I didn’t have an answer, only guesses. So I had no answer and no story any more either. The conversation was dead in the water. A lot of conversations with A go this way, and I couldn’t work out why.

Then I realised: A doesn’t just ceaselessly question her own decisions. She questions everybody else’s decisions too. I’d grasped this on one level, which is why I avoid saying certain types of thing to her. If you tell her: “I liked this one and the Motorola, but I thought this had more battery life,” she will want to examine your decision and discuss all the merits of the mobile phone you didn’t buy until you feel uncertain about the one you did choose. Same with any past decision, however carelessly it’s mentioned. So I instinctively avoid mentioning past decisions to her; I just hadn’t explicitly worked out why until now.

And it’s not just either-or decisions. I think we all know someone who tries to solve everybody’s problems. A is one of those people, but she takes it further by trying to solve problems that are already solved. If you tell her that you used to have back pain until you started getting physio, she will bombard you with help for the back pain you no longer have. Sure, the physio might be working for you, but why not try acupuncture instead? Or hot baths? Or yoga? Re-solving solved problems is another way of reopening decisions.

Now I understand why this woman is so anxious all the time. Now I understand why she gets so little done. Making decisions and sticking to them takes willpower and energy, sure. But living in a state where you’re permanently reopening decisions, a state where nothing is fixed or settled, puts a massive leak in your cognitive tank.

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One Comment on “Living with a leak in the tank”

  1. […] recently wrote about how having my decisions questioned makes me feel uncomfortable and defensive. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone here. The guy who says “Why didn’t you get an earlier […]

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