More than Two

I only have two options, and neither of them are good. Most of us have felt this way, or said this to ourselves at some point. We are in a difficult situation, and as we evaluate the way forward, we see two distinct paths. Sometimes, that’s ok, because one looks good to us, and one not-so-good. Sometimes, we have two great options, and we are torn and have trouble figuring out how to proceed because we like both ways forward. And sometimes, we feel the need to hold our nose, pick the least bad option, and get on with it. We feel trapped because we see only limited ways forward, all every way forward sucks.

The problem with having only two ways forward has one distinct disadvantage: It is wrong. When we feel hemmed in by having to make a choice between two (and only two!) different ways forward, the issue is more a failure of imagination and an inability to think creatively than it is a problem with our choices. Let’s think about a couple of examples, just to illustrate the point. These examples are kind of silly, but are based on conversations I had recently, so they work for illustrative purposes.

First example: I don’t really like the house I am living in, but I have a great interest rate on my mortgage, and I don’t want to give it up. My only options are to sell my house and buy a new one with a high mortgage payment, or to stay where I am now, unhappily. While I understand the predicament, there are actually many ways forward. Here are several other options:

  1. I could rent my current house to someone else, move into a new, rented house for a while, and see if things are better.
  2. I could remodel my current house so that it better suits my needs
  3. While I am attributing the problem to my house, my struggle is actually related to something else. I could take a break (going on vacation for a couple of weeks?) to try and get a different perspective on things.
  4. While I am attributing the problem to my house, my struggle is actually related to something else. I could work with a therapist for a while to see if I can identify and resolve the related issue.
  5. The difficulty with the house is it feels ______ (too big, for example). I could invite family to stay with me, or host friends more often, so the house feels more full.
  6. The difficulty with the house is it feels ______ (too small, for example). I could find ways of spending more time out of the house, so that rather than feeling small, it feels cozy and a welcome place to return to. Now, I’m spending most of my time at home, but I could change where I spend my time rather than changing my house.

Perhaps none of these options are realistic or helpful or reasonable. However, there are absolutely more than two options. Typically, once we have convinced ourselves that there are only two choices, we tend to fixate on them, and we also tend to dismiss other, creative solutions out of hand. Forcing ourselves to seriously explore multiple options allows us to see a broader universe of options, and recognize that we always have choices (lots of them, in fact!) in regards to any particular issue we face.

Second example: I’m taking a medication that helps me, but I do not want to keep taking it. My only two options are to keep taking it (which I don’t like) or stop it (which probably won’t go well for me either). I feel stuck with two bad choices.

Seems straightforward. What other options are there? Several, actually.

  1. We could try lowering the dose of the medication
  2. We could explore if there are other medications that would work equally well
  3. We could address (or treat) the reason for not wanting to take the medication (a side effect, perhaps?)
  4. We could shift our perspective from “I hate being stuck taking this medication” to “I am grateful this medication exists to treat a lousy problem that I am unlucky enough to have.”
  5. Perhaps there are non-medication options for treating the diagnosis. Could surgery be an option? Are there other procedures, or treatment strategies, that are also effective?
  6. Perhaps there are other ways the medication could be taken? Sometimes, oral medications are also available as an injection, or vice versa? Would that fix the problem?

The point is to recognize that we frequently feel trapped with only one or two options– but usually, there is a whole range of possibilities to consider.

The first step to avoid feeling we are trapped between two bad options is just to recognize the situation for what it is, to realize that we have fallen into a trap of our own making. Then, we need to force ourselves to come up with alternative ways forward. It does not matter how good or bad the other ideas are, just get some ideas out. Writing them down can be helpful.

If still feeling stuck, phone a friend. Get another person to help brainstorm. The question is not What should I do? Instead, the question is what choices do I have? How many options can I come up with?

We need to seriously consider whatever options we do come up with. There’s a tendency to dismiss ideas out of hand, but ask questions. What would it look like if I actually did this? What would be the advantages? The downsides? Forcing ourselves to really think through alternatives can help us get unstuck, and get us out of the headspace where we are not open to considering different paths forward.

Think of five alternatives. Consider each one.

Cheers, Doc