It’s hard to know how to argue with anyone: how to present your case logically and accurately, how to express your feelings clearly… how to tell someone they’ve hurt you without starting a huge fight. But sometimes, it can be hardest to figure out how to argue with ourselves—which is ironic, because for most of us, the person staring back in the mirror is the person we fight with the hardest, the most frequently.
This dynamic becomes even more evident when we have to make big life decisions. Should I move to a new place? Should I quit my job? Should I start a new relationship or end a relationship? Should I have a kid? All these decisions can have big ramifications. Because of that, we’re likely going to spend quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to spur ourselves into reaching a conclusion, or at least how to stop beating ourselves up about our options (and indecision) as we go.
As you know, and as is sort of the problem: You've got options. How do you fairly and effectively take up each side of a purely internal issue to see which is the one you actually believe and want to stick with?
First, realize that there's an invaluable benefit to arguing with yourself. It helps you resist the urge to seek too much advice or input early on in this process. It can be hard not to immediately consult our friends and family when we’re faced with a big decision. But it’s so important to talk to yourself first, and people from underrepresented groups often struggle with this more.
“Women and other underrepresented groups are often focused on everyone else and everything else,” said Apryl Alexander, a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Denver.
As Aanu Jide-Ojo, a clinical psychologist working at The Institute for Equal Rights in Lagos, Nigeria put it, "Marginalized voices have been taught to just excuse themselves from conversations that are actually about them.”
Figuring out how you, yourself feel about your own life and choices positively re-centers you as the subject of this argument. “If [a decision] doesn't yet make sense in your head, even if you're not ready, you will not be able to advocate for yourself when you're talking to somebody… Even if your friends and family are well-meaning and want the best for you, your reasons [for making your decision] are still valid,” Jide-Ojo said.
One of the best ways to argue with yourself is on paper, said Alexander. She always encourages her clients to make a classic pros and cons list when they're unsure about a big decision—and to think of what's feeling positive or negative about the items in each category.
For example, if someone was deciding whether to move or not, Alexander said they should use a list to consider questions like, “What's their rationale for moving? What's in their best interest, the best interest of their family, and the best interests of their career?”
“I think a lot of our anxiety and negative self-talk often deters us from making the right decision," said Alexander. "Sometimes jotting [thoughts about a problem] down helps people to realize their true answer that they’ve known all along."
I’m familiar with this feeling. I recently spent months deciding whether I should stay in D.C. with family or return to Denver for work, and it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. (I spilled a lot of ink journaling.) When I finally made the decision, I realized that I had known what I had to do for months, but anxiety and fear about judgement from people I know kept me from feeling confident in my decision.
There are more detailed questions you can ask yourself as you write out the sides of your argument with yourself, too. Jide-Ojo said that when a client is making a big life decision and is unsure of which choice to make—like deciding whether or not to have kids —she encourages them to go through a process of self-reflection, starting with naming their feelings and then interrogating them. “[For example,] What is it about having a baby"—or any other big choice you might be struggling with—"that might be bringing out that feeling of sadness or fear, or any other emotion?” Jide-Ojo asked. “What’s the story behind it?”
Jide-Ojo said that, after figuring this out, people will be able to confront their fear by looking at how they might be hyper-focusing on the worst-case scenario, and without necessarily trying to solve the problem immediately. If there’s a reason to think the worst-case scenario might be likely or possible, then, Jide-Ojo said, “You can now focus on an alternative way to navigate that situation.”
Because people are often pressured into certain life decisions, like starting a family or deciding where to live, both Alexander and Jide-Ojo said it’s important to know what you want and why you want it—so you can confidently communicate your decision to others when the time comes.
“I tell people to be their own hype man, [to] start engaging in positive self-talk," said Alexander. Even though this may feel like the opposite of having an argument with yourself, this positive mindset and self-care is a crucial first step.
"When you're making these decisions, you need to be thinking about this as an investment in yourself.” That’s how I felt when I was deciding to move back to Denver: I had to think about my goals, and the person I wanted to be, instead of focusing on all the ways it could go wrong or people I might upset by making that decision.
If you're still indecisive about how to be more decisive, that's OK. It would be wonderful if you could simply follow all these suggestions, and that would guarantee that you would make the right decision. But we’re human, and life often takes unexpected turns, so you might find yourself regretting a given decision you make—and, as a result, in a new argument with yourself about your choices. If that happens, Alexander said it’s important to “give [ourselves] some grace to make some of those mistakes.”
She suggested having regular check-ins with ourselves, no matter how we feel about the resolution of an internal argument, to see if the decisions we made are still working. The goal is to see if we’re “physically, emotionally, mentally OK with the decisions that we made—and, if we're not, how do we develop a new plan for ourselves?”
In any fair fight, understanding on both sides is key, and that's true of conflicting-feeling perspectives that are all your own, too. Don’t “bash yourself,” Alexander stressed, even if you don't think a position you took was ultimately the right one for the moment. Just pivot: You're allowed to change your mind—which is also one of the hallmarks of a good-faith, productive argument of any kind.
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