Work with Janie

This is what you're deciding by NOT making a decision.

I met with Helen* recently.  She had a decision to make about settling her divorce or letting the Judge in her case decide the disputed issues.


If she settled, Helen would be compromising (there's a reason why they call it "settling") and would never know what the judge would have decided on the issue.  If she did not settle, the judge in her case would decide the issue for her and her spouse, possibly in a way that was not as favorable to Helen as the settlement terms.


*I talk about "Helen" a lot.  She's not a real person and she's not a real client.  She's more like a composite character.  I will never reveal an actual conversation that I've had with an actual client.  Ever.

I told Helen about the terms of the settlement proposal.  I explained it to her in detail, reviewed the calculations right in front of her with pen and paper and my calculator.


I even showed Helen how the settlement terms would lead to her having a bit more in weekly cash flow than she has now.


I was very clear with Helen on my advice to her -- my advice was that she authorize me to settle the issue on these terms.


Helen told me all of the reasons why she should not have to settle the case on those terms.


She told me what a good spouse she had been during her decades-long marriage.


She told me that she didn't even want the divorce.


That, if it was up to her, she would be living her life in the former marital home that had already been sold, and that she would not have to be paying me to ask her to choose among options when she really didn't like any of them.


Her choice, she said, was to stay married and be living a different life.


"I know, Helen," I said, "and that is a valid thought, but that option is simply not available to you."  Helen's spouse requested a divorce, and that divorce would be granted to Helen's spouse whether Helen wanted it or not.


She told me that I should just "do what I had to do," because she was going to get screwed either way.


Sitting in my conference room, with the calculations literally staring us in our faces, I said to Helen, "but you see this math right?  And I know you understand it.  It's actually not confusing, Helen.  If you look at the math we just did, settling the case on these terms actually puts you in a slightly better financial position than you're in now."


But Helen's brain was not buying this.  Helen's brain already had a story -- the story was that Helen should not have to be making these choices in the first place -- so every single option just sucked.


"But it's true," she told me emphatically.  "This proposal that you're advising me to accept is not what I want!"


Helen's brain was ready to fight me for her story.


And when I say her "story," I don't mean that Helen was making something up.  Helen's "story" was simply her collection of thoughts about my advice.


Helen wasn't wrong in what she was thinking.


This wasn't was she wanted.


So, in that sense, her story was true.


But Helen's story -- true as it was -- was not serving her.


Even in the face of the math calculations -- and you really cannot get more objective than adding and subtracting -- Helen's brain was not going to let that story go.


Watching her face as she resisted what I was saying, it was almost as if I could literally see inside of Helen's head.  I was a spectator on the bleachers, watching Helen and her brain battle it out.


Helen wanted to choose, she really did.  I could see it in her face.


She wasn't trying to be difficult with me.  I've represented Helen for nearly three years now.  I know she trusts me, and we have a great relationship.


I also wish I could stop Helen from metaphorically punching herself in the face with her own brain.


For Helen, as with all of my divorce clients, making a decision would mean that she would have to commit to one option versus another option.


And that would mean that she was taking a risk -- not a risk that she "made the wrong choice."


Because "making the wrong choice" is not a real thing.  It is not an external, objective circumstance outside of Helen.


"I made the wrong choice" is a thought.  If Helen chose to believe that thought, she would experience a negative emotion.  Her brain, in that moment in my conference room, could predict that her brain would try to tell her in the future that she "made the wrong choice."  That is what Helen was trying to avoid when she didn't want to choose.


She was trying to avoid how mean she knew her brain would be to her in the future about the option that she chose today.


Helen finally looked me right in the eye, and with a face so heartsick that it gave me a lump in my throat,  she said "I can't do it.  I can't decide."


I put my hand on Helen's arm and I said, "but you are deciding.


You understand that, right?


By not deciding, you're deciding to not settle the case on these terms -- the terms that I'm advising you to accept.


And, you're abdicating responsibility for choosing the resolution to this divorce."


For Helen, it was easier to let someone else decide.  That was less painful than the certainty that Helen would second-guess herself later, no matter what she chose today.  Helen's present brain was trying to protect her from her future brain.


I know, that's totally trippy.


But here's the thing.  Helen will not feel regret in the future because she chose one option or the other today.


Helen will feel regret in the future because she will have a thought in the future that she did something wrong, or that she should have done something differently or better, or some similar thought.


That future thought -- that Helen did something wrong --  is what will cause Helen to feel regret.


So, Helen's brain was trying to protect her today by tricking her into not making a choice.


Helen's brain was working properly -- it was doing what brains do.  It was trying to protect Helen.


Because Helen’s brain doesn't care if she reaches a goal, makes the "right" choice, or pursues happiness.


Helen’s brain just wants to keep her alive, and it does this by tricking her into believing that it is safer to just stay where she is right now, even if where she is right now is abdicating responsibility.


Helen's brain was trying to tell Helen that she was living at the effect of her divorce, which she didn't want, and that she had no control over what was happening to her.


But none of that was true.


Helen's brain was lying to her.


But by refusing to make a choice, Helen was deciding.  If she did not authorize me to try to settle the case, she was choosing (without explicitly saying so) that she wanted to go to trial.


And that was totally okay with me.  If Helen made an informed decision to go trial, based on a full understanding of what she risked losing and gaining, and she said "yeah, let's not settle on these terms," then I was all in.


That was not what Helen was doing.  She was saying "do what you have to do."  She was refusing to choose, and choosing the opposite in doing so.


The Court was going to grant Helen's spouse a divorce.  That was a neutral circumstance that Helen could not control.


What Helen can control, however, is what she chooses to think about her divorce, about her ex, about her options, and about the rest of her life.


So, what's the story you tell yourself about your divorce?


Are you believing your brain when it tells you that other people are in charge of the decisions that are made in your divorce?


Are you putting other people in the driver's seat?




Really, I want to know.