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The Four Faces of Indecision

A model for increasing clients’ ability to tolerate uncertainty and to foster productive career exploration in the indecisive person

By Isabelle Falardeau

Anxiety is a normal emotion we experience when we’re apprehensive about a distressing event that may threaten our physical or psychological integrity. It puts us in a vigilant state, which allows us to mobilize our resources in order to tackle the challenge successfully. Abnormal anxiety, on the other hand, occurs when a person overestimates or imagines a danger, while underestimating his or her capacity to deal with it. It’s normal to feel a certain degree of anxiety when it comes time to making a career decision. In fact, many anxiety-provoking questions are part and parcel of the career-choice process: What if I choose the wrong career? Will I find a job at the end of my training? Will I be happy and good at this work? What if I don’t like my job after 10 years? Abnormal career anxiety is seen in people who have a low tolerance for uncertainty. Unfortunately for these people, the career counselling process is peppered with this uncertainty, from beginning to end. In such a situation, the only way people can reduce their anxiety is to learn how to tolerate the grey areas, the unanswered questions, ambiguous information, and so on.

Depending on where they sit in the normal vs exaggerated anxiety spectrum, our clients can be divided into two broad categories: those who are able to tolerate career-choice uncertainty, and those who have such difficulty coping with this uncertainty that they seek to avoid the feeling through a range of behaviours (e.g. latching onto their first idea, avoiding thinking about their indecision). Obviously, people do not necessarily fit neatly into one of these two categories, and the dividing line can be somewhat porous.

In addition to tolerance for uncertainty in their career choice, our clients exhibit varying degrees of career exploration behaviours, which can advance their thought process toward a reasoned decision. Based on these two facets of indecision – uncertainty tolerance and career exploration – here are the four distinct faces of career indecision.

The four faces of indecision


The curious and engaged (Box 1) is the ideal client, one who is able to manage their uncertainty and does their homework by gathering the educational and professional information they need. They show up for meetings and fully participate in the conversation. They experience normal, necessary and passing indecision. However, the indecision experienced by our clients in the other three categories is a source of suffering, which drags down or blocks the career counselling process, for different reasons in each case. To counsel them successfully, you need to move your blocked clients in Boxes 2 to 4 toward Box 1. It is therefore not a matter of reducing their indecision but increasing their ability to tolerate their career uncertainty and to foster action-taking in the indecisive person – in other words, transforming their “dysfunctional” indecision into “constructive” indecision.

How to help the passive nonchalant (Box 2)

Eddy is a high school student and goes to see a guidance counsellor. He needs to choose his program for the following year. Eddy has never given much thought to his future career. He likes sports and video games. He shows some irritation in response to the counsellor’s questions.

Possible strategies to help him include: suggesting he take a test (preferably online) to spark his interest and avoid a painful series of one-on-one questions with the counsellor that he can’t answer; giving him some food for thought regarding time (without moralizing) to show how his present can impact his future; asking him questions to explore why he might be having a negative reaction to career counselling (becoming an adult means working and not having fun anymore; was pressured into seeking guidance counselling by family or society); exploring with him the places where he can find information on post-secondary education; putting him in touch with people working in various potential fields; encouraging him to make a preliminary program choice, rather than career choice; writing down a few concrete potential career options and an action plan.

How to help the scattered and confused (Box 3)

Maria has to apply to university. She’s been questioning her career choice for years and constantly changes her mind. She is interested in several areas of study, which she has explored abundantly, but can’t seem to choose one over the other. She is even losing sleep over it.

Possible counselling strategies include: discussing how uncertainty is an inherent part of the career counselling process, and that the key is to learn how to be at peace with questions you don’t have a definite answer to; reframing indecision in a positive light as a state of awareness and openness, which ensures you cast a wide net and won’t inadvertently limit your options; proposing some decision-making tools (comparison table, decision tree); suggesting how compromises can be made after deciding against certain career options (e.g. playing music as a pastime, helping people through volunteer work, learning a language and travelling outside of work); defusing the drama of a “wrong” decision; referring for psychological services, in cases of excessive anxiety.

How to help the stalled dreamer (Box 4)

Gregory wants to become a police officer. It’s been a dream of his since he was a young boy. His father is a police officer, and Gregory admires him a lot. His application to college has been rejected twice, because his grades weren’t high enough. He is seeking the help of a guidance counsellor to find a strategy to be accepted into the police training program, once and for all.

Possible counselling strategies include: understanding, first off, that this client’s close-mindedness to other career options is masking a great deal of anxiety under the surface; identifying the reasons he wants to become a police officer, and gleaning from them his underlying values (helping people, respecting the law, being part of a team, doing physical work); maintaining a glimmer of hope that his Plan A of being a police officer could one day work out (this will help him consider substitute career choices that might be more realistic); tactfully pointing out the discrepancy between the admission requirements and his grades or skills; supporting him in exploring career options that align with his values; discussing the negative consequences of doggedly pursuing one option only (loss of time, money, accumulation of rejections and failed attempts, loss of self-esteem); finding compromises to help him let go of this dream (keeping physically active in his personal life, helping people in a different capacity); showing a lot of empathy regarding the mourning he has to do; framing passing indecision in a positive light, and fostering tolerance for uncertainty.

Each client with indecision issues presents a unique and sometimes complex case. I have identified four categories of indecision to help orient you, so that you can adapt your professional practices accordingly. Incidentally, stalled dreamers can be such challenging cases that I have devoted an upcoming book to this category.


Isabelle Falardeau has been a career counsellor since 2000 and a psychologist since 1985. Having pursued a career in the college system, she now carries on a private practice in north Montreal. Falardeau has written several books on indecision, two of which won her OCCOQ awards, in 2000 and 2008, respectively.

Lucie Morillon
Lucie Morillon is the Bilingual Content & Communications Co-ordinator for CERIC. With a passion for quality content, she connects with her online communities and provides strong resources to engage members – and always encourages new ones to get involved. She identifies, creates and curates the content destined for the ContactPoint website, the weekly CareerWise newsletter and Careering magazine.

1 Comment

  1. Victoria Driver
    November 11, 2016, 11:37 am   / 

    Career indecision is not limited to youth. In the current downturn I see seasoned workers also unable to decide what they want to do now that their work in O & G has disappeared. They profess to want to find something in a new sector however cannot move past the research stage. Some also run around meeting people and say they are networking. However they are not actually establishing any relationships that can result in someone keeping them in mind when a suitable position becomes available. I too lost a job I loved many years ago and I know how difficult it is to move on. until and unless one lets go of the past. That work will be available again in O & G is true however probably will not command such high wages.

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