I CAN'T DECIDE: How dilemmas define our lives and shape our society

by Dr. rer. nat. Marlies Koel

Dilemmas and the big why: why do things not change?

Sometimes we are faced with a decision. But no matter how we twist and turn it: Neither solution seems right. Each side of the coin brings as many advantages as it does have disadvantages. So, what now? Welcome to the dilemma. Who doesn't know it? And yet, we are often unaware of the extent to which a dilemma defines our lives. A dilemma, some describe it as a “Catch-22”, can have a wide variety of expressions. In this article, I will describe my observations on how we experience dilemmas in our daily life, how they accompany us unconsciously – and what options we have to solve them.

What are dilemmas?

Throughout our human existence, we seem to be influenced by dilemmas more than we realise. This becomes obvious e.g. in our inability to make up our minds, having eternal doubts, the feeling of “it's never enough” ... and this despite an incredibly high level of activity. A dilemma arises when we come into conflict with a polarity. We are unable to come to a decision, do not move forward and do not develop further. This is an ingenious avoidance strategy or you could also call it a highly developed diversionary tactic.

Dilemmas are defined as follows: There are two opposing positions with equal advantages and disadvantages. We cannot decide which one we want or should choose. This can lead to a carousel of thoughts as we consider the pros and cons of both positions without coming to a conclusion. A dilemma is defined by the fact that there is no solution. This can be a massive burden for us and cause enormous psychological stress. We largely think in black and white while trinary thinking might be necessary. Working with dilemmas shows us that we have neglected them, because within the framework of polarity there are always three positions: left, right and in the centre.

All of us know statements like “I guess I want to, but ...” and those like “I can't decide”.  Colloquially, we say that you “want to swim without wanting to get wet”.  These statements aptly describe the inner hardships of affected people using up their energies and resources through this inner conflict, yet still not being to get into an action. This might lead to their lives being restricted as a result. When we get stuck in a dilemma, we have a vicious mental circle and are caught up in either-or thinking. Yet dilemmas offer us great opportunities for development.

Reactions to a dilemma

Typical reactions are often fear, flight, withdrawal, playing dead, or even dissociation. “Better an end with horror than horror without an end” is a sentence that often comes up then. The pending condition should finally come to an end. However, even if a decision is made in favour of one position, the solution does not necessarily provide feelings of happiness, but in many cases cause discomfort and possibly also feelings of shame, failure, etc. The reason for this is that the real issue, hidden by the dilemma, has not been discovered. Another scenario is that a lazy compromise has been made that does more harm than good. The most interesting aspect of a dilemma is “what it is also about”. It is precisely this aspect that needs to be found in order to successfully move through the decision conflict and recognise new opportunities.

How can we visualise a dilemma and what are the positions?

To visualise a dilemma, place an A4 sheet in front of you on a table in portrait format. Draw two circles on the middle height, one on the right and on the left, and write one item into each is written, e.g. a plus and minus as a representative for a personal dilemma. Both positions have equal positive and negative arguments.

The reaction to conflicts with polarity usually takes place on the level of the dilemma. Here, black-and-white thinking, the either-or, prevails. Children think like this: Something is either good, or it is bad.

Solutions are usually sought before the dilemma, that is, figuratively speaking, at the bottom of the paper. However, this creates more problems than before. Rumi's statement “Beyond right and wrong, there is a place where we meet” shows us that there’s a solution. It is a place of possibilities, i.e. the level of the Both and and of the And.

What are the positions?

Every dilemma has five aspects or positions: One or the other, the advantage of both or stop dealing with it, and, last but not least, what this could also be about. The first four positions concern the bottom half of the paper. We never pass through the dilemma and always remain in front of it, sometimes closer, sometimes further away from it. Life, so to speak, takes place only on the lower half of the sheet. We do not come closer to a solution. The fifth position, “what else is at stake”, is the most interesting and is usually not touched until we have the courage and walk through the dilemma.

As said before: The dilemma is the perfect strategy for not touching or dealing with the point or issue we don't want to take a closer look at. In the context of polarity, it can be a positive or negative aspect. Moreover, this means that the whole leaf is not available to us as a frame of reference for our lives. Our living space is cut in half, so to speak. Through the dilemma we block ourselves in our development and occupy ourselves on the “playground” in front of the dilemma.

In everyday life, this might become obvious e.g. in the fact that children often act out family conflicts at school. We as adults act out our own relationship conflicts in the workplace, for example.

In order to encounter this aspect of the fifth position, we have to go through the dilemma and, at each step, face the feelings and images it triggers. It is a very exciting and individual journey that opens up new spaces for us.

What it is “really” about: dilemmas and their roots in our childhood

During our early childhood we get familiar with big dilemmas, especially in dysfunctional systems/families where double messages prevail. “Who do you love more, mom or dad?” How shall a child solve this – this is not possible. The child's conclusion is often “I am wrong”, “I am incapable” or something else. What should it do to hold the family together and stabilise it? Often it secures its place in the family by striving to meet expectations.

What happens when children stand between their parents and spend their time trying to please both, trying to pacify them, trying to prevent separation by becoming ill, etc.? They take themselves back and can lose contact to themselves, split off from themselves, because they are busy with the task of guaranteeing family cohesion. Parents are often unaware of how their double messages or some questions can have a lasting impact on the child's life. Let’s take a look at the sentence: “Who do you love more, mom or dad?” As adults, we never know how a child will respond and what unconscious decisions it will take. The child may develop a conflict from this because it stands between parents and no matter what it decides, it is always wrong. Of course, there is also the possibility that the child is able to ignore it, but this hardly happens.

The child experiences and feels situations and things completely differently than adults. Statements "like you are a bad child if ...", "you are a dear child if ..." can have massive effects. The reaction to conflicts with polarity usually takes place on the level of black and white thinking, the childhood level.

How can a dilemma arise?

We have our first encounters with the two poles “structure” and “chaos” in our childhood. Here, the foundation is laid for what we later perceive as “structured” or “chaotic”. Structure, we learn, means order, and disorder means chaos. Both structure and chaos are part of our lives. They are two poles between which there are different levels. If we come into conflict with these two poles, a dilemma arises. Let us imagine a small child sitting on the floor and playing. The child has scattered toys all around. This apparent mess does not bother the child. It knows exactly where everything is and feels safe. The child's parents may see it differently: for them, the toys lying around are total chaos, and the child is supposed to learn order from an early age.

On the parents' side, there are now several possible reactions: For example, they clear away the toys completely, with the result that the child sits there alone. The parents might also try to explain to the child how important order is: “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”  Or perhaps the parent leaves the child with just one toy so that it can't make as much of a mess as before. With only one toy, the child again has different ways of responding: It can be happy with it and thus be “easy to take care of” or it can annoy the parents so much with this one toy that they take it away as well and put it on the table out of the child's reach.

How do we respond?

Now, with each of these possibilities comes the important point: How the child reacts to the option determines his or her later behaviour as an adult. In this last example (parents take away the child's only toy as well), the child may react as follows: A) The child freezes, accepts it, and withdraws into himself. B) The child screams and rages until it gets the toy back. C) The child grabs a chair and retrieves its toy. D) The child looks for something else to play with. One situation – different ways to solve it. Which option do we choose?

We can see from this example that it is quite crucial what reactions we experience from our parents and how we react as a child, i.e. how we interpret and evaluate it and which decisions we take. Because the way we react to such a situation as a child has a decisive influence on how we deal with the subject of structure and chaos later on as an adult.

For example, the toddler who has been totally comfortable with chaos, and whose parents have taught the child that this chaos is not “okay”, experiences a distortion of the child’s perception. Such distortions can lead us to find ourselves constantly struggling with chaos and structure later in life. Too much chaos may frighten us as adults, we perceive it as “too open”, things may “go off the rails”. Too much structure, on the other hand, can also constrict us, freeze us, because everything is only “useful” and “defined” and we just fulfil our duties.

Our own struggle with the two poles can also express itself in such a way that, e.g. we are extremely structured in our job, while at home there is sheer chaos. We then say: “I urgently need to tidy up, but it never works”. Depending on how we interpreted the topic of order and disorder as a child, we experience the corresponding reactions and effects as adults. The bottom line is that we are thus always the product of our choices. And we can decide at any time and over and over again!

A possible approach to chaos and structure

What if we used chaos and structure in polarity? What could change for us if we linked chaos with creativity and innovation and gave them a clear space in our lives? What could change for us if we linked structure with, among other things, manufacturing processes, smooth operating processes, everyday processes, etc. and gave them a clearly defined space there as well? We could then consciously go from one room to the other like in a house. It is important that the doors to the respective room are opened and also closed again. This would provide us with orientation, clarity, and mindfulness. Figuratively speaking: it is important to clarify our inner house and define the individual rooms. From this point of view, a conflict and thus also a dilemma could arise if the rooms are not clearly defined.

What forms of dilemmas are there and how do they work in daily life?

Dilemmas can work on different levels: individual, family, collective and also spiritual. They can affect our everyday life and can also be of a fundamental nature, such as:  mother-father, chaos-structure, health-disease, body-no-body, life-death, spirit-matter, etc.

In the course of dealing with our world, we seem to first choose one side of the polarity, only to then choose the opposite. Dealing with our polar world, which is life, is an immense challenge for us humans. Humans always like to be in control, to feel safe, to have a meaning, to have a place, and much more. We quickly come into conflict with polarity, which can then lead to the emergence of dilemmas. This is encouraged by our evaluations.

Take, for example, the assignment to plus and minus: day and night are usually neutral, day is usually assigned to plus and night to minus. If other polarities such as good and evil, health and disease, life and death are assigned, evaluations automatically arise.

The eternal life is also a topic what the stem cell research discovered for itself - the eternal life with body. The eternal life without body, according to our religion, versus the eternal life with body, as a possibility in science. The golden calf of science is getting stronger and stronger. We always live in the extremes, always swinging from one pole to the other and don’t find our way, which is possibly what it is really all about.


I have called this dilemma “the dilemma of spirit and matter”. Our society has so far clearly decided in favour of matter. What could it really be about? This question corresponds to the fifth position in the dilemma work. It would be an interesting approach to find real solutions and to stop swinging back and forth between the extremes.

Suggestions and comments on the collective dilemma.

Let's look one step deeper: since the age of enlightenment, we had left one extreme and gone to the naturalistic extreme. Ambivalences can be an indicator for dilemmas. As mentioned above, dilemmas are the most ingenious invention of humans not to go forward, i.e. to limit the development of consciousness, the mental and spiritual development. Gates are open to request obedience via isolation, manipulation, fears, and other mechanisms.

Man has always been interested in the spiritual, in the intangible, and super sensible. He has developed the most diverse approaches to be in contact with it, come into contact with it and explain it to the people. Driven by doubts, uncertainties, the forces of nature and many other factors, man seeks his salvation both in control and in the spiritual. Monotheistic religions emerged alongside a diverse world of gods in other cultures. What if we approached this subject from the aspect of dilemma? What could be the topic behind it? Is it an individual process or can answers/solutions also be found for our society?

What else is at stake for all of us?

What keeps us from moving forward? Is it an individual process or can answers/solutions also be found for our society? What do we fear? Is it the unknown, a white “land” that is elusive to us? Especially in our current time of upheaval and the threat of loss of human dignity and freedom, it will take courage to explore the space behind the dilemma in order to create a new vision for us humans that includes life, nature and the earth.

Being right is one of the ways to shape the world and environment to live in. The more pronounced the feeling of being right is, the more it can be concluded that this person has been traumatised or offended or is stuck in an unconscious dilemma. The ability to accept criticism and other views is thus more limited and the reality of others is then sometimes hardly acceptable. Only when I know my reality can I perceive the own reality of others.

When we have passed through the collective dilemma, of which we are all a part, we can see and feel behind the first curtain how much we are entangled in the interweaving of matter, how much our thoughts, ideas and conceptions have formed and are forming this fabric, namely like a fine tissue, which we no longer perceive.

Our task and challenge are to remain true to ourselves or remain in contact with ourselves. With this we get self-responsibility with the freedom to shape our own life and create a togetherness.

Beyond right and wrong: solving the unsolvable

A dilemma is by definition unsolvable. It is not solved by choosing one side or the other. It is rather a matter of walking through the dilemma to uncover what is really at stake. After walking through the dilemma, the previous dichotomy is no longer perceived and the focus goes forward. The living space, or frame of reference, increases.

If, after passing through the dilemma, we look at it in retrospect, it is no longer perceived as such. We become open to the “as well as”, to the colours of the rainbow that open up between the black and the white. In between lies a world with many possibilities and solutions. And among them all, there is always one or even several new possibilities that fit well with us and our circumstances. Finding them leads to great clarity and relaxation and makes us capable of acting again. As a person as well as a society.

If you are interested in working with dilemmas in more depth or would like to have my professional advice on a dilemma, please email or call me.

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