Caught Between Two Stools: Understanding a Frustrating Predicament

The idiom “caught between two stools” paints a vivid picture of indecision and a tricky situation. It describes the dilemma of being unable to choose between two equally appealing or necessary options, potentially resulting in getting neither. Let’s explore what this phrase means, when it rings true, and when it might not be the best fit.

Decoding the Idiom

Imagine trying to sit comfortably on two stools at once – it’s physically awkward and likely to end in a tumble! This is the essence of the idiom. It implies:

  • Conflicting Choices: The two “stools” represent two different paths, desires, or solutions. These choices might be equally tempting or equally necessary.
  • Indecision: The individual is paralyzed between the options, unable to make a decisive move toward either choice.
  • Potential Loss: The hesitation and inaction may result in missing out on both opportunities altogether.

When the Idiom Applies

Here are some scenarios where “caught between two stools” is an apt description:

  • Job Offers: You receive two excellent job offers, each with unique benefits and drawbacks. Prolonged indecision could lead to losing both opportunities.
  • Relationship Dilemmas: Feeling torn between staying in a comfortable but unfulfilling relationship or pursuing a new, exciting, but uncertain connection.
  • Conflicting Obligations: Being committed to two events happening at the same time, forcing an unpleasant choice of which one to attend.

When the Idiom Might Not Fit

Sometimes a difficult situation might not align perfectly with this idiom:

  • No Good Options: When both choices are highly undesirable, the dilemma is more about being stuck with the lesser of two evils rather than being truly torn.
  • External Constraints: If the inability to choose is due to external restrictions (like finances, logistics, etc.) rather than internal indecision, the idiom may not be the most accurate.

Finding Your Way Off the Stools

Being “caught between two stools” can be stressful. Here’s how to break the deadlock:

  • Analyze Pros and Cons: Make a list of the benefits and drawbacks of each option to gain clarity.
  • Trust Your Intuition: Sometimes, deep down, you know which path aligns better with your values and long-term goals.
  • Don’t Fear the ‘Wrong’ Choice: Often, either choice can lead to a positive outcome, even if the paths are different.


The idiom “caught between two stools” effectively captures the frustration of being unable to make a choice when facing two potentially desirable paths. Understanding its meaning and appropriate applications helps us express this specific type of dilemma clearly.

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