By Kyle Shiver, MA
Let’s face it: life’s decisions can feel like a pressure cooker of anxiety. When we face difficult crossroads, we often find ourselves in a state of confusing ambivalence, not knowing if what we choose will lead our lives toward or further from our dreams for ourselves. This is a universal experience. Our families and cultures of origin attempt to equip us – for better or worse – with the tools to handle the existential given of anxiety in the face of healthy decision making.
Many of us learn to value intellect, imprinting upon us that the ideal way of being in the world is one steeped in rationality detached from our emotional experiencing. We learn to sweep aside our feelings and listen only to our cognitive selves. Our emotional selves get neatly shelved, collecting new layers of dust with each passing year. While intellectualized decision-making can be beneficial (especially when living with a mental illness characterized by heightened emotional reactivity), we often find ourselves ‘successful’ but also deeply and utterly dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction is elusive, slipping through our fingers like sand as we try to identify the root of our unhappiness.
So where does that leave us in our lives? Are we doomed to repeat our patterned ways of being learned in our families of origin, living ‘successful’ facades of life with undulating waters of discontent just below the surface? This will inevitably lead us to living in quiet desperation, settling for societal standards of ‘good-enough’ personal satisfaction. While our decisions may ‘make sense’ (the bank is full, the kids are in private schools, our spouses are sweet, and our jobs aren’t what we dreamed of but they pay the bills), our emotional selves may cry out from the dark and dusty shelves we placed them when we learned to silence them. We may fear that we have lost our capacity to feel and live fully. We may feel we have lost our zest forever. But we can never truly kill of parts of our self. The parts are always there, either getting what they need or not, and the longer the parts of the self are ignored, the louder they get in the peripherals of our unconscious, causing us to sometimes act in unsavory and regrettable ways (rage, aggression, inconsolable sadness, reliance on substances, etc.).
Newer research on emotions and decision-making challenges old notions of pure rationality, suggesting our emotions are not, as we once thought in the field of psychology, impediments to good decisions. In fact, they are often essential to making decisions leading to personally satisfying lives. Emotionally healthy people operate from the entire breadth of their being, integrating parts of the self in their decision-making. When making decisions, it is crucial to allow space for intellectual and emotional voices within us to be heard. If we have learned for so long to be overly rational and have developed the habit of ignoring emotions, we find it difficult to access and identify emotional experiences. When asked “how do you feel?”, we often answer in bewilderment, “I don’t know”. Finding ourselves in the dilemma of not knowing how we feel – of feeling locked out of our emotional vault – is an invitation to reawaken the parts of our selves we (or others) have attempted to silence. This requires us to become more present to ourselves.
When we feel unable to access our emotions, a contemplative exercise called focusing may help. Focusing incorporates elements of mindfulness in a prescribed manner to make contact with one’s emotional self. We can use this any time we are struggling to identify how we feel.
- Clear a space: How are you feeling? Don’t worry about anything definite – just allow whatever sense comes into your body to answer. (If this doesn’t occur easily, don’t worry. Move to step 2)
- Felt Sense: Choose a problem that arises to focus on. Don’t go into that problem too much but ask yourself what your body senses when you recall everything to do with that problem.
- Get a handle: What is the quality of the felt sense – what word, phrase or image would fit it best?
- Resonate: Try out the word, phrase or image several times to make sure it really fits. If it changes while you are doing this, go with it until it finally fits. Once you’ve got it, just let yourself feel what it is like for a few minutes.
- Ask: ‘What is it about this whole problem that makes me feel so…?’ If you get stuck, ask yourself: ‘What is the worst aspect of this feeling?’ or ‘What does this feeling seem to need?’
- Receive: Welcome what came up within yourself. It is only one step on this problem, not the last. How you’ve experienced this you can always come back to it later if you want to.
(Paraphrased from Gendlin, 1981: 173-4)
Healthy Decision Making Thoughts
Remember: a healthy individual makes the best choices through operating from all of their being, not from silencing parts of the self to allow the dominance of another part. The head and the heart are only as divided as we make them, and it is when we bring them together in internal conversation that we create our own way of being based in decisive and meaningful action in our lives. Give your heart a voice!