How would you describe your decision-making style? Are you decisive? Do you go with your gut? Perhaps you seek out the opinions of multiple people before deciding what to do?
For me, it depends on the situation. In my professional life, I tend to be decisive. I make decisions quickly and definitively. In my personal life, I usually take a little more time to weigh my options before making a final decision. No matter what your decision-making style is, we tend to think that making “good” decisions means leaning heavily on the logical part of our brain. We reason that the Spock-like side of our brains surely won’t lead us astray. Look at the objective reality of the situation, we tell ourselves, and the “right” decision will easily become clear. Sometimes that approach works well, but more often, making a decision is far from being a simple “If A, then B” logical equation. It’s often much more complicated.
It’s far more likely that your emotions seem to get in the way. For example, maybe you’re scared to make a career switch and go back to school. And now fear becomes a big factor in your decision. Or perhaps you had a conversation with a friend that left you with an unsettled feeling, and you’re not quite sure what to do about it. You might be experiencing a variety of emotions ranging from confusion, surprise, disappointment, anger, sadness, etc. Your significant other may have done something that upset you, and you’re trying to decide how to respond to it. In all of these examples, it’s challenging to ignore your emotions and focus only on what’s logical in this situation.
It’s tempting to try to ignore your emotions, labeling them as mere noise that’s getting in the way of your decision. However, that can backfire and actually impede your ability to make the best decision. Why? Because your emotions often include valuable clues as to how you are affected by the issues you are facing with this decision.
In my work as a therapist, I’ve witnessed in the lives of my clients the empowerment that can come from acknowledging your emotions and giving yourself permission to feel them. I’ve also witnessed how ignoring them can impede growth and healing.
For example, I’ve worked with clients who let their fear of failure hold them back from leaving their current job to pursue their dream career opportunity. I’ve worked with clients who’ve let hurt from a past relationship affect the decisions they make in their current relationship. Before my clients were aware of the emotions they were experiencing (fear, hurt, etc.), they struggled with aligning what they thought they “should” do with what they wanted to do. Once they learned to acknowledge their emotions and see them as a powerful piece of information to use, feeling confident when making a decision became much easier, and the best decision suddenly became much clearer.
Here are some ways you can start identifying your emotions and seeing them as positive assets in your decision-making process. Think of it as a more sophisticated way of “trusting your gut.”
Pause and reflect
Before you can use your emotions to help inform your decision-making process, you need to be able to identify your emotions. This can be harder than it seems because most of us didn’t take a class in emotional awareness when we were younger. The easiest way to start noticing your emotions is to give yourself a few minutes to pause and reflect on the decision or experience and notice what thoughts come to mind and what you are feeling. These feelings might show up in your thoughts (e.g., “I’m afraid my parents will be disappointed in my decision”). Or they may manifest in a bodily way (e.g., “Every time I talk to this friend, I feel tense and on edge”). Often, giving yourself the opportunity to sit in silence and reflect can let these emotions come to the surface.
Identify your why
Once you know what emotions you are experiencing, your task is to take one emotion at a time and work backward, asking yourself why you are feeling that way. If you are noticing fear, ask yourself why you are afraid. If you are noticing distrust, ask yourself why. Perhaps your friend has a track record of abandoning previous promises to you and leaving you in a bind. Your distrust might be because your gut is telling you that, based on the friendship’s history, your friend is more likely to go back on their promise no matter how adamant they are right now that they won’t bail. When you know why you are experiencing a particular emotion, you can use that to help guide the decision you make (which leads us to the next step).
Be proactive, not reactive
Often when we make decisions without pausing to identify own emotions, we can fall into a reactive decision-making style, meaning we make the decision that most quickly gets us away from the negative emotion we are experiencing. For example, if you’ve had an argument with your significant other about a big decision you’re both facing, you might be tempted to pretend like the argument didn’t happen for as long as possible and avoid bringing up the topic again. In this situation, you are reacting to the anger you are feeling by avoiding the topic.
Being reactive provides temporary relief from negative emotions, but it doesn’t allow you to make the best decision. Instead, it’s more helpful to take a proactive approach to decision-making, which means using your emotions and the reasons behind them to guide your decision-making. Being proactive looks like setting aside time to discuss the disagreement with your significant other in order to better understand each person’s point of view with the hope of coming closer to making a decision instead of putting it off for as long as possible.
Often being proactive isn’t the easiest decision to implement in the moment, but it’s often the best decision in the long run.
Instead of being a hindrance, your emotions can be powerful allies when you are faced with a decision. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge them. Not only will they deepen your self-understanding, they will help you make better decisions all around. Try it and see!