The Essential Skill of Decision Making

We are the sum of our decisions.  If we know how to make good decisions then we should be doing well...right?  During mental health consultations, I'll often ask.

“How do you make decisions?” 

“Well they just feel right or they make sense.”

“What decision lead up to being here in the emergency room?”

“I was afraid…anxious…depressed…overwhelmed…I don’t know what to do or I don’t know.”

There are two basic contexts of making decisions, the reactive context and the proactive context.  The reactive context is based from fear.  The proactive context is of love or passion.  What kinds of information are used to determine our decisions?

The reactive fear context as in the example above stems from conditions of acute stress and the primary goal is survival.  A person operating out of this context reacts out of an older part of the brain that is sometimes called the reptilian brain.  It works like this; when there is a perceived threat to our survival, the reptilian brain responds as if there is in immediate and imminent threat of death.  This reaction popularly known as the five F’s.  The five F’s are:  Fighting, fleeing, freezing, feeding and fornication.  Fighting, fleeing and freezing are the typical reactions to immediate danger. While feeding and fornication is when there is a pervasive and non-imminent condition of threat.

Every individual has their dominant mode of how they react to a perceived fearful or stressful event.  Some folks are fighters, some runaway or are avoidant and some freeze, i.e., they go numb, unable to move and unable to decide what to do.  All three of these reactions are valid reactions when there is a real threat. Like in the case of a bear attack, it might be good to freeze and play dead; with a mountain lion you want to yell scream make yourself big and lots of noise ready to fight.  Moreover, if someone is pointing a gun at you, your best option is to run away.  Lastly, in the case of a pending hard winter, eating a bit more or in the case of a pervasive environmental stress the survival of the species is perhaps dependent upon fornication, i.e. reproduction. 

Sometimes life feels like we are a cat trapped in a small garden shed with a big bad dog (our demons, fears and anxieties).  The survival response of the cat is a disorganized attack on anything that is near.  However, if the cat can take a few deep breaths and realize it is up in the rafters of the shed and beyond the reach of the dog.  The barking is scary but not life threatening.  The cat notices that it can jump down to the bench and out an open window.  So the cat takes a few more deep breaths to gather up courage to face the big dog (fear/anxiety), focuses and executes its escape.

Years ago, I was free climbing (without ropes or climbing gear) in the Grand Tetons and managed to get quite a ways up on this bit of wall.  About 2/3rds the way up (150+ feet), it became impassable for my skill level.  Admittedly, I was young, dumb and too full of myself.  I spent a good 90 minutes frozen in fear, trying to manage my anxiety and trying to figure out what to do.  It was late in the afternoon and would soon be getting dark.  I came to the realization that I could stay there, get tired and fall to my death.  On the other hand, I could die trying.  Finally I decided my only option was to scooch along a ½ inch wide crack/ledge for about 40 feet and then leap down 20 feet on to patch of loose shale.  Well I survived to tell the tale.  It was a memorable life lesson…die or die trying…perhaps by the grace of God we survive but we still have to put forth our best effort.

The point is, when decisions are from fear and anxiety the goal and outcome is very short-term, i.e., staying alive.  However, the reactive response from the context of fear is not necessarily good for the longer-term health, happiness and well-being.

When we make decisions based on our love, passion and dreams it is in a context that motivates towards our happiness.  So how do we make conscious and strategic decisions that move us towards our joy?  Presumably, we have discovered our passion, what we love to do and what we want to grow in our garden.  Possessing the skills of breathing well and mindfulness, a person is in position to make conscious strategic decisions instead of reactive decisions.  What kinds of information are valuable when making strategic decisions?  An easy way to think about information and processing decisions is to conceptualize it as HEAD, HEART and GUT.  That is logic, feelings and intuition. 

Logic is about using analysis and measurement in a manner that adds up or makes sense.  It is like A+B=C or weighing the pros and cons.  The trick is to realize that every logic has a premise or assumption and every measurement has a bias.  Therefore it is important to be aware of the premise or bias and thus the limits of only using your head.

The heart is about feelings.  Feelings are not rational; feelings are feelings.  Feelings are multilayered or there over-laying levels of emotions.  Do a quick image search on the internet for emotion or feeling charts.  It is important to determine your feelings relative to a decision.  That is, how do the choices and options surrounding a decision make you feel?  Many decisions are influenced by feelingsWhat are our anticipated feelings…how will we feel?  Is there anticipatory anxiety or excitement?  Will there be buyer’s remorse or regret?  What are the positive feelings AND the negative feelings of each option.  It is helpful to have a sense of why you have specific feelings; perhaps from a scary or traumatic event or from a fond or nostalgic memory.  Again, feelings are feelings…neither logical nor right or wrong…they just are.

The gut is about intuition.  Intuition is what we know about our self, the world and the future.  Ideally, it is what we know our self well enough that when an option resonates, something deep inside responds…it is a gut reaction.  The reaction intuits… yes this is me  or this is not who I am…I just know.  The trick is to quiet yourself, find a quiet place and listen to the resonance...the questions are:  Is this me, is this true to my "acorn"?

However, if we only rely on only our feelings, or just our thoughts or only our gut, it can get us in trouble.  Using only a single source of information or way of processing a decision can lead us down the wrong path.  It is important to know which is your dominate mode of decision making or processing.  But you also need to account for the other two process or types of information, so you can come to a more coherent and cohesive decision.

For example:  You are walking down the path of life and you come to a fork in the road that branches in to three different directions.  If your head, heart and gut says go down the path on the left.  It makes sense, it feels right and there is resonance with what you know to be true about yourself and your “acorn.”  Then run down the path on the left.  However, if two out of three…your head and heart say take the middle path but your gut says go left; then just walk down the middle path but have a contingency plan or a plan B or an escape plan.  However, if your head, heart and gut all say to go a different direction.  Such as, your heart says go left, your head says go right and your gut says take the middle path; you have a fourth option.  The fourth option is to decide that the stew is not done cooking.  You can decide, not to decide and instead gather more information and further processing until the direction or choice becomes clear.  That is to think about the choices, ask more questions, gather more data and spend some quiet time with yourself.  With your heart, investigate your feelings at a deeper level.  Try to determine what makes you feel excited or leery of the choices.  Obviously, your gut will be uneasy, so find a quiet place and listen to the resonace.  This is the cue or signal to stop and ask yourself, “Is this me, am I being true to my “acorn,” does this fit with my view of myself, the world and what I want my future to be.  Is this who am I, what I do, what I want to create and experience?

Decisions based on our loves, passion and dreams often result in joy, well-being and a sense of purpose; but at the very least result in valuable life lessons.  These decisions are in relation to our dreams and are not just a mere instinctual survival reaction.  So how do we make conscious and strategic decisions?  Conscious, strategic or mindful decisions are made with executive functioning that is associated with the frontal lobe of the brain instead of the older survival reptilian brain.  It is the ability to observe, evaluate, plan and execute.  It is the mindful insight of the recognized opportunities that align with our “acorn” and subsequently reach out and grab on to the best option to actualize our passions/dreams.

Skillful decisions are essential.  Even poor decisions are an opportunity to learn...there are very few bad decisions in life...the trick is to learn from them; they'll offer valuable gifts.

Peace Love and Light!

Tim