When’s the last time you had an important decision to make? How’d it go? If you’re like most people, you probably relied heavily on logic and reasoning. Maybe you wrote a pro’s-and-con’s list or consulted with your friends. I know that’s what I did.
So much advice is based on reasoning and why not? Most of us still think that intellect trumps all when it comes to decision making, and while this rational approach isn’t bad, it’s just not the most reliable method. And who would have thought that the one thing we can trust is the same thing we often dismiss and suppress?
Are Emotions Trustworthy?
And this one thing is nothing more and nothing less than our emotions. We should pay closer attention to them, because as leading neurologist and author, Antonio Damasio states, “feelings are not just the shady side of reason… they help us to reach decisions as well.”
That’s right, feelings play an integral role in every decision we make, according to growing research in neuroscience. Damasio’s discovered that if damage occurred in the area of the brain where emotions are produced, not only did people lose their ability to feel emotions, but they also lost their ability to make decisions; even something as simple as choosing between restaurants. Logically, they could distinguish the pro’s and con’s between different diners, but they couldn’t nail down a decision without the support of emotions.
That’s because there’s a “sort of lift that comes from emotions…which allow you to mark things as good, bad or different,” Damasio found. These people couldn’t “conjure up an emotional state” for the choices in front of them and so they got stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Don’t Leave Home Without Them
This information relates to you and me, too. Just as these people were handicapped because they were unable to feel emotions, you handicap yourself whenever you ignore and suppress emotions and make decisions without consulting them. Decisions and emotions go together like bread and butter.
Here’s a real life example: Recently, I had to decide whether I would actually take a trip I had booked months before. My gut was telling me “No”, but instead of listening to it, I came up with lots of “good” reasons for why I should stick with the original plan. Even with a list of good reasons, I still felt stressed and agitated. This is what happens when we try to align ourselves with a decision that our body rejects (via emotions and feelings).
When I finally realized that my decision wasn’t actually a decision, but rather unfinished business between my body and mind, I stopped. I listened to my emotions and finally canceled my trip. What came then was an immediate feeling of peace and rightness. If I had continued to ignore my agitation and restlessness, I’d have ended up on what would’ve been a miserable get-away, thanks to all of those “good reasons”.
Why weren’t my good reasons good enough? It’s because they were just one aspect of my intelligence and what’s more, they were ignoring my body’s response to them. Author Mary Lamia PhD explains that emotions “attempt to tell you if a situation is optimal, or not aligned with your goal.” The key word here, is “attempt” and that’s exactly what my emotions were trying to do.
They’re like blunt messages (not very subtle!) but they inform us in ways that data and facts never could. Eckhart Tolle teaches that “the body has its own intelligence and this intelligence reacts to your thoughts and what your mind is saying. Emotion is the body’s reaction to your mind.” Feelings are your body’s voice and they say something meaningful and valuable. When I ignored my own feelings, they didn’t go away. Instead, they intensified, because they still had something to say.
The Problem with Emotion?
Emotions (especially negative emotions) speak up loud and clear, when the intellect is too busy thinking. Emotions, on the other hand, don’t think. They just show up.
And this is the problem with them, too. They don’t think; you have to do that for them. They don’t differentiate between real and imaginary threats. That’s your job.
For example, your body might feel fear (shaking, nervousness, perspiration, etc.) when you think about getting on that stage and giving your first TED Talk. (Hey, we can dream, can’t we?) However, your body will also feel that emotion if a tiger’s chasing you. Obviously, one is real danger, the other is imaginary.
How to Make the Most of Your Emotions
So, if we need emotions to make decisions, how are we supposed to rely on them, if they’re really just blunt and nondiscriminating messengers? You could say, “Listen, I’m afraid of getting on that stage, just like I’m afraid of that tiger, so in both cases, my feelings must be trying to protect me from something legit, right?”
Wrong. And here’s the solution. It’s true that every emotion is equal and valuable, but according to Eckhart Tolle, “emotion is the body’s response to a thought” and thoughts are not always reliable.
If you’re scared of stepping onto that stage (or anxious, happy, sad or confused) it’s because both your intellect and emotions are saying something. Obviously, you already know that the stage is tiger-free, but your emotions rage on. How do we know what they’re saying?
The real way to think for your emotions is to stop thinking and pay them some much needed attention. Your fear isn’t really telling you that the stage is dangerous. It’s telling you that there’s something deeper you need to address (Maybe it’s something like fear of failure, judgement, disappointing, etc.)
The next time you’re feeling indecisive, go straight to your feelings and pay attention to them and ask yourself these simple questions:
- How am I feeling? (Remember, don’t judge your feelings. Just let them be.)
- Do I like feeling this way?
- What thought is this feeling responding to?
- Can I change my thoughts to change my emotions?
By adjusting your thoughts to create better emotions, you’ll be able to make decisions that align with your goals and serve your body and mind. Remember, your emotions are always telling you something, bluntly but truthfully.
Featured photo credit: Photo: Victor Bezrukov via flickr.com