How to Make Better Decisions: Integrating Emotions and Rationality

How to Make Better Decisions: Integrating Emotions and Rationality

Seems counterintuitive right? How could it be that those seemingly irrational, often painful internal reactions (emotions) have any business in the world of rational decision making?

Many of us have accepted the tradition of believing that reason is the best guide to decision making and that emotions are a nuisance that needs to either be controlled or vented to get them out of the way of higher rational thinking.1

The truth is that we’re all much smarter than our intellects alone!1 Our emotions are a big part of the reason our species has survived for so long. Rational thinking helps us to thrive, but without emotions, we wouldn’t survive.2

For example, as Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy says, “if you decided to never feel afraid again, you’d end up dead pretty fast.”3 You wouldn’t know to avoid dark alleys that seem dangerous. Your rational mind may have heard some news reports on muggings in dark alleys, but without your fear response, you’d be unlikely to apply those warnings into your own life. First, if you feel some fear when listening to the news reports on dark alleys, your brain integrates the warning into memory much quicker and much more effectively than a piece of information that doesn’t generate any emotion. Second, when you approach the dark alley, you might feel some feeling in your gut or a physical instinct to run away from it. This is your fear emotion popping up to quickly remind you to stay away from an important source of potential danger. Once you feel that sensation in your gut or that urge to run, you can then integrate it with your rational thought (which happens much slower than your emotion brain) and determine whether it’s best to go through the dark alleyway or to go around it.

Humans are wired to integrate both emotional guidance with rational thinking. The trouble is that in Western culture, we’ve been taught to dismiss the important messages our emotions send us.

 

The Middle Path: Integrating Emotion with Rationality

 

Think of yourself on a canoe, travelling down the river. Over by the right bank of the river are the rapids (your emotion brain) and over by the left side, the river is really shallow (your rational brain). If you veer into the left, rational side of the river, you become reefed and your boat can’t go anywhere. But if you veer into the right side of the river you move too fast and out of control because you’re caught in the rapids! Dan Siegel calls these the “chaos and rigidity banks.”2

 

Life on the Rigidity Bank

We get stuck on the rigidity bank because without emotions we wouldn’t be motivated to do anything.

Think of the word E-motion – emotions move and guide us. “E” stands for energy, and motion directs us to act on our feelings. Some feelings are full of energy, like anger or fear. These high energy emotions guide us to act to protect ourselves or someone we care about. Other feelings like sadness or shame are very low energy. They guide us to pull back and take time to determine what our next steps should be in the face of a painful situation like losing a loved one. Emotions help us to determine what we need in each moment. The more we understand what we feel and how to move through those feelings, the more likely we can befriend our feelings and allow them to integrate into our everyday rational life.

Furthermore, to stay on the rigidity bank, we have to push our emotions aside, and I’m sure many of us have experienced the way emotions tend to come back with a vengeance when we haven’t listened to them. Life stuck on the rigidity bank simply isn’t realistic long-term, there’s nowhere to go. 1, 2

 

The Life of the Chaos Bank

On the other hand, if we’re caught in the rapids, we may have a sense of what we need but it’s much harder to determine how to responsibly execute it in a way that will be beneficial to us and to others.2

Remember the question of whether or not to go through the dark alley? If we’re stuck on the chaos bank, then we might run away and panic and have no idea why. When we veer back toward the centre of the river, we can remember some of the reasons that we might have felt that fear and then we can take a look around and determine how to feel safe again.

 

Floating Down the Centre of the River: Integration

The key to integrating our emotion mind with our rational mind is to remember to take a step back and give ourselves some time. Our emotion mind will tell us what we are needing in the situation, and our rational mind will remind us of what’s realistic.1,2

 

How to Practice Integrating Emotion and Reason

 

Take a moment right now to be curious about what you’re feeling in your body; maybe you feel some tightness in your chest, some heaviness in your eyes or even a pit in your stomach. That’s where your emotions are sitting. In other words, when you have a “gut feeling,” your body is trying to tell you something important and you need to take a moment to listen to it.1

It might be really uncomfortable at first, but if you start noticing what’s happening in your body at any given time, you’ll also start having a better sense of how you really feel in a situation. Once you can name what’s going on it your body, you can then name your emotion. Once you have your emotion, you can start to make sense of it an decide what to do with it. That’s where your reason comes in. The magic is in the integration.1,7

This is tough work that you don’t have to do alone. A Registered Clinical Counsellor can help you to figure out how to integrate your emotion and rational mind in a way that makes sense for you. It’s also a great idea to get into the practice of regularly scanning your body for sensations. This makes it easier to know what you’re feeling at moments where it really counts.1,9

 

Just as Mister Rogers said,

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

When we begin to attend to our emotional sensations, we can start to name them. When we can name them, we can learn to manage them and integrate them into our decision making to help us live a balanced life.

To get started, check out some free online guided body scans can be found here:

 

If you’d like some help moving forward with integrating your emotions, contact us and give us a call. We’d be happy to sit down with you.

 

References

  1. Greenberg, L.S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association: Washington DC.

 

  1. Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P.(2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Random House.

 

  1. Linehan, M. (2018). DBT Skills. Retrieved from https://app.psychwire.com/courses/c2629l/course

 

  1. Living Well (2018). Body Scan. https://www.livingwell.org.au/mindfulness-exercises-3/6-body-scan/

 

  1. Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/

 

  1. Rogers, F., & Neville, M. (2018). Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Tremolo Productions:

 

  1. Thiruchselvan, R., Hajcak, G., & Gross, J.J (2012). Looking inward: Shifting attention within working memory representations alters emotional responses. Psychological Science, 23(12). https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612449838

 

  1. Yip, J.A., & Cote, S. (2013). The emotionally intelligent decision maker: Emotion-understanding ability reduces the effect of incidental anxiety on risk-taking. Psychological Science, 24(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612450031

 

  1. Goleman, D. (2017). How emotionally self-aware are you? Mindful, 36. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/emotionally-self-aware/
What Can We Learn About Life From Katy Perry?

What Can We Learn About Life From Katy Perry?

My family and I have been watching the reincarnation of American Idol recently, and the finale was this week. Much to Meg’s great pleasure, Maddie Poppe won. As usual, the show was full of twists and turns, silliness, and some incredible musicianship. I’ve enjoyed the fact that they’re allowing contestants to use musical instruments in this go ‘round – and I personally loved the resurgence of classic rock through the contestant, Cade Foehner. As I sat there watching the finale last night I reflected on the season and something struck me, and it was rather surprising.

See, the title of this blog isn’t just clickbait. The three judges this year on American Idol were Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan. While each of these musicians and artists are icons in their own right, particularly Lionel, I noticed something that made me pause. I’d previously grown tired of American Idol because it was overly negative, Simon Cowell was rather irritating to me, and I didn’t like the absence of instruments. This season, the judges were very positive, the personalities of the judges clicked well, and there were musical instruments involved. What I noticed, however, is that it was overly positive. Granted, each of the final 24 contestants was very talented, there weren’t an abundance of critiques.

My belief is the constructive criticism is crucial to personal and professional growth. These contestants are on the show because they’ve “made it,” and know it all; they’re there to learn and, hopefully, make it as a professional musician and artist. Much to my surprise, I found Katy Perry to be the most helpful judge and the one who offered the most useful feedback to the contestants. I’ll admit, this took me by surprise – before this when I thought of Katy Perry I thought of teen pop anthems, and some weird looking sharks roaming the stage. So as the season finished last night, my thoughts went to wondering, “what can we learn about life from Katy Perry?”

I’ve picked three things that stood out to me that we can learn from the quirky being that is Katy Perry.

 

Be yourself

 

One thing that we learn pretty quickly in watching Katy Perry in her live shows, or on American Idol, is that she is an odd duck. She’s quirky, she marches to the beat of a different drum, and let’s face it, she’s downright odd sometimes. But, she’s unique and there’s nobody else like her. She knows who she is at the moment, and she embodies that with all that she has.

Our wellbeing depends on our acceptance of self. Now, I have no idea how accepting of herself Katy Perry actually is because I’ve never even had a conversation with her. From outward appearance, however, she seems to own her own quirkiness and oddities and has a clear idea of who she is at the moment. If we can do just this – accept ourselves and own who we are at the moment, it will have a positive effect on our wellbeing.

 

Tell the truth

 

Contrary to some of the other judges, I found that Katy was pretty up-front in her truth-telling with contestants. If they nailed the performance, she told them; if the performance stunk, she wasn’t afraid to speak the truth. Knowing where we stand in relationships, in our work environments, and in our pursuit of dreams requires honest, open feedback from those around us. In return, those around us depend on the same.

If we can surround ourselves with people who we can speak truth to, and who will do the same for us in return, we can grow and move forward in life and have confidence in where we stand in our progression. How do we do speak the truth when it’s difficult though?

 

Encourage others as a matter of practice

 

As constructive and critical as Katy Perry was this season, she has coupled the criticism with encouragement. It was clear in her feedback that she was giving it so that the contestant could grow and get better at their craft. If we can provide constructive criticism along with encouragement, we will encourage growth in others. If we surround ourselves with those that can do this for us, we’ll get the same in return.

 

Sometimes it’s hard to learn who we are and accept ourselves; sometimes we aren’t sure how, to tell the truth to others or to ourselves; sometimes we have a hard time being encouraging because we’re stressed out; sometimes we don’t have a community around us that encourages us. This is where a registered clinical counsellor can be helpful sometimes. Sometimes we need that outside perspective on some of these issues or some guidance and encouragement on how to organize our lives so we have what we need to grow. If this is you, we’d love to help. Feel free to contact us.