Got a heavy decision to make? Ask your body.
I’m horrible at decision-making. Always have been. I don’t know why I struggle, but I will mull over my options for ages before I eventually settle with the cobb salad…. After changing my order three times. Small decisions, big decisions, I’m not good at it. In most areas of my life, I actually consider myself to be a fairly logical and reasonable individual. I think things through. I’m the type to make a pros and cons list. This is usually helpful enough. However, there are some decisions – often the big ones – that can’t be made from my pros and cons list. I need to call in a different method.
Ironically, this method is far more simple than penciling out every possible detail and consequence of each possible option. Here it is: I ask my body. Body, how do you feel about X? (My body tenses up a bit, my shoulders rise a little, I feel uncomfortable.) Body, how do you feel about Y? (My arms stretch out like the Dodgers are about to win, I relax a little, I smile.) Pretty simple – go with Y. I’ve used this method for decisions as petty as whether to go away for the weekend or stay home and focus on work, along with decisions as big as deciding which job to take – the one I’ll love or the one that pays more. I’ll spend way too much time writing out exactly why I should or shouldn’t choose (fill in the blank). Eventually, I ask my body what it feels is best. It’s never really steered me wrong.
Our bodies have a funny way of knowing what we need sometimes before our minds do. It actually seems a bit counter-intuitive for us to think this way, but it shouldn’t be. Most other species let their bodies take care of them. If an animal is hungry, it eats. If it’s tired, it sleeps. If a predator is lurking, it plays dead. Animals will do all these things without a pros & cons list. I sincerely doubt that chickens consciously take a moment to weigh whether playing dead is the best option for them to avoid predation. Yet, extensive research shows that animals do in fact engage in a freeze response known as tonic immobility as a defense mechanism from impending doom (Gallup, 1974). Even humans can enter into a catatonic state when faced with such traumas as sexual assault (Moskowitz ,2004). The body reacts quickly to protect the individual without forethought, logic, or even a pros & cons list.
Our emotions are not without physical properties. Typically, we describe our emotions in terms of the psychological. I feel sad, happy, angry, excited, etc. Universally, these emotions come with physical expressions. Typically, we can tell when a dog is angry. At this moment, we probably don’t try to play fetch. We can tell when someone is sad or troubled by the expression on their face and their body’s demeanor. Similarly, we can tell when people are happy or excited. I wouldn’t walk into a pub to see a bunch of smiling individuals jumping and cheering and think to myself, “Bummer, the local team must have lost.” This is nothing new, and it is not unique to humans. Charles Darwin himself published a book in 1872 which describes the intertwining of the psychological and the physical for emotional expression in humans and animals. This is a complex system that is a highly adaptive. When it comes to our decision-making skills though, we often limit ourselves to the psychological. The pros and cons lists. This isn’t inherently wrong or bad, of course. It’s probably how we make most decisions with any level of awareness. I’m suggesting that if you find yourself stuck, try bringing the physical into it.
Our bodies may be onto something before our minds are, or at least when our minds are in the way. When it comes down to it, try asking your body.
Darwin, C. (1872). Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. N.p.: Penguin Classics
Moskowitz, A. K. (2004, October). “Scared stiff”: catatonia as an evolutionary-based fear response. Psychological Review,111(4), 984-1002.
Gallup, G. G. (1974). Animal hypnosis: factual status of a fictional concept. Psychological Bulletin, 81(11), 836-853.