Hint: Emotions are just as Important as Rational Thinking in Decision-Making
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 and 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 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.
- Greenberg, L.S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association: Washington DC.
- 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.
- Linehan, M. (2018). DBT Skills. Retrieved from https://app.psychwire.com/courses/c2629l/course
- Living Well (2018). Body Scan. https://www.livingwell.org.au/mindfulness-exercises-3/6-body-scan/
- Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/
- Rogers, F., & Neville, M. (2018). Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Tremolo Productions:
- 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
- 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
- Goleman, D. (2017). How emotionally self-aware are you? Mindful, 36. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/emotionally-self-aware/