Saturday, July 9, 2022


     Last week, I wrote about the value of making choices, as opposed to getting bogged down in FOMO. But making choices is hard! So today, I want to share some thoughts on how to choose. How to know what we even want, or what is the "right" choice in a given situation. 

    The "mind" handles a lot more than just rational thought. Our brain is an integral part of the whole nervous system, and cognition, emotion, intuition, and sensation are all in a continuous feedback loop within that system. It's the Myers-Briggs big four functions, the T-F (thinking vs. feeling) and N-S (intuition vs. sensing) dichotomies. We each have our own particular balance of relative strengths and weaknesses between those four functions. And besides our own innate preferences, our culture favors some functions over others. Thinking is given more prestige than feeling in my culture of origin (US), but feeling is appealed to relentlessly by marketers. Intuition is treated with suspicion, and yet concrete sensory experience is short-changed when our focus is always on a screen.

    I happen to be an INFP, pretty balanced in thinking and feeling, but very strongly skewed to the intuitive side. For me, it's important to make an effort to come down out of my head and into my senses, especially, in order to have a balanced sense of Knowing, to make wise decisions. It's one reason why I always want to pray looking outward to a natural scene: it helps me to bring my mind down out of words into my senses, sunset and birdsong and breeze, before it's then free to open up to my intuitive sense of the Divine. It doesn't matter whether the specific decision in question involves sensory information -- it's a matter of accessing all of my mind, all the information available to my mind, all my mind's different faculties, in order to make decisions that are really grounded and not destabilized by doubt and distortion.

    And so, this is the first suggestion I want to make: when in doubt, bring in some of your less-preferred ways of looking at a question. If you are triggered with strong emotion, before rushing to explain or justify it in words or react to it in any way, try closing your eyes for a minute and just explore how that emotion is expressed in your bodily senses. Where in your body do you feel it? In your head, your neck and shoulders, your heart, your gut, somewhere else? Is it tension, pain, nausea? Agitated, explosive, lethargic? Hot or cold? Bring in your intuition, and describe the feeling imaginatively: is it big or small? What color is it? Is it a slow-spreading solid color, or swirling, sparking multiple colors, or what? Does it have a sound, a smell or taste? A weight? Then bring in the verbal thinking part of your mind, and try to define the emotion. Not judge or justify it, just name it. That might not be as easy as it sounds! If it's hard, then look at a feeling wheel like this one, and see how close you can get to naming the emotion.

    By now, you're probably calmer. So think about what was happening when the feeling hit, and try to get some perspective on what triggered it, and on what in you was triggered. I can be triggered by, for instance, being interrupted when I am hyperfocusing, and why do I react that way? Because I am weak in cognitive flexibility, which means transitions are hard, which is just a thing I know about having ADHD. I also might be triggered with shame and frustration with myself, because for so many years I didn't know that about ADHD, I didn't understand why being innocently interrupted made me flash out in anger. And it takes a while to replace that old "I'm such a jerk" response with the calm, neutral one of "huh? oh sorry, hang on, it takes me a minute to switch my attention from what I'm focused on." And then, maybe, to set things up so that I'm less likely to get interrupted when I want to hyperfocus (turn off notifications while I'm writing for my blog, for instance). 

    The same thing works in reverse, of course. If it's your out-of-control thoughts that are in front, ruminating or fantasizing or catastrophizing, you can try interrupting thinking with concrete action (work out, or pull weeds, or cook or build or paint something, or whatever). And then, when the loop is disrupted, before looking again at the content of the thoughts, pull out the feelings wheel and examine your emotions. Notice your thoughts as you do, not about the immediate situation, but other apparently unrelated thoughts that come up when you are focusing on the emotions. Very, very often, our reactions in the present have more to do with things that happened in the past than they do with what is right in front of us.

    We get so uncomfortable with our feelings that we rush to blunt them with thoughts. Like, maybe our thoughts are spiralling out about the political situation in the US, and we're ranting about how wrong everything is. Can we just pause for a minute and allow ourselves to feel the grief and fear? Put our arms around our vulnerable inner child and let her have a good cry? It's not a weak indulgence. Our rational mind cannot make good decisions when it is isolated from emotion, sensation, and intuition. Quit doomscrolling, have a good cry, go for a walk, and then you will be a couple of steps closer to finding the right next thing to do today. 

    This is all about getting really familiar with our minds and our motivations. I've suggested doing some or all of this kind of exercise when you're upset and triggered. But equally if not more valuable is to practice it at random neutral times when you're not in the grip of out-of-control thoughts and feelings. Maybe set a timer periodically, and check in with yourself. Or each morning, before planning the day, check in with your body and environment, and your emotions, and get out all your random thoughts on paper. 

    If you do some or all of this regularly, then you start to notice patterns. You're better able to evaluate today's decision when you can see how it relates to your habits of mind. Then you can sit with all that information for a moment and let your intuition synthesize it into the more settled knowledge that this is the right thing to do, this is the right choice, and all those other choices can be left behind without regret. It takes a lot of practice. But it is so worth it.

††† PEACE †††

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