11/09/2012 05:50 EST | Updated 01/09/2013 05:12 EST

Emotional Decision Making: Follow Your Gut


How many of you are in the midst of having to make major life decisions? My life has been full of big decisions lately. The kind that feel like decisions that will shape my future happiness and I sometimes feel the burden of choice weighing on me.

I think we all stare down these decisions in life; to stay or go in certain relationships, to move -- perhaps to another city or country, to switch careers, take a new job offer or strike out on our own. And I think we've all tried the pro/con list exercise, trying to reduce those decisions to a list of easily compared advantages and disadvantages. While that can be a useful exercise to help us process the details of the decision we're making, it's rarely -- for me at least -- been something that helped me land firmly on one side or another.

So where do we turn? Religion, counsellors, friends? Horoscopes and less conventional wisdom? Perhaps a personalized combination of all those things. But it's also been argued that all our decisions are ultimately emotional. Even when we rationalize and when we use external systems to build support in one direction or another, what we're really acting upon is our own emotions.

"Let's not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it." - Vincent Van Gogh

I recently watched this YouTube featuring neuroscientist Antonio Damasio talking about patients who have suffered brain damage that affects their emotional capacity. The interesting thing is without any emotional impetus, Damasio's patients found themselves paralyzed by decision-making, circling a decision without that emotional signpost helping them make a final landing -- even with simple decisions about where to go for dinner or when to book an appointment!

Is it strange to say this finding came as a relief to me? So... it's not only OK for decisions to be made based on emotion, in fact it's essential! So often people are criticized for making emotional decisions (I'm betting there isn't a woman reading who hasn't had that criticism thrown at them!). And we so often feel like our own decisions should come from a cold and logical place rather than an emotional place. But it's reassuring to know that it's essential that both reason and emotion play such a vital role in decision-making. I always thought my gut was tied to my emotions -- I actually think it's one and the same.

All the data we gather, from those pro/con lists, from external advisers, arms us with a logical base for our emotional decisions. But at the end of the day, the question whether to move or not, whether to stay in a relationship or not, whether to cut your hair short or leave it long... it involves something more ineffable and mysterious, a deeper emotional, perhaps subconscious, decision-making process.

When we explain our choices to people, we usually use all the rational arguments but leave that emotional component out of our explanation -- that we ultimately chose our course because it felt like the right thing to do. Even if true, that can sound flaky or insubstantial. But without that feeling, we would be like Damasio's patients still circling the decision.

However, this is not to say that following your emotions will always lead you to making the right decision. What the heart wants is not always the right thing. The heart sometimes wants to get back in that relationship where nothing has changed to make it different this time around. The heart sometimes makes us afraid of doing something new and leaves us stuck in unhappy situations.

Acknowledging that emotions play a vital role in decision-making does not mean that they always help us make the right decision. This is why the pro/con list-making and listening to advice is still a good exercise. Exploring different facets of a decision and not just blindly following your heart is always a wise thing. And -- sometimes -- I've found that the more I wanted to blindly follow my heart, the more mistrustful I should be of what I wanted to do... that my heart was rushing me towards a decision that my head knew was the wrong decision.

And even with all this: we'll all make mistakes. But we have a choice about how we deal with our own mistakes. Sometimes, I know immediately when I've chosen the wrong path... the key is quickly getting myself back on the right path as quickly as possible (even if that means admitting the decision I made was wrong). I really believe that staying on the wrong path will only create a snowball effect of bad decisions. So, I've been trying to use both logic and emotion to assess the decision after it's been made, too. And rather than feeling trapped by a bad decision, I've given myself that permission to change my mind. After all, there's no shame in making a mistake once you're willing to set it right!

Decision-making theory is an entire field of study. But -- of course -- we all manage to make decisions every day. Sometimes they come easy... you go straight to your wardrobe and put on the first thing you pick out. Other times, you make a huge mess trying on every outfit before you go back to the first thing you tried on!

But as I confront big decisions in my own life, I try to calmly listen to my head and my heart, to not overrule or undermine one with the other. I try and give those around me the benefit of the doubt that they too have the power to change, evolve, grow and make choices based on the person they want to be as opposed to choosing based on the old behaviour from the past.

We talk a lot about authenticity these days. For me, that means reflectively approaching all these choices and making a personal decision for yourself. Not being pressured, not conforming to an external idea, but exploring and staying open to new ideas, while staying true to your own emotional core. It may not make the decisions any easier, and it does not mean I don't make mistakes still, but it does help me feel empowered in making them for myself.