Making Heart-Based Decisions

I just passed the 6 year anniversary of a life-changing, somewhat dramatic and free-spirited solo backpacking trip in Central America. It was one of the best and most important decisions I’ve ever made. On paper, I can’t say it looked all that smart.  How did I know that this was going to be the right thing for me? I can tell you that I didn’t make this decision with my head. It wasn’t the byproduct of a pros and cons list—the cons would have weighed the whole dang list down! It wasn’t made through reason or logic. It was purely a heart-based decision.

Personally, I think as a society, we need to get a lot more comfortable making these types of decisions.

I often work with people who ask me to help them make big life decisions. They want input, they want someone to tell them what to do. I always redirect them to their own inner wisdom. We have deep wells of wisdom inside ourselves, but live in a culture and society that values intellect and reason above all else. So we tap into our own wisdom less and less. We make decisions based solely on an intellectual logic, even if our hearts are directing us elsewhere. I wish we trusted ourselves more.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for a good pros and cons list, just that we could benefit from expanding our decision-making repertoire. So, how do I coach people to check in with their inner wisdom? Here’s my guidance:

Try it on

Yes, just like an outfit! Let’s say you’re trying to make a decision between option one and option two. Maybe option one is attractive but seems risky. Option two is safe but has drawbacks. Or, maybe option one and option two are neck and neck in seeming like the right thing to do.

Here’s what I suggest: wake up and live your whole day as if option one is what you are going to do. Don’t tell others or alter your life just yet, but do tell yourself you are going with option one. Relate to every event in your day as if option one is happening. What do you notice in your body? Do you feel lighter? Do you feel relieved? Do you feel smaller? Constricted? Do you feel dread? Make notes at the end of the day about how your body felt when you lived a day owning this option. Then repeat the process option two, or however many options exist in your decision. Do this as many times as you need in order to feel like one option stands out as feeling better in your body for you than the others. In general, feeling light and expansive is a sign that that’s the option to choose.

This does not have to be used exclusively for deep, soul-searching, backpacking trip kind of decisions. I use this method to decide on taking the subway vs walking, almond milk vs regular milk. In fact, if this idea appeals to you, I would recommend that you start small. Use it for low risk activities to get used to how your body feels when it’s made a decision that feels right. I might just say to myself “I’m taking the subway”, and see how my body responds. If things feel tighter, and more constricted, that might not be what I need today. Then I say to myself “I’m walking home” and see how my body feels in comparison. Which decision feels better to live in? Try going with the one that makes your body feel lighter. Get some practice, then move your way up to more complex decisions.

Fear vs “NO!”

How can you tell if a decision is bringing out a healthy level of fear vs. telling you that it’s not right for you? It feels different for everyone, and as you practice, you’ll know exactly how it feels to you. Generally fear feels a little more frantic and electric, while dread tends to feel heavy and dense. Dread tends to bring pits in our throat and our stomach. A little fear is natural and healthy. Just because we are afraid, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t move forward. Lots of things are scary AND right for us. So, if fear comes up, that doesn’t mean it should be a hard “no.” However, if your body is responding with feelings of dread or repulsion, that’s more likely a sign that it isn’t the right decision for you. If it’s fear, try to make a list of what is so scary about that option. How many things on the list can be problem-solved? How much of that list can’t be solved but may just require you to ride the waves of your own humanity and vulnerability?

“I Don’t Know” is an answer

Never forget this seemingly basic idea. Often we perceive “I don’t know” as being some kind of failure or deficit. We think we’re missing something. That’s not true. It’s a full and complete answer. For now. Maybe there’s more information you need before you make your decision. Maybe there’s an ideal option that hasn’t shown up yet. Timing is everything. When in doubt, don’t force yourself into  “yes” or “no” when all signs point to waiting and holding on a little longer.

My hope is that as you make your way through the complexities of life, that you are able to more and more frequently take a deep breath and ask your body how it feels about the decisions you are making, big and small. It might seem a little out there, but give it a shot! Start small and see what you notice. Start with something small checking in with your body on which route to take home or if you should stay in or go out on a Friday night. Own both options and see how your body responds. It will probably feel weird at first, but you will definitely get used to it and will love falling back on the process for those tough to make decisions!

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