How Emotions Impact Decisions

“Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.”
― Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

Barbara lost her job in the travel industry during the pandemic. She’s looking for opportunities in other sectors that have more growth potential. Recently, Barbara interviewed for a senior business development position with a construction company. Initially, she was elated after the interview and decided that she would take it if offered the job. The money was decent and the construction industry was booming in her area.

However, if Barbara hadn’t been more self-aware, she might have made a colossal mistake.

The impact of your decisions.
Our careers, businesses and lives progress based on our decisions. The direction of our progression gets altered with every choice. Even small decisions can have significant impacts. Consider that a plane flying just one degree off course from Miami to New York will land 18 miles away near Patterson, New Jersey.

While it’s true that you can always reverse a decision or course correct, wouldn’t it be smarter to make decisions that align with your goals? (assuming you don’t want to keep spending the extra time and money in an Uber to drive you back to the city you intended to land at)

The best decisions happen with the most information, which includes internal data from your emotions. Your emotions are a great source of information about what you think, hidden or conscious. What you believe, for better or worse, drives your choices and behavior.

Emotions are clues about your brain’s predictions.
Lisa Barret Feldman, Ph.D., is the author of “How Emotions Are Made,” a neuroscientist and psychology professor at Northeastern University. She says our brains are mostly predictors of future events to ensure our safety. Further, she says the brain creates emotions in response to the success or failure of the predictions. We have positive emotional reactions when it predicts correctly (we were right). Conversely, we have adverse emotional reactions when our brains make a prediction error (we were wrong).

Here’s a simple example of your brain’s prediction capabilities. Every time you take a step, your brain predicts how high to raise your foot and when to bring it back down to the ground for smooth and event-free walking. When everything goes according to your beliefs about walking based on experience, you have a pleasant walk. When you trip over an unforeseen rock, it’s not so enjoyable. However, it’s not the rock that causes the unpleasantness; it’s your brain’s prediction error.

Barbara’s initial joy came from her brain’s prediction that she should find work asap to ensure her financial stability. Everything seemed to be working according to her brain’s plan when she left the interview. She felt very happy. However, with a little self-awareness, Barbara also noticed some negative feelings. At first, she couldn’t tell if they were self-doubt or something more.

When Barbara received the job offer, she didn’t take it. Here’s how she used her emotional data to make her decision.

Your brain predicts based on your experience. 
What your brain predicts is best for you is based on beliefs formed from past experiences. When we feel happy about something, we often don’t question why. If it feels good, it must be good for us. Right? When you look at it through the lens of your brain, however, happiness could be just a confirmation that you received what your brain predicted. Whether or not that prediction was in alignment with your goals is yet to be determined.

Barbara realized that the job was in sync with getting a good-paying job right away to satisfy her immediate concerns about being out of work. However, the nagging negative emotions were signaling something different.

Emotions guide you to your beliefs so you can question them. 
Often, when we have an intense reaction to something, good or bad, we act on faith that the emotion guides us to act appropriately for the situation. Instead, you can pivot to thinking of these intense emotions as clues to what you are believing. Then you can ask yourself, “Is the belief triggering this emotion, helpful or a hindrance to what I want to accomplish?

“This pause gives you time to figure out if your brain is acting in the best interest of your long term goals or merely making the most expedient prediction to get through this next moment safely. When Barbara did this, she realized her belief that she should get a job right away was not helping her ultimate goal of moving into an industry that she could grow with and be passionate about.

Proceed with enhanced awareness. 
As a result, it was easier for Barbara to make her decision to decline the offer, even though her brain was manufacturing a lot of fear around not having a job. She recognized that her beliefs about scarcity were true for her but did not help achieve her goal of making a significant career transition that she could thrive with for the next 15 years.

We make lots of decisions every day. However, in these rocky times, it feels like the weight of these decisions is more burdensome. Try to take a step back and consider what your intense emotional reactions tell you about what you believe. When you know what you believe, you can take it one step further and investigate if that belief serves your best long term interest.

If it does, kudos to you. The few extra minutes heightened your self-awareness and will increase confidence in your decision. If your belief does not serve your long-term goals, congratulations to you as well! You just averted landing in New Jersey when you wanted to go to New York.

Action tips to work your Inner Genius:
1. What decision, choice or judgment have you made based on an intense emotion? (positive or negative)
2. What belief was being supported or violated and triggered the emotion? (you may have to think about this for a while)
3. Does this belief help or hinder your long term goals? If it interferes with your long-term goals, what will you do?

 Thanks for reading. Until next week,  

Jo-Aynne von Born, Certified Professional Coach

Authenticity instigator.
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Reprinted from Authentic Success newsletter. You can subscribe here.

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