Emotions aren’t your guidance system
As a coach I often have conversations with people over how they feel. Are they feeling hopeful and positive about something, or worried and fearful. For most people this is an indication of what they should do. For someone considering a new job, does this job feel like the right thing to do? Or for someone considering following a passion, is it free from doubt and worry? Or for someone about to have a difficult conversation, when and how feels right to do it? Or for someone wanting to back themselves for a promotion, does it feel comfortable?
When you look at the research, there is significant evidence about the role our emotions play in our decision making process. They’re part of our reasoning. In 2016 there was a study that showed 95% of our cognition happens in our emotional brain. A study in 2000 found that when humans had damaged the area of their brain where emotions were generated and processed, despite still being able to use logic and function completely normally, individuals void of emotion seriously struggled to make any decisions, even simple decisions like what to eat for lunch.
So it might seem reasonable to use our emotions to guide our decision making. The trouble is it is flawed. Let me explain. Our emotions are triggered when we interpret what is going on around us through our past experiences, thoughts, beliefs, values and assumptions. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) it’s called your map of the world. So if we define something as good we may feel happy, if we define something as bad we may feel sad or upset. It’s why you could have two people in the same situation but have totally different experiences about it. We’ve all heard of the ‘glass half empty’ or ‘glass half full’ expression relating to optimism or pessimism. It’s dependent on someone’s point of view. In the picture above both characters feel elated because they believe they are being saved from their current situation. Yet in reality the person in that alternate situation is also looking to be saved. It’s not based on truth, it is based on perception.
So our emotions aren’t communicating the truth to us, they’re merely reflecting our thinking, values, beliefs, assumptions, judgements and perceptions. Emotions aren’t our guidance system, but they are a window into our unconscious mind. Through our emotions we can start to understand what is being communicated to our conscious mind and which thoughts, beliefs or assumptions are involved. What if that new job or promotion brings up feelings relating to our self worth, what if that difficult conversation threatens our need to be liked, what if that change of direction brings up uncertainty or a lack of safety? Does that make it any less true to do?
Through making the unconscious conscious we can start to understand what is going on for us underneath the surface. With awareness comes choice. Choice about whether we still subscribe to these unconscious beliefs, choice about what is truly important to us and choice about what to do next.