Why All Choices are Emotional
Any belief we take on, or any logic we follow, we do so because on some level, we believe it will bring us closer to feeling better about ourselves and our reality, or it helps us defend against losing what level of comfort we already have.
Steve is a middle manager and a programmer who’s in his mid-thirties. He is in my Be Your Own Coach workshop, and I’ve asked him to write down his top ten “wants” in thirty-seconds.
Like most of the others in the workshop on this day, he doesn’t make it past three desires listed in the time allotted. I tell the workshop that this is evidence that not one of them is thinking about what they really want often enough, or they’d have successfully listed more than 10 desires each, given the same amount of time.
Steve agrees: “I realize that I haven’t thought about what I really wanted in years!” he reveals to the rest of the workshop.
I ask Steve to pick one of his desires from the list. He picks some training he wants his employer to provide him. I ask him why he wants it. He tells me that it will give him the certification he needs to get a promotion, and it will keep his skills current.
I ask Steve what that would mean to him. I ask him how that would make him feel. He disregards the feeling question, and answers logically (as I expect him to, because he is a Jungian “thinker”), “I am more likely to get a promotion and a raise with this training,” he says.
“How does that feel?” I persist.
“I would feel more confident leading my direct reports, and plus… well, I just realized something about my personality: I love to learn. I love knowledge! I’d feel great just learning new stuff!”
“So, if you had to sum it up” I continue, “How would this additional confidence, and the process of learning new stuff make you feel?”“…. (long pause)… Happy!” he nearly blurts.
And so it goes with any of a several hundred clients I’ve performed this same exercise with.
No matter who I talk with, and which of their desires I work with—from a bag of peanut M&Ms, to a new child, to a successful corporate merger—the core desire underneath it all is always the same: either happiness or joy.
Is there an exception? Not really: what folks are going for, is improvement. If you follow improvement far enough, or by increments, it will lead to greater wellbeing and joy—BUT—sometimes that path is indirect. Not everyone who is setting a course toward what they believe is improvement is also on a heading directly aligned with their highest joy over time—but regardless, they’re choosing with intent for improvement.
Participants in my workshops tend to show up there with a level self-awareness and curiosity that leaves them open to considering the perspectives I share. They’ve followed enough false leads to happiness, that that they are now making better choices.
Still, occasionally, a person shakes their head and tells me that they just realized what they thought would bring them joy, they now realize won’t bring them the good feelings that they are seeking. They are now going to do some soul-searching and choose a new goal.
Of course, sometimes, I get other answers. One middle-aged woman tells me that her core desire is “freedom from fear.”
“And what would freedom from fear bring you?” I ask. There is a long pause and she nearly shouts, “Joy!” The rest of the workshop nods knowingly.
So if all this is true, why do so many people still make choices that appear to take them off course from the direction of happiness?
Some teachers will tell you it’s ego, as if that three-letter word explains it all. Some even consider the ego as a vestigial psychological organ—as useless as the colon’s appendix, only worse. After all, the appendix can’t mess things up by pointing us in the wrong direction.
There is some truth to the ego/intellect thing. I don’t believe we were ever supposed to run on logic or intellect alone. And research supports this. Just watch this video interview between Author David Brooks, and António Damásio to see the kind of difficulty we’d have if we couldn’t access our emotional memory or guidance. As one astute viewer quipped, “And this is why Spock isn’t captain.”
It’s not possible, after all, to have a purely logical choice—one that does not have an emotional link somewhere in the chain of thoughts that support it.
Any belief we take on, or any logic we follow, we do so because on some level, we believe it will bring us closer to feeling better about ourselves and our reality, or it helps us defend against losing what level of comfort we already have. Therefore, all choices, at their root, and including our choice of belief and logic, are emotional in nature, as they are made to improve our lot, which is reflected in our emotional assessment of our lot.
And then there is the whole attachment vs. heartfelt desire argument. We can create attachment to an outcome from a mostly intellectual perspective, deciding, for example, that because a good friend tells us this-or-that will make us happy, that we “should do it.” I call these kind of desires “weak desires” because they are based on compliance with an ideal or suggestion, rather than a want that is heartfelt and connected to who we are.
But even considering all of the above and more, I don’t see trashing the ego as the right solution. It’s far to simplistic for me. I believe a healthy, empowered ego is an asset. A healthy, empowered ego is an ego that can seek and receive help from other knowing parts of the self, and then put informed, empowered choices into action. A healthy, empowered ego is tuned into the emotional feedback system as part of its guidance. A healthy, empowered ego is not afraid to consult with the inner life before choosing a desire.
So how do we empower the ego so?
The first thing to acknowledge is that there is no such thing as altruism or “selflessness” in making choices. What we call “selflessness” is when we act in a way that appears to put our desires second to a win or improvement for someone else. But even the ultimate sacrifice is not really selfless, for if we choose it, we are doing it for a reason that we believe in. We are looking for either an improvement, or to prevent the loss of something (a kind of reverse improvement) that we believe in or cherish, or because it will make us feel good.
Every choice is always connected to a selfish reason—no exceptions. When we do something for someone else, and we are doing it from the heart, we can’t not feel good. Just try it. Impossible. And in many cases, even when we start out doing something for someone because we think it is the right thing to do, and we realize how much they appreciate it, we feel good—in spite of the fact that we started out doing it out of duty—most of us are just wired that way.
The second thing is to acknowledge that every choice we make, whether it is informed or not, when put into motion by the ego, is seen as a way to get some kind of improvement. We perceive, we evaluate, we look for improvement, we intend to create improvement, we create it, we experience it, and the cycle continues. (See the Desire Engine on this site for a model illustrating this.)
If we put enough improvements together, we’re that much closer to happiness. We understand this at a deeper level than the ego. However, it’s also true that the uninformed ego can make a decision on a short-term improvement, that, over time, will result in a loss, or a turn in the direction of unhappiness.
But whether it’s an uninformed ego, or a healthy, transparent, informed one, the direction we seek is improvement.
The third thing we need to know is that the we can steer the ego via emotion, and we can engage the emotion with what I call “power questions” that call on deeper parts of the self to inform the ego.
Since we know that, as sentient beings, we are looking for improvement, we can activate that bit of self-understanding in ways to open to choices that will deliver what we really want—over time.
Here’s how it works:
- We’re wired for joy happiness.
- When we are pursuing those desires that are most connected to who we are, we feel excitement, empowerment, high energy.
- When we entertain beliefs that are in conflict with the above, we feel constrictive emotions, and body sensations let us know that we are going in a direction away from wellbeing, and our current thought, beliefs, or attention are at odds with that direction.
- We can make adjustments to correct course, and if we are getting on track, we feel better, if we are going in a conflicting direction, we feel the same, or worse.
Here are a few “power questions” we can ask to help with ego awareness of inner life, so we can factor that info into our next choice.
- What is my true intent here, and is this intent in my highest interest over time?
- Is this next choice in my highest interest over time?
- Will this next choice bring me the improvement in wellbeing and happiness I am looking for over time?
- In this situation, is it more important to me to prove that I’m right, or is it more important to me to make a choice that is in the interest of my wellbeing and happiness over time? (You can shorten this to: Do I want to be right, or happy?)
- What is the belief, or train of habitual thought that is driving this choice?
- Is this what my gut would choose? (If not, what would it choose?)
- Is this what my heart would choose? (If not, what would it choose?)
- What is the direction of love here? (If you have trouble asking this question, that will tell you something; if you don’t like the answer, that will tell you something; if you are already aligned with this direction, you will feel like the tumblers of a lock have just snapped into place.)
I little more about this last question: the compassionate, or loving route is not always about taking away someone’s discomfort. Sometimes it is about allowing them to work through their discomfort and discover, or uncover, their personal authority, capability and self-worth. This last question has an uncanny way of engaging the Self in what I call appropriate action. Not “right” or “wrong,” but appropriate. It foils both the tendency to write someone off, and the tendency to buy into drama. It engages, but doesn’t immerse.
So what sparked this particular post? I noticed all the buzz on the forums blogs about emotional and social intelligence, and how that contrasts with the absurd way in which many leaders and their employees still manage: as if emotions are a messy hinderance to performance, instead of the very thing that could supercharge performance.
While reading Anne Kreamer’s excellent book, It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace, I came across a quote she attributes to Blake Ashford, author of Emotions in the Workplace:
“Organizational practitioners and scholars often maintain the convenient fiction that organizations are cool arenas for dispassionate thought and action. Hierarchies, job descriptions, budgets, policies, operating procedures, training regimens, reward systems, and so on are implicitly thought to legislate against intrusive and unseemly emotions.”
Well, that’s not working! When I poll workshop attendees as to what emotions they’ve experienced on the job in the week previous to the course, they commonly list over a dozen emotional situations, including hatred, fear, revenge, anger, envy, worry, frustration, boredom, optimism, hope, appreciation, love, and joy… the list goes on.
My own experience backs this up. I remember an incident years ago, when I was running a training project for a large financial company in the Philippines, and the business project manager was admonishing me that I should send our trainers to Manila before security protocols were in place, in order to meet a milestone. “This is NOT an emotional decision!” she was shouting across the table.
But I knew it was.
She wanted me to cross a line with corporate security so she could look good by meeting her own milestone. Not an emotional decision? Then why are you shouting?
The pretense (that it is not emotional) still goes on in far too many businesses, adding stress (when we don’t act accordingly) and smothering engagement (when emotional responses aren’t factored into change strategy).
And we can’t legislate emotional awareness or emotional intelligence through HR policy or performance reviews.
But as more and more of us take just a few minutes a day to better align our inner lives, and acknowledge the need for others to do so, we transform our interactions: infusing them with more authenticity, and encouraging more engagement.
Would we still have challenges guiding emotion in our lives and in the workplace? Of course. But by acknowledging the nature of the challenge, and learning new moves for a new game, conflict would find quicker resolution, and emotional energy would find expression in appropriate ways, that over time, would mean better business outcomes, and less stress at home.
Author, Anne Kreamer:
“We have arrived at a historical point where the collective desire for Americans to get our mojo back has coincided with the emergence of a more refined scientific understanding of human behavior. And that offers us a chance to redefine American enterprise for the twenty-first century, to rethink the way it works.I suggest that if men and women were to express more emotion at work routinely and easily—jokes, warmth, sadness, anger, tears, all of it—then as a people we might not implode emotionally so frequently [my bold], or feel the need to gawk at others emoting in inappropriate ways.”
I shared similar thinking in a previous blog post on emotions in the workplace. With an emotional strategy that encourages a natural flow of emotion and expression appropriate to our relationships, we are far less likely to suffer the outbursts in the surges that so many fear. And when these surges do happen, we are better equipped to work with them.
So, this is a call to see ourselves more as we are: emotional creatures who can own our desires, and guide our thoughts and emotions in ways that better align with those desires. We can resist the temptation to justify choices as if they are only based on pure logic and pretending as if they are emotion-free decisions.
We’ll bring more authenticity to our interactions and relationships by more openly sharing the emotional drivers behind our choices. It is our emotional feedback system—our internal compass—that will tell us when and where it is most appropriate to do so. We can respect our emotional natures, and expect to grow in self-awareness, more fully acknowledging the role emotions play in our choices and our lives.