Just say no to sociopathy! (Or, how to make good decisions)

One thing I keep hearing from all sides is that the best decisions are devoid of emotion. The more rational, the better. If you can look at the cold, hard facts, and not be influenced by emotion at all, then you are setting yourself up for a great decision.

This is so wrong, I don’t even know where to start.

First, we are human, and humans always experience emotion with two exceptions – significant trauma leading to shock and, of course, sociopathy. 

Normal people experiencing shock actually can’t make decisions because they are not processing anything, and sociopaths, well, they’re sociopaths, so I wouldn’t recommend striving to their status in the human experience. If you are in a situation (any situation), and you’re thinking things about the situation (any thoughts), then those thoughts will generate an emotional vibration in your body. You can choose to consciously acknowledge the emotion or not, but it’s there

Second, the type of emotion in making decisions matters.

I get the premise behind the common decision guidance, I really do. If we can avoid letting emotion drive our actions, we’d be better off.
Data > feelings.

But I would like to modify this premise to: If we can avoid letting the wrong emotions drive our actions, we’d be better off.

What is a “wrong” emotion, exactly? Wrong isn’t the best word, but there are emotions that are unsuitable or incompatible with sound decision-making. These emotions lead you avoidant behavior, seeking more immediate comfort and safety rather getting you closer to the long term gains you could have if you went through discomfort – the gains you actually want, the goals you set for yourself.

These emotions unsuitable for decision-making include afraid, insecure, worried, uncertain, scarce or limited.

Making decisions while feeling these emotions, or making decisions while ignoring the fact that you’re feeling them, will lead to outcomes that are unlikely to be positive for you.

The key instead is to recognize the emotions you experience in decisions, and do something with them.

But what?

There are 3 options in dealing with these negative, unserving emotions while in the tumult of a big decision.

You can suppress or ignore them, which I’ve already explored above.*
You can indulge in them.
You can process them in a healthy way.

Indulging in emotion is, in common vernacular, being a drama queen about the decisions you have to make. For example, you are feeling afraid, but feeling afraid (as horrible as it is) is waaaay preferable to being courageous, a prospect that is more favorable on paper but much more uncomfortable and unfamiliar than the fear. So, you indulge in the fear – you keep thinking fearful things, you keep running fearful what-if scenarios, you keep talking to others about your fears – all so you never actually have to be courageous. After all, what space is there for courage when fear is taking up all the space (and then some)?

In contrast, processing emotion during decisions involves a few steps:

  1. Feel where you’re experiencing it in your body. Fear in your stomach? Anger in your chest or fists? Anxiety in your neck and shoulders? Judgment around your diaphragm?
  2. Name the emotion. And try to get specific. Anger =/= frustration =/= rage. Anxiety =/= stress =/= depression.
  3. Recognize why you’re feeling it, no matter how irrational. What is the underlying thinking or assumption you have? Just call it out! Are you afraid because you could lose the respect of your esteemed colleagues? Are you feeling insecure because you think there are sooooo many others who would do a superior job? Are you worried you’ll make a fool of yourself? Are you mad and disappointed in yourself for even having these irrational thoughts that are consuming you?

So many times, we are suppressing the underlying beliefs and assumptions about ourselves that cause us to feel the “wrong” emotions during decision-making. And yet, without acknowledging those emotions and what they’re stemming from, they’ll continue to haunt us into inaction, lack of sleep, increased stress, and who knows what else!

Better to just recognize, “Ah! I’m feeling X because my brain is totally convinced of Y. That’s what’s holding me back from taking action on Z.”

This is what a clear head looks like. This is managing data in decision-making alongside managing emotion. This is not being a sociopath.

And… I’ll bet you feel better already.


* Emergency personnel, first responders, and those in personal or professional crisis situations may need to do this in the short term. It does NOT mean they are not feeling their emotions, or making decisions devoid of emotion, and it DOES mean that those feelings will need to be dealt with – ideally in a healthy way – after the immediacy/urgency of the crisis is over.