“Unnecessary fear of a bad decision is a major stumbling block to good decisions.” ~Jim Camp
Twenty years ago, my wife and I decided to move from Montréal, where we had lived for the first thirty-five years of our lives, to Nova Scotia, 800 miles away, where we had no connections whatsoever. Neither a small decision nor undertaking, since this involved our four kids and the entire contents of our house (not to mention a dog and two cats).
Why were we moving? We were not moving because of a job opportunity; we enjoyed the life we had in Montréal. And there was nothing, as far as we knew, waiting for us in Nova Scotia. Nothing, except our future, the next stage of our lives.
But we both had a strong, clear feeling—a felt sense—that it was time to leave. And we both had a strong, clear feeling that Nova Scotia was the right place to move to. Simple as that.
There were lots of reasons to think that we shouldn’t make this move and take all the risks involved. In the year before we moved, every attempt I made at getting work there fell through. Every attempt I made at finding a house to rent fell through. It was literally only three weeks before we moved that we finally had a place to move to!
There was plenty of worry, stress, and anxiety, plenty of thoughts saying that this was a bad decision.
By this point in my life, though, I had learned to listen to my intuition and to the signals of my heart to guide me in my life choices.
I had learned not to let my thoughts (that is to say, my worries, doubts, fears, anxieties, and apprehensions) paralyze me in my decision-making. I had learned to have more confidence in what my body felt than in what my mind said.
There was a time when I would have wasted a lot of time and energy debating back and forth, and then made a choice I was neither sure was the right one nor fully happy with.
For the first three decades or more of my life, I was a person who struggled intensely with making choices and decisions.
I was usually afraid of making the wrong choice, and unsure of how to know whether I was making the right choice. Aside from any question about “right versus wrong” choices, I worried about what others would think or how others would feel if I made this or that choice.
This indecision, this self-doubt, resulted in significant stress and anxiety, sometimes, to the point of feeling too paralyzed to act at all, as well as resulting in wasted time, lost opportunities, and regrets.
Over the years, I worked in therapy on overcoming anxiety and other issues, and learned and practiced meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. Over time, and with consistent practice, I gradually learned how to find a calm center in the midst of those conflicted thoughts.
I also learned how to tune into my heart, with heart-focused meditations.
I discovered that my heart would always tell me what I really needed. There was always one clear answer from the heart about what was right for me in any given situation. And when I experimented with acting on those choices, the outcomes were always good, and I never felt doubt or regret. There was a consistent sense of acting in alignment with my true self, my true purpose… my truth.
The fundamental basis for this approach to making decisions is mindfulness. Being mindful means being able to “sink down” below the turbulent surface of thoughts, projections, fears, and perceptions that all clamor for my attention when I have a decision to make. It means having a still center from which I can then be aware of the quieter and subtler signals in my body, my heart.
When you mindfully tune into your heart, when you separate from your thoughts and emotional reactions, you discover that the heart has a very clear, although sometimes a very subtle way of saying “yes” and “no.”
A sensation or feeling of opening, relaxing, warmth, moving toward is a “yes.” A feeling or sensation of closing, hardening, pulling back, tensing is a “no.”
I have learned to trust that this response from the heart tells me what is best for my overall, integral being, for my physical health, my mental health, my social relationships, my family relationships, and the unfolding of my life purpose.
Mindfulness is the basis from which this approach to decision-making stems, but making decisions this way as a practice also enhances my ability to be mindful in everyday life.
It’s an exercise in letting go of attachment—attachment to desires and fears; attachment to expectations of myself, of others, or of the future; attachment to thoughts about what I “should” do; attachment to what other people might think and feel.
Most of our stress, anxiety, indecision, and doubt around making decisions is rooted in fear. We fear unknown outcomes, or we fear negative outcomes that we project might happen.
Fear reactions always serve to dissociate us from our true and integral self in the moment.
In his book The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton talks about how a cell is either in defense mode or in growth mode; it cannot be in both at once. The same is true psychologically.
If we are engaged in fear, even just in our thoughts, and trying to defend ourselves from negative outcomes, then the choices we make will be based in trying to protect ourselves from whatever it is we fear. They will not be grounded in hope, confidence, and faith; they will not be conducive to growth and thriving.
It isn’t necessarily easy to resist the fear and to listen to your heart. Our brains are wired to prioritize safety; this means that the brain will pay attention to fear and let it guide our thinking. It takes practice and perseverance to find a calm center beneath and within the fear; it’s the work of mindfulness, applied to actions.
Mindfulness is fundamental as it trains you to detach from the narrative of the fear-based thoughts. But making decisions to act in ways that challenge those fears takes the challenge up a notch.
Part of the solution is reminding yourself of what has always happened in the past when you acted according to these fears. You will find that there is always some kind of dissatisfaction or disappointment, if not outright frustration, that resulted.
Part of the solution is working on reducing those fears (try Energy Psychology techniques or, my favorite, Logosynthesis); and part of the solution is in “feeling the fear and doing it anyways”—pushing through the fear and experiencing the positive outcomes.
I have come to make all my decisions in this heart-centered way, and I have never been disappointed. On the one hand, I can say that I have never been disappointed because the outcome has always been good.
On the other hand, there is a feeling that comes simply from making a decision this way, based on a felt response in the body, where I physically experience my body saying yes or no, that allows me to detach from expectations about the outcome altogether, and to feel good and confident about my decision, regardless of the outcome.
I feel good and strong simply because I am making the decision that I know is right for me.
The outcomes we wish for are not always the outcomes we need, or that will be best for us. The outcomes we wish for are often based in a sense of lack, longing, or insufficiency. In my emotional heart I may fear, I may want to avoid something, or I may long for something, desire it.
In my energetic heart, the response will not be based on any sense of fear, avoidance, lack, or insufficiency. It’s based in a consistent, integral sense of self, in relationship to others, to the world, and to life itself.
I used to be afraid of confrontation, or even of risking a confrontation by displeasing people. So when it became clear that the dynamics of my birth family’s gatherings were too stressful for my wife, and detrimental to her well-being, I was forced to look at it more closely and acknowledge that I felt uncomfortable in those situations, as well.
I had the usual reaction: “But it’s my family! I can’t just decide not to go for Christmas!” But in my heart I felt clearly that the right choice was to stop attending. Having to take this action and tell them caused me a lot of anxiety.
I was afraid of the anger and rejection I felt certain would come of it. I delayed and avoided.
When I did tell them, I was met with confusion, anger, and blame. The response I feared did happen. What didn’t happen is what I really feared—that I would not be okay if they were unhappy with me.
I was okay. We were okay. It made my relationship stronger because my wife knew I would take her needs seriously and act on them, even though it was uncomfortable for me. It made me stronger because it helped me to realize that even if I made other people unhappy, I could still be okay.
Knowing I was making the right choice for myself, there was a clear distinction between what other people might think was “right” or “wrong,” and what I knew in my heart.
Letting go of fear opened me up to growth.
The more you practice decision-making in this way, the more you develop an incredible sense of freedom, an ability to move in this world in a way that is true to yourself and to your life purpose. It helps to cultivate the “courageous self-acceptance” and the “fearless heart” described in Buddhist teachings.
And when making your decisions becomes clearer, less stressful, and less conflicted, it makes your relationships with others a lot easier. You let go of people-pleasing, of guilt, of feeling like you have to explain yourself or compromise yourself and make decisions that aren’t right for you.
You may be afraid that if you act according to your heart, you will make people angry. And that may be exactly what happens. But your great fears of the consequences of people being angry with you never happen. You realize that even if you have to deal with loss, you have regained something of yourself.
Relationships become simpler as you feel a sense of wholeness, of integrity. You know you are acting with integrity, and so you feel comfortable affirming your choices. You feel less defensive when people disagree with you. This is a freedom we should all wish for each other, and grant each other.
And, in case you were wondering, nineteen years later, we still love living in Nova Scotia. It is home now, and we would never think of leaving. Within a couple of months of moving here I was working full time. It has been a great place to live, to work, and to raise our children, and we would never think of leaving.
Our hearts drew us to a place that became home in a way that the place we grew up and began our adult lives in could never quite be. Our hearts drew us to our destinies.
About Philippe Isler
Philippe Isler, MA is a licensed Psychologist with a full-time in private practice in Nova Scotia, Canada. Philippe has almost 30 years of personal and professional experience integrating mindfulness, personal growth, self-realization, psychotherapy and spiritual practice. Philippe is the author of: Listen to Your Heart: Using Mindfulness to Make Choices That Are Right for You.