The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

Image & Ego 2: Decision Time: How to Know What You Really Want

A strong ego is not the cause of decisions, but the result of them

Being a person takes work. Being the person you want to be takes special effort, much of it centered on making decisions everyone has to face but many try to avoid. Which is to say that most consequential things in life depend on knowing how to choose. In the first "Image and Ego" post I illustrated how ego defense mechanisms work. Here, in the second "Image and Ego" post, I touch on how honing one's skill for making decisions leads to a healthy ego unsaddled by inner conflict. 

So many choices

Yes and no are short words that often need long thought. Yet look around and you'll see people impulsively going for this or that without giving their choices much consideration, or else mired in indecisiveness, second-guessing and over-thinking options.

The first group is home to those who like to call themselves "spontaneous." They defend their passive disregard for planning in terms of preference, saying "I like to go with the flow." The defense they call into play here is rationalization, and the claim merely a pose. Such people cannot commit to lunch on Tuesday or promise anything definite. If urged to make up their minds they defend their habitual deferring as smart strategy "in case something better comes along."

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Such people seldom decide much of significance. By the time better options materialize, if they ever do, they have squandered opportunities that can never reappear. Worse, the passivity they defend as preference actually puts them at the mercy of others. They are a leaf on the river carried by chance wherever the currents flow. A life lived that way lacks intent, and without intent the ego never develops its muscles. No matter how outwardly cool, entertaining, or carefree such people look, they are zombies at the core. If you look around you'll see them every day.

Eeny-meenu-miney-mo

Eeny-meenu-miney-mo

Whereas the "spontaneous" person avoids making his mind up, the indecisive soul cannot. Like falling rain, the words "I can't decide" pepper his speech. The defenses used by the over-thinker are intellectualization and rumination. He handicaps himself by a temperamental need to make perfect choices rather than acceptable ones. Afraid he'll be wrong, the over-thinker is typically anxious because his strong superego stays on the lookout for mistakes and is always ready to pounce. For both types the root problem isn't that the necessary decisions are difficult or too numerous, but that neither kind knows what he wants.

Baltasar Gracián, a 17th century Jesuit sage for whom living was a high art, said that "Knowing how to choose is one of heaven's greatest gifts." Choosing is infinitely easier if we have a clear idea of what we want in the first place. Yet few people give it much consideration. Without setting criteria in advance, how are we supposed to know when we are satisfied? How will we recognize happiness when it arrives? One answer lies in intent, which is not merely being self-aware prior to acting ("I am going to watch a movie"), but a matter of actively observing oneself. Figuring out the whole purpose of what we wish to achieve produces clarity and forces us to choose. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said, "The discovery of our own motives can only be made by the same way in which we discover other people's, namely observing our actions and inferring the desire which could prompt them." That is, we do not know our aspirations and objectives directly but discern them instead by paying attention to actions, feelings, moods, trains of thought, even daydreams. Those who hardly bother looking at these things are those who stumble through life literally not knowing what they're doing. Like a thermostat that doesn't know what temperature it is set for, people who have no idea what they intend can't accomplish much.

Mental overload is a common complaint today because there are so many claims on our attention. Knowing what your goals are gives you the decisiveness to say no to distractions. Instead of believing yourself "free to do anything," true autonomy comes from committing to one's choices. Commitment requires someone with a past who is moving toward a determined future. Intent frees us to deal with matters when they are in front of us instead of on top of us. It lets us say yes and no decisively instead of being a hostage to someone else's agenda. It leaves us free to be our own person.

Lost for direction.

As for those words yes and no, we can easily decline something when we've first prepared ourselves to not want it and distinguished true desires from false ones. People tend to think that deciding is an analytical skill, a rational weighing of options. But choice requires emotion, too. Judgment has to draw on context and how we physically feel. Humans are full of incongruous and inconsistent feelings, thoughts, and urges existing side by side and rarely in pure form, which is why deciding what to do is difficult. In the course of normal development we make many youthful mistakes in the messy practice of making decisions. Judgment only reaches maturity through experience, which is why a strong ego is not the cause of decisions but rather the result of them.

 

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.

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