Guest Post: 6 Tips for Making BEST Decisions

Making the Best Decisions
By Michelle P Maidenberg, PhD

Wouldn’t it be nice if making decisions were as easy as deciding what fruit we want to eat on a given day? Most decisions that we make aren’t black and white and leave us with strong, powerful and at times uncomfortable emotions.

We are all constantly making important decisions. Patients I work with make decisions about whether to file for divorce, what colleges to apply to, and whether or not to leave or stay at their current jobs. As a working mother, I am constantly making decisions that leave me with deeply negative and often disappointed and regretful feelings.

The hardest decision that I ever remember making was the decision to break off my engagement to a person I was deeply in love with and dated for six years. My heart was pulling me in many different directions and all my opposing thoughts could be rationalized. I was left with wondering why I wanted to break off a relationship with someone I loved, cared about and wanted to be with.

My core values of family, loyalty, love, compassion, security/reliability, perseverance were directly in opposition with my other core values surrounding self-preservation, personal growth, self-respect/integrity, consistency, responsibility, ambition and education. I expected that in order to make the ‘right’ decision I needed to feel fully confident in the position I was choosing to take and that all my feelings needed to be aligned with that position. I learned that making the decision was not contingent upon whether or not I was feeling ‘okay’ with it.

I had the responsibility to fully evaluate my alternative choices and thoughtfully decide that under my set of circumstances, I was making the best decision for me and which would inevitably allow me to be my best me. I had no choice but to confront the array of lingering feelings that was naturally associated with loss and transition. It was pain that I was fully expecting and chose to take on, for the betterment of my future and who I chose to evolve into.

Most individuals of varied age groups that I work with report that it is often difficult for them to make decisions because they have to give up a degree of control (an attribute of our humanness), are in fear of making a poor decision and being deemed or reinforced that they are a failure (there are failed decisions, not failed individuals), and are stressed because of the thinking that the decision will have negative rippling/residual effects that they will not be able to reconcile (most often it is not the case even though our mind catastrophizes and convinces us it is).

There is good reason for concern and discomfort. There are rarely decisions made that are without residual feelings of uncertainty, guilt and regret. Challenging decisions generally come up because there are two core values underlining the decisions that are in opposition with one another. The responsibility lies in our identifying values, effectively problem solving and balancing out the emotional and intellectual variables.

When challenging decision making comes up, consider:
  1. That rather than thinking about it dichotomously or as a right or wrong decision, consider what the ‘best’ decision is under the circumstances. Thinking about it in absolutes evokes fear and anxiety. Most people prolong making a decision or experience decision making as dreaded because they fear the ‘devastating’ consequences attached to a ‘wrong’, ‘failed’ and ‘bad’ decision. All decisions have a redeeming value and could be an impetus for learning, growing and reconsideration. Few if any decisions lead to dire consequences even though our mind tells us to believe it is so.
  2. Break down the decision by the core values that are operating for you so that you can see why that position is so meaningful to you. You can use this while helping someone else to work through a challenge or as a parent you can use this with your children to teach them to effectively problem solve and identify the values that will drive their behaviors. This is a valuable lesson to obtain early in life.
  3. There is pain and discomfort in values and values in pain and discomfort. Your values are your guiding principles and represent who you are and what is meaningful to you. They guide your actions. There are deep emotions attached to these values and when you feel that they are being compromised you are bound to be uncomfortable.

    Ask yourself, would you truly want to be ‘okay’ when these get challenged (e.g. if you see someone cutting a line that you have been waiting on, you become enraged because it rubs against your value of fairness and justice, of course you wouldn’t want to be okay with their unjust behavior, but you also have the choice whether to physically accost the person because of their behavior or assertively and respectfully ask them to move to the end of the line).

  4. Thoughtfully problem solve and balance out both the emotional and intellectual variables. Some of us are more emotionally driven and some of us more intellectually driven. Make an effort to counterbalance in the direction you tend to be less drawn to.
  5. Make attempts to expand the way you look at things and ask yourself, ‘What else can I consider?’ or ‘Is there anything else here that I’m not fully considering?’ We sometimes get stuck on our own values and principles without considering those of others. We often need to make an effort to be open and expansive.
  6. In order to fully process your decision and problem solve, consider trying this exercise. Draw a square with four quadrants. List what the advantages and disadvantages are for each of the quadrants. Go quadrant by quadrant starting from left to right first concentrating on the top and then make your way to the bottom. After all four are complete, stipulate on a scale from 1-5 how important each item on each quadrant is for you.

    Add up the numbers on the diagonal quadrants (e.g. advantages of changing jobs and disadvantages of changing jobs versus advantages of not changing jobs and disadvantages of not changing jobs). Compare the two sets of numbers and discuss which was greater. If the numbers are close think about why you are so split. For both positions, contemplate whether values would be able to be maintained if you remained in that situation. Also, go back to considering which values are more prominent in this circumstance and what decision will allow you to be your best you.

Traditional problem solving methods include defining the decision, analyzing it, developing alternatives, selecting the best solution, implementing the solution, analyzing the results and learning from them. With identifying your core values and processing and problem solving them, you can make the “best” decisions but it may not be free of emotional discomfort. Making decisions can be challenging without the residual struggle and dread attached to it.

It’s been 21 years since I made the decision of which I spoke about. There is still emotion attached to it. No regret, but contemplation and a bit of nostalgic sadness. I learned so much from that experience and appreciate that I had the opportunity to “fail.” I have gained a clearer understanding of what my values are with the awareness that they may evolve and change overtime. It has lead me in the direction of where I had wanted to go and who I became.

We will all continue to be put in situations where we have to make challenging and important decisions. We should choose to celebrate it as an opportunity to learn, grow and evolve into the person we aspire to become.

 


Guest Post: Tips for Making BEST Decisions

About the Author: Michelle P. Maidenberg, PhD

Michelle P. Maidenberg, Ph.D., MPH, LCSW-R, CGP is the President/Clinical Director of Westchester Group Works, a Center for Group Therapy in Harrison, NY. She also maintains a private practice. She is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of “Thru My Eyes” a nonprofit 501c3 organization that offers free clinically-guided videotaping to chronically medically ill individuals who want to leave video legacies for their children and loved ones. 

Dr. Maidenberg is Adjunct Faculty at New York University (NYU). She created and coordinates the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program at Camp Shane, a health & weight management camp for children and teens in NY, AZ, GA, CA & TX and Shane Resorts, a resort focusing on health & weight management for young adults and adults in NY & TX.  She is author of “Free Your Child From Overeating” 53 Strategies For Lifelong Change Using Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy & Mindfulness which is forthcoming in Spring 2016.

You can find Michelle via her websites,www.MichelleMaidenberg.com or www.WestchesterGroupWorks.com, and follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

 

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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