Making good choices is a challenge, knows psychologist Corina Sager, who talked to us about decision-making. In the interview, she reveals scientific findings about what it takes to make good decisions.
Narra: Decisons determine our path in life and are a frequent topic in coaching conversations. When do we make good decisions from a psychological point of view?
Corina Sager: We make good choices when, through them, we create a life that suits us. To do this, we must have access to our motives. You could also say that we need to be connected with ourselves. In addition, we need the courage to choose our own path.
Being connected to ourselves – what does that mean exactly?
Being connected to oneself means having an inner compass. Those who act according to this inner compass set goals that match their deeper motives. Typical deeper motives are achievement, power, and attachment. The power motive, for example, we can satisfy in the professional context. Interestingly, studies show that this works better when we do not primarily seek influence over others but instead take on roles that come with autonomy and give us the power to shape our own lives1.
What happens when we don’t act in line with our inner compass?
Several problems arise:
- In this case, we must use self-discipline to gather energy for daily tasks. Relying too much on self-discipline leads to exhaustion.
- We have less time and energy to satisfy our actual needs.
- It becomes increasingly difficult to perceive our actual needs when we pass them by all day. Instead, we experience alienation from ourselves – the opposite of connectedness. Thus, we may find ourselves uncomfortable in a life situation that looks perfectly fine from the outside.
We know this discomfort from our own experience. So why does it happen that we repeatedly act against our inner compass?
The challenge is that a large part of our motives is subconscious and not directly accessible to our minds. That’s why we talk about implicit motives. At the same time, we all have a self-concept in our mind, for example, “I am someone who likes challenges.” In the hectic pace of everyday life, this explicit self-concept is often easier to access than our inner compass. As a result, we align our actions with our self-concept without questioning it. If our self-concept does not accurately reflect our motives, we find ourselves, for example, in a job or educational track that looks good on the resume but does not suit us.
You mention the resume – a document supposed to convince others of us. What role do external expectations play in alienating the self?
They can play an important role. We all want to feel like we belong to a group and take our cues from others. This becomes problematic when we focus too much on what others might think of us or expect from us. Overemphasizing external expectations happens especially when our need for attachment is not sufficiently satisfied. Studies show that, under these circumstances, we become less connected to our needs, feelings, and opinions and are less likely to base our decisions on them. As a result, we no longer play the central role in our own lives but organize our activities around the needs of others.
It is also the case that people who have less access to themselves are more outwardly oriented. The question of whether something is socially appropriate or not then becomes more important than the question of whether something is right for oneself.
What opportunities present themselves when we reconnect with ourselves?
Pretty fundamental ones! According to studies, people who do this frequently are happier and more productive. Happier because their needs are met and more productive because energy is automatically generated from these needs. In other words, you don’t have to push yourself to do something, but you are intrinsically motivated for the chosen endeavor and are more likely to experience it as fulfilling.
What are your tips for making good decisions?
My tips are to find new approaches to yourself and to use them in the context of decisions, for instance:
Since our needs are often unconscious, they are difficult to put into words. However, we have direct access to them through our physical reactions. Therefore, in a decision-making situation, imagine all the options for action one after the other and observe your physical responses. Do you feel tension, a tingling sensation, a lump in your throat, warmth, breathing freely, lightness?
A helpful way to act in line with your motives is to use imagination: imagine the various goal options as vividly as possible and observe the feelings that arise. The chance of choosing an option that meets your needs is higher with this approach than with a pros and cons list.
The following reflection questions may be helpful: Which activities do I do over and over again, even without reward, and do I prioritize frequently? When was I particularly happy about an achieved result? When was I surprisingly not happy at all despite a success?2
Thank you for these tips on how we can help ourselves. What else can a coach or therapist do for us?
As clients, we are experts on our life situation and the areas we would like to change. Psychological professionals are experts on the process of change. They can help us to understand ourselves and our feelings better, to specify goals, and to remove blockages. In addition, talking with an empathetic, appreciative counterpart helps us meet our feelings and thoughts more kindly. And only with a kind view of ourselves, we can maintain a good connection to our inner compass in the long term.
Thank you very much for the conversation, Corina!
- Lammers, Stoker, Rink & Galinsky in their article «To Have Control Over or to Be Free From Others? The Desire for Power Reflects a Need for Autonomy»
- Falko Rheinberg in his book «Motivation»
- Brandstätter, Schüler, Puca & Lozo in their book «Motivation und Emotion»
The interview partner
Corina Sager is a psychologist and aspiring psychotherapist. Her favorite topics include emotional competencies, stress management, and mindful self-compassion.