Decision-Making: Assessing the Consequences

Lesson fifty-four of Recovery Nation has a few good lines. Here’s a good way of describing people who thoughtlessly make bad decisions, as I did before D-day.

“Rather than associating their identity with the decisions they have made throughout their life, they instead have learned to protect that identity by rationalizing, justifying and masking. These are not usually intentional responses, but have evolved over years and even decades. For many, such protection initially developed in response to overwhelming situations in childhood that they had little or no control over: abuse, parental domination, hyper-religious morality, abandonment. And so, they learned to adapt to such an environment by sheltering their true identity from the world…adapting a ‘dual-identity’ existence: the inner self — which is where the most intense feelings exist and where boundaries and values are all but non-existent; and their social self — where the majority of intellectual values and boundaries reside.”

I especially appreciate that this passage doesn’t just blame it all on abuse during childhood. In my case, the terms “parental domination” and “hyper-religious morality” seem more relevant.

Jon Marsh explains how a mentally unhealthy person can be quite hypocritical, with behavior that contradicts values they genuinely hold. The following quote is something I could have easily written about myself.

” . . . I remained capable of experiencing values, it’s just that they were never internalized. The values that I experienced were attached solely to my social self — the person that others saw. In my mind, I could have rightfully engaged in affairs to nourish my immediate emotional needs, yet still maintain the values that I presented to others by keeping the affairs secret. This meant that if I could engage in such a relationship and get away with it — and in my mind, I always believed that I could get away with it — I would do exactly that.”

The lesson goes on to discuss how to stop making bad decisions.

” . . . [T]he way of effectively eliminating such patterns is to change the emotional associations that are attached to that particular behavior. And this is done not by forced abstinence or will-power, but by recognizing and learning from the positive consequences associated with not engaging in the behavior.”

Let me paraphrase a particular passage I just read, to be sure I retain it. When you make a bad decision, based on emotions rather than values, the emotional or physical stimuli you receive from your bad behavior reinforces that behavior, making it more likely you will make a similar bad choice in the future. It is behavioral conditioning. If, on the other hand, you make a good decision, based on values, you can reward yourself for it by listing all the positive consequences of the good decision. That reward will reinforce the good behavior, making it easier for you to make a similar good decision in the future.

Lesson 54 Exercise:

“A. Select a VALUE-BASED decision that you have made in the past year. What were some NEGATIVE consequences that resulted from that decision? Example: Last month, I had the opportunity to take credit for the work of someone else. Because I value the importance of working hard to achieve personal success, I decided not to take such credit. The negative consequences that resulted were that I was not able to experience the accompanying praise from my boss; that I was not given credit that would have enhanced the probability of a promotion; that another coworker was seen as being more talented than me.”

This is kind of a disturbing exercise. How about my May 2014 values-based decision to stop obsessing over my sexual past, after struggling for quite some time with self-pity stoked by an article I accidentally saw in a magazine? Were there any negative consequences of that otherwise positive decision? I truly can not think of any negative consequences. The wrong decision, to wallow in self-pity longer, would have only brought me more pain. It would have been, as was the case so many times before in my life, an irrational decision, like a moth flying into a flame. Unlike the moth’s instinctive attraction to the light, I think my instinct was self-doubt. I doubted it was okay to accept my own sexual history as “normal” or “adequate.”

In any case, I can think of no negative consequences of choosing to stop obsessing on my sexual history. On the other hand, the positive consequences of that values-based decision included saving time, saving energy, and bringing peace to my mind.

“B. Select an EMOTION-BASED decision that you have made in the past year. What were some POSITIVE consequences that resulted from that decision? Example: While surfing the Internet, I was redirected to a site that offered a free week of unlimited online dating services. Though I knew that I had no business being at such a site, I clicked on the link and signed up for the free trial because it sounded like harmless fun. Lying about my marital status, I began searching for people to interact with…and engaged in several online affairs. The positive consequences that resulted were that I felt free and playful. My mind was filled with all sorts of fantasies and the online interactions were intellectually stimulating.”

This exercise is more difficult, and even more disturbing, than the last one. I suppose it was an emotion-based decision when I recently chose to ignore my wife, TL’s, urgent e-mail in favor of going to the gym. The positive consequence was that I completed my workout for the day. Of course, the many negative consequences included further damaging any trust my wife might have in me, traumatizing her with wondering what I was doing, and ruining my efforts to build our friendship and marriage.

Jon Marsh said:

“The point to this exercise is to reinforce the reality that most all actions have both positive and negative consequences attached to them. When you evaluate the consequences of a particular decision, it is vital that you take into account all of the consequences — not just those that reinforce what you want to believe. In other words, do not fool yourself into thinking that all value-based action is healthy; and all emotion-based action is destructive. To do so is to destabilize the reality of the life that you are building and ultimately such thinking will lead you to disillusionment and regret.”

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