What Would You Do?

When you’re faced with a drama-rama de­ci­sion, don’t hit your feeds. It’s time to stop out­sourc­ing ad­vice and start tap­ping the most im­por­tant coun­sel­lor in your life: you


You are your most im­por­tant coun­sel­lor

What do Beyoncé, philoso­pher Friedrich Ni­et­zsche and Barb from Stranger Things have in com­mon? They’ve all been sum­moned on cof­fee mugs, T-shirts, Pin­ter­est boards and Euro­pean pil­low­cases to help guide the masses through nail-bit­ing de­ci­sions. Look, we get it. On the sur­face, “What would [in­sert name here] do?” is an amus­ing cul­tural trope, the stuff of memes. And yet it re­flects a trou­bling real-life trend: our ten­dency to min­imise our own in­stincts and hard-won ex­pe­ri­ence in favour of what the peanut gallery thinks. Be­yond chan­nelling cul­tural icons, our com­pul­sion to check in with ev­ery­one is fu­elled by – no sur­prises – so­cial media, ex­perts say. When you can eas­ily crowd­source 878 Face­book pals, what’s the harm? But on a phys­i­o­log­i­cal level, be­ing hy­per­con­nected to our digital cir­cles has sup­pressed our de­ci­sion-mak­ing pow­ers. It short-cir­cuits our in­tu­ition, which plays a ma­jor role in our abil­ity to move con­clu­sively without de­bat­ing a litany of what-ifs. That sets off a chain re­ac­tion: you rely on oth­ers more, which saps your con­fi­dence, lead­ing to weaker life choices. Eish. So we got ex­perts and real women to show you how to harness your in­ter­nal brain trust and in­stincts to help you through prob­lems big and small. Barb and Co would be so proud!

Lis­ten To Your Body

Peo­ple were us­ing the phrase “trust your gut” long be­fore re­search re­vealed the stun­ning fact that your gas­troin­testi­nal sys­tem lit­er­ally does have a “mind” of its own. It’s home to hun­dreds of mil­lions of nerve cells that send and re­ceive im­pulses, record en­coun­ters and re­spond to emo­tions. When neu­ro­trans­mit­ters de­liver these im­pulses and mes­sages to your brain, you ex­pe­ri­ence phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­ac­tions, like goose bumps or a heavy feel­ing in the pit of your stomach – aka gut feel­ings. Sci­en­tists have a name for these sen­sa­tions – so­matic mark­ers – and they ap­pear when we face un­cer­tainty. For in­stance, say you walk out of an in­ter­view telling your­self, “That’s the per­fect job for me!” But at the same time, your stomach feels knot­ted. Your gut-brain may be telling you that some­thing about the job is “off,” even while your ra­tio­nal brain is re­mind­ing you how good ev­ery­thing looks on pa­per. Andie Diemer, 28, a free­lance photo ed­i­tor and pro­ducer, faced such a mo­ment when the magazine she was working for re­struc­tured and re­trenched her and sev­eral oth­ers. “My brain was telling me to do the safe thing – to

find an­other full-time job. But some­thing in me was say­ing to con­tinue with the one free­lance client I had scored and see if I could build my own busi­ness.” When­ever she thought about look­ing for a new job, her heart rate would soar, her stomach would twist and her thoughts would swirl and race with anx­i­ety. “Some­times those kinds of symp­toms make me in­se­cure and un­pro­duc­tive, but when I went ahead and com­mit­ted to free­lanc­ing, the feel­ings faded and I felt con­fi­dent. I ended up with an amaz­ing ca­reer.” Lots of these gut sig­nals don’t even reach con­scious thought – but they in­flu­ence you none­the­less. Reams of stud­ies have doc­u­mented how sub­con­scious sig­nals help us make bet­ter de­ci­sions. Take the sign of sweaty palms. In one study, par­tic­i­pants in a card game chose from two dif­fer­ent decks. It took them about 50 cards to say that one deck was more likely to lead to suc­cess than the other, but their palms were sweat­ing in favour of the “good” deck af­ter about 10 cards. Sweaty palms, of course, can also be a sign of fear or anx­i­ety. Many mark­ers have a dual per­son­al­ity – but­ter­flies can sig­nal a crush on some­one

or a ter­ror of pub­lic speak­ing; a prickly feel­ing at the back of the neck can de­note ex­cite­ment or be a marker of dan­ger. Say you’re walk­ing in a park at dusk; if you get a “raised hack­les” sen­sa­tion, lis­ten to it, says so­cial psy­chol­o­gist Dr David My­ers. “There’s bi­o­log­i­cal wis­dom to this,” he ex­plains. “As we evolved, those who could read a person quickly and ac­cu­rately were more likely to sur­vive and leave de­scen­dants.”

Tap Into Ex­pe­ri­ence

In­tu­ition is pow­er­ful – but even more so when it in­cor­po­rates what you’ve learnt about the world (and your­self). “There’s a huge store of in­for­ma­tion in the brain that we’re not al­ways aware of that’s based on our life ex­pe­ri­ences,” says psy­chol­o­gist Dr Joel Pear­son. Of­ten, what we think of as a gut feel­ing is ac­tu­ally in­tu­ition in­ter­act­ing with ex­per­tise – the lat­ter of which we take for granted. “Ex­pe­ri­ence is what al­lows ev­ery­one, from top sur­geons to mas­ter chess players to me­chan­ics, to have vi­tal hunches and to trust them,” says My­ers. That mash-up is what’s at work when you’re fac­ing a far­reach­ing de­ci­sion, like whether to buy a par­tic­u­lar prop­erty, ac­cept a job of­fer or end a re­la­tion­ship. You’re not mak­ing your choice in a vac­uum. For in­stance, imag­ine walk­ing into a flat you’re think­ing of rent­ing and im­me­di­ately get­ting goose bumps (the bay win­dows! The light! I’d be so happy here!). The down­sides: it’s on a noisy street and the rent is a bit more than you can af­ford. You want it, but you also sense a creep­ing anx­i­ety – be­cause deep down, you know you’re a light sleeper, not to men­tion your boss just said they’re not dol­ing out raises this year. Your mind’s data­base and your gut are join­ing forces to give you the full pic­ture. Elisa Fernán­dez-Arias fol­lowed both when, at 26, she left her first full-time job, as well as fam­ily and friends, to move to Paris. “I had stud­ied abroad there when I was 20 and al­ways imag­ined I’d move back some­day. Mean­while I was wak­ing up in the morn­ing feel­ing like a big part of me was barely alive,” she re­calls. She went on hol­i­day to Paris, ended up in­ter­view­ing for and get­ting a low-pay­ing job that would pay the bills and went home to pack up. “Most of my friends thought I was crazy. My par­ents were an­gry. It was a tough tran­si­tion, but in the end I found what I was look­ing for: my­self.”

Put It Into Prac­tice

Get­ting in touch with – and trust­ing – your own per­cep­tions is chal­leng­ing since, as a cul­ture, we lean to­ward the ra­tio­nal in­stead of the in­tu­itive. But you can build that in­tu­ition mus­cle. To give it a work­out, first un­plug from all de­vices and sit qui­etly, as if med­i­tat­ing. Breathe deeply and ask your­self the ques­tion you’re fac­ing. “You want to get into a neu­tral place emo­tion­ally and let the in­for­ma­tion come,” says Dr Ju­dith Orloff, a psy­chi­a­trist and au­thor of The Em­path’s Sur­vival Guide. Say you’re won­der­ing whether the guy you’ve started see­ing is re­ally a match. “No­tice how your en­ergy feels when you pic­ture him. Does it go up or down? If down, ask your­self

why. Does he drain your en­ergy in some way?” says Orloff. “Or do you feel ex­cited and pos­i­tive? That’s a good sign to have that person in your life.” Don’t let small flaws throw you (no­body’s per­fect) or con­scious ra­tio­nales in­trude (My friends love him! He’s such a nice guy... Even though he’s not that ex­cit­ing. I don’t think my par­ents like him). Or try the post-mortem ap­proach and pre­tend you’ve al­ready made the de­ci­sion. How does it feel? Does cut­ting ties with a needy friend give you a sense of re­lief? Are you filled with re­gret now that you gave your two-weeks’ no­tice? Lis­ten to your body as you imag­ine the sce­nario. Do your hands start sweat­ing? Does your head ache a bit? An­other strat­egy, ex­perts say: sleep on it. Re­search has shown that Zzzs let your brain mar­i­nate and you’ll make a smarter de­ci­sion than if you used only con­scious thought. And – new-age hippy trig­ger warn­ing – don’t un­der­es­ti­mate the power of the out­doors. “There’s a tech­nique called earth­ing, in which you go bare­foot – you’re ac­tu­ally shar­ing the earth’s elec­tro­mag­netic sig­nals,” says Orloff. Any­thing that con­nects you with na­ture – trees, grass, a river – helps align you with your in­tu­itive self. Once you’ve thor­oughly ex­plored your own re­ac­tions, it’s fine to check in with a close friend or two or to use your ra­tio­nal mind to make a pros-and-cons list or cast back to sim­i­lar sce­nar­ios. But you’ll do so from a bet­ter place than if you had rushed out to take an Insta poll. Af­ter all, why should any­one else’s ad­vice be bet­ter than your own?

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