How our emotions can affect our decision making ability

In a recent therapy session, one of my patients described her emotions in a way that totally blew me away. I really felt compelled to share her story with you.

A little background however before we go any further. Mary (not her real name) is in her mid-50s and has struggled her entire life with both chronic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder manifesting itself as hoarding. She has struggled with these emotional problems for the better part of her life.

As we talked, she recalled a time when she read about the various ways animals were trapped in the wild.  One trap stood out in her mind above all others – the monkey trap. The design of this specific trap was fairly simple.  It essentially was composed of  a jar with a long, thin neck that opened up to a wider base below.  Food (“bait”) was placed at the bottom of the jar. A hungry monkey would insert his hand all the way to the bottom of the jar to grab the food.  In doing so however, the monkey would obviously have to make a fist to grab the food. Because his fist was much larger than the neck of the jar, the only way to get his hand out of the “trap” was to let go of the food. But in doing so, the hungry monkey would have to let go of his meal. In this way the monkey was “trapped.”

Mary stated that this was exactly how she felt as it related to her overall emotional state and her hoarding behavior in specific.  She felt it was impossible to successfully stop hoarding her items. She likened her hoarding to the monkey “taking the bait” in the trap.  When Mary found an item she wanted, it simply wasn’t possible for her to “let go” of it.  She knew that her hoarding was hurting her. She knew it would cost her more emotionally in the form of guilt and loss of self-esteem by “giving in” to the compulsion of hoarding. But she simply could not let go.  As Mary said rather frankly, “Dr. Z, I know exactly how that monkey must feel.”  At that moment, I saw in her eyes a combination of both desperation and resignation. I found her description of The Monkey Trap to be an incredibly visual example that has some important messages for all of us as we move through our lives.

Lessons From Mary and the monkey trap

Firstly, we must appreciate how our emotions (in Mary’s case, anxiety and depression) can greatly skew our decision-making ability. It does so by narrowing our perception of available options and solutions. This is one of the biggest demoralizing aspects of negative emotions like depression and anxiety. The amazing irony is that we still have the same options, but our emotions skew our view of options.  We tend to see “no way out” of situations when our emotions get the best of us. In Mary’s case, she believed there was no way she could overcome either her depression or hoarding. Much like the monkey in her Monkey Trap analogy, she felt she could not get her “hand out of the trap” when it came to her emotional problems. Mary truly felt there was no way out, that she was stuck. She truly believed her “hole” (range of options) was small, but I impressed upon her that in reality the opening was wide open.  She had many choices. She had many options. Only her emotions – feelings – made it seem as if she was trapped. This is the potential power of negative emotions.

Secondly, we have to realize that our emotions have the capacity limit our sense of control.  As I work in therapy with my patients, I encourage them (as I did Mary) to not be afraid to try to “pull their hands out of the jar”.  I try to help them see how their emotions – like fear, for example – can impact their ability to act. In reality, we really do have many options and available solutions when we are faced with an obstacle or a challenge in our lives. All of us do. Often times, our own self-doubt and insecurity will make us feel as if we are trapped, that we can’t “pull our hands out of the trap”.  Once we dare to push through our fear and self-doubt, we realize there really isn’t any “trap” at all, other than what emotions (like self-doubt and fear) conjure up for us.

The truth is, we have enormous strength to materially change our behaviors. In doing so, we can dramatically change our lives for the better and accomplish more than we believe possible for ourselves.  In this way, we become empowered. This is part of the human condition. YOU can absolutely do this. There is plenty of “room for your hand”, my friends. The hole is wide open! We must respect “The Monkey Trap” feeling negative thoughts and emotions can create in our lives. Realizing this reality is the first step in empowering yourself towards incredible success.

This is where I marvel at and truly believe in the incredible strength of the individual.  In Mary’s case, despite all the depression, anxiety and frustration in her ability to change, she is still choosing to carve out a life for herself.  She keeps coming to work on her problems with me – and she is feeling better with every passing day. On a conscious level, she may not totally believe that she can “pull her hand out of the jar” just yet. But she continues to challenge the negative thoughts daily. I believe this means she believes she is capable of changing her behaviors. The path to her success may not be perfectly clear, but her persistence is testament to the belief in herself, and her ability to change.

I truly believe this is the case with most individuals, not just those who come in to see a therapist. You absolutely have the capacity and strength within you to make positive changes in your life that are lasting and meaningful. We all do!

As we move forward in our daily lives it is important to look at the stress we face and assess how we are handling it. Take the time to challenge yourself.

Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do I let my negative emotions get in the way of my success?

2. Do my negative emotions tend to narrow my view of available options or choices?

3. How much control do I feel I actually have in my life?

4. Have I tried doing something I fear or doubt I can do, even though it is important to me?

5. What can I do today – right now – to challenge these fears?

It is important to regularly challenge ourselves in this fashion. By doing so, we recognize we have many options to choose from in order to make our lives better. From this, we realize we truly have more control in our lives than we previously assumed. This realization will bring empowerment, action and growth. It is important to continuously remind ourselves that when we feel like that monkey with his hand in the trap, our mind will play tricks on us – through our emotions – to make us think we have limited options. In reality, we only feel trapped because of our self-doubt and fear. But realize, these are simply emotions. They are just feelings. And in that, they can – and will be – overcome.

Take the time to challenge yourself because you are that powerful.  You are that strong.

Never doubt how truly powerful you are.

Peter Zafirides is a psychiatrist and President, Central Ohio Behavioral Medicine, Inc. He blogs at The Healthy Mind.

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  • http://twitter.com/DrSogge Dr. Kimberly Sogge

    The monkey trap is a classic metaphor from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which has been identified as an evidence-based intervention for mood issues.  One of the strategies in ACT is Creative Hopelessness, which the monkey trap describes perfectly.  We have to stop struggling before we can really start living!  Good work describing this process. Kim Sogge, Ph.D. C.Psych. http://www.drsogge.com

  • Anonymous

    Thank you.  I’d love to see these concepts specifically applied to help health care providers manage occupational stress.  I imagine that all physicians have at one point or another had this sense of being miserable and trapped by the demands of our occupation, and it’s not easy to have the insight to see that one is not trapped at those moments.  Physician job satisfaction may actually have much more to do with effective stress management than with, say, medical malpractice or reimbursement concerns. 

    • Peter Zafirides

      Sara: You are absolutely right. Work – impossible amounts of work – will ALWAYS be there for us as physicians. Patient problems, emergencies, overbooked days, not enough time, prior authorizations, financial issues as partners, employee problems….etc. Being in the healing profession, physicians care about their patients and want to do well by them. This takes a ton of strength and – even more importantly – COURAGE to be able to set limits and boundaries, or you risk getting burned out very quickly. Additionally, an individual physician’s psychological issues can really hurt them. I have seen many physicians as patients over the years because – in addition to treating their patients – see helping their patients as a way of feeling better about themselves. This can be very problematic and emotionally draining. We MUST be mindful of our limits and STICK TO THEM. It isn’t “indulgent”, it is simply compassion for one’s own needs.
      As they say on airplanes before we take off “Please make sure to secure the mask over your face before assisting someone else.” We must take time for ourselves for it will only HELP US to better treat our patients. Thank you for reading the article and taking time to comment. Happy New Year!! -Peter

  • Peter Zafirides

    Sara: You are absolutely right. Work – impossible amounts of work – will ALWAYS be there for us as physicians. Patient problems, emergencies, overbooked days, not enough time, prior authorizations, financial issues as partners, employee problems….etc. Being in the healing profession, physicians care about their patients and want to do well by them. This takes a ton of strength and – even more importantly – COURAGE to be able to set limits and boundaries, or you risk getting burned out very quickly. Additionally, an individual physician’s psychological issues can really hurt them. I have seen many physicians as patients over the years because – in addition to treating their patients – see helping their patients as a way of feeling better about themselves. This can be very problematic and emotionally draining. We MUST be mindful of our limits and STICK TO THEM. It isn’t “indulgent”, it is simply compassion for one’s own needs.

    As they say on airplanes before we take off “Please make sure to secure the mask over your face before assisting someone else.” We must take time for ourselves for it will only HELP US to better treat our patients. Thank you for reading the article and taking time to comment. Happy New Year!! -Peter

  • Peter Zafirides

    Kim: You make a great point. I had never thought about it in that way, but you are spot on. About a year ago, one of our therapists suggested I read “The Happiness Trap”. It was a wonderful read. I still utilize the wisdom I obtained from that book daily in my therapy. Thanks for drawing that parallel.
    -Peter

  • Pennington Geis

    And so . .  ? Was your analysis the tool that allowed Mary to pull her hand out of the jar? or to refrain from putting it in? Or to secure enough other food for her soul that she was no longer even tempted to reach into that hoarding jar? 

    Or did her metaphor simply provide you with another tool to reinforce your conviction that she could change if she really wanted to? 

    Has Mary stopped hoarding? 

    • Peter Zafirides

      Pennington,
       
      She has been been able to decrease her hoarding behavior, fortunately. Like any behavior, the act itself is usually the end product of all we have internalized. No one really gets road rage because someone literally cuts them off on the freeway. The car ahead of you gives you a very safe place to release all the frustration and anger in your life – all manifested in that automobile ahead of you. In a similar way, my therapy has been to deconstruct Mary’s thought patterns – step by step – without judgement to see if it is more than just an inabilty to stop collecting things. We must respect any of these behaviors and realize they are much much more than simply (in this case) horading.

      The issue really isn’t about “wanting” to change. She wants to change. The question is why – despite wanting to change – can’t she change?Hoarding – for whatever reason – provides some benefit to her, even if it is a maladaptive behavior. We have to find why it is so important, get it out into the open – and then see how important it really is.

      It represents a way of coping, literally of surviving. If we approach it in that way – like we would Road Rage Guy – then there may some hope of making meaningful change.

      She is getting better. To me, that is all that matters.

      Great questions though! Thanks for taking the time to read the article and post a reply!

      -Peter

  • http://www.facebook.com/drjoe.kosterich DrJoe Kosterich

    The power of the individual to make changes in life is much under rated. We have assumed that little pills have more power than we do. We have been conned!

    • Peter Zafirides

      Joe,

      I don’t see it as being conned. I think a healthy respect for the biology of emotional illness is important. Medications can – and do – transform patients’ lives. But the medications are only ONE PART of the treatment. They are not the answer in totale. This is where the disconnect has occurred. I believe the reliance on the medication as a sole treatment – in depression, or really any medical disrder – is going to yield poor outcomes. The diabetic who continues to eat poorly and not exercise is going to have a much more problematic course of treatment no matter what the pharmaceutical treatment is. The same for hypertension and most other medical disrders.

      There is great hope there though, and you point it out. The POWER of the individual to make meaningful and lasting change in their life is VASTLY underrated.

      The whole intent and inspiration for my creating The Healthy Mind website and the weekly podcasts is to remind people of how truly powerful they really are. I regularly remind every one of my patients of their true strength and their true power.

      Thank you for taking the time to read my article and comment on it as well.

      Be Well,
      Peter Zafirides