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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