Expansive vs. Contracted: How Our Body Makes Decisions
by Kinga Lewandowska — 4 min read
Decision-making happens in our lives more often than we realize. Breathing or blinking may be involuntary actions, yet moving your legs left or right is a solid choice. The process of making a decision might take anything from a split second to infinity, yet, conscious or unconscious, it’s a complex occurrence in the mind and body.
When we grapple with what to eat for breakfast or whether to skip a morning workout, the risk of a negative outcome hangs pretty low (unless you consistently opt for fast food meals with a sprinkle of no exercise). Yet, the gravity of choices with long-term consequences such as marriage or career paths can be paralyzing. Thankfully, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel.
False Evidence Appearing Real, F*ck Everything And Run, or Face Everything And Rise – FEAR is the sole reason that can turn decision-making into anguish. While we need fear for survival, facing a mountain lion is very different than venturing out of your comfort zone. In this article, we’re talking about the latter.
No matter how much experience or expertise you have, some form of trepidation will be your devoted companion for the rest of your life (which thanks to fear can be a lot longer). Everyone experiences it. Pop stars wrestle with stage fright, leaders suffer from imposter syndrome. All we want is to conquer anxiety. How?
Redefine it. Fear only bears the meaning you assign to it. Rebrand it as enthusiasm, call it thrill, or name it Zelda. Whatever works to make decisions untainted by nerves. Learning to strip fear of its dramatic negativity can lead you to what you’re most excited about. It’s your one-way ticket out of your comfort zone and into your dream life.
"What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do". – Tim Ferriss
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions… Scenarios
Before we say yes or no to something or someone, we typically resort to a decision-making strategy or technique to help us weigh all our options and alternatives. The good old pros-and-cons list or a quick risk-and-benefit assessment may guide us to an answer, yet sometimes it’s not enough.
In her book Everything Is Figureoutable, Marie Forleo, entrepreneur and host of Marie TV, offers one more contrastive solution to a yes-no dilemma – the worst/best case scenario exercise. Should the name fail to be self-explanatory, it’s a merciless analysis of the worst and the best possible outcome of a decision.
Let’s say you’re pondering quitting your job to start a business. What would the absolute rock-bottom worst of this choice look like for you? Write down the gory details. Does it mean you’d be judged and criticized by your friends and family? Would you go broke and have nowhere to live? Would you feel alone? Humiliated? Design an action plan to reverse the scenario. Could you find another job if your business failed? Can you name a person who’d stick with you through thick and thin?
Now reverse the situation. How would the successful you feel? Would the outcome of your hard work be worth all the blood, sweat, and tears you put into achieving financial freedom, the ability to help others, or travel the world? What insight about yourself would you gain along the way? How resilient could you become?
Sit with your scenarios for a while and let them properly sink in. Remember that not choosing is also a choice in and of itself. Bet on your intuition. Choose what makes you feel expansive.
"Who you are is defined by what you’re willing to struggle for". – Mark Manson
Expansive vs. Contracted
No matter how overwhelming the decision-making, you have all the answers within you. And before you deem that a cliché, hear us out. The so-called gut feeling is an unconsciously revealed synthesis of all your experiences and lessons in decision-making you’ve ever acquired. It’s basic pattern recognition. Hence, even if you consider intuition sorcery, this method will work for you regardless.
Marie Forleo swears by this: whenever you’re torn between yes and no, get comfortable sitting or standing, close your eyes, take at least three deep breaths, settle in the present moment, and ask yourself:
Does going ahead with (insert your opportunity) make me feel expansive or contracted?
Then, pay attention to an instant involuntary reaction in your body. A clear answer will emerge through your inner sensations. While expansiveness and contraction may appear differently to everyone, we guarantee you will immediately tell one from the other.
Expansive means you may notice your shoulders relax and your chest open up, with a twinge of excitement or joy in your heart. You may experience lightness and an inner pull into the direction of the opportunity. All of a sudden, you breathe more easily, smile to yourself, you expand and you know – it’s a yes.
Contracted, however, will make you feel tense. A sense of heaviness and dread can almost immediately arise in your body. Your forehead may frown, your muscles tighten, and you might notice something subtle in you retreating, pulling back, closing down. These nonverbal cues mean no.
The ancient intelligence of our bodies extends beyond reason. Train yourself to tune into what your body communicates. Stop living from the neck up, sitting in front of a screen for 12 hours a day. Get back in touch with the inner wisdom of your body through consistent movement to open up the natural channel between you and our intuition.
A Whole Body Yes
Should you need more convincing, Tim Ferriss speaks of a decision-making method rooted in our physical responses as well. He advises to perform a full body scan, starting from your head, through your chest, and to your gut. When faced with a choice, look for a go-signal in all three areas and think twice about saying yes if you feel anything disconcerting. At the slightest sign of a disconfirming sensation in at least one of those three stops on the scan, give your decision one more night to sleep on it. To go ahead with anything, you need a whole body yes.
"There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy". – Friedrich Nietzsche
You Know When You Know
Clarity comes from engagement the same way as motivation comes from action. Sometimes we need to give something a test run, try it out, and dare a little. Having a choice, an opportunity to decide, is a blessing and a privilege, yet it might also be agonizing. Your body can give you a shortcut, spare you a few sleepless nights, and make you independent in your decision-making. Your life is the sum total of all the choices you’ve ever made. Trust your gut to make sure you live it on your terms.
It is of immeasurable importance to acknowledge cultural differences in values and happiness. However, while there are some cultural universalities, there are also individual differences we need to rely on in shaping our happiness.