Learning to hear my intuition whispering while my anxiety screams in the background
I spent too long making the decision. It was a big project, and I was going to get a big fee — even after I took a big rate cut to fit the client’s budget. The project wasn’t exciting. In fact, it promised to be repetitive and mind-numbing.
But, the fee would set me up for the rest of the summer.
I agreed to take on the project.
It was a horrible decision.
Intuition and Decision Making
In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell persuasively makes the case that when we make decision making too complicated, we screw up. It’s when we look at too much data instead of focusing on the right set of discrete data that we make poor decisions. Often, it’s the decisions that we intuitively “feel” are right that are the best decisions.
I know all of this. But, I still screw up all the time.
It’s because it’s hard for me to listen to the whisperings of my intuition when my anxiety is screaming in the background.
I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder. I have lived with my diagnosis for more than nine years. I have lived with the anxiety for as long as I can remember.
Every catastrophically bad decision I have made, and I have created some epic fails, goes back to not listening to my intuition.
I know this. Sometimes I think I’m getting better — and then I do something like taking a massive project I know I should pass on.
All of the warning signs were there.
The client wanted me to greatly reduce my rate to take on the project.
The client wanted work done faster than I originally offered.
For every concession I made, the client had more demands.
I was uncomfortable with the project.
My intuition was telling me to walk away.
My anxiety was screaming “You need the money! You don’t have any work lined up for the next month! Your family needs the security this job will bring!”
My anxiety also listed all the bad things that could happen if I walked away from this job.
I let my anxiety smother my intuition, and I took the job.
Where Does Intuition Come From? Where Does Anxiety Come From?
Psychologists, biologists, and neurobiologists are still learning about where our intuition comes from. The latest science indicates that our intuition combines emotion, logic, memory, and our subconscious to try and influence us. It seems increasingly likely that bacteria in our actual gut also play a part in our intuition.
Our brain and body work together to make snap decisions that give us the best chance of surviving and thriving.
The causes of anxiety disorders are still poorly understood. There appears to be some mix of genetic and environmental triggers that short-circuit your brain when you have anxiety.
For me, my intuition resides on some tall mountaintop in center of my brain, like an ancient mystic. My intuition is soft-spoken and is perfectly centered between emotion and logic, creativity and analysis.
My anxiety is amorphous. It has no home. It appears on the scene unwanted and unbidden. If my intuition is soft-spoken, my anxiety has the world’s largest megaphone. It’s a combination of the dementors from Harry Potter, Fear from Pixar’s Inside Out, and the shark from Jaws.
Consequences of Cacophony
I was a week into the project, and I was already behind. Every day the client had more demands, tried to increase the scope, and tighten the deadline. I missed the first deadline and asked for an extension.
When the second deadline was looming — I shut down. I couldn’t work. I could barely get out of bed. The only thing I could think about was all the work I still had to do. How I would never accept the hourly rate I was earning under any other circumstance. I kept thinking about how much the failure would cost me.
Anxiety was in charge, and he was sending me into a negative feedback loop of epic proportions.
I sat down at my computer, put my head down on my desk, and started crying. I couldn’t figure out why I had taken this project when there were so many danger signs. I had already turned down other work, better work, because of this project. Why was I so stupid? Why did I still make such bad choices this far into my career?
I wanted to quit. I wanted to quit making decisions. Quit working. Quit anything that required me to get out of bed.
The door to my home office was closed. I could hear my children yelling at each other. It was infuriating me. How dare they fight when I had important work I wasn’t doing?
I was about to get up and tell them to shut up when I saw that I had another email from the client that seemed to enjoy torturing me.
I slumped in my chair. Avoiding my email.
I started to cry again. But, in the moment before my anxiety could begin reminding me of how far behind I was, I felt my intuition again.
It was communicating one word. “Quit.”
I latched onto the idea. Why not?
I could quit the project. I could refund the client the money. I hadn’t spent any of it.
I could feel my anxiety pushing against this idea. But, after being in the grips to my anxiety for a week, I was ready to push back.
The Role of Mindfulness in My Decision Making
Science is finally catching up to the ancient wisdom that has survived for millennia in societies all over the globe. Personal development gurus have managed to successfully commercialize this wisdom as mindfulness.
The science is clear that things like yoga, meditation, and gratitude practices help reduce anxiety, make us happier, and help us make better decisions.
But, like just about everything else, having an anxiety disorder makes mindfulness more complicated.
Mindfulness can keep anxiety in check. But, if there are gaps in your mindfulness practice, anxiety will seep back in and erode the progress you have made. It’s a constant battle.
For me, the biggest benefit of mindfulness is that it helps me recognize what my intuition sounds like and feels like. It reminds me that there is another voice in my head besides anxiety.
When I was sitting at my desk, contemplating bailing on the horrible project, it was my past experiences with meditation that allowed me to zero in on what my intuition was whispering, even as my anxiety tried to find his megaphone.
I emailed the client and quit the project as professionally as possible. I explained that because of their changes and demands I wasn’t going to complete the project. I gave them a full refund and never heard from them again.
Once I had sent the email, I exhaled. I hadn’t realized that I had been holding my breath. I felt my muscles relax.
I felt happy.
I seized the moment by sending off messages to the prospects I had turned away a few weeks before letting them know I had an unexpected opening in my calendar.
Then I took my kids to a movie.
My life wasn’t ruined after all.
Intellectually I knew that there would be other opportunities and that I would find more work.
But, anxiety interferes with that part of my brain. It short-circuits my logic by overloading my brain with negative emotions and possibilities.
I still make bad choices. We all do.
I still have days where my anxiety takes over.
But, I have found that when my anxiety is the loudest is when it is most vital for me to find a moment of inner peace, so that I can check in with my intuition.
Over the years I have developed a lot of different strategies for quieting my anxiety. The most surprising thing I have found is that the moment I commit to the decision my intuition is leading me to, my anxiety disappears.
He thrives on uncertainty. When I make a decision, it takes away his fuel and silences the cacophony in my head.