My first job as a freelancer was a project from hell. My boss was a complete control freak. Everything I wrote he re-wrote 6 times. He insisted I go to client meetings in the next state, and then never shut up long enough for me to speak. He dallied on making decisions so long I had to work several weekends in a row to meet my deadlines. The kicker is, I knew when I was applying for the job that this guy was trouble. I had an undeniable pit in my stomach after the interview. When we were negotiating payment, I couldn’t sleep. But I listened to the voice that said “How will you pay your bills if you turn this down?” instead of the voice that said, “Run!”
You may think making decisions is best left to the cool calculations of pure reason. But I have come to learn that my body has an eloquent language all its own, and it’s got quite a lot to say about what I should do in any given situation. The more I follow it, the more I avoid nightmare situations like that first freelance gig. The first trick is to learn how to decipher that language. Here are the things I check in with first:
Breathing shallowly and/or rapidly (like a panting dog) is a sure sign of stress while holding your breath points toward fear. Purposefully taking a few slow, deep breaths can help shift you out of those emotions and allow you to approach your decision with a clearer mind.
They don’t call it a “gut feeling” for nothing. When you consider an option, do you feel like your stomach is made of lead? Is it churning, sour, or upset in any way? This can get a little tricky, because there are some kinds of fear that are desirable — the kind you get when you’re growing beyond your previous limits, for example — and some that aren’t — like the kind that tells you you’re in danger. Try to discern if what you’re feeling is more like anticipation and excitement (suggesting that it’s the good kind of fear), or if it feels like panic or distress (suggesting that your body is preparing to protect itself).
In the yogic tradition, rounded shoulders and a sunken chest suggest a person is depressed. If something you’re considering gives you a “heavy heart,” ask yourself, Is this a feeling I want to perpetuate? Or, if an option makes your chest tingle and feel warm or flush, this is a good sign that your metaphorical heart is behind you on this one.
Watch your dreams, listen to the songs that get stuck in your head, and pay attention to anything that keeps popping up for you — you catch a snippet of something in an overheard conversation, then you see an article on it in the paper, for instance. We get signals from our subconscious all the time, but we’re too busy or distracted to hear them. Find a way to get quiet on a regular basis — journaling, walking, meditation, knitting, cooking, whatever makes you feel calm and grounded — and you’ll be surprised how your antenna gets more attuned to the signals your subconscious is sending.
It may take a while to figure out how your particular body likes to communicate with you — maybe you feel things physically, like a tingling, or maybe you get more information from your dreams. It’s definitely a practice. Just like learning how to speak any language, it gets easier the more you do it.
But the real challenge comes after you start picking up you body’s clues: You’ve got to trust the information you’re getting. It can feel fairly crazy to choose a job that pays less just because you feel happier and more relaxed in their offices, for example. Or to go out with the guy who’s so not your type, but who gives you a warm feeling in your stomach. I’m definitely still working on it. But even when I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what my body is trying to tell me, listening to it keeps me aware that not everything can be worked out with a pro and con list.
The next time you’ve got to make a choice about what to do next, remember the immortal words of Olivia Newton John: “Let me hear your body talk.”