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A Decision-Making Hack for Life's Forks in the Road

Use visualization to make high-stakes decisions more visible.

"A picture is worth a thousand words" as the saying goes.Using visualization can help increase the potency of many therapeutic interventions. Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation have even demonstrated that visualization alone (with no physical exercise) can help increase muscle strength.*

In my practice of “Free Range Psychology,” I have used visualization for many reasons. Here is one example of an intervention that has been particularly powerful for some patients. As usual, I’m creating a fictional patient to illustrate how this has been helpful for my real-life patients.

Let’s call our fictional patient Alma. Alma is in her early 30s. She is a divorced, single mother with a beautiful six-year-old daughter named Sandra who is her pride and joy. And she feels a strong attraction to a boyfriend who is not a healthy person.

In other blog entries, I have written about how falling in love is like smoking crack cocaine. Falling in love feels awesome and can launch a truly exceptional lifelong partnership in some cases. Unfortunately, sometimes, we may feel an incredibly strong pull towards poisonous, degrading relationships. And often it’s not the case that those in unhealthy relationships have no insight when this happens. Like many patients, Alma was able to identify and describe how the relationship itself felt “bipolar,” vacillating as it did between extremely intoxicating highs and periods of total dejection.

The “pull her in, then push her away” behavior of her noncommittal partner was evident to her. She understood well that returning to him again would be like a moth that self-immolates in a flame. But such was the power of her attraction to Donovan that she had returned several times. And each time she did, she felt incredibly guilty because she was also aware that her choices had impacted her daughter’s development. Her guilt was strong because raising her daughter in a healthy, stable home is very important to her.

The conversation we had is that the situation at hand is a classic fork in the road. If she holds the value of creating a safe, stable environment for her daughter, living out this value has implications for the continuation or final termination of her relationship with Donovan. She cannot have both. She can either hold to the value of what she wants to offer her daughter or she can be pulled repeatedly by the siren call of this alluring but emotionally dangerous partner. When we cast this as the central choice to make, she acknowledged that while it didn’t feel good, it felt “right” to end the relationship. She was seeking my help in order to gain the moral courage and perseverance to move in that direction.

Once we agreed that she cannot have both, I proposed that she make this fork in the road very clear and apparent in a tangible way. To do this, I suggested that she create a card for herself along the theme of a fork in the road. On one side (left or right - it doesn’t matter) is a visual representation of the choice to rekindle the relationship. In this case, it might actually be a moth flying into a flame and a child who sits alone sad and scared during the ensuing depression and neglect that follows. The images selected should be as strong as needed to summarize the emotional reality of the choice at hand. Some of my patients have chosen images like the one pictured here (or even ones much darker than this) for the undesirable choice of pursuing a dangerous relationship that creates chaos and trauma.

Ultimately, I don’t create the visual - my patient does. My goal is to make sure that all of the costs of the undesired path relayed to me by my patient are counted and represented in whatever visual they choose.

On the other side of the card is a clear visual representation of the projected outcome of a decision to take the other path (which may be the path of greatest internal resistance). In this case, it might be a photograph of Alma and her daughter on an especially happy day and some representation of an unknown future partner who is kind and safe.

This “fork in the road” card is a form of deeply private communication. Patients may choose to show it to me or not but it’s not important that I ever see it. What is important is that they integrate a deep understanding that there is a fork in the road and that there are very high stakes associated with some decisions. This kind of tool essentially heightens their understanding of what is at stake in life-altering choices and supports the courage that is needed to choose a higher value over the addictive pull of a dangerous path.

The application of “free range psychology” extends to working with ourselves to live in ways that are smarter, stronger, and more connected to our highest values. As we wrap up 2016 and head into a new year, is there a fork in your own road that you need to see with greater clarity and focus? Could creating your own personal “fork in the road” card this holiday season help launch a successful personal initiative in 2017?


*Ranganathan, V.K., Siemionowa, V., Liu, J.Z., Sahgal, V., & Yue, G.H. “From mental power to muscle power; gaining strength by using the mind,” Neuropsychologia 42 (2004) 944-956.