Issue 10 April 2004

Hal Stone, PhD and Sidra Stone, PhD

Decision making is something that we all have to do over and over again in our lives. Some decisions are easy to make and others are filled with conflict. In a partnering relationship it gets even more complex because the conflict is not just inside of us. It also exists between the two people who are living together.

The first thing to realize is that most decisions that we make come from our primary selves. These are the selves that we identify with in the growing up process and eventually they represent our personality and how we express ourselves in the world and how others see us in the world. If you grow up and become an achiever and a mental person, these primary selves love to buy books, invest time, energy and money in learning and achieving and generally value people who show similar personality traits. Conversely, when they meet someone who is their opposite, they generally judge that person for being lazy and unfocused or in some cases are irrevocably attracted to that person. It is generally the primary selves that do the judging for us.

Imagine that you grow up in a family that is very tight and stingy about spending money. They also don’t like to take risks and you rebel against this kind of behavior and become someone to loves to spend money, who loves to travel and who loves to take risks in life. You are going to make very different choices from those that your family made. Your primary self system is going to behave differently in the world than their primary self system.

What we need to learn how to do in decision making is to begin to hear the voice on the other side, to hear the voice of the disowned self. This is very hard to do so long as you are married to the primary self because from this place your choices seem natural to you. The fact is that the vast majority of choices that people make aren’t really choices at all! A choice requires a conflict between at least two different alternatives. Conflict in decision making is a very positive thing because it means that we are conscious of alternatives and don’t know what to do or which way to go.

Imagine that John goes to a computer store and and falls in love with the new Mac Powerbook. His primary self is in ecstacy as he sits down and uses it. He has a strong mind, a good deal of technical capability in regard to computers and a strong need to achieve success and mastery over the world around him. He has a good job and enough money to live the good life but without having independent income or much in savings. He is free about spending money, very much the opposite of his family of origin. His primary self is more Mediterranean and his parents’ primary self system is more Germanic.

In this situation John says to himself “I choose” to buy this computer and so he buys it. There is a nagging feeling in him that something is off – as though his stomach feels strange, but he is not used to feeling anxious. He is a “can do” person and so he takes his new computer home.

From our psycho-spiritual perspective, we would say that John didn’t buy the computer. How is this possible? We just said that he did buy the computer. To be more accurate, it wasn’t John who bought the computer. It was his primary self system that bought it. There was no choice involved. This is the way that decision making is done most of the time. We are not saying that decisions made this way are bad. We are saying that generally they are not conscious decisions because there is no real experience of opposites.

To have choice there must be opposites. To have choice we must stand between at least two alternatives and this is the job of the Aware Ego. It is the Aware Ego process that is the goal of the Voice Dialogue work. It is the development of a state of consciousness, a way of viewing the world that develops as we separate from our primary selves and learn to embrace our disowned selves – not become them but simply embrace them.

That night John dreams that he is wandering among homeless people in the city where he lives. They are without money, without sustenance and he feels deeply their hopelessness. He awakens from the dream feeling quite anxious and suddenly he recognizes the feeling in his stomach that he has always rejected. He suddenly feels the disowned self. He feels his vulnerability in the world, his fears about not making it that he long ago repressed.

John now begins to stand between the opposites. He feels the part of him that desperately desires and loves this new and shiny and remarkable laptop. Now he also feels the disowned self. Can he really afford to spend another $2,500 plus another $500 to a thousand for assorted software and other goodies. He feels both sides. It is the Aware Ego that has the capacity to feel both sides.

Now John begins to understand why his girlfriend is so unhappy with him about the way he spends money and why she she keeps saying that she doesn’t feel safe with him. She is simply expressing to him what he has not allowed himself to feel – the voice of the other side. This is the gift of relationship that the intelligence of the universe has provided for each of us in our lives, once we understand the selves and know how they work.

There is no right and wrong in all this. As psychotherapists we have no idea as to whether he should buy the computer or not buy the computer. It is none of our business – Thank God. Our job is to help him come to this ability to feel opposites and the willingness to live with this conflict until a natural resolution occurs.

To live between opposites is to learn to live with the ambiguities of life. It is the ability to hold the tension of opposites until the Aware Ego process becomes sufficiently strong that a decision occurs organically and in a way that is so natural that it hardly feels like a decision. This is one of the deeper goals of Voice Dialogue and dream work.

Sometimes we have to make immediate decisions but our experience is that the sense of immediacy is more a product of the extraverted and fast moving pace of western culture. We simply have never valued, nor had a reason to value, the ability to “sweat” the opposites. We can assure you that the rewards are great.

Always keep in mind that knowledge is the province of the primary self system. Wisdom however belongs to the province of the Aware Ego, to the ability to “not know”, to the willingness to feel as well as understand both sides of the decision making process.