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The Hidden Dynamic of Decision-Making: To Be Separate and Still Belong

January 7, 2020

Making decisions isn’t easy.

There’s mountains of data to analyze. There’s the paralyzing pressure to get it right. And there’s the discomfort in not knowing how the future will unfold.

Yet as challenging as these aspects can be, they fail to account for one of decision-making’s most difficult and overlooked dynamics.

Decision-making is never just about the decision itself. It’s a vehicle for expressing our need to be separate and still belong.

Attachment and the need to be separate and still belong

Let’s reel back the clock to the the first year of life.

As an infant, our reality is determined by where people place us. Whether we’re in our mother’s arms or on our father’s shoulders, we don’t decide our physical location. Since we can’t move around on our own, we assume that our immediate environment is all there is. We can’t distinguish between what’s us and what’s other than us—so we assume that we are one with it all.

But between 6 to 12 months into life, our world starts to change. We learn to crawl, then to walk, and eventually to start verbalizing. With our new abilities we’re able to explore on our own. We can move away from our loved ones, and then return when we desire.

As we move ourselves around, we increase our sense of individuation. By choosing our own position in space we begin to learn that we are a separate self. And when we put words on our own thoughts and feelings, we add another layer of differentiation to our sense of who we are.

At this young and tender age, we start to feel separate as autonomous individuals.

And, at the same time, we want to feel safe and belong with those we come from, too.

We have a need to be separate and still belong.

Under good enough conditions in the home environment, the child’s need to be separate and still belong will be accommodated. Parents will act both as a secure base from which the child can explore, and a safe haven to which they can return. The child receives encouragement to venture out on their own. And since they can sense their caregiver’s attunement and sensitivity, they know they’ll receive comfort when required.

A child raised in this circle of safety—between exploration and reassurance—will develop what psychologist John Bowlby called a secure attachment. The child learns to trust in themselves and to be trusting of others.

But in stressful conditions in the home environment, the need to be separate and still belong can get compromised. The caregiver will be emotionally unavailable or inconsistent in their responses to the child. Sometimes it’s the caregiver who seeks comfort and validation from the child, rather than the other way around. And in the most heartbreaking of cases, the caregiver is unable to affirm the child’s existence at all.

Whatever the circumstances, a child raised without a circle of safety will develop an insecure or disorganized attachment. They will learn to be anxious, untrusting, or fearful in all types of interactions and relationships.

Problematic as this might seem, the child’s learned response is an excellent coping mechanism for their situation. It makes sense of the only world they have known until now.

As a result, the child might feel pulled towards separateness and isolation, because they’ve learned they can’t trust others’ behavior. They might feel the need to always scan their environment, and be on lookout for signs of disapproval or threat. Or they might desperately cling to others, because they’ve learned that being alone is a threat to their existence.

Either way, when the need to be separate and still belong is compromised, it will always be a challenge to regulate between the two.

Can I be separate and still belong?

What attachment means for decision-making

Now, fast-forward to today.

You’re faced with a decision.

It could be an important business decision. It might be the decision of where to apply for a job. Or it could be the choice of what to have for dinner.

Whatever the decision, and no matter how many people it will affect, you will be dealing with more than the decision at hand.

Take the example of making a decision about business strategy.

On the surface, it might seem like you’re facing a choice between two different strategic options. You analyze the business implications, and you take into account how the decision could affect key stakeholders. You’ll factor in the potential impact on people like the employees, customers, management, the board, and shareholders.

But on a much less conscious level, your brain will be occupied by something else entirely. It will be calculating how the decision could affect your sense of separateness and belonging.

“What will it do to my sense of belonging? What will my friends, family, and society in general think? Will I be like them in the right ways? Will I be safe if I’m not on my own? Who’s approval should I be looking for? Who will I let down if I go my own way?”

“On the other hand, if I go along with what others say I should do, how will that affect my ability to remain a unique and independent individual? Will I disappear? Will I be safe with the group? Will I be smothered?”

This back-and-forth goes on and on. Can I belong and stay separate and unique? Can I be separate and still belong?

This dynamic is at play even for the most solitary of decisions. Even if you’re simply deciding what to make for dinner for yourself, your system will be checking-in on its safety and belonging with others.

“If I go for a hamburger, will I be able to belong with my health-conscious friends? If I choose to make a basic salad, will I just be like everyone else then? How can I belong to society’s norms in my choice of meal? How can I also make the meal, and therefore myself, special? And who would I be disloyal to if I decided for myself?”

Now, this is a perfectly human and natural process. Our relational patterns are designed to keep us safe and regulated between self and others.

When this affects what we decide to eat when we’re alone, we can laugh at it.

But when we get blindsided by these forces in the big decisions of business and life, it’s tragic.

Whenever we make decisions, we are always superimposing the relational structure of our toddler self onto the decisions of adulthood. All of our decisions are made with old and outdated software.

So when you decide to go for the riskiest strategic option for your business, is it because it’s actually what’s best for the company? Or is it because it makes you think that you’ll finally be able to stick out from the crowd and be unique?

When you choose to apply for a job at the most prestigious company you can, is it because that’s what you really want? Or is it to prove to yourself and to others that you belong in high-achieving surroundings?

Decisions aren’t what they seem to be.

We have a need to secure the right amount of amount of uniqueness and belonging for ourselves, based on what we’ve learned to survive.

Decisions are our tools for doing so.

Making better decisions

In every decision we make, we use the content of today on top of the patterning of the past to determine what our future will become—whether we’re aware of it or not.

So how can we make better decisions to create better futures, given the forces at play?

1) Noticing your gravitational pull

Our world becomes easier and more manageable when we know about gravity.

The same is true in decision-making: the more we know about our pull towards separateness or belonging, the more manageable it becomes.

What you can’t observe, you can’t manage.

What is your relational style? What is your preference?

Knowing your relational style makes the world of difference. The more you notice your natural gravitational pull, the more power and opportunity you give yourself to decide freely.

So when you face an important business decision, now you slow down. Your urge has been to make the safer choice. But this time you stop for a moment to notice what is happening. Instead of merely going along with your first thought, you ask yourself what’s really going on.

“Is this really the best choice for me and for the business? Will this take us to where we want to go? Or is it my gravitational pull toward separateness that’s pulling me in that direction? What does the toddler in me want? And what does the adult of today actually think is best?”

The more you notice these dynamics, the more you’re able to create the space to choose freely, rather than getting forced into a decision by the legacy of the past.

The more you notice the pull of the past, the greater the space you open up for your intuition of the future to come.

2) Choosing to rest in the world

Even though decision-making brings to surface our outdated relational models, it is also the method for living above and beyond those structures.

It’s through the act of choosing and deciding that we have the opportunity to develop and grow.

So how can we develop the ability to decide for ourselves, and still belong? How can we expand our degrees of freedom when making decisions?

Our freedom in decision-making depends on our relationship with ourselves, others, and life itself.

Do you welcome the world? Do you welcome others? Do you assume that you’re welcome in the world?

These questions point toward a universal and unconditional sense of belonging to yourself, to others, and to life itself. You assume that you are welcome. You’re OK when you’re separate, and you’re OK when you belong—because you know that you are welcome no matter what.

When your default state is to welcome and be welcomed by the world, then your world will change.

You’ll make decisions from a place of contentment and abundance, rather than fear and scarcity.

Your decisions will become expressions of possibility, rather than mechanisms of compensation.

You’ll live into the future, rather than endlessly repeating the past.

Decision-making is more than just making decisions.

It’s the space in which we express our freedom to choose.

It’s the process of transforming our imagined desires into lived realities.

It’s the magic wand with which we create the future and ourselves.

What we decide is how we live—and how we live is who we are.

As we choose, so do we become.

I choose, therefore I am. 

What do you choose? How do you wave your wand of choice?


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