Freud’s Decision Hack Will Change Your Life

How to make a difficult decision by tapping your unconscious

Steven Gambardella
Oct 19 · 5 min read
“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” by Fransisco Goya (1799). While we often think the unconscious is a dark and dangerous place, it can help us make decisions quickly and effectively. (image: public domain, source: Wikipedia. Image is cropped.)

A while back I was in a relationship I wanted to end. I needed to decide whether to see if things improve or to just call an end to it and upset the person who loved me.

It took me weeks to make the decision. I didn’t sleep well. I had a recurring night terror in which I saw enormous shadowy spiders crawling up my bed toward me. Half-awake, I’d throw my sheets off the bed and scramble to switch on the lamp only to realise I was still dreaming. When I finally made the decision to end the relationship, the spiders stopped.

We are often faced with difficult decisions. We lose sleep when dilemmas we face churn over in our minds. We rehearse each eventuality with our thoughts and repeat them over and over, hoping that exhaustive analysis will eventually give us the right path to take.

Decisions are scary. Some of us live our lives avoiding them, and perhaps suffer all the more for it.

But there are ways to make a decision more quickly. By tapping our unconscious mind — the place where the spiders came from — we can take a deeper perspective on the decision. There are simple ways of doing this, and below I’ll give you one technique that will help.

Sigmund Freud photographed by Max Halberstadt in c.1921 (public domain, source: Wikipedia)

Tough decisions cause a lot of trauma partly because the thinking involved is so exhausting. Think of your conscious mind as being like a spotlight in a dark room filled with everything that's happening in your life. It’ll shift from one thing to another, but that’s not to say nothing is happening in the darkness.

Most of our mental processing happens in the unconscious mind. When we drive, work or play a sport we’re often in a flow-like state where our unconscious does all the hard work. While we may not be actively considering our options in many given situations, the deeper (and far greater) mechanisms of the unconscious are at work on these considerations.

The term “unconscious” was coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling but is most associated with Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis. Freud’s work was revolutionary, it gave us the notion that our unconscious mind — a part of us that we have very little control over — determines so much of our behaviour, including our decisions.

Ideas and memories buried in the non-conscious mind, Freud believed, could account for our fears, phobias, neuroses, desires and pleasures. Before Freud, it was widely assumed that human beings were perfectly rational, that our decisions were based entirely on conscious calculations. Freud’s work showed that is not even half the story.

The mind, Freud’s followers contend, is like an iceberg. Only a small part of it is exposed to conscious introspection. We can only feel the force of the unconscious indirectly, such as its workings in dreams, psychological symptoms, slips of the tongue and the associative way we interpret things.

A classic way to get insight into the unconscious is the Rorschach test technique, named after Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach, by which a patient is asked to interpret what they see in a random inkblot.

The “free association” of the patient is interpreted by an analyst to reveal something that may not be “known” to their conscious mind. Latent traumas and buried (“repressed”) memories can be surfaced using these techniques.

But the unconscious mind is not just a place of lurking fears and neuroses. It’s a plentiful well-spring of creativity and wisdom. In so much as there are ways to reveal the symptoms of the unconscious mind’s darker aspects, there are ways to tap its enormous creative and intellectual potential.

Many a creative will tell you that it’s best to think about a problem for a while then let it go and get on with something else. The unconscious will work on the problems beneath the threshold of your attention. You will find that a solution will pop into your head at unexpected moments. Meditation, doodling and journaling are also ways of opening up the power of the unconscious.

How we interpret things as simple as an inkblot or a coin toss reveals a lot about us. This is an original inkblot used by Hermann Rorschach to get an insight into his patients’ unconscious thoughts and feelings. Do you see a butterfly or a bat? Is it beautiful or ominous? (Image: public domain, source: Wikipedia)

What’s this all got to do with tough decisions? Well, decisions are exhausting to our conscious minds. We’ll likely be thinking hard about decisions because these junctures in our lives require a lot of speculative thinking. Making sense of the chaos around us is hard enough and it’s so much harder to make sense of the potential chaos to come on either side of a dilemma.

But while we may be turning things over in our minds — perhaps even having sleepless nights — all that information is making its way into the unconscious mind where it is also being processed.

To make a decision as tough as a job relocation, a relationship change, or a career change, it’d do us a lot of good to bring our unconscious mind’s emotional and intellectual depth to a dilemma. It might even save us a few sleepless nights.

When faced with a big decision many people have been tempted to leave their decision to fate. A common way of doing this is tossing a coin: “heads I take the work transfer and relocate to a new country, tails, I stay put.” This method is reckless and could do a lot of harm.

It is said (but unproven) that Freud had a much better way of helping people make decisions using a coin toss. Whether or not Freud discovered the method, it’s a powerful way to bring your unconscious to bear on the decision making process.

Toss a coin as if the coin is deciding your choice for you. Now, don’t act on the result of the coin toss but instead decide how you feel about the result. The coin toss forces you to consider how you would feel if the decision was made for you by the force of fate and circumstance.

The coin flip clarifies your feelings about the decision. Was the result what you hoped for? Are you disappointed? While the decision-making process forces us to use our conscious mind to speculate and calculate the outcomes of our choice, the coin flip suddenly brings our unconscious into play.

This is the full force of an intuitive “gut” feeling that is impossible to describe, yet so powerfully emphatic.

It may not make a decision simple, but it will bring to bear your true feelings and help you make your choice based on your emotional reaction to the result.

Thank you for reading. I hope you learned something new.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like my article on Marcus Aurelius:

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Steven Gambardella

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I write about philosophy, art and history and how these subjects can help you in life and work. Email: stevengambardella [at] gmail [dot] com.

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