What’s Really Impacting Your Decision-Making?
Exploring the Domains of Awareness
Your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are constantly being influenced by factors outside your conscious awareness. You’re blind to these factors right now, but if you learn to notice them, you’ll be able to see the bigger picture and make better choices.
Here’s an example from my own experience. Back in 2015 I was Managing Director of a fledgling technology intelligence business. When I learned that we had won a substantial multi-year project with one of the UK’s biggest companies, I was elated, but the joy was soon overpowered by strong discomfort in my chest. Thinking I had heartburn, I bought some chalky medicine, which did nothing.
Later, as I reflected on the implications of the win, I realized I was terrified that we had overcommitted. I felt trapped. As it occurred to me that, if the project truly wasn’t a good fit for us after all, we could still walk away with grace, I experienced an enormous release of tension in my chest. It wasn’t heartburn at all; it was anxiety. I had fundamentally misinterpreted my own inner experience, which resulted in behavior that was, in retrospect, useless. And since I hadn’t realized that what I was feeling was anxiety, I hadn’t been taking any steps to address the underlying problem.
Avoiding this trap starts with knowing where to look, so I’ll show you some of the places you can learn to notice things that may be influencing you more deeply than you realize. The various ‘domains of awareness’ that I introduce are by no means mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive, but they serve as a good starting point for exploration. Here’s are the domains we’ll be going through:
- Awareness of physical senses
- Awareness of your own thoughts
- Awareness of doings and impulses
- Awareness of how you habitually relate to things
- Awareness of other people’s awareness
Awareness of physical senses
You probably learned at school that humans have five senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—partly because these are the ones that Aristotle identified two millennia ago. Aristotle was wrong.
In fact, we have sensors and associated sense perceptions for many more than five phenomena in the physical world. For example, you have nociception, which allows you to detect harmful things via the experience of pain, and equilibrioception, which allows you to maintain balance.
I want to bring your attention to three of these senses, or sense groups, in particular, as they play a major role in how many degrees of freedom you have available to you in how you live your life. These are exteroception, interoception and proprioception.
Exteroception is your capacity to notice the world around you using multiple different senses. Take a look around at the space you’re in now and notice all the sounds and smells that are present. How comfortable are the temperature and humidity? Exteroception lets you evaluate the state of your environment as it is now, which is vital should you have any desire to change it.
Interoception, which is less well-known, is your capacity to notice what’s going on in your body. How do you feel right now? What emotions are present? Are you hungry? How’s your breathing? How hard and fast is your heart beating? The answers to all of these questions are available to you through interoception. And for the record, a more refined interoceptive awareness when I learned about that project win would have helped me see that I was anxious and not left wondering if I had heartburn.
Proprioception is your capacity to notice your body’s position in and movement through space in the absence of an exteroceptive sense like sight. If you close your eyes and touch your fingers to your nose or touch two fingers of different hands to each other in front of you, you are using proprioception. You might not necessarily know how you know where your hands are relative to the rest of your body, but you still know.
Since you can only respond to what you notice, getting better at noticing what’s going on in these domains gives you greater capacity to do something about them. For example, once you’ve improved your sense of interoception you’ll start to notice things like how your sitting posture affects your back pain—and how movement or stretching might help. You’ll be able to correctly sense and interpret anxiety—and rather than taking an antacid like I did—you can take a deep breath with a long exhale and journal about what’s troubling you.
Awareness of your own thoughts
Your capacity to notice your own thought processes as they’re happening is called metacognitive awareness. If you close your eyes and wait a few moments, some kind of mental content will probably show up and you’ll be able to witness it happening, with varying degrees of success depending on the context and your skill at doing it.
One of the common selling points of mindfulness techniques like meditation is to become better able to focus, or put another way, to increase your metacognitive awareness of your own mind wandering and from there to bring their attention back to the task at hand. This kind of awareness is also helpful to notice the links between thoughts, emotions and behaviors, which can flow from one to another quickly. A passing thought about a delayed project at work can lead to body sensations that you interpret as guilt, which in turn can lead to behaviors like working on the project, scheduling more time to work on the project, or just distracting yourself from the whole thing.
In this example, increased metacognitive awareness can be helpful from a couple of angles. If you happened not to notice the passing thought about the project, you might instead just notice sensations that you immediately—and perhaps even unconsciously—label as guilt. Without a clear sense of what the feeling is about, it’s hard to know how to alleviate it.
Once you’ve decided to work on the project, metacognitive awareness can help you step back from sustaining any ongoing unconstructive internal commentary about the situation. If you’re working on the project then there’s no need to continue berating yourself, should this be your habit. In fact, there might be a need, but that could be suggestive of a lack of ‘internal agreement’ or self-trust and is a topic for another time.
Awareness of doings and impulses
Until now I’ve been describing your capacity to notice things in domains that probably feel quite familiar to you. From here though, we’re going deeper.
The next domain of awareness is the awareness of doings and impulses, which is to say the things you are already doing and the things you could do in the next moment. For example, you might be clenching your jaw right now or you might be about to clench your jaw.
Let’s play a game. I’d like you to tense a bunch of muscles in your body so you scrunch yourself up a bit. Hold for a moment and then, all at once, let go of all the tension—unscrunch yourself. There are three highly instructive things you can learn to notice in this little exercise, which you might like to repeat a few times.
The easiest is the experience of actively doing the scrunch. This is not the same as the experience of muscle tension. Can you detect the difference between that and whatever it’s like to create and sustain the ‘instruction’ to scrunch?
Then there’s the experience of unscrunching, or to be more precise, the experience of choosing to stop doing the scrunching that you’re already doing. Again, this is not the same as experiencing muscle tension going away. Can you detect the difference between that and whatever it’s like to cease the ‘instruction’ to scrunch?
Finally there’s the experience of being about to scrunch–the impulse. This about-to-ness also has a distinct pattern that you can learn to notice. You’ll probably have noticed that my language has become looser and fuzzier as I’ve gone on, which is an unfortunate consequence of the absence of shared, specific language around these experiences.
Noticing that your jaw is clenched is not the same as noticing what you might be doing to clench it. If you just notice that your jaw is clenched, you might try various things to relax it, while missing the fact that the move you’re actually looking for is ‘stop doing the clenching’. Not only that, but trying to relax can often add more tension without you realizing it.
This is not to imply that this ‘just stop clenching’ move is necessarily obvious (though it will always feel easy), because it’s usually infuriatingly difficult to find it before you’ve learned how to navigate in this way. In a future issue of Expanding Awareness I’ll talk about how to stop doing something you’re doing, or about to do, in a constructive, unforced way.
Awareness of how you habitually relate to things
In You can only respond to what you notice, I pointed out that you can only pick up a lucky $20 bill on the ground if you first notice that it’s there. This example demonstrates a kind of filtering being carried out by some part of you that evaluates what is worthy of noticing and the way in which you could interact with it. These effects seem to happen in all domains of awareness, but it’s particularly obvious in the visual field, where product designers already use them to nudge you on how to use their products.
In order to pick up that $20 bill, you have to first notice its form in the world using your exteroceptive sense of sight, but then you also need to recognise that it’s money and that you can pick it up. The additional qualities of the thing that imply how you might interact with it are known as affordances.
For example, the question “How many uses are there for a brick?” is a test for creativity, but perhaps it’s as much a test of how easily you can notice and drop your default affordances when you reflect on the nature of a brick. The more fixated you are on the affordance of “build a house”, the more difficult you’ll find it to access the affordance of “provide shade for your pet ants on a sunny day.”
The way you habitually assign or interpret affordances is itself a domain of awareness you can learn to tune into. This can be useful if you want to learn to see and navigate the world differently from the way you usually do, which might be a tremendously powerful competitive advantage. In the same way as being able to orient yourself towards a goal that no one else can imagine might make you a visionary leader, being able to temporarily put down the default affordances that everyone shares might allow you to make seemingly magical creative moves that few others can access.
A specific, yet widely applicable manifestation of this effect is how you label things. On the one hand, a garden fence impedes the freedom of the family dog, while on the other hand it gives life to the vines that depend on it. You can learn to re-label impediments as support structures—which changes the way you can interact with them.
Awareness of other people’s awareness
Everything I’ve described so far has explored your own awareness of your own state or the world around you. But other people have exactly the same kind of awareness of themselves and the world, and you can also tune into their experience of these.
An easily relatable example is when you’re talking to someone at a party and you notice that they are often looking around, over your shoulder, as if looking for someone else. When this happens, how is it that you know?
On the one hand you notice by looking; you can see their eyes darting around the room, not maintaining eye contact with you, as you might expect if they were giving you their undivided attention. On the other hand, there is often a clear sense somewhere in your body such that you just know they’re not paying attention to you, where perhaps you are picking up on other information that is showing up in your interoceptive awareness.
Empathy is like this. When someone you love is hurting, it’s often the case that you also experience their suffering. This is another valuable area of reflection. How exactly is it that you notice that they’re suffering? As before, perhaps there are visual clues, but at the same time you may also strongly experience an echo of their pain in your own body.
There’s something interesting about the experience of empathy. You may feel patterns of suffering in your body as you sit with someone you love who is suffering, but somehow you know that it’s them who is suffering, and not you. You may also have your own emotional response to their suffering, but your experience of their suffering and of your reaction to it seem to happen in different places.
This is the final domain of awareness that I want to point out, because recognising that you are in some real sense having experiences that are a kind of reflection of other people’s experiences can also help you navigate. If you don’t notice that your partner is having a bad day, it will be harder to respond appropriately, whatever appropriately means for the context.
Similarly, if you don’t notice that your strong emotions are the echoes of someone else’s, it can be difficult to maintain the distance necessary not to get caught up in their situation. The idea of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others applies just as much to emotional hygiene, and it starts with noticing that you are not in fact having the other person’s experience, no matter what it feels like.
It’s worth noting that this kind of empathy may be more difficult between people who do not share similar ways of experiencing the world. For example, neurotypical people may find it hard to interpret the feelings and awareness of those with autism—and vice versa. Like all domains of awareness, the things that arise within awareness of other people are still subject to interpretation and do not, in themselves, represent the full picture.
Notice which domains you like to live in
My intention here has been to make these domains of awareness—the places where you can notice things—more explicit so you notice more of what’s going on in your life.
Where I suggest to go from here is to start paying attention to which of these domains feel more familiar to you. Some people may be naturally aware of their surroundings and what’s going on in their heads, but a little cut off from their inner felt senses. Others may be strongly attuned to their bodies and emotional states, but less aware of their thought processes.
Once you have a sense of where you prefer to hang out, from an awareness point of view at least, see if you can come up with practices that might take you more into those domains that feel less familiar and less comfortable to you. The more of the world you’re able to notice, the more power you have to choose how you respond to it.
If you want to dig deeper into exploring your domains of awareness and how to respond constructively when you notice something new, I teach an affordable self-paced online course on Alexander Technique, which has a lot to say about all this. It’s here if you’d like to check it out. You can also ask me questions on Twitter.
That’s an affiliate link for Every, by the way, and if you’d rather not click that then here’s a non-affiliate link.