How Fear-Based Decision Making Can Hurt Us & Our Relationships

Three years ago, we moved into a new-to-us home. It was an idyllic spot, pond in the back, on a couple of acres. In those early days, I didn’t think much about the tractors mowing the fields. For this city kid, I just figured the haybales were cute and it made our new country setting more authentic.

Do you know what was also authentic? The mice that fled that field and came to live with us. In the weeks it took us to get rid of them I almost had several panic attacks and slept on the top of my son’s bunk bed. It. Was. Awful.

Recently, we moved again. And, not onto just a couple of acres. Lots of acres. Acres, I was sure, full of mice wanting an upgrade and eyeing us up like the Taj Mahal. My fear from before was driving my thinking and it only grew as the move got closer.

So, when my friend said, “Hey! I’ve got some kittens. Their Mom is a great mouser. They’ll be ready to go about the time you move…” I said yes before she could finish her sentence.


  • I’m allergic to cats.
  • I discussed this with no one (read: my husband)
  • I have never owned a cat in my life.
  • I definitely told my (6 and 9-year-old) kids (again, leaving out my husband)

That’s why, on a warm August night with two young kittens mewing in a carrier, I realized I needed to apologize.

Me: “I didn’t even ask you if we could get cats did I?”
Hubs: “Nope.”
Me: “I’m so sorry. I didn’t even realize I left you out.”

Now, in this specific instance, my husband would have said yes to the cats. He loves animals and he knew my health wasn’t in jeopardy because they would be living outside. What we’re zeroing in on is that I made an uncharacteristically big, didn’t-just-affect-me, not-particularly-well-thought-out decision impulsively because I was driven by fear. And, that type of scared, impulsive decision-making works against us and our relationships.

Anne Rulo How Fear-Based Decision Making Can Hurt Us & Our Relationships

How Fear-Based Decision Making Works Against Us

The word “fear” covers anything from worry to terror. No matter what the level of intensity, fear is often at the root of some of our poorest decision-making because our brains don’t do the best job discerning between fighting for our lives, fighting over vacation plans, or fighting over who gets to pick the show that night. It moves us from rational to irrational, thoughtful to impulsive, collaborative to self-focused. Here’s some specific ways our brain does that:

Scarcity: When we are experiencing fear, it moves us into the perception of scarcity. We get tunnel vision about the circumstances, believing we have to fight for what we need because there’s not enough of something or, a healthy way to get what we need.

Inward Focus: When we are in fear mode, we get very self-focused. I didn’t intentionally leave my husband out of the cat decision but, I’d put good money on subconsciously not asking him in case he said no. Fear has a way of making us look past the people we normally take into consideration.

Wants Become Needs: Think back to when you were young, or when your children were young. Children have little ability to tell the difference between wants and needs because they don’t have the front, rational, part of their brain developed yet. When we are afraid, it activates the part of our brain that dominated our childhood and makes it harder to think calmly through a situation.

After being married for 15 years, and seeing more than a few couples in couples counseling, I can attest that a great many communication or conflict issues arise from the fear of not getting our needs met. Whether it be in the living room, breakroom, boardroom, or bedroom, simply asking “what am I afraid of?” can help us recognize when we have slipped into fear-based thinking. This simple recognition helps us think and communicate more clearly so we can make healthier, more collaborative decisions with the important people in our lives.

Bonus content! If you want a live look at me and the hubs processing through a fear-based decision obstacle mid-pandemic click this link.

Photo by Charlie Foster on Unsplash

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