If you’re someone who’s obsessed with self-help books or reading interviews with influential people (my hand is raised too), you’ve probably heard a lot of them say how at some point you have to learn how to follow your instincts. Whether it’s figuring out what you want, or what to do next, most of them mention the importance of learning to go with your gut.
However, they also usually make it seem very simple. Which might be true, but if you’ve never really done it before, or aren’t used to it, it might not feel simple at all. Of course, following our instincts seems like a great plan, but how do we do that exactly?
I had a friend with very strong instincts, but because they sometimes led to a different outcome than the one she was expecting, she thought her instincts must have been wrong and couldn’t be trusted.
This is usually where the disconnect happens.
We assume we know where we should end up. We assume outcomes have a right and wrong, and even more, that we know which is which. We have specific ways we want success to look. If there’s an end result we’re really attached to, it’s easy to second guess something that might be indicating differently. So we doubt, and then spend even more time analyzing because we assume our instincts are no longer reliable and therefore shouldn’t be listened to.
In my book, Just Tell Me What I Want, I talk about being let go from a job (actually I talk about being let go from a couple of jobs). For this one job, I was given six weeks of severance, and at the end of the sixth week, I was handed a job I hadn’t even tried to get. What luck! I hadn’t even had to try. Six weeks of paid vacation that led straight into a job I hadn’t even had to work for. Thanks, Universe.
However, there was a catch. I knew it was wrong after a week, but I stayed for ten months. We have opportunities and instincts, but we also have free will. The universe presented me with an opportunity. I took it. I had the instinct to leave, but I had the free will to stay. The terrible job clearly wasn’t the outcome I had hoped for, but I assumed something that was just handed to me couldn’t be wrong. So I ignored my instincts to leave.
Remember, a gut feeling does not necessarily predict an outcome – it just offers insight about what’s in front of you, or your next right step. You might not understand it, or it might not ultimately pan out how you hoped it would, but that doesn’t mean your instincts were wrong. When we think things need to look a certain way – a promotion, a proposal, a certain income -, we close ourselves off to other possibilities that maybe we haven’t thought of, but might be equally good. Sometimes the Universe has other plans. We assume our instincts mean a safe, happy, predictable outcome that we’ve pre-approved. But that’s not always how it works.
Sometimes our instincts look different from what society wants
This can be tricky to navigate. There’s a part of us that is conditioned to function within societal norms. This is the part of us that says “please”, and wants to be liked and maybe to be seen as successful in a specific way through the eyes of a few specific people. What happens when our instincts show up in direct conflict with how society wants us to live or act? What do we do then? Does that mean our instincts are wrong? Or does it just mean what we are being pointed towards be a little uncomfortable for us?
Societal norms would like us to keep jobs for more than a year, maybe go to college, maybe get married – this list goes on. But what if your instincts are leading you away from those things? What will you chose? Instincts will be there. And you can learn how to hear them, but everything you do after that is up to you. It’s still your life, so you can do what you want. Your instincts can act as a guide, but ultimately you always get to choose.
We are a culture that places a premium on rational thought and thinking
We are told to stay calm and think things through, for fear we’ll do something stupid. We’re taught to analyze thoroughly, make pro/con lists, and then make responsible choices. So, when you hear someone talking about listening to their gut, it might be easy to think, “Sure, that sounds nice for them, but how does it work for me?”
For the purposes of this article, we’ll define intuition as information that comes from a place other than the rational, or thinking, mind. This could mean physical sensations that show up in the body or a strong sense of knowing that maybe you can’t quite explain. These are all just ways for the brain to get other information from somewhere other than the (reptilian part) of it that’s tasked with keeping us alive. This is a part of the brain that’s totally necessary (and I hope stays there forever), but it’s not everything. It doesn’t know that while looking for a new job, or taking a risk might be scary, it won’t actually kill us. After all, the reptilian brain doesn’t care that we are happy, it cares that we are alive. And when you’re applying for a new job or taking a risk, it might be scary (a trigger for that part of the brain) but it won’t actually kill you.
One place to start testing your instincts could be noticing physical sensations in the body. How do you physically react to certain situations? Do they make you feel freer? Or more drained? Looking to the body for data points can sound very irrational to the thinking mind. But, it might be worth a try.
Also, try to avoid looking for explicit and comprehensive answers about your entire life (wouldn’t that be nice?) Starting looking for small, short answers about things that are directly around or affecting you. They might also be coupled with physical sensations. Notice how you feel directly after. Intuition doesn’t shout, and it shouldn’t have to. We are very lucky to have it, so remember to say please and thank you (I just like to be polite).
Sara Kravitz helps women who are thinking of starting businesses get a clear picture of their financial future so they can pull the trigger with confidence or get clearer on their plan of action. As a Martha Beck life coach, she believes humor, realness, and Friday Night Lights quotes are the best way to do this. She is the author of the international, bestselling book Just Tell Me What I Want. You can also find her here: www.sarakravitz.com.