When Your Gut Sends Mixed Signals
"Gut instinct" isn't just a charming turn of phrase. The millions of nerves that populate your midsection are linked to your intuitive brain and can help you decipher your mind. Karol Ward, psychotherapist and author of Find Your Inner Voice: Using Instinct and Intuition Through the Body-Mind Connection, suggests "trying on the decision," by which you picture yourself making a choice and then pay close attention to your physiological reaction.
It's a way of creating your own concrete evidence through physical symptoms. "Stomach flipping, throat clenching, tension in the back of the neck or chest," says Ward, "means that it might be the wrong choice to make."
Still, she cautions that simple butterflies in the stomach don't necessarily mean you should run for your life. "Many decisions have a bit of nervousness to them," she says. "Giddiness, fluttery little waves, like a bobbing ship, might be a good thing." What you should pay attention to here is whether the physical sensation is contractive or expansive; contractive anxiety points toward a wrong decision, and expansive nervousness toward a correct one.
2. Take a Time Warp
We often use intuition to figure out if we want something, so it's easy to fall into the trap of using it to justify instant gratification. (Another slice of ice cream cake always feels right.) Situations like first dates and job offers are similar—they're loaded with exhilaration and possibility, and we're programmed to grab at appealing things when they're offered to us. But is your gut saying yes, or are you just surrendering to your cravings?
Take Melanie and the ambivalent signals she was getting from her gut. She knew exactly what her current life entailed. But when she thought about Berlin, she was picturing an exciting adventure and a glamorous new job. She saw herself sipping wine at gallery openings with some tall, Teutonic new boyfriend. What she wasn't foreseeing were the day-to-day minutiae that would make living there difficult: the culture shock, the stress of a new job, the loneliness of living abroad.
3. Call Heads or Tails
Even the lowly coin flip has a place in the lofty realm of human intuition, says psychologist William Ickes, PhD, professor of psychology and Levine's colleague at the University of Texas at Arlington. In fact, it was a penny that helped Ickes decide which grad school to attend. He had narrowed his choices to two but was still undecided after making a list of the pros and cons for each. So he did what we all do when logic breaks down: He called his parents. "My father's answer was wisdom itself," says Ickes. "He told me to flip a coin and pay close attention to my immediate gut reaction to the outcome. If I'm happy with the way the coin toss came out, I go with that. If I'm disappointed with the way the coin toss came out, I ignore its outcome and choose the other alternative." Intuition is a complex thing. Sometimes the message is as stark as a neon sign; other times it's obscured (wildly, horribly, nerve-wrackingly) by interference. But even when it's at its most garbled—when we've launched into hyperrational overanalyzing or plunged into emotional knee-jerk reactions—it's possible to use these techniques to pick up the signals, at first faint and eventually stronger, of what we know to be the correct decision.
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