"Listen to your intuition," they say. "Trust your gut." But what if you're so paranoid that you fret about a nuclear attack on rural Wyoming, or so optimistic that you watch Bambi over and over, certain that this time his mom will survive? What can you do to ensure that your true feelings aren't being distorted?

The problem is that none of the folksy phrases telling us to trust our instincts explain what an "instinctive hunch" looks like. On top of this, we spend our whole lives being taught to override our intuition. We're taught to think things through, really think about it, give it some thought. Instincts aren't thoughts. They're grounded in feelings. And learning how to see through a thought-based reaction to the instinct beneath it is a powerful way to steer yourself toward a happy, healthy life.

Feeling Versus Thinking

Complex thinking has been around for an eyeblink compared with the millions of years of evolution that went into developing our senses. Thoughts can "spin" our reactions to what we encounter, while the gut-deep impulses we get from instinct are usually more honest. Replacing instincts with thoughts trades some of our strongest observation software for some of our weakest.

Yet most adults couldn't tell you the difference between a thought and a feeling if you put a gun to their heads. In fact, let's pretend I'm putting a gun to your head. What do you feel? "I'm going to die" is a thought. Panic is a feeling. "She has no right to do this" is a thought. Anger is a feeling. Unless you can describe it as a sensation, whatever's going through your mind is not instinct but thought.

Distinguishing gut from brain can get especially tricky when, on top of overriding our instincts with thoughts, we then have emotional reactions to those thoughts. We feel something, ignore the feeling, decide something else is true, then have all kinds of emotions about what we just made up. In The Gift of Fear, violence-prevention specialist Gavin de Becker describes a scenario in which a woman waits for an elevator. When the door opens, there's a man inside. He looks perfectly normal, yet the woman feels afraid. But out of courtesy, she ignores her feelings and enters a soundproof chamber with someone she fears—something no animal would even consider doing.

To trust your instincts, you must quiet the clamor of social training. Happily, no matter how long you've ignored your instincts, they're still there and still accurate.

Gut? It's Me. Let's Catch Up!

If you're having trouble tapping into your instincts, I'd love for you to try something. Recall a positive situation from your past or a person who's proven to be a positive presence in your life. Now recall moments when you realized you were doing the right thing at the right time, or moments when you felt love and trust for the person you've identified. Think about the sensations you felt—did you smile, relax your shoulders, feel a warm glow in your solar plexus?

Now think about a negative situation from your past or about someone who's been an unpleasant force in your life. Recall the moments when you knew this situation or person was wrong for you. Did your stomach lurch? Did your heart race?

Now pick a current situation in your life (a job, a hobby, a workout) or a person you met recently. Holding the image of the activity or person in your mind, observe any feelings that arise. Don't censor or judge them. Are your reactions more similar to the feelings you had about the positive event or person or the destructive one?

Whatever the answer, you're starting to get in touch with your instincts. Now imagine what course of action you'd take in regard to this situation or person if you had no fear of looking strange but only a clear imperative to act on your feelings. Would you increase the time you spend together? Stop connecting with the person? Whether you follow your instinctive guidance or not, notice what happens. If you've tapped into your true feelings, you'll discover that over time this situation or person will likely turn out to be as your instincts predicted.

Maybe you've trusted your instincts all along—in which case this exercise probably won't surprise you. But if you tend to focus on thoughts and ignore your feelings, you might find it illuminating. Maybe you'll begin to see where thoughts misled you into trusting the untrustworthy, or pushing away experiences that were in your best interests. You'll begin tapping into your instincts, which tap into the truth, which—as you instinctively know—can set you free.

Martha Beck is a sociologist, life coach, speaker and the author of several best-selling books, including The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).

This story originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

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