"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. News flash: 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.


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