In the age of the coronavirus, where once-thriving restaurant floors are being swept clean, where business doors are being closed and barred, where unemployment rates have soared and staff numbers have tumbled, and where masked faces are as common as a cellphone in hand, we’re advised to “pivot.” This applies to how we are branding our businesses, in love and romance and in the way we celebrate milestones. We’re told to become resourceful and inventive and willing to dream and leap like never before. Also to follow the voice of our intuition. To seek its messages. Be guided by its instruction. Follow the fragrance of its protection.
But what is the meaning of this buzzword we toss around so flippantly? Is it divine direction? A sixth sense? Or, could it sometimes be the hiss of paranoia and other times the flicker of a subconscious desire shoving its way to the fore? And, whether backed by science or not, how do you know when your intuition is steering you toward your next big move? How do you distinguish its voice from all of the other thoughts and impressions swirling about that overwhelmed brain of yours?
If you’ve ever been confused or frustrated when someone tells you to “follow your gut,” if you’ve ever wondered what or who you’re trying to listen to, read on. We summoned the experts, and a little science, for a clearer understanding of this commonly tossed-around phenomenon. The good news is: being guided by your gut might be simpler than you think.
In order to understand intuition, let’s get clear about what it isn’t.
As celebrated of a concept as it may be, the process of following your intuition is an elusive one. But those who claim to clearly identify their gut feelings say it’s not much different than all of their other bodily expressions–the way their heart knows how to beat and their hips know how to sway to a song it loves. It’s often described as an “inner whisper.” But what does that mean, exactly?
In an Instagram post, Sonia Choquette, spiritual teacher and bestselling author of Trust Your Vibes, wrote, “Intuition is not a faculty of your brain. It is a function of your heart, the feeling and sensing part of your nature. That is why trying to logically “figure things out” when looking for direction and answers that are not factual or yet clear often leads to a dead end.”
But faculty of the heart that it may be, in a recent study, scientists determined that, when a person has an abundance of unprocessed emotions swirling about their body, what often feels like their “gut instinct” might prove to be dead wrong–because it can negatively hinder thinking. In other words, intuition speaks to us in the calm, not the storm. It’s not the feeling that causes your cheeks to flush or your muscle to tangle, nor is it the dopamine rush that you get from an admirer or a people-pleaser who tells you want you want to hear. In fact, nothing about it feels bullying or exhilarating at all–which means you won’t always be in love with what it has to say. Its instruction will sometimes fail to excite you–so much so that it’s easy to shrug off, claim experts.
Intuition’s voice is consistent.
In his bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell described this process, writing, “When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.”
Robyn Youkilis, nutritionist and author of Go With Your Gut and Thin From Within, agrees. She says her intuition has never spoken to her in the form of a “wow” moment, but more so in a series of small “clear hits of inspiration.” As she follows its gentle instruction, she organically strings together a stretch of impressions that reveal one big, shining answer. “Our intuitive voice comes from the center of who we are. I mean that energetically as well as physically. I recommend to everyone, whether it’s about what they should eat for lunch or whether or not they should jump on a certain opportunity, to get still and calmly ask that place inside of you what is best for you. It’s the most important conversation you can have,” she says.
In other words, intuition doesn’t change its mind like the wind, or jerk you all over the place in your process of decision-making. Toxic lovers do. Stored traumas do. Politicians do. But intuition doesn’t.
Fear and intuition feel dramatically different inside your body…
In a world where we have come to villainize our fears–where being “fearless” is an enviable personality trait, many mental health professionals disagree. Fear is essential to survival; it’s evolution’s way of protecting us from harm. Dr. Kevin Gilliland, licensed clinical psychologist and the Executive Director of Innovation360, says that, while there is no shame in experiencing fear, we must not let chronic worrying become our life’s GPS system. “I think it’s important to stay curious about our fears. When they come up, have a conversation with yourself about them. Don’t ignore them, because they’ll grow louder. Then switch over to the parts of your brain and your heart that are willing to assess all angles of the situation,” he says.
For example, let’s say you were bitten by a German Shepherd when you were a first grader. As an adult, when you spot a German Shepherd at the park, you’ve got one of two ways to react: The first is from your confident, know-it-all amygdala, which is your brain’s fear center. It sounds the alarm, sending adrenaline coursing throughout your body, causing your pulse to quicken and your palms to sweat. It tells you to flee the scene at once. This is your brain’s way of preventing another terrifying experience.
The second reaction is one of your higher cortical center, which is associated with logic and reasoning. This part of the brain allows you to have effective conversations, digest reading material and organize an email. It tells you, “Look, this German Shepherd isn’t necessarily dangerous. It’s being held on a leash by its owner, it’s walking more than 10 feet away from me, and it doesn’t appear to on the verge of attacking anyone. Carry on.”
In our modern day, one of our biggest mental hurdles is that, unlike our ancestors from the Stone Age, we are no longer dodging Saber Tooth Tigers and slithering into caves to avoid acts of God on a daily or weekly basis. Today, the majority of our fears are psychological and hypothetical. This includes fears such as not landing that hefty promotion, being ghosted by a love interest, losing followers on Instagram or getting into a traffic accident, etc.
And when we’re guided by fear, we are living in a world of doom-filled narratives and “what if’s,” which isn’t living at all. It’s irrational–robbing us of joy, productivity and the deliciousness of being present. But because our fears are so deeply ingrained in our psyches, we often confuse its messages as being a flash of intuition. The two speak totally different languages, though. Because, while intuition might warn of danger, it doesn’t thunder with a feeling of doom.
Some experts say journaling might make your impressions clearer.
Albert Einstein famously said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
So how does one go about quieting this servant and summoning the gift?
Julia Cameron, bestselling author of The Artist’s Way, teaches a ritual she calls “morning pages,” which is a practice of “longhand, stream of consciousness writing” to be completed first thing in the morning, before the conscious mind has had a chance to start tackling to-do lists. The idea is that by “dumping” all of the noisy ranters in your subconscious mind who are busy arguing for attention, you are then able to give your divine inspirations and fresh strokes of insight greater volume.
Ultimately, intuition is a muscle that grows more powerful with use.
As with any learned skill, intuition takes consistent effort to develop. And, in that process, there will be times the answers won’t be obvious. This is because your intuition, as explored earlier in this article, is not in the business of screaming. Sometimes you might drop your bucket over and over again, hoping to catch your big, shimmering idea or solution, but you’ll come up empty. And, as much as you might hope it would, intuition is never going to land in your driveway or knock on your door, lift you up on its shoulders and carry you to your next big opportunity…or demand that you end things with that lover…or pay the fee to enroll in that course.
Sometimes you’ll make a decision that results in a negative outcome, but that doesn’t mean your mind is playing tricks on you, or that the powers that be are out to get you, or that you’re incapable of making intelligent choices. Rather, it means you are a multi-dimensional human being with a lifetime of emotional habits–ones created by a complex and stubborn unconscious programming that is running the show at least 95 percent of the time.
So, while journaling can absolutely provide powerful revelations, you’re sometimes going to mess up and regurgitate old mistakes and think you’re following your gut when perhaps you aren’t at all. But the more you have a willingness to hear the voice of your intuition, the more you are loyal to its gentlemanly commands and the more you flicker with gratitude for its guidance, the more identifiable its voice will become.