I did not grow up knowing I could trust my intuition. I doubt I’m alone in that. For as many “follow your passion” and “listen to your heart” messages as we hear in our culture, we also live in a world that strongly favors logic and reason over any kind of intuitive sensibilities.
Pretty much anything that can’t be measured and proved isn’t trusted.
Listen to the way Malcolm Gladwell explains it in his book, Blink:
We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible an depending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world…
As Gladwell remarks here, intuition can be an incredibly powerful asset to us—assuming we know how to listen to it. When you’re making a big decision—like who to marry or where to go to college, or if you should quit your job or keep it, or if you should move to a new city or leave a relationship, your intuition might have more to offer you than you think.
Meanwhile, most of us are ignoring it.
What is intuition?
If I asked you to point on your body to the place intuition comes from, where would you point? Most people point to their chests, or maybe to their bellies. This is reflected in the way we talk about intuition: “trust your gut” or “follow your heart”. But would you believe that your intuition actually comes from the same place that logic and reasoning live?
Your brain. It’s true.
There’s a reason our bellies and chests are where we experience our intuitive sensibilities—I’ll talk more about that in a minute. But before I get there, I want to emphasize this point because it’s really important to understand that, when you have an intuition about something—that a person isn’t safe, that something bad is about to happen, that someone isn’t being honest—that is your brain talking to you.
Your limbic brain, actually.
Your limbic brain is also sometimes called your creative brain, or your animal brain, but this is the part of the human brain that has kept our species alive and thriving for as long as we have been on this planet. Considering the fact that this part of our brain makes decisions very quickly, and without much supporting evidence, this brain system is also surprisingly reliable.
Researchers have found that [your limbic brain] often knows the right answer long before [your logical brain] does. For example, in one study, researchers asked their subjects to play a card game where the goal was to win the most money. What the subjects did not realize, however, is that the game was rigged from the start. There were two stacks of cards to choose from; one was rigged to provide big wins followed by big losses, while the other deck was set up to provide small gains but almost no losses.
It took about 50 cards before the subjects said they had a hunch about which deck was safer, and about 80 cards before they could actually explain the difference between the two decks. However, what is most fascinating is that after only 10 cards the sweat glands on the subjects’ palms opened slightly every time they reached for a card in the dangerous deck. It was also around the tenth card that the subjects started to favor the safer deck, without being consciously aware that they were doing so. In other words, long before the analytical brain could explain what was going on, the subjects’ bodily intuition knew where there was danger, and guided them toward safety.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where your intuition has saved you some considerable amount of pain or suffering, you know this is true. Our limbic brains speak to us powerfully when we meet someone we know is trustworthy, when we fear someone is lying to us, when we sense danger around the corner, or when we just have a “feeling” that something is “off”.
This is the power of our intuition.
The problem with intuition.
The main problem with intuition is that we are not taught how to listen to it. By that I mean we are not taught how to interpret what our intuition is saying to us when it begins talking, and so many times we get the story wrong.
I love how Gladwell says it.
We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for. —Malcolm Gladwell
When most people say, “you can’t trust your intuition,” what they are actually saying, I think, is that they had an intuitive sense once—a strong magnetic pull to a romantic partner, for example, or a deep sense that they were supposed to take a particular job or move to a new city—and then, when the story didn’t play out the way they expected it to, they wondered to themselves: where did I go wrong?
They assume they shouldn’t have trusted their intuition.
But what if it wasn’t their intuition that was wrong? What if it was the way they interpreted their intuition? Or, what if they simply haven’t given the story enough time to unfold quite yet?
What if they haven’t yet seen what their intuition was trying to show them?
Can I really trust my intuition?
The most frustrating part about intuition is that it talks in pictures and dreams and fuzzy “feelings” rather than in facts and figures and carefully laid out arguments like we’re used to. It is not logical or reasonable in the slightest.
For it to be logical or reasonable would be to go against its very nature.
And yet we can learn to understand our intuitions if we’re willing to practice listening to them and learning their language. How do you learn the language of intuition? The same way we would learn any language—by trying and failing and listening and practicing and, over time, making connections between words and sounds and pictures and what those things represent.
If you’ve ever spent time learning a foreign language you know how truly uncomfortable it can be—and learning the language of your intuition is no different.
When intuitions get confused.
One challenge with our limbic brains is that they are very old brains, which means they are hard-wired for survival in a world that is not congruent with the one we live in now. Where as, at one time, a rustling in the bushes very well may have meant a saber toothed tiger was about to attack us, now means the neighborhood cat is on the loose.
We don’t need a fight or flight response for the neighborhood cat.
This can make our intuitions seem unreliable.
Along those same lines lines, something else that can trick our intuitions is trauma—something none of us will make it through life without. Natural disasters, car accidents, abuse, neglect, or any number of other stressful situations can put our limbic brains into hyper-drive and confuse our intuitions.
When humans are forced or denied certain feelings during their prime stages of mental, physical, and above all emotional growth, guts can be faulty. A childhood hijacked by abusive or neglectful parents or guardians can create excessive self-doubt, irrational fear, or a clouded thought process, making it difficult to filter traumatic past experiences from actual gut intuition. Overwhelming stimuli can also make it difficult for a person to see the decision in front of them with clarity —Samantha Olsen, The Science of Intuition
When you’re suffering post-trauma, it can feel at times virtually impossible to know the difference between intuition and a trauma-response. Still, even in this case, the response of our bodies is remarkably truthful, in a way our minds cannot be. Even these trauma responses, which are by all definitions unreasonable and inconvenient—are trying to tell us something.
Sadly, most of the time we miss them.
Our bodies talk.
The good news about learning to listen to our intuition is that it does talk to us. And one of the ways it does that is through our bodies. Our bodies are so honest. Our brains can find ways around things and block out memories and reason all of our problems away.
Our bodies don’t do that.
My body spoke to me loudly for many years before I began to listen.
In my late teens and twenties I would get violently ill and be rushed to the emergency room, thinking I was dying. There would be little or no explanation for what was going on with me.
The doctors were baffled.
Meanwhile, my body was begging me to pay attention. Our bodies often know things our minds can’t and most of us don’t trust it. We don’t trust our intuitions because they seem completely illogical.
But what if the fact that it is perfectly illogical is exactly the point?
The problem with not listening.
The true danger in not listening to our intuition is we live a life cut off from ourselves, from our hearts and spirits and our deeper sense of purpose and meaning in the world. One of my favorite authors and teachers, Parker Palmer, does a good job of explaining what happens as we search for our vocation or calling without listening to what he calls our inner-teacher.
That concept of [finding your] vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be “selfish” unless corrected by external forces of virtue. It is a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap.” —Parker Palmer, Yes Magazine
Did you catch that? Inadequate to the task of my own life.
I don’t know about you, but I can identify with that sentiment. Have you ever felt like you are inadequate to the task of your own life? This, I believe, is what happens when we don’t learn to speak the language of our intuitions. We cut ourselves off from one of the most powerful forces we have to navigate the terrain of our own lives.
This is why learning to trust our intuitions matters so much.
Without our intuitions, we can live lives that are carefully ordered and predictable but disconnected from our deeper purpose and calling, from meaning and ultimately from joy.
How to listen?
The hard truth about learning to trust your intuition is that your intuition is not an exact science. They do not always tell us the the exact right details about a situation. In fact, often they don’t. The only way to really learn what your intuition is trying to tell you is to listen, to try, to test it, to fail at it, and to try again.
I love the way Kathryn Hall puts it in this beautiful article about using intuition to make a big decision.
Notice how she pairs listening to intuition with logic and reason.
Listen to your head. Be curious. Consider all options other than yes or no, do or don’t do. List out everything you might do that is in your control or ability to influence others to help you. Think about the facts. Consider the pros and cons. What points come to the forefront? What are all of your options around this choice you have to make?
Take a breath and clear your mind so you can listen from your heart. Think of someone you care about or something you love to do. Say the word love or gratitude or choose another word that opens your heart. Now consider the decision you need to make keeping your awareness around your heart. What points come to the forefront? How do these points differ from what emerged when you considered the decision using only your head? Notice how the points relate more to your desires than to the facts and details. Which option will you regret more if you don’t decide on it?
It is not that we discount the value of logic and reasoning. It’s simply to suggest we may be missing the richest, fullest, most glorious existence life has to offer us if we don’t pay attention to both our hearts and our heads.
Your intuition is speaking. Are you listening?
- How to Hear Your Intuition When You Don’t Know What to Do
- The Science of Intuition
- Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
- A Hidden Wholeness by Parker Palmer