Does your gut tell you not to trust your gut? Maybe you should listen.
Do you follow your intuition? Do you have access to your inner compass, your higher truth, the crystal ball in your gut? If you meditate hard enough, can you predict the future?
Me neither. Spiritual teachers often preach that intuition is king and that if you can tap into yours, you’ll access the wisdom of the universe, bringing you joy, passion, bliss, and meaningful work. Follow your gut all the way to the bank, they seem to say.
Sure, I have intuition. I have feelings inside my body that guide me this way or that, but I don’t have any evidence that they are related to some higher truth. Or any truth.
Sometimes following those signals turns out great for me. Sometimes it turns out really, really badly.
There was that one time, for example, when I was sexually assaulted by a close friend, someone I really trusted. My gut didn’t give me any alarm bells at the time and it took me a while to even admit what happened because it was so confusing and unexpected. If I was assaulted by someone I trusted, my intuition must be broken, right?
It’s very common for trauma survivors to suffer from a lack of self-trust, but it’s easy enough for anyone to feel betrayed by our intuition. Most of the time, doing what feels right and avoiding what feels wrong turns out fine—until we get divorced, cheated on, or scammed; get a useless degree or hire the wrong person; move to a city we hate; find ourselves in a toxic friendship, and so on. Human beings make mistakes all the time. How do we trust ourselves after everything goes wrong?
When we talk about intuition, we’re talking about the feelings we have in our bodies that are separate from our rational, intellectual thoughts. Certainly, our bodies can pick up on cues that our rational minds may not—a flash of a facial expression indicating danger, the mood of a room that feels unsafe. But that bodily information is just as learned as the information we’ve got in our heads. Our nervous systems collect information from our past experiences, what we picked up from our first families, and the culture around us.
"If something in the present reminds us of danger from the past or something we’ve been taught to fear, our body sounds the alarm."
Our nervous system is clocking information all the time, largely in order to keep us safe. So if something in the present reminds us of danger from the past or something we’ve been taught to fear, it sounds the alarm. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. But if you grew up with unhealthy family dynamics, if you’ve experienced a trauma, or if you’ve been hurt by someone you trusted (so, pretty much everyone), this information can get a little scrambled. How do we tell the difference between a fear-based trigger from the past and true intuition about the present?
At least not in the moment it’s happening. If we get alarm bells in our bodies, it’s a good idea to pause and really consider where they are coming from. Sometimes we can feel out whether we are reacting to the past or the present, but if the alarms are ringing, we’re usually already in fight-or-flight—not the most rational state of mind. Sometimes we need a few hours or days to calm down and really think it through—rationally, with our brains. Knowing where a certain intuition is coming from and whether or not it has any relationship to present reality can be difficult.
Our intuition confusion gets us into trouble most especially with romance. We’re certainly not encouraged to think about romance rationally in our culture. We’re supposed to see it as some sort of all-encompassing irrational passion and follow our hearts into the arms of the right beloved. A lot of the time when we do this, however, we end up in the wrong arms. In an essay for The New York Times titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote,
“Though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple. What we really seek is familiarity—which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes.”
In that sense, what feels right to us is simply what’s familiar. And what’s familiar isn’t always right for us. That means we might reject healthy relationships because they feel wrong. When a certain person fails, for example, to make us feel the anxiety we are used to associating with romance, we figure this person is too boring for us, that we can’t grow within this relationship, that we’re simply not feeling the passion—which we are, of course, confusing with anxiety.
No relationship is perfect or completely free of doubt.
When we look back on a relationship that ended, we focus on that doubt, imagining that we failed to listen hard enough to our intuition, which we think was right all along. If the relationship is going okay, we tend to willfully forget these moments of doubt. For some of us, healthy relationships require some discomfort simply because we are straining against our unhealthy patterns. I don’t think there is any foolproof way to know whether our doubts are passing moods or red flags, though they certainly may be important signals to pause and consider—alongside the rational information we have about our partners.
"Our intuition is being manipulated all the time. So how do we know when our intuitive feelings are pure and free of manipulation?"
There are more sinister side effects to intuition confusion than setting ourselves up for heartbreak. Abusers, perpetrators, and cult leaders know how to manipulate our intuition to gain our loyalty—and so do advertisers. Our intuition is being manipulated all the time. So how do we know when our intuitive feelings are pure and free of manipulation?
The news gets even worse. In a culture that is misogynistic, fat-phobic, racist, and capitalist, we naturally internalize those systems in the form of intuitions. It has been well documented, for example, that identical resumes produce very different hiring results based on the name of the applicant.
One study found that even women are more likely to set up an interview with a Michael than a Michelle with the exact same resume. Part of the reason, according to a survey of the potential employers, is that the fictional Michael felt like a better fit than the fictional Michelle. The people in this survey aren’t sexist. They simply have some internalized bias that they picked up from the world around them. They are using their intuition.
That doesn’t mean, however, that we should throw our intuition out with the bathwater. It means that we must cultivate discernment.
Discernment is the ability to measure our internally felt reactions against what we know to be true in our minds. It means being able to catch ourselves in an unhelpful thought pattern and consider other ways of thinking. It means being able to ask ourselves if our alarm bells are about the past or the present and being as honest as we can with our answers.
We should listen to our guts when we are trying to decide whether to go to that party or check out that new restaurant or marry that person. But thinking of our non-rational feelings as better in some way than our rational thoughts is dangerous because the information isn’t necessarily based on reality. When our decisions turn out badly, that doesn’t have to mean that we’re stupid or that we somehow failed. It’s not that our intuition is broken or that we weren’t listening to it hard enough, it just means we probably had bad, manipulated, or incomplete information.
When I look back on my relationship with the person who assaulted me, there were red flags. I didn’t ignore them; I just didn’t know how to read them at that time in my life. What happened wasn’t my fault. I simply couldn’t have known what I didn’t know at the time. I don’t have a crystal ball in my gut. None of us do. And that’s okay, because we can cultivate a different superpower: the discernment that comes when we honor our rational minds just as much as our felt intuitions.
6 Tips for Cultivating Self-Trust
Trusting ourselves is vital in a world that is constantly trying to manipulate us. We must be able to feel and honor what’s happening in our bodies but also think critically about where this information might be coming from and compare it with the factual information we have on hand. Here are some tips for self-trust:
- Self-care. Basic self-care, like eating reasonably healthy foods, sleeping enough, and exercising, is vital because these actions keep our mood hormones in check. You can’t believe everything you think and feel— especially when you’re tired and hungry.
- Spend time in quiet contemplation every day. There is a lot of noise in our culture. Someone is always trying to buy or steal our attention. Making sure that we are in environments where we can hear our own thoughts, even if just for five minutes a day, can help us stay close with how we really feel and what we really think. Formal meditation practice is great, but contemplation could also come during a quiet walk alone, when you’re drinking a cup of tea while staring out the window, when you lay down for 10 minutes without falling asleep—whatever works for you. Make sure you listen to your own thoughts and no one else’s for part of every single day.
- Move your body. Your intuition doesn’t come from your rational mind. It comes from your nervous system and is usually expressed in sensations that you feel in your body. Exercise can help balance your mood and keep your mind clear. It can also help give you confidence in the abilities of your own body, which makes it feel easier to trust yourself. Yoga, dance, running, and cycling are all wonderful forms of exercise that also allow you to think your thoughts and feel your feelings. Make sure you’re paying attention to how you feel as you move. Do what you like so that you’ll actually stick to it.
- Identify core beliefs. Many of us have unhelpful subconscious core beliefs that are driving our choices without us realizing it. For example, you may be looking for love but have subconscious core belief that you are not lovable. So when you meet someone who really likes you, you’ll intuitively feel something is wrong with that person and reject him or her instead of pursuing the relationship. Counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and self-inquiry are all good ways to sort out what subconscious beliefs may be driving our choices. Once we bring these beliefs to the conscious mind, we are more able to grapple with them and make different kinds of choices in our lives.
- Counseling. One of the best things about going to counseling is that you have a human being whose whole job is to listen, be on your side, and keep you accountable to what you’re feeling and thinking.
- Spend time with yourself. It can be difficult to tell the difference between what we really want and what the people in our lives want from us. I like to have a weekly date night with myself. I put my phone on airplane mode and just do whatever I feel like doing. When I know that I enjoy my own company, I don’t need anyone else’s approval. That goes a long way towards cultivating self-trust.