Conventional wisdom says to trust yourself. To live an enlightened and authentic life, it advises you must make decisions on your base instincts. The idea is that people who are happy obey their feelings, and therefore, are fulfilled.
It sounds something like this:
Deep down, you know the truth about your life, and what decisions you should make for it… not only this but your immediate reaction — your instincts— should be trusted at all times.
The problem, of course, is that people actually start trusting every one of their feelings, and every time a fearful or irrational thought coheres in their mind and generates a feeling of fear or apprehension… they trust it.
This is what breeds chronic anxiety: not an unending string of external threats, but believing that every thought and feeling you have is not only real but an indicator of what’s to come.
To trust your gut is not to treat it as an oracle. This is when the concept becomes so problematic. We are not only believing random feelings blindly but also applying future meaning to them, assuming that everything we feel is actually warning us or showing us what’s ahead.
Let’s unpack why and how this happens, and how you can prevent it from ruining your life:
Feelings do not inform you of the right decision to make. Right decisions create the right feelings.
Your feelings are not intended to guide you throughout life. That is what your mind is for.
If you were to honestly follow your every impulse, you would be completely stuck, complacent, and possibly dead or at the very least in severe trouble. You aren’t because your brain is able to intervene and instruct you on how to make choices that reflect what you want to be experiencing long-term.
You begin experiencing feelings of peace and joy in your life when you condition yourself to take repeated, daily actions that facilitate clarity, calmness, healthfulness, and purposefulness.
Not the other way around.
If you want to really master your life, you have to learn to organize your feelings. By becoming aware of them, you can trace them back to the thought process that prompted them, and from there you can decide whether or not the idea is an actual threat or concern, or a fabrication of your reptilian mind just trying to keep you alive.
Remember: your brain was built on the Sahara. Your body was designed to survive in the wild. You have an animalistic form trying to navigate a highly civilized, modern world. Forgive yourself for having these impulses, and at the same time, understand that your choices are ultimately yours. You can feel something and not act on it.
You should maintain an active, not passive, role in your own life.
People say “follow your gut” because it’s like a second brain. What they don’t tell you is that it’s not a crystal ball.
So why are we even told to “listen to our instincts” in the first place?
Well, there’s a really valid reason. Your gut is deeply connected to your mind. There’s a physiological connection between your gastrointestinal system and serotonin production in your brain. Your vagus nerve runs from your gut to your head, acting as a communication device to help your system regulate. Emily Courtney explains it like this:
“Your gut is lined with around 500 million neurons (that’s nearly five times more than in your spinal cord!) that make up the enteric nervous system, also called your “second brain.” And it appears that this brain in your gut can communicate with and send signals to your other brain, helping to regulate everything from your appetite and immune function to your emotional state.”
Your stomach and your mind are inherently connected, which is why people allude to just knowing something “deep down,” or explain that when they’re upset, they’re “sick to their stomach,” or had a “gut reaction” to something.
What isn’t being addressed is the fact that listening to your instinct is something that happens in the present moment. You cannot have an instinct about a future event, because it doesn’t exist yet. You can have a fear-based or memory response that you are projecting into the future, but you cannot actually instinctively know something about another person or a future event until it is in front of you.
When you have a “gut instinct” about someone, it is after interacting with them. When you know whether or not a job is right for you, it is only after having done it for a while.
The problem is that we are trying to use our instincts as fortune-telling mechanisms, our brain’s creative way of trying to manipulate our body to help us avoid pain and increase pleasure in the future. But that’s not what happens: we end up stuck because we are literally trusting every single thing that we feel instead of discerning what’s an actual reaction and what’s a projection.
So how do you start to tell the difference between the two?
First and foremost, understand that your instinct can serve you immensely in the present moment. Your first reaction to something is very often the wisest reaction because your body is using all of the subconscious information you have logged away to inform you about something before your brain has an opportunity to second guess it.
You can use this to your advantage by staying in the moment, and asking yourself what is true right here, and right now. What is true when you are with another person, activity, or behavior? What is the deep, gut instinct that you get when you’re presently engaging with something?
Does it differ from what you think and feel about it when you are just imagining it, making guesses about it, recalling details of it, or imagining what it will be like? Typically, those projections are fear, and your present reaction is your honest instinct.
Overall, your honest gut instinct won’t ever frighten you into a panic. Your gut is always subtle, and gentle, even if it’s telling you that something isn’t for you. If your gut wants you to know not to see someone, or to stop engaging in a relationship or behavior, the impulse will be quiet. That’s why it’s called the “little voice” within. So easy to miss. So easy to shout over.