So often we’re told to “Just trust your gut,” but what does it actually mean and more importantly, how do you do it?
Gut instinct, or intuition, is your immediate understanding of something; there’s no need to think it over or get another opinion—you just know. Your intuition arises as a feeling within your body that only you experience. Because the feeling is so personal, no one else can weigh in to tell you if you’re in touch with your gut instinct or not. You alone have to make the call. Because of this, trusting your intuition is the ultimate act of trusting yourself.
Listening to your intuition helps you avoid unhealthy relationships and situations. Throughout your life, many people will have ideas about what’s best for you, some held with good intentions and some coming from a place of deceitful, harmful, selfish intent. It’s sometimes hard to tell which category someone falls into, but if you put aside all of those external opinions and instead listen to the advice of your own intuition, it will guide you to what is truly best for you.
The process of trusting your gut is not as simple as the phrase implies, though, especially when certain habits and circumstances pull us strongly and often unconsciously in the opposite direction. Luckily, our intuition is so deeply instinctual that even if we’ve been out of touch with it for our entire lives, it’s still there inside of us, waiting for us to summon its wisdom.
Here’s how you can carve a clearer path toward your own intuition and begin to draw it out regularly in your life.
What Gets in the Way
Your intuition is like your own personal North Star, but there are many obstructors that act as clouds dimming its light. Once you’re aware of them, you’ll better catch yourself when you’re headed in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons so you can then take the appropriate steps to realign with your intuition. These are some of the most likely culprits:
- Overthinking: Since intuition is defined as “the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning,” overthinking is one of the biggest interferers. Putting excessive thought into every decision and walking through countless scenarios and outcomes can lead you away from your gut instinct, especially when you’re overthinking in order to rationalize or justify something. In these cases, your thought process is not flowing freely or organically but is following a very specific agenda to build a case for something you’ve already made up your mind about. In other cases, the flood of possibilities and considerations that overthinking generates can overwhelm and confuse, leaving you in a dizzying circle without clear direction. This state is referred to as analysis paralysis. No matter the exact process, overthinking leads you to the same place—out of touch with your gut instinct.
- “Shoulds”: “Shoulds” often enter the picture when you’re overthinking and other times when you’re outwardly focused. For example, if you wonder, “Will [someone else] like me if I do this?” In these instances, you’re thinking about your behavior in a lens colored by the rules, preferences, and expectations that someone else has set rather than looking inwardly and allowing your own thoughts and needs to guide your behavior, which would lead you to ask a very different question like, “How will I feel about myself if I do this?” Because “shoulds” shift the focus away from you, they distance you from your intuition.
- Prejudices & Unconscious Bias: Even though prejudices and unconscious biases are in some ways the opposite of overthinking, they have similar effects on your intuition. As opposed to overthinking and over-analysis, prejudices and unconscious biases operate from quick judgments that the brain automatically makes based on past experiences, stereotypes, and background instead of based on reason or actual experience. As a result, neither of these culprits allows space for you to tap into the experiential nature of intuition.
- A loved one’s or authority figure’s needs/wants/opinion/advice: Often, the person who has the greatest power to eclipse or cloud your gut instinct is a loved one or authority figure whose love or approval you wish to win over, for example, a parent, significant other, teacher, or coach.
- When you badly want something: When you’re really hungry for something, whether love, acceptance, children, social status, or something else, your strong desire to fill that gaping need can cause you to overlook or ignore any red flags along the way. Being laser-focused on satisfying a need you deem worthy of almost any cost leaves little opportunity to acknowledge or follow your intuition, especially if that gut instinct is at odds with something or someone closely aligned with this need.
- Previous trauma/abuse in childhood: Perhaps the most complex and powerful of all the culprits is having experienced abuse and trauma as a child. Why? Because childhood abuse can leave a lasting impact on a person that remains even in adulthood. Growing up experiencing physical, emotional/psychological, and/or sexual abuse can cause children to distrust their experience and blame themselves. Since trusting your intuition is the same as trusting yourself, tapping into this gut instinct can be a struggle.
How to Cultivate Your Intuition
Practicing the following steps will help you hone your feeling of intuition in your body and bring it to the forefront to guide you through important situations.
1. Slow Down & Clear Your Mind
When you’re living in a cloudy haze and rushing here and there, whether physically or mentally, you miss information. Slowing down helps you better recognize and process the information you receive, not only in your mind but also in your body. To do so, you must mentally and physically clear away the clutter. In real life, it might look like pushing back a deadline to remove urgency from a decision. It could also mean stepping away from a situation in order to gain further clarity, for instance taking a vacation before making a career change or spending some time apart from a significant other to determine if you’re right for each other.
Slowing down means purposefully making space for your intuition to occupy. The slower pace helps to shift your perspective and clear away distractions so that you can see and feel what truly does matter. Explore meditation, yoga, mindful breathing exercises, and other practices that move your focus from darting thoughts into a deeper space of calm and centered focus within you.
2. Notice Sensations in Your Body
Intuition is grounded within the sensations inside of the body, so learning to recognize what’s going on within your body—i.e. what you’re feeling—is key to developing your intuition. While we might use the terms “feelings” and “sensations” interchangeably to describe intuition, note the slight distinction here: specifically, we’re more interested in understanding how your body feels in response to an emotion—for example, anger feels tight, sore, hot, and tingly—rather than simply naming an emotion like sad, angry, or frustrated, and stopping there. A great way to practice is to label the emotion in the moment when you experience it—e.g. anger—and then feel what sensations arise within your body that are associated with that emotion—e.g. your jaw is tight and shoulders are raised and tense. Doing so helps you stay out of your head where you risk being swept away by thoughts and instead tune into your body where your intuition resides.
Begin practicing as a novice observer, merely noticing with interest what’s happening to your body in response to different stimuli and emotions. Guided body scan meditations are especially helpful in sharpening this skill. So are exercises where you bring to mind a specific memory and then label and feel the emotions it elicits within your body. In all of these exercises, pay particular attention to your breathing, muscles, and heart rate to see how your body reacts and what that reaction tells you. The information it holds is crucial to devising action that’s meaningful and relevant to you.
3. Focus on You
Ask yourself, “What do I really need here? What’s important for me?” This is one of those times when it should be all about you, so give yourself full permission to do so. If you find your focus shifting to other people and their needs, notice and purposefully return your attention back to being curious about what you need and want, because that is where you will find your intuition; concentrating on these needs helps to more easily pave the pathway there. To clear the air around your intuition, it might be helpful to first go through the list of culprits above to identify the external factors influencing you, acknowledging them so that you can then put them aside for the moment. Your intuition is part of your highest, wisest self, so make sure the focus is squarely on you.
4. Take Action (or Circle Back to Step 1)
The feeling of intuition is like an ocean current navigating you toward a purposeful life. Once you discover it, you still need to jump in a boat and set sail in order to derive its full value. After you answer the question “What do I need right now?”, do something to give yourself what you need. It might be the tiniest step, but size doesn’t matter here. Small steps can actually be beneficial at first to gradually build trust with your intuitive self whom you may be meeting for the first time or becoming reacquainted with after an unhealthy relationship separated you. What’s important is that you are following your intuition.
Remember that trusting your intuition is a journey which will lead you back through these steps often as circumstances change and life continues to move onwards. Consider your intuition as a muscle to strengthen. With purposeful practice and frequent use, it will become more powerful and better serve its purpose—guiding you home to yourself.