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Should You Trust Your Gut?

How to determine if your instincts are right.

Source: gustavofrazao/Adobestock

It is important to learn how to listen to and trust your gut. It is also important to weigh facts to ensure you consider all the options. The voice in your gut is wise, and it can push you to do something that feels right when another option might yield better results. You need to listen to both your gut and head to calculate your next best move.

First, look at what you think is true to try to discern reality from made-up expectations. Then you can uncover the information your instinctual, automatic reactions are trying to tell you.

Evaluating Your Thoughts

Just as you ride a bike or drive a car without thinking, you describe circumstances, other people’s motivations, and your own behavior using assumptions you choose to believe are facts without reflecting on your thoughts.

Normally, you won’t automatically see the assumptions that affect how you frame a situation. You won’t notice when you say words such as “never” or “won’t ever” or “it’s absolutely necessary.” You find reasons to believe what your brain is saying even when it talks in absolutes you can’t possibly prove.

The man revered as the father of American psychology, William James, said, “True beliefs are those that prove useful to the believer.” Few things are absolutely true forever. Science keeps discovering phenomena that debunk what we thought we knew.

What you believe at any given time is only an approximation of reality based on what you have learned in the past and what fits with your picture of right and wrong. When you are asked in court to, “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” you can only state what you believe to be true today.

Use these techniques to evaluate your logic:

  • Write out what you believe to be true about a situation and what you assume will happen in the future. Then question your assumptions. How do you know this is true? How factual are your perceived risks and rewards of each possible action you could take?
  • Become the observer of your own thoughts. Ask, “What is causing me to think this way? What belief is forming this thought? What pressure is making me believe my assumption is true?”
  • Practice “beginner’s mind” to see with new eyes. Say to yourself, “If I had never seen this situation, person, or thing before, what might I perceive?” If you already know what is best to do and how things will turn out, there will be nothing new to see. Are you willing to accept a different reality?
  • Argue with yourself. Notice your impulse to defend, convince, or shut down. Can you open your mind to a new possibility? Ask people who have had similar experiences in the past what they think to help you evaluate what you know.

Listening to Your Gut

To make the best choices, observe your sensations as well as our thoughts so you can read what your reactions are telling you.

When you have a reaction – changes in heartbeat, breathing, and muscle tension – stop, notice the reaction in your body, and be curious about why it occurred.

Take a deep breath in and put your awareness in the center of your body just below your navel. From this perspective, observe the chatter in your head. Listen when your brain is saying, “They are trying to undermine me,” “My boss doesn’t care,” or, “There is no way I can do that and make my family happy too.” Does your gut agree with this story or is there something else you need to consider?

List out what you most value in life, such as having a happy family, being healthy, making a difference, having peace of mind, autonomy, new challenges, and prosperity. Your gut wants you to have what you most value. Ask yourself if you need to muster the courage to follow your gut, or if your values conflict and you need to minimize your risk for now.

When you feel anxious, impatient, or confused, take these steps to interpret your gut reaction:

  1. Breathe and relax your muscles. Try to feel an emotion that opens the mind and body (gratitude, love, laughter, curiosity, compassion).
  2. Ask yourself, “What is my gut saying? Ask, "Does my gut reaction match what I most value? Am I too scared to say or do what my gut is saying?" You don’t need to act now, just notice.
  3. Explore the context. Are other people telling me what I should do but my gut is rebelling? What social rules are hindering me from listening to my gut?
  4. Tell your gut what you now choose. Declare your choice out loud and see if your gut tightens or relaxes.

Weigh the information before you choose

Consider both what you learned from your head and from your gut before you take the next step. You can’t know how everything will turn out, but you will at least be clear on why you made your choice. Then you can use the outcome of your choice to help you decide what to do next.

More from Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.
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