You’ve probably heard a million times from all sorts of sources that you need to trust your instincts. It’s become a catch-all phrase that’s been heralded as the creme de la creme in decision-making.
The problem? What do instincts feel or look like?
I haven’t always been intuitive and tuned into my body’s wisdom, so I definitely relate to this question. I remember being incredibly frustrated by all the alternative healing practitioners bragging about how they feel energy moving inside their body and also – gasp – inside their patients’ bodies. Then I had a breakthrough and felt that too.
But my intuition and instincts really kicked in when I got pregnant.
The first sign was that suddenly I felt no inclination whatsoever for alcohol or cold cuts. It was my body telling me not to indulge in these things. And as the pregnancy progressed, my desire for alcohol slowly came back but still stayed very low. I decided to trust my body’s signals. I decided to think of them as instincts awakening. After all, my body has been programmed by biology to carry children and do this well. Doesn’t it make sense to imagine that even though I don’t know how to create life consciously, my body does. The blueprint for life is nestled somewhere in my genes and will be expressed whether I read the latest studies on alcohol during pregnancy or not. And since every woman’s tolerance to alcohol might be different, is it really that crazy to follow one’s instincts rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to pregnancy?
Also, my body would tell me if it was safe to bike that day – biking being one of my favorite modes of transportation – if my every-changing center of gravity would allow for enough balance, or if my fluctuating energy levels would provide enough stamina for a round-trip on my bike. If I didn’t feel like biking, I’d pass…
Obviously, instincts can be numbed by a lot of things: addiction, peer pressure, fear, etc.
So how can one know with absolute certainty that they’re really following their instincts and not indulging in some potentially dangerous whimsy?
Most of the time, your instincts will be telling you to abstain from something you usually have or do, like in the two examples I mentioned above. If you suddenly feel like eating a chocolate cookie, that’s not your instincts speaking up, it’s just a craving. There might be biological or emotional reasons behind your cravings, but they’re still just cravings…
Of course, if you have the slightest of doubts about your judgment or emotional stability, you can and should refrain from listening to the thoughts in your head. Most of the time, no good will come from making decisions when upset. And you wouldn’t be able to blame it on your instincts, because they’re most likely not to blame. Instincts only speak up in a calm mindbody. If the signals you receive come with a lot of emotional charge, they’re not instincts. So you might want to tap, meditate, listen to music or whatever you do to calm yourself down before tuning into your body again.
Use your senses
As a kinesthetic person, I use my body’s felt sense in order to gauge whether something feels right. But for auditory or visual people the cues might come with sounds, voices or images. My point is, there should be a sense of rightness or lightness accompanying your instincts. If on the other hand you experience heaviness or dullness (as in a lack of excitement), you might be tuning into some fears or apprehensions, not true instincts.
Once you start following your instincts, you will notice some sort of positive reinforcement. Either things will easily fall into place (like the bus pulling right in as I decide not to take my bike) or you’ll get positive feedback from your body (like a surge of energy after opting against biking because I’m too tired). This builds positive associations and function as rewards for listening to your instincts. Gradually you’ll be more and more likely to trust such signals, which will considerable improve your decision-making – even in new and unknown situations – make your life easier and improve your awareness to your instincts. A true virtuous circle!
Being able to trust my instincts has been a great gift as a new mother. Between my status as a fledgling mother, all the worries and pressures associated with caring for a very vulnerable being who’s entirely reliant on me, and the mixed messages I received from the environment (natural holistic parenting vs. conventional medical tradition for instance), there was a lot of decisions and choices I needed to make without knowing what was right. Fortunately, my instincts knew for me. They don’t always kick in when needed, but oftentimes I find that when they don’t it’s because I’ve let myself run amok with self-doubts and unnecessary fears. So I just remind myself to calm down and trust. And it works!