How to trust your instincts
When I bought the house we now live in, my husband was away on a two-day business trip. Three hours after he left, a couple offered the full asking price for our old house. I gratefully accepted and, the next morning, went to look for a new one.
Ours was the third one I saw. I stepped through the door, felt instantly at home and made an offer on the spot. Nine years later, we’re still here, my husband (eventually) forgave me and I still love the house.
There was no logic involved in the decision and even less caution. I relied purely on instinct. But while mine was proved right on that occasion, how do you know when to trust your ‘inner voice’ in business, relationships and other dilemmas — and when you should ignore it in favour of plain common sense
At a crossroads: Is it better to trust your instincts or use common sense
LISTEN TO YOUR BODY
Learning to tune into physical feelings can point you in the right direction.
One U.S. study found that participants reacted physically to impending loss in a complex board game before their brains had formulated the rational thought.
When we instinctively feel threatened, our skin will prickle and we’ll feel uncomfortable even if our rational voice tells us we’re ‘being silly’.
Psychologists believe that we have an innate response to danger that alerts us before our cognitive brain has processed the information. But it’s easy to ignore these ancient signals, unless you’re paying close attention to your instant physical response.
‘You can’t always tell the difference between intuition and fear,’ says psychotherapist Adrianna Irvine. ‘But intuition tends to be a pointer towards something, not a fearful pull away from something. It’s telling you what to do, rather than avoiding the situation.’
UNDERSTAND YOUR BRAIN CHEMISTRY
The bestselling book Blink: The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell, explained that intuitive decision-making can result in a better outcome than relying on more lateral methods, such as lists of pros and cons.
A recent study backed this up, with brain scans showing that a structure called the ventral striatum responds immediately to subconscious cues.
Scientists call it ‘instrumental learning’ — your instinct recognises a situation as familiar and suggests an instant response before you’ve had time to process rational thought.
So a house may trigger a memory of a place you loved as a child or a stranger’s voice may mean you feel instantly comfortable with them because the pitch is similar to a loved one’s.
And if your decision is based on deep-rooted subconscious triggers, you’re more likely to feel committed to it, which, in turn, may give it a more positive outcome.
FOCUS ON YOUR FIRST RESPONSE
Always give your initial response to a situation some credit, rather than simply dismissing it. It may turn out to be based on fear, but don’t automatically assume it is worthless.
‘I believe that our intuition can remind us of facts we already know, but that don’t suit us,’ says Adrianna: ‘Hence we dismiss the information and prioritise “logical” or evidence- based thinking.’
Instead, by focusing on what your intuition is telling you rather than your logical mind (for example ‘This guy seems a bit weird,’ rather than ‘He hasn’t actually done anything; I’m probably over-reacting’) you may pick up on important warnings that you’d otherwise dismiss.
Feelings of inexplicable discomfort, a desire to over-compensate to make up for feeling negative and a sense that something is simply not quite right should all be examined. The feelings may turn out to be simple shyness or nerves, but you won’t know unless you give them space.
‘How often do we find ourselves saying: ‘I knew that deep down . . .’ says Adrianna. ‘Often we realise that we actually did have good intuition, but we chose to ignore it.’
CHALLENGE YOUR INSTINCT
How do you know when it’s instinct that should be heeded — and when it’s just fear or the memory of a previously difficult situation
Experts suggest ‘testing’ your feelings on close friends and family. You may shy away from promotion because you don’t think you’re good enough. Or your intuition may be correctly telling you that it’s a poisoned chalice or a side-step from your true goal.
People with your best interests at heart can help you identify the true feeling behind the fear.
… BUT DON'T IGNORE IT
‘Neurobiology states that intuition is a “right-brain” activity, using the emotional, creative, innovative part of the brain, while the left side is the mathematical, factual part,’ says Adrianna. ‘So it can be dismissed as too airy-fairy.
‘But true instinct feels informed — as though an inner voice is speaking a truth you already know.’
A recent study found that people who were asked to make a choice without explaining it were happier with their decision a month later than those asked to rationalise it.
If you’re still unsure whether it’s intuition or indigestion, assess your mood. Research from the University of Missouri found that a positive outlook is more likely to make you more sensitive to your true feelings.
So next time you’re deliberating over buying a house, applying for a job or going on a date, make sure you’re feeling happy. Then your instinct, whatever it tells you, is likely to be spot on.