You know that feeling when you know that you know something… but you have no idea how or why you know it?
You can’t think of any logical explanation for that feeling you have in the pit of your stomach, you just have a sense that something is going to be all right, or that something is very, very, wrong.
When you meet a stranger for the first time and you just know you’ll be best of friends.
When you take one look at a taxi driver and think, “not a chance”.
When you leave your partner and, even though it hurts like crazy, you just know it’s one of the best decisions you’ll have ever made in your life.
That’s your Intuition.
Her voice may be small, but with all her might she is jumping up and down and yelling for attention from you. You are aware of her presence, but allow your practical thoughts, or competing emotions to mute her.
I’m feeling kinda bad for her. She does not get enough acknowledgement or credit for the work she does for you.
In fact, it may surprise you just how many areas of your life she is ready and able to serve you.
So it’s time to open up your gut – so to speak – and start listening…
The Power of Your Gut
I was a few months into a year long travelling adventure with my best friend Anita when the power of gut instinct dawned on me. We were sat in the shade on a Fijian beach, enjoying the warmth and breeze from the sea.
We start chatting to some new fellow travellers. There’s one particular guy in this group, let’s call him Elliot. All three of us chatted for an hour or so. Later on that night in the bunk beds Anita and I got to talking, and Elliot comes up:
Me: “I’ve got no idea why, but Elliot just makes me feel really uncomfortable, there’s something not right about him at all”
Anita: “…I felt the same. On paper there’s nothing wrong, but I don’t know what it is. He just seems… kinda evil”
We both felt it.
Elliot spoke about were ordinary things: travel, work, family, friends. I can’t even remember exactly. All I know is when I think about him now, and the hazy shade of his figure comes into my mind’s eye I feel a darkness descend over me, I feel smaller, and I feel a primitive sense of fight or flight kick in.
Everything before that discussion on our trip just clicked into place.
As Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”, points out, we live in a culture that believes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it.
We were products of our environment; we had been approaching travelling like corporate Londoners. We sought out facts, we integrated advice, we reviewed, we evaluated, we made pros and cons lists, we justified actions, we took reasoned steps.
In such new and unusual surroundings, we were nervous to use our snap judgements, to try an approach that back home would be regarded suspiciously, that would have our colleagues, friends and family saying to us “Really? Have you thought carefully about this? Take some more time… There’s more to consider. Have you thought about [xyz] reason?…”.
For all our meticulously planning and assessing every move during travel, it was failing us. Not just occasionally, not even regularly, but continually, time and time again.
We had spent months either missing out on amazing adventures because it did not fulfill its designated check list, and discomfort – or even danger – because went ahead based on facts when in our guts wrenched.
What is Your Gut Instinct – A Psychologist’s Perspective
According to the psychologist Carl Jung, there are different categories of human function.
Using your senses you can see/feel/hear that something exists, your thinking mind then uses this sense data to understand what that thing is, and you can call on the feelings aroused within you to evaluate what that thing means to you, its worth. Surely that’s it? Sense, think, feel. Three categories that are enough to function day to day?
Nope, there’s a fourth category: Intuition.
Intuition, according to Jung, is a sort of miraculous faculty that does not go exactly by the senses, but via what has been termed the ‘adaptive unconscious’.
You know that things have a past, that they come from somewhere. You know that things have a future, that they go to somewhere. You cannot see where they came from, and you cannot know where they go to, but you can have a “gut feeling”.
Your adaptive unconscious rapidly makes assessments within this framework, filling in the gaps, picking out and assessing the likely outcomes of decisions, prompting you to act appropriately long before your conscious mind has even noticed a pattern.
Studies have shown the body reacting to cues from the adaptive unconscious a significant period of time before the conscious mind has caught wind of anything unusual. Showing up subtly in measurements of increased sweat in the palms, increased blood pressure, nervous movements.
When you are asked: “what makes you think that?” and your response is something vague like: “I don’t know, I just get this feeling…”, that’s perfectly normal, and there’s no shame in it, you haven’t fallen short, you’re not lacking “logical capabilities”. The power of your unconscious is so mysterious, happening with such speed, power, and automation, that your conscious mind finds it difficult articulate why you “know that you know”.
So perhaps if the conversation between Anita, Elliott and I on the Fijian beach had been recorded and we had a chance to go back and scrutinise the interaction we may have been able to articulate this intuitive feeling that came over us. We didn’t need to: our unconscious told us everything we needed to know.
Harness the Power of Your Gut
From that realisation with Elliot on that beach in Fiji – several months into travelling – Anita and I decided it was time work and flex our intuition like a muscle.
We logically examined every one of our next steps, carried out our typical Londoner scrutiny. There was always a pause then one of us would say:
“Sooooo, what is your gut telling you?”.
Pause. Reflect with deep honestly on that deep intuitive vibe you just feel in the depths of your gut. Act.
Our gut didn’t debate, it didn’t offer pros and cons. It just knew. The moment we started debating the validity of our gut feeling, we knew it wasn’t our gut feeling anymore.
On paper an experience looked, boring, pointless, or just plain crazy. Me: “What’s your gut telling you?”. Pause. Reflect. Anita: “fuck it”.
It happened in the depths of Bolivia when we decided to jump into the back of a Jeep of a random French guy. On paper: mad. In reality: best four day adventure trek of our lives.
Other times the pros list slammed the cons list, all safe guards looked in place, there was no reason why not, but still, something niggled:
That odd foreboding pause upon leaving the hotel room, then returning valuables to the safe. One disappointed bag snatcher that night.
The smiling solo traveller that was really a predatory womaniser.
The man in the suit who was really a pickpocket.
The perfectly placed taxi driver with a rigged meter.
The cheap, empty hostel with a shower that nearly electrocuted us!
I lost count of the times we said to each other: “I had a feeling that wasn’t right”, or “I could just tell that was going to be awesome!”, or “I knew we would be just fine”.
From markets in Vietnam, to treks in the Amazon, choices about taxi drivers, choices of clothes for the weather, choices about people we spent time with, to experiences we had.
Time after time, when we followed our instincts we made good decisions, we were safe, travelling was fun. When we went against our instincts, and tried to convince ourselves of the facts, we made bad decisions, and it stung.
Your Gut Instinct: Developing A Connection with Yourself
Your gut is not just to a guide when you find yourself in new, unique and strange situations for which you have no established concept, like Anita and I on our travels.
Even within the certainty of routine, your gut serves one other very important function: to communicate that you have unfinished work to be done within yourself.
Research has supported the idea of two distinct centres of intelligence, one of the upper brain, which focuses your senses upon your external environment, and the more primitive gut brain that has wisdom gathered through eons of time, whose primary focus is on the satisfaction of your inner somatic needs.
The two “brains” serve different and separate functions but are intimately connected together. When your brain and your gut are in conflict, there is a tightness. This is signaling to you that there is a disturbance which began in your past, and will continue to lie festering until there is a reckoning between your brain and your gut that will lead to a resolution.
For example, you have an Issue Of The Day. You know the ones I mean. One that makes it feel like this is the most complicated day of your life. Something is bothering you. You ruminate over and over on the details, combing through the past, failing to find the meaning of the issue and unable to see a clear positive path to the future. No matter how in depth you explain it to friends or family, nothing anyone says to help offers you a shred of comfort.
At its base, you have instinctive feeling of emptiness, one that your logical mind cannot fill.
All this floundering around the details of The Issue won’t help, not at the crux of it. What needs to happen is a journey back in time. A journey of careful exploration to identify the different ages – 9, 7, even as young as 5 – when the instinctive gut feelings of somatic emptiness you felt then, matched the same emptiness you feel now.
What were the conditions? What was the context? You start to realise that outer labels – feelings such as hostility, fear, guilt, sadness and joy and so on are coping styles, a logic you create in an effort to find stability and acceptance for your inner instinctive needs, a pattern that on reflection has developed in your long distant past, back to when you were a child usually.
So you know what, yea, screw it, maybe today actually is the most complicated day of your life. The “now” contains the sum of all of the past, as well as the new dimensions of the present. It’s a lot to deal with.
What the mind-gut conflict boils down to is a deep desire to name the source of the instinctive feelings of emptiness and fullness in the gut.
It is trying to facilitate an internal exploration to find a time in your past when a deeply honest and crucial inner need was not met. This realisation moves you to a new place of understanding and acceptance: the conflict is resolved, and you are able to clear a path for yourself into the future with a sense of inner fullness.
When you build a bridge between your thinking and you gut brain, you start to make the right decisions for you being as a whole.
I’m sure most of us can think back to a toxic relationship in our lives. One where that we just couldn’t let go, no matter the damage it caused us.
I’ve already discussed how your beliefs shape your reality, to the point you filter out to the darkest corners of your mind anything in conflict with your beliefs. When you desperately want something to be real, you will find as much data as you possibly can to verify it. In a relationship, even if your gut is screaming to you that it’s just not right, you’ll find every possible reason to stay.
You have intense emotions. Fear of the unknown after break up/cut out. A sense of inadequacy that you can’t do any better. Jadedness at the thought of having to start from scratch again.
Furthermore, your senses are dominating: the sight, touch, and sound of the other, the feedback of the circumstance. And on top of all that, you are held in the grip of a cultural bias to focus on thinking with “reasoned sense”.
Well, with all this competition, your gut instinct – which is implicit on the best of days – has a cat-in-hell’s chance of shining through.
You must firstly believe that your intuition has power to do good by your Greater Self, and secondly, you must find the courage to reflect on your past and understand what might be holding your back from trusting your intuition more than you are.
Understanding the extent to which you embrace your gut instinct provides you with more choice in your initiations and reactions.
On Jung’s Function scale, Thinking and Feeling are opposites, and Sensation and Intuition are opposites.
In other words, you cannot think to the same degree as you feel at any one time, and you cannot sense to the same degree as you intuit at any one time.
Furthermore, everyone has a “dominating function”, which gives each individual a particular kind of psychology, a bias for acting and reacting according to that function.
For example, I am aware that my particular default is thinking-sensation. My mind dominates and my thinking is strong, and I have a keen sense of observation and try to dig out facts.
Whilst travelling, I needed to rebalance of my think- and sense- heavy mind. I needed to allow my conscious-babbling-tick-list mind to quieten so there was space for emotions and an inner feeling-tone to bubble up, and for intuition to guide me.
It is not necessarily that one function is better or worse than another, or that there is a perfect function combination. Awareness of where you sit on Jung’s function scale provides you with a choice to give one function greater domination than your default function would ordinarily allow in a situation.
It enables you to clear your mind and focus your intuition when the facts in front of you are limited and a decision needs to be made without getting caught up in irrelevant information that clouds solid judgement.
It enables you have to forge deep human connections by getting in touch with your feelings, empathising with yours and others emotions at a time of crisis or joy, rather than reeling off cold intellectual facts as to “why you feel happy”.
So clear your mind and focus your awareness, ask yourself: where do you feel you sit on Jung’s function scale? Where do you feel like you may need a rebalance generally? When might be a good time to call on this rebalance more specifically?
The power of your gut instinct is an integral and valid part of your overall psychological system.
It’s time to close the loop and reconnect your mind (the upper brain) with your body (the gut brain), to team your adaptive unconscious instinct with your conscious action.
Holding an awareness of your gut reaction is a courageous process. It requires being vulnerable enough to explore and resolve past conflict so you can move to a place of fullness.
It’s a process of shedding reliance on intellect so you can connect with something that existed long before the dogmatic cultural domination of logical, deliberated thoughts.
What’s great? You do not need to go out and learn some mystical new technique, to acquire it. It’s something you possess already.
So quietly and respectfully listen to it when it starts to send flares up to your conscious, open yourself up to a primitive honesty with yourself.
It will give you the means to make better choices at cross roads.
It will help you reconnect with your deep inner needs.
It will lead to more honest and fulfilling relationships with others and, perhaps most importantly, facilitate a deep and lasting reconnection with Yourself.
Gladwell, M. (2006) Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Jung, C.G.(1968) Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice (Tavistock Lectures).
Love, MC; Sterling, Robert W. (2011) What’s Behind Your Belly Button Psychological Perspectives of the Intellegence of Human Nature and Gut Instinct.