"Go with your gut" and "trust your intuition" are probably two of the most commonly doled out pieces of advice. It's what our friends, family, and coworkers — bless them — tell us when faced with any form of difficult decision or situation. And as a chronic overthinker (seriously, chro-nic), this is what I fall back on every single time I just don't know what to do (which is a lot of the time).
But obviously, being an overthinker, I am also prone to overanalyzing my own thinking. Is that really what my gut is telling me though? Am I sure that's not my head? Which one is it? So, I made it an early 2018 mission of mine to learn to tell the difference in order to become less of an overthinker. To do so, I looked to Dr. John Demartini, an internationally renowned human behavioral specialist, for advice. Turns out, we've all been plagued by a misunderstanding that prevents us from being more mindful: gut instincts and intuition are actually two separate things.
What are gut instincts and impulses?
In simple evolutionary terms, gut instincts and impulses are the physiological responses we have to predators or prey, respectively. They are polarized emotions that make us run from what is frightening and seek that which is pleasurable.
"When we're trying to avoid a pain, fear or phobia, it's our gut instinct that warns us and tries to protect us from being challenged or stressed," Dr. Demartini says. "The gut impulse is an impulse which initiates reactions to strive to find the prey and capture it. Just as we run from predators, we run toward prey." To use a more modern analogy, we just need to look at relationships. When we're infatuated with someone, it's our impulses that make us want to kiss, cuddle, and be close to that person. But when a suspicious person approaches you on the street and you want to get away ASAP, those are your gut instincts kicking in to help protect yourself.
What does intuition refer to?
You know when you're with a love interest who seems to tick all the boxes, but a little voice in your head is telling you that this is too good to be true? That's your intuition showing you the potential downside. Or when we're seriously annoyed at somebody, but keep questioning why? There it is again — this time, trying to show you the upside.
"[It's] more of a sixth sense, helping you to come to reason and make you conscious of unconscious information," says Dr. Demartini. "Intuition balances our impulses and instincts." In other words, it helps us to bring about more reason so we can act more wisely as opposed to just reacting emotionally. The reason it can feel like a "feeling" is because it's attempting to equilibrate this imbalance.
How can you strengthen your intuition?
It's actually pretty simple: ask yourself better questions. "The wise way to strengthen your intuition is to ask the counterbalancing question," says Dr. Demartini. In a situation, "if you're frightened, ask yourself what's the benefit [that could come out of it]? This will center you so you're poised." Overthinking then mostly occurs when we think out of fear and end up ruminating in those thoughts. "People who live with anxiety disorder have their instincts firing off all the time and don't have a strong enough intuition to overrule it," Dr. Demartini says. "Intuition actually simplifies that, reduces the amount of thinking, and centers your mind so you make a clear decision." So next time you find yourself paralyzed with nerves about, say, going to that seemingly intimidating networking event, have a think about what you could gain from it — that's your intuition.