What’s a “Gut Feeling,” Really? (And What Is It Telling You?)

Go With Your Gut Graphic

Go with your gut. Trust your instincts. Find your true north. Regardless of the vernacular, we love to romanticize intuition. The feeling, which some call “a deep knowing,” is characterized by understanding something with little to no explanation. It’s why some people avoid specific alleyways, why others turn down seemingly perfect jobs, or why two lovers marry after six months: They just know.

But what about the times when we don’t have that level of clarity? What if we ask our intuition for guidance and get nothing, or worse, conflicting answers? Is it as simple as looking inward? How does one begin to decipher something so illogical and yet so crucial?

These questions once consumed me. A little over a year ago, I was debating whether to stay in what felt like a seemingly toxic relationship. Breaking up sounded horrible, but the thought was always there—and a passive-aggressive fight over dishes was enough to send me spiraling. Somewhere, something told me that the relationship just wasn’t right. But this feeling was quieter than anxiety—a low hum of a household dryer as opposed to a shrieking kettle—and thus hard to trust. Over time, it downright tormented me.

Intuition became my obsession. I wanted to know whether the voice I was hearing was fear, anxiety, my gut, or something else.

In talking through the predicament with a friend, she asked, “What does your gut say?” Though well-intentioned, the question led to a different type of torment. Intuition became my obsession. I wanted to know whether the voice I was hearing was fear, anxiety, my gut, or something else. I talked to my therapist and consulted research-backed articles. I spoke to psychics. I looked for signs and read books. I read this MR article. I pulled tarot cards, and everything led me back to the same conclusion: My relationship was not working. But this terrified me, and I so badly wanted to prove it wrong, a contradiction of emotions that fueled my anxiety, making it more difficult to take action.

On paper, intuition is delightfully spooky. The textbook definition is “being able to understand something immediately, without any conscious reasoning.” That means no pro-con lists, no asking your friends for guidance—you just know. The feeling is sometimes difficult to distinguish from fear, which is defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.” Though technically quite different, both feelings stem from a place of protection, and can be experienced in similar ways.

This complicates things, because heeding intuition is lauded while heeding fear is criticized. So how can you tell the difference? Am I leaving because I’m afraid? I wondered. Or because it’s the right thing to do?

Trust Your Instincts Post

From there my quest to understand intuition deepened. I dove headfirst into the science and psychology behind this mysterious feeling. Luckily, I had plenty to draw upon; gut feelings are having a major moment. Everyone from psychics to scientists have attempted to demystify intuition, and there is considerable interest in intuitive decisions within the worlds of philosophical psychology and entrepreneurship as well.

In 2016, psychologists at the University of New South Wales in Australia ran a series of experiments in an effort to quantify intuition, analyzing how much “nonconscious emotional information” dictates our decision-making. Not only did the study illustrate that intuition increases your accuracy in interpreting an outcome, it also revealed that, similar to using logic or reason, we become better at using our intuition over time.

Francis Cholle, CEO and Founder of The Human Company, is especially fascinated by how intuitive decision making can lead to better business. In his book, The Intuitive Compass, Cholle discusses how intuition can be used to help companies weather change. He posits that the best way to reintegrate intuition is to have a dialogue with it—to pay attention to our random, seemingly nonsensical hunches that tell us when something is wrong, when to call a friend, or even when to wear a certain outfit. One can strengthen this dialogue by journaling, getting quiet, or finding solitude.

I inhaled Cholle’s advice. Eventually, the gut feeling regarding my relationship became too strong to ignore, and my ex and I painfully went our separate ways. But once I was out of the relationship, like clockwork, I worried that it had been the wrong decision to leave, and strived to rekindle that sense of knowing that led me to end the relationship in the first place. Shouldn’t I, someone who journaled, meditated, and researched the fuck out of intuition, have more clarity by now?

If anxiety is a shrieking three-year-old, intuition is a hushed grandmother knitting in the corner.

Apparently not; obsessing over intuition can make it more difficult to distinguish. According to the Association for Psychological Science, intuitive performance plummets in the midst of anxiety—something especially common before or after one makes a big decision. This explains why it can be harder to hear our intuition during moments of crisis. We’re so obsessed with making “the right choice” that we become overwhelmed with thoughts and options, and are then cut off from our gut instincts. If anxiety is a shrieking three-year-old, intuition is a hushed grandmother knitting in the corner.

Researchers hypothesize that this may be connected to self-confidence, as feelings of fear, doubt, and anxiety make it harder to trust ourselves. Listening to your intuition (ironically) goes deeper than simply observing your feelings, because the emotions we have in response to our guts can muddle up the process. In my case, I was having fearful reactions to the intuitive thought that ending the relationship was the right thing to do. So how exactly does one tell the difference?

Find your true north Graphic

“The voice of your intuition is neutrality,” says Jessica Lanyadoo on her show Ghost of a Podcast. “You might have a fear crop up immediately after you have an intuitive insight, but intuition is neutral.”

In other words, our intuition is steady and rational, while our responses to it might not be. Important decision-making, like debating whether to take a job or call an ex, might also spur anxiety, which can ultimately separate from the calm hum of intuitive thought. In these cases, it might be best to take action and know that intuition will come when and where it needs to.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received on this topic was from a therapist when I was making a difficult professional decision. “Sometimes 70 percent is enough,” she said. The words were like a life raft pulling me to a shore where uncertainty was okay. “Often times, you won’t get a full-blown yes to saying something is right for you. You get an inkling.”

I agree that Cholle’s advice to journal, get quiet, and find solitude are beneficial in soliciting mindfulness, but I also believe that obsessing over a sense of “knowing” may keep us at a standstill. My quest for intuition revealed my burning desire for certainty—something that doesn’t always exist. We may not ever be a 100 percent sure about a decision, but if we’re 70, even 51 percent, that’s okay too. It’s not about having all of the answers, but rather using the information we have to make the best decisions we can.

Graphics by Coco Lashar

More from Culture