When you’re wrestling with a decision, someone may say to you, “Go with your gut,” or ask, “What does your gut say?” In the past few years, as I struggled with health issues, creative blocks, and major life decisions, those were phrases I heard a lot, and honestly, they made me more twitchy and panicky. I often felt like screaming, “I DON’T KNOW! What is my gut even? Do I have one? I don’t think I have one! How do I trust it when I am not sure I even believe it is there?”
The extra sad and frustrating part of this was that I’d always thought of myself as an intuitive person. I related to astrological descriptions of Cancers that pointed out our reliance on feelings. My Myers-Briggs personality test results labeled me as someone who relied on “intuition and feeling,” which I found totally accurate. Most important of all, intuition has been a key component to how I’ve examined the world since I was a young child. When I was little, I always knew immediately who I trusted and who I didn’t, when something felt safe and when it didn’t. Those feelings did not usually have a logical explanation. That was my gut and I trusted it innately. But at some point that changed.
Perhaps you remember having that sort of intuition as a kid and now it’s gone, or maybe you never had it in the first place—I think that is fairly common, too. Our culture doesn’t really place value on gut feelings. Expressions of intuition like saying that something feels off, that you have a sense of déjà vu, or that you had a dream about something are often met with side-eye. Experience and logical explanation are prized even though the truth is that your gut can save your life. I mean, in the most basic terms, you are more likely to survive if you trust that innate feeling you have that you shouldn’t approach that bear/lion/poisonous snake than if you ignore it and try to “learn from experience” by interacting with it, right?
Over time, many of us have experiences that make us doubt ourselves and our intuition. This is what left me feeling like I didn’t even have a gut to trust. I’d made mistakes. I’d trusted the wrong people, or more often, people I’d trusted had violated my trust. I came to believe that going with the crowd or someone I considered wiser, expending hours on pro-con lists and other logical approaches, or even using counting-out rhymes was more reliable that what I felt within. Sometimes these methods are fine (although that last one really only for more frivolous things), but often I was still felt unsatisfied or unanswered. That was my gut begging to be heard. If you’ve experienced this before, here are some ways to claim or reclaim, and then hone your intuition.
Identify times when you followed your intuition and reflect on how that made you feel.
I’m sure that at some point in your life, you’ve had a perfect day or few perfect hours. Maybe it was a summer afternoon when you really wanted to be a slug and continue a Netflix binge, but something told you to go outside and you listened. Perhaps as a result, you had a super meaningful conversation with a friend in the park. Or you saw the cutest puppy ever or made it to the ideal spot just in time for a magical sunset. Or you just wandered around, looking at the world and feeling at peace. No matter what, you saw what you saw and felt what you felt because you trusted yourself to get out there that day. This can happen in bigger ways, too. You bought that concert ticket even though you weren’t sure your friends were going. Or, in my case, you decided to move all the way across the country because, even though you’ve made a lot of mistakes when it comes to big decisions, you know deep in your heart that nothing feels more right than when you are in that particular city.
Think about these moments, big and small, when you did something just because it felt right. What was it like to make that decision? How did the outcome make you feel? Sometimes, especially when it’s a big life-choice, there are moments of fear. That move I mentioned? By far the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done! But I will never forget the feeling of driving into my new city: I know what song was playing (weirdly, “You Know You’re Right” by Nirvana), what the sky looked like, and above all how I felt. There were still scary things ahead, like, Will I find a job and make friends?, but I felt so solid and at peace right then. I knew it would work out and it did.
Accessing these memories will help you build trust in yourself—if you did it before, you can do it again—and you’ll find that you do actually know what a gut feeling feels like.
Acknowledge where someone interfered with your ability to trust your intuition.
A big part of the reason I struggle to trust my intuition is because of other people. I was in an abusive relationship where the person gaslighted me so badly that I didn’t trust my own ability to pick out my clothes or decide what route to walk to school. This is a particularly severe example—and in the case of something like this, I speak from experience when I say working with a therapist to regain your sense of trust and self is hugely helpful—but I think this happens to many of us in less overt ways, too.
My trust in my intuition was already eroded by the time I met my abuser because I’d had friends whom I loved and trusted deeply who’d betrayed my confidence, started behaving like bullies, or simply changed. When a core relationship such as one with a close friend or family member is shaken, even just by a change in the way you relate to each other, it can lead you to question everything—to think, If I can’t trust this person, who can I trust? Certainly not myself, because I believed in them! Questioning how well you know someone can lead to questioning your own gut. The more you question yourself, the more you doubt your intuitive ability.
It’s helpful to work through some of these experiences on your own or with a therapist/trusted advisor. I find it useful to journal and to write unsent letters to the person or myself. It’s important to remind yourself of your original feelings about the person. More likely than not, you’ll find that those did ring true. You probably have a lot of fond memories of a friend who changed, for example. You were right in your instincts about them, but maybe you didn’t see the change coming because it was so subtle or quick. Maybe you’ll identify a moment when you did actually sense it, but ignored the feeling because you didn’t want to believe it. We all do that, so don’t give yourself a hard time about it.
When I examined my memories of my abusive ex, I realized that my gut impression of him the first few times we met was that he was manipulative and a bully. I did not like him, but when he wanted to go out with me, I was overtaken by his flattery and charm. People who regularly manipulate or abuse others often know how to override your instincts; it is absolutely not your fault.
Even when you are really tuned into your sense of a person, you can’t control how they are going to behave. This is really important to remember, but don’t let it put you off trusting your gut. Again, if you dig deep, you’ll often find that your intuition was right on some level, and once you recognize that, you’ll be better equipped to recognize it and use it in the future.
Forgive yourself for mistakes and acknowledge the experience you gained.
I can beat myself up a ton for making a bad decision, which wreaks hell on my ability to trust my gut when the next choice comes around. Telling a story or writing an essay is a very intuitive process for me: Inspiration strikes and I follow it. But then I go through patches of feeling blocked, or I’ll identify a wrong turn I made in the plot that means I have to change a whole bunch of things or start over. In addition to being frustrating, I usually question if I have somehow lost my ability to create. In other words, can I trust my creative gut?
A larger-scale example: Before I dropped out of my first college, I fully believed that this was my perfect school. And then I hated it. Since that was my first “adult” choice, it left me questioning if I could ever be trusted to make big decisions on my own. Any mistakes I made after that only compounded that feeling.
In both instances, when I reexamine them by talking or journaling I realize that my initial feeling was a good one, but then I was so focused on it that I ignored other feelings along the way. When making my college decision, I visited during my junior year of high school. I know now that had I started that school right away it might have been the perfect place for me. But when it was time to start a year and a half later, I remember thinking and even telling my parents that I needed a gap year. That was my actual gut feeling at the time.
However, I will say again, it is not helpful to beat yourself up. Rather than anguishing over could-have-beens, look at what you did gain from the experience. Although it took me a while, I ended up a great school that set me up for the career path I am currently on. The same is true of making “wrong” creative turns. It feels terrible when I am in it, but it leaves me with tools that make my instincts and writing stronger. Making mistakes gives us experience to draw on the next time around. I find it a lot easier to trust my gut, especially when my gut is telling me, “We’ve been here before. This is what you do. You’ve got this.”
Identify activities that help connect you to your intuition.
Another way to hone your intuition and learn to recognize what trusting your gut feels like is to find activities that get you in sync with it. For me, tarot is the perfect activity for this. It is all about intuition. There is no right or wrong deck to pick: You go to the store and see what speaks to you. You let intuition guide how you split the deck and which layout you use. While there are plenty of books that will give you an interpretation of the cards, you can glean the most by really looking at them and seeing what they tell you. If you are totally new to tarot but want to try it, Rookie has a vid to get you started.
Of course, there are plenty of other activities to try—do what feels most natural to you. When do you feel in the zone? Is there a certain computer game that gets you there? Does drawing or coloring do it? Yoga, meditation, or a nice long bath? Going for a run or walk and just letting your feet decide your path? I also feel most in touch with myself when I dress the part. In other words, go through your closet and put on your most “you” outfit. Style yourself the way that makes you feel best. It sounds kind of cheesy, but what gets you closest to your essence? When you are in your freest, most comfortable state, you’ll more easily connect to your intuition.
Ask for time to think.
You need space to use your intuition. When you’re forced to make a snap decision, it can be hard to hear what your gut is telling you over the panic. Many of us live in worlds where everything happens fast, but you can say, “Wait a sec.” That’s an important skill to learn and crucial as you get in touch with your gut instincts. Once you feel secure about trusting your intuition, snap decisions may come more easily, but for now it is totally OK to tell people that you need time to think. This may also mean time to talk to others or to examine the facts of a situation. Trusting your gut does not have to mean relying on it exclusively—gathering input is important. Before my big decision to move, it took months of sitting with the idea before my gut knew what it wanted. You do, however, want to avoid making your head spin from information overload. If it feels that way, or if you feel tugged in different directions by other people’s opinions, that is when it’s time to step back, find a peaceful place, and do what you need to (maybe using the activities above) to connect with your own instincts.
Your gut does exist. You have one. I promise. Work on developing your intuition and building your trust in it, and then provide yourself the time and space to use it. You’ll come away with a lot more confidence, faith in yourself, and the certainty that no matter what happens, you did right by you. ♦