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How to Listen to Your Gut and Make the Right Decision Every Time

We’ve all been told to follow our heart. Go with our gut. Trust our intuition. But how, exactly? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains the “what” and the “how” of going with your gut.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
August 4, 2017
Episode #164

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This week, I got a really intriguing email from an anonymous listener. She’s a science PhD student and, on the one hand, is really into hard facts and figures. On the other hand, she’s having a hard time using her well-honed logic to change a deep, soul-level worry.

To be specific, a fortune teller once told her she would always be the third wheel in relationships, and for years, it’s turned out to be true. Logically, she knows this isn’t really her destiny. She knows it’s a limiting story she tells herself, but how to overcome something that feels so true?

We’ve all been there: torn between logic on one hand and intuition on the other. What to do? Do you listen to your gut or honor your mind? And how do you know if your gut is telling the truth or feeding you information based on fear?

Now, given the “evidence-based research” part of my tagline, it may be surprising to hear that luck, gut feelings, and intuition absolutely have a place in your life. You can’t Spock your way out of every situation.

And while the “science of intuition” may sound like an oxymoron on the level of jumbo shrimp, living dead, or freezer burn, it’s actually an important field of study. If you want to hear it from the source, decades of the research are distilled in Nobel-prize winner Dr. Daniel Kahneman’s acclaimed Thinking Fast and Slow.

For now, here’s the nutshell: It turns out we humans have two systems to process information. One is the rational system. Researchers out of Cornell University describe the systems succinctly: they call the rational system “slow, effortful, deliberate, often rule based, sequential, and a more recent part of our evolutionary heritage.” The intuitive system, by contrast, is “rapid, effortless, automatic, associationist, holistic, and evolutionarily older.” As the older of the two systems, the intuitive system is the first in line to offer up information, which helps explain why it’s so hard to go against our gut, like our anonymous listener is experiencing. The rational system has to squash or alter our intuition, which is sometimes absolutely the right thing to do, but can sometimes lead us astray.  

So how do we find the right balance? If we’re used to being in our heads, how do we let our gut take the lead? Or if our guts are sending the wrong message, how do we get our logic to override our intuition? This week, here are four things to try:

Method #1: Tap into what’s called Wise Mind.

Dr. Marsha Linehan is a pioneering psychologist who, back in the 1980s, tried to treat people who were chronically suicidal with the hot new therapy at the time: cognitive behavioral therapy. Now, pure CBT is extremely logical and reasoned. And Linehan discovered that her patients felt incredibly invalidated by it. Their worth and belief in themselves had been shattered from being raised in emotionally abusive, invalidating homes, and trying to challenge their logic felt like a repetition of the message that they weren’t capable or worthy. Linehan changed all that by creating dialectical behavioral therapy, and since then, DBT has become a gold standard go-to for helping folks with borderline personality disorder, cutting, substance abuse, and more.

Among other groundbreaking ideas, a concept Linehan developed to augment to the logic of CBT was that of Wise Mind.

Wise Mind is the overlap between what she calls Reasonable Mind and Emotion Mind. Both reason and emotion are necessary—we need reason to plan ahead, follow directions, schedule your time. You can’t intuit your way through your tax forms or assembling IKEA furniture (and believe me, I’ve tried).

But we also need emotion. There’s no logic to the experience of cuddling a puppy, enjoying a great meal, or grieving a loss, but what would life be if you couldn’t do those things?

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