The sunken place
01 Jun 2023 at 16:30
They can also be wrong, sometimes spectacularly so. A gut feeling can warn you about danger or tell you when an opportunity has appeared, long before your brain catches on. But it can also be biased, fearful, and too quick to judge. We’ve all got ready examples of when we acted on instinct and then realized later that we had missed some important detail, or misinterpreted something we’d seen or heard, or operated in the throes of some unconscious bias. How do you trust a messenger that is sometimes deeply insightful and sometimes decidedly foolish?
A brief aside is in order: one of the things that’s taken me well into middle age to get a handle on is how growing up as a girl and woman socialized me to distrust my own instincts. Now, with the gift of hindsight, I can look back at the dozens (hundreds?) of times when I was younger and felt a deep and powerful sense of wrongness when interacting with someone, but instead of reacting to that feeling, I smiled, spoke politely, or laughed it off. Those weren’t unreasonable responses: often, performing politeness is an excellent defense in a dangerous situation. I have no criticism for my past self for behaving that way. But I can see now that every time I acted out of alignment with what my body was telling me, I weakened that connection a little bit more, until it became really very difficult for me to sense those instincts at all.
With time and attention and the pattern-matching skills that come with age, I’ve restored (I hope) most of my ability to hear those messages. And I’m keen on keeping it that way, because those are very insightful tips I cannot get from anywhere else. But that means I have to be willing to accept the possibility that sometimes those instincts will be wrong—and have the means of sorting out when that’s the case, and what to do about it.
Here’s a metaphor that’s worked for me: in journalism, there’s an adage that says you never publish with only a single source. It’s a guardrail that’s kept many a newsroom from issuing an embarrassing correction. Even a very trusted source can sometimes lead you astray, but two trusted sources are more likely than not to be right. The second (or third, or fourth, etc.) source serves not only as confirmation but also often brings additional important context to the story.
Borrowing from that practice, I like to think of my gut as a very trusted source—my most trusted source, in fact, the one that’s brought me more and better stories than any other. It has insight into the world that the rest of me is not always or even often able to access. And it is routinely spot on about what it sees.
But, it’s far from perfect, and when it’s wrong, it’s really wrong. So while I listen to the messages it sends me, I also look for another source before acting. That might mean asking questions (of myself or others) or digging for more information about a situation, or it might mean getting a gut check from a trusted friend or colleague, or it might mean testing a hypothesis before I make a commitment. If the message concerns something that has the potential to be really impactful—a big decision with possible repercussions for me or others—I will seek out several additional sources. The point being that I heed the message but I don’t act as if it’s the only informant out there.
This practice has not only helped me better listen to myself but also to more quickly spot when my first reaction to a situation isn’t the most informed one. That is, in addition to making sure I use all the information I have available, by querying and contextualizing those instincts, I also teach my gut to be smarter about what it latches on to. After all, bodies can learn just as well as minds can, doubly so when they work together.