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


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?

So how to tap into the power of both? Enter Wise Mind. Wise Mind is a peaceful sense of knowing. It’s a gut feeling of truth. It’s a way to combine both reason and emotion and—ta da!—it’s remarkably similar to the intuition we’ve been talking about.

How do you know you’re in it? Here’s an example. Answer this question: how do you know racism is wrong? The answer has both reasonable and emotional elements: you could write out a logical list of why racism is wrong, and at the same time, you probably have a strong emotional reaction to the concept of racism—maybe anger or indignation. Put the logical and the emotional together, and you have Wise Mind: the deep “knowing” that racism is wrong. You can explain why, you can feel why, and you just know that it is. Wise Mind is the feeling you get when you know something to be true.

But what if your gut is clouded by fear? For our listener, does she know, with a sense of Wise Mind’s peace and truth, that she’ll never find true love? Or does she fear she’ll never find true love? My money’s on the latter. What to do? Next, try…

Method #2: Discern the difference between intuition and fear.

Intuition is knowing. It could be knowing something good, like this is the person you will marry, or something bad, like this guy is definitely trying to scam you.

Fear, on the other hand, is more about uncertainty. It’s not knowing. It’s the “what ifs.” In contrast to intuition, which can predict something good or bad, fear predicts the worst. For example, “When I talk to my roommate about not smoking in the house, she’s going to yell at me.” Or, “What if the car dealership tries to put one over on me?” Or, “What if the fortune teller was right and I never find love?”

In sum, intuition is a quiet: “yes, this is.” Even if the result is negative, like breaking up with someone or sensing that you shouldn’t get in the car with this particular Uber driver, intuition says “Yes, this is the truth,” while fear says, “Oh no, what if this is the truth?”

Method #3: Tap into the calm that follows chaos.       

This one can’t be orchestrated (nor would you want to) but you can recognize and take advantage of it when it happens naturally.

After a crisis—a big fight, a period of upheaval, or an emergency—there is often a period where you feel spent but calm in which you can feel your intuition strongly. The sense of “knowing” what to do is particularly clear.

This might have happened to you. After a blowout fight with a partner, did you suddenly know it was time to break up? After a personal crisis, did you suddenly know what you had to do to get your life on track? Why you can see most clearly when your eyes were just full of tears is anyone’s guess, but it’s a useful moment to tap into.

Like I said, this has to come naturalistically. Don’t go pick a fight or start some drama. But do see it as a silver lining to the cloud of hard times.

Don’t go pick a fight or start some drama. But do see it as a silver lining to the cloud of hard times.

Method #4: What would you tell a friend?

This one is pretty straightforward: if a friend came to you with the same idea, what would you tell them? “I just have a feeling that I shouldn’t sign this contract.” “Everyone is telling me otherwise, but I just know this is the person we should hire.” Regardless of the answer, it can be helpful to look at it from an outside perspective. If a friend told you the same thing, would you dismiss it? Look more closely? Encourage them to reason it through? Or go with their gut? Do the same for yourself.

So tap into that calm voice that knows, not the fear that whispers “what if.” For our listener, and possibly for you, her gut feeling sounds closer to fear than truth. Although that means there’s work to be done, the good news is that fear can be faced.

In the meantime, dig under that fear and ask your gut for the truth. It may be quiet, it may be rusty, but in time, you’ll hear it loud and clear.