“Trust your gut.” You’ve heard the phrase, and if you’re like me, you know exactly what that means. I assumed that trusting your gut was a sentiment that everyone understood, but this past week I learned otherwise. Some question what it means to “trust your gut”, not knowing how to identify what is instinct and what is not.
Out of curiosity, I started paying attention to how I “know” when it’s my instincts rather than all of the other static, noise, and chatter that can fill my brain. To differentiate between gut instinct and mind chatter, I view one as a nagging feeling and the other as a nagging voice. They originate from different areas within my body: The nagging feeling stems from within my core, and the nagging voice is always and only in my head. I have chosen to use the word “nag” because both are persistent.
The nagging feeling can be a feeling, a little voice, or even a physical reaction. It sticks with me. If I hear it and ignore or dismiss it, it will continue to stay with me for days, weeks, months, or even years. When I heed a nagging feeling, I am self-assured and filled with calm.
The nagging voice causes fret and worry about all things. It fills me with self-doubt and ushers in anxiety. It notices when I’m about to act on instinct and, if given enough time, will try to talk me out of my gut reaction. Where the nagging feeling exists, the nagging voice persists. It will assert logic and reason if necessary to prove that it is right and the feeling is wrong. It is a bully that uses fear to keep me from trusting my gut.
Identifying the nagging voice is crucial because it comes with being human. Once identified, it loses power. While it can make valid points, it does not have my best interest in mind, whereas the nagging feeling always does. Both can appear in any life situation – big decisions, little occurrences, and everything in between.
When I was sixteen I was driving a seven-mile stretch of highway to get to a high-school basketball game. I had a song blaring on the radio and ignored the little voice of the nagging feeling that told me to set my cruise control. Before the song ended there were red and blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror. It was my first speeding ticket, and I was furious with myself for ignoring my instincts.
In another instance, while driving my standard route to get to a workout, I turned a block sooner than was my norm. I had no reason for doing so other than instinct. As I turned the wheel, that nagging voice questioned my actions. “Why are you turning here?” A few blocks later I drove under an overpass where a train was stopped on the tracks overhead. Had I gone my usual route, I would have been stopped by the train and, at best, would’ve been late to class. Instead, I kept driving and made it to class on time.
As in the two examples above, sometimes an explanation for your gut feeling is made clear. Other times no answer is given. In those instances, when the change of plan is inexplicable, consider it a practice run – an opportunity to distinguish between the nagging feeling and the nagging voice so that when it does matter, as was the case for my dear friend Maria, you’re ready.
Maria had been driving to work at 4:30 in the morning along a familiar road with her husband in the passenger seat. Given that it was so early, it was still dark outside and they met no one else on the road. Maria had this “gut feeling”, as she put it, to slam on her brakes. But her nagging voice challenged her with, “That’s crazy, why would you just slam on the brakes?” The nagging feeling persisted, so she asked her husband, “Can you just keep your eyes open for deer because I’m feeling like I’m supposed to stop.” She continued driving as they both watched for anything that might give Maria cause to stop. Her feeling of “slam on the brakes slam on the brakes slam on the brakes” grew stronger as her nagging voice insisted that there was no good reason to do so.
The next thing she knew she moved her foot slamming on the brakes as hard as she could bringing the vehicle to an abrupt stop. Right in front of the car, without enough room for a shoelace to pass through, was a transport truck in mid-turn. It hadn’t been visible because its lights weren’t on despite it being dark outside. The side of the truck is what Maria’s car would have crashed into and slid under, surely killing them both. As she said, “It was nothing to go on. All of my outside instincts, my eyesight, everything was saying, ‘Don’t listen to your gut, it’s wrong.’ But my gut was just so loud that I followed it even though it seemed insane.”
It all comes down to trust. I trust that my nagging feelings always have my best interest at heart. I trust that if I listen to the nagging voice instead of the nagging feeling, I will have another opportunity to try again soon. I trust that no matter how loud the nagging voice becomes, it can never drown out my instinctual nagging feelings.
Once I recognize that there’s a nag in my midst, I ask myself which one it is. If it’s the voice, I dismiss it. If it’s the feeling, I heed it. If both are present? I trust my instincts.