Sometimes you just have a “gut feeling” about a person or a situation and you know you have to trust it, to act on it.
I recently attended a conference and, during a break, was chatting to a few people when a man approached the group. I had seen him earlier, chatting to other people, his personality dominating the room, but had never spoken to him myself. As he came closer I experienced a very strange sensation indeed, it wasn’t just a gut feeling but every part of my brain and body was telling me to get away from this man. To this day I have no idea what that was about but his politely accepted business card was dropped in a bin within minutes and I have never responded to his invitation to “catch up”. Now, that in itself is strange, because I never miss an opportunity to network (and he could be a useful contact) but avoidance just feels like a better strategy.
Our gut feelings aren’t always quite so strong (or so negative) but learning to trust them is part and parcel of being a fully functioning person. I have bought a house because it “felt right” even though it didn’t tick many of the boxes on the “must have” list and, on another occasion, ignored my instincts and now have a sofa which I dislike intensely. The house was absolutely the right choice and we were very happy there – the sofa I can live with but it is a constant reminder to trust my gut.
So, how do we explain this phenomenon? At its simplest, your unconscious mind is always reading your environment even when your conscious mind is busy elsewhere. You may have been driving home from work, planning what to have for dinner and found yourself braking before you even became aware of the football rolling into the road or the child following it. This is the same mechanism.
Another theory suggests that the physical sensations we experience are due to a flood of dopamine – this neurotransmitter helps us keep track of reality and “dopamine jitters” happen when the unconscious wants us to pay attention to something.
But should we always trust our gut feelings?
Your unconscious mind is always acting in your best interests based on previous experience. If you were once ill after eating cheese it will alert you to the risk next time you consider putting some cheddar in your mouth (you may feel nauseous just thinking about it) but that doesn’t mean cheese is inherently risky and you may be missing out on some great food experiences. This is hardly critical but if you don’t temper your instincts with a bit of conscious brain activity the consequences can be much worse.
We all hold a set of beliefs based, not only on our own experiences, but also on the social conditioning we have experienced. If we don’t challenge that conditioning our gut will warn us erroneously against all kinds of situations. Racism, sexism and other kinds of prejudice flourish because social conditioning primes some people to have a negative gut response to people who are “other”, who are different to them. Without the application of some rational thinking the unconscious mind will never have better experiences to base its response on.
So, did I apply rational thinking to my experience at the conference? Yes I did. I considered whether the man in question reminded me of anyone else – perhaps someone I had met in difficult circumstances – I couldn’t think of anyone. I made a few (very discrete) enquiries with other women I knew and they had all had negative (albeit less strong) reactions to him. I still don’t know if my gut reaction was right but I have chosen to trust it on this occasion. I hope you are able to trust yours when it really matters.
This is the last post in the series about the Fully Functioning Person – I hope you have enjoyed them. If you feel that you are perhaps not functioning at your best at the moment, get in touch. I may be able to help.