“Listen to your gut” is popular, and compelling, advice – but it can get you into trouble. Of course, you shouldn’t ignore your gut and make a decision based purely on facts, either – your feelings are important. So, instead of picking between the rational and emotional, pay attention to both. Listen to your gut, but don’t let it have the final say.
People “know” things to be true by assessing them emotionally and intellectually. Researchers have found that emotional and intuitive knowing occurs in the right hemisphere of the brain, while intellectual and detailed thinking occurs in the left hemisphere of the brain. Each of these levels offers a different perspective that delivers important information.
Your emotional, or instinctive, way of knowing is fast and can feel overpowering. It processes information that you may not have even been conscious of, such as expressions that pass over people’s faces so quickly that you can barely register them consciously. So, it may offer insight that you would not be able to reflect on. For this reason, when your gut tells you something, it’s important to listen up.
However, your gut has its biases that are based, among other things, on previous experiences and your temperament. It doesn’t slow down to consider details, such as whether its bias really applies to the current situation. For instance, Jane’s experience at a new job is greatly affected by her childhood social experiences. Teased a lot as a child, she tends to be wary of any possible signs of rejection from new co-workers. If she had been popular in school, she’d likely have a different bias – she’d see even the most aloof greeting as welcoming.
To help make sense of your emotional reactions, the left hemisphere of your brain enables you to slow down, sort through facts, and apply rational thinking to your assessment of a situation. It can let you know when your emotional reaction does not make sense in a current situation.
People who do better in their personal and professional lives tend to use both their thinking and emotional reactions to give them a full picture of what’s going on for them. For instance, when Jane realizes that she feels rejected and excluded in her new job, she reflects on that reaction. She notes that she has feared rejection since high school and that she is taking this fear into the current situation. This realization frees her to more clearly consider the current situation. She then observes that she had been discounting that a number of people have stopped by to say hello when they did not need to and that a co-worker asked her to lunch. These observations lessened her anxiety, loosening its grip on her and encouraging her to reach out more to her co-workers.
Your emotional reactions can fill you with a desire to pursue a person or situation, or they might “scream” that you are in danger. These messages are essential to navigating life. So pay attention. But keep in mind that they are fallible. When you have a strong emotional reaction, check it against your thinking. When you are in conflict, give each level of “knowing” its due respect. Then as you proceed, you will be making the best decision for yourself, given what you know at the time.
Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.