By Nikki Pison, PhD, LMHC
“Trust your heart”… “Follow your intuition”… “Do what feels right”
I am embarrassed to admit that I have fallen prey to both giving and taking this kind of cliché advice. Don’t get me wrong, the sentiments are worthy. There is definitely a time and a place for listening to your inner voice. Still, there are unexpected pitfalls to following your intuition that should be explored to help avoid catastrophic decision-making. Here is the crux of the problem: We often subvert our truly knowing selves to what we want in the immediate moment. We experience particularly strong inclinations that can easily be confused for intuition. Instead of making a thorough investigation of where these impulses come from, we become vulnerable to selfish and childish yearnings and seek to immediately gratify ourselves. The subterfuges of our unconscious can mislead us into complacency when we should act, or risky self-sabotage when we should think more and act less.
Because of our desire to manifest fantasies that are neither possible nor good for us, we get sucked into relationships that do not serve us, stay with incompatible partners too long, and forego hard work because we imagine that our genius is just about to be discovered. We may fall into the trap of believing that everything will all just magically work out, because it feels like it should. This can lead to an avoidance of taking necessary risks or making important decisions. Learning to trust not just your intuition, but your higher mind is a critical skill for making sure that you are the primary actor in your life, and that life is not just something that happens to you.
Do Not Follow Your Heart
There, I said it. I’m guessing nobody ever told you that before.
The heart is a very rudimentary entity, both literally and metaphorically. The physical design of the organ in our chest functions very well to steadily supply blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. Although we may appreciate its life-sustaining singularity of purpose, it is not very good at much else. In the metaphoric sense, the heart has a more encompassing purpose. It represents our deepest, most fundamental need for attachment and connection. Unfortunately, that functionality is similarly limited. The need for overlap and intersection with others is so strong that it is likely to confuse our sensibilities and lead us to sustain dissatisfying relationships. We are likely to defer our own best interest to maintain even a faulty connection. Our hearts are not very good at discerning trustworthiness, judging how likely someone is to change, or convincing us to work through issues with a partner who is triggering a reaction in us.
The good and bad news for us is that, like every other organ, the heart is actually controlled in the mind. We feel someone shaking our hand because the nerves in our skin are connected to pathways in the brain that are responsible for that sensation. You may feel pain in your knee, but you are actually experiencing it in your brain. Similarly, you may feel that urgency in the pit of your stomach nudging you to try something new, but it is actually your brain manufacturing the chemicals that cause that gastric churning. The good news is that the brain is an incredibly sophisticated piece of equipment. What it is really good at is finding patterns. This capability is the reason you can read sentences even when letters are missing or transposed. The problem is that the advanced pattern recognition tendencies of the brain also make it prone to certain types of errors. Research shows that the mind’s tendency to “fill in” missing information leads us to see things that are not there, remember things with a high degree of inaccuracy, and can even lead to creating entirely false memories.
We also ignore incredibly obvious information when we are paying attention to something else. A study out of Harvard asked participants to watch a video of people playing basketball and count how many times the ball was passed between players. The researchers found that while participants were engaged in that counting activity, they were completely unaware of an actor in a gorilla suit walking back and forth across the screen. Our minds block out what it considers non-essential, even when it is as blatant as a gorilla. Humans are very unreliable witnesses because our memories are largely shaped by what we have been told happened and by our expectations and assumptions. The bad news is that because the heart is really in the mind, the heart is similarly fallible. We see what we want to see. We feel what we expect to feel or what our emotional histories have taught us to feel rather than what the reality of the situation requires. This is why couples have different accounts of the same argument and why it is so easy to injure someone without ever intending it. The smallest slight feels much more intense to one who has experienced a thousand previous cuts.
So why, exactly, should we trust ourselves? Why, indeed, should we listen to ourselves or anyone else for that matter? Despite the common perceptual errors we make, in general our brains are very good at making correct decisions. We balance our bodies and objects all day long, but only really think about our coordination when we trip on a step or drop something. At those times, we insist we are clumsy, although our balance has functioned in countless ways for hours on end with no errors. Unfortunately for us, our brains have developed to pay more attention to failure than success. We recall the times that have caused us pain because they are more emotionally salient, and paying attention to what may hurt us contributes to our survival in an evolutionary sense. While this feature of the brain was designed for attending to critical incidents that can enhance our survival, it gets applied to all aspects of our functioning, because the brain is, above all else, a pattern recognition device. As a result, all of the times we change lanes at the grocery store and then get stuck behind someone counting coupons becomes solidified in our mind. It is not as emotionally important to us to recall the countless times we switch lanes while driving and successfully move along faster. Instead, we only recall when we change lanes and get stuck in traffic.
The same principle applies to when we make other more meaningful decisions in our lives. It is much scarier and more painful to change course and find ourselves in the wrong lane. Because of this, many of us stay put, succumbing to the fear that the second we take action, the universe will swoop in and cause a coupon cutter to emerge in front of us. We experience the negative more strongly, and this gives the illusion that we are failing more than we are and that taking action is riskier than it actually is. We hang on to these small failures, which overshadow all of the countless good choices and sound judgments that we make every day, and we are likely to say, “This ALWAYS happens to me.” This is not realistic, given the small proportion of failure we actually experience, but we recall it emotionally as if it is a fundamental truth of the universe that speaks to our intrinsic worth. Ironically, the mechanism in the brain that promotes our survival by keeping us alert to danger and negative aspects of our environment is also the aspect that can cause the most disturbance in our sense of self.
The pitfalls that most frequently undermine the quality of our experience are something I like to call the three “F-Words” of our thinking behavior:
F-Word # 1: Feelings
Feelings are not facts, but they sure feel true and we sure treat them like they are true. One of the most troubling errors we make is that we are prone to see our negative impressions as the whole truth. We mistake the sense we have that things always go wrong, that we always get stuck in the wrong lane, as a fundamental truth of the universe. By regularly mistaking our feelings for facts, if we feel incompetent or unlovable, that becomes an inarguable truth in our minds that cannot be remedied by any amount of evidence. This basic cognitive error, or mistake in processing information, factors significantly in why many people end up with significant emotional problems. Hampered by our baggage about who we are and what we deserve, often shaped by childhood messages or other old emotional wounds, we listen to our feelings instead of trusting the reality before us. This can lead to an extraordinarily biased self-appraisal that is geared toward negative interpretations and to dissatisfying or naïve life choices.
F-Word # 2: Fantasies
No, we’re not talking fishnets here, people. Fantasies refer to our overzealous brain processing anytime we manufacture illusions in order to attempt to meet deep emotional needs. Our brain not only leads us to negatively skewed interpretations of our success-to-failure ratios, but then bolsters our failing self-worth by generating imaginary successes. Whereas we may cling to the negative as a way to justify not taking appropriate and needed actions in our lives, we can also invent fantasies to justify taking inappropriate actions. Because we have been brainwashed in this culture to “do what feels right” we can use that logic to rationalize all kinds of deleterious choices. For instance, what if it feels right to me, but hurts my partner or my children? What if it feels right to me, but puts me into a bad financial position? What if I am really, truly gratified, even if it is only temporarily, by something that is inherently bad for me or those around me?
One part of becoming an adult is letting go of immature fantasies. My friends who are musicians in their forties and fifties play music out of the sheer joy that activity still holds for them, not because they have illusions about becoming rock icons. Similarly, if you can make a living doing what you love, more power to you. If you have a stable job and a family to support, though, it might be unwise to “follow your heart” and quit your job, spurred on by the fantasy that you will support yourself weaving potholders, even if you really, really, really like potholders.
We do the same things with relationships. The dearth of successful long-term committed relationships can be partially explained by many who succumb to the fantasy that they would not have the current struggles with a new partner. Little do they realize that the seductive fiction of starting over with someone new is often a disguise for avoiding conflict, and that true intimacy arises from resolving conflict with a trusted partner. They are likely to be doomed to re-create and re-experience the same romantic drama and trauma over and over again until they are willing to sit with themselves and work through their issues with one partner who accepts them. That is a terrifying concept, and it is much more appealing and immediately satisfying to think of starting over fresh with someone who has never seen you at your worst.
Alternately, many people have the opposite problem and stay with incompatible partners long past when it is beneficial to anyone involved. They experience the intense fear that changing lanes in their love life will cause a roadblock to appear ahead, or even worse, will leave them all alone forever. They settle for mediocre attachment because they either A) believe the fantasy that their partner will change or B) believe the fantasy that if they change something and take a risk that they will be doomed to failure and loneliness. The same forces are at work with other important life decisions when action is taken without regard to consequence, or when fear immobilizes someone who desperately needs to act. Which brings us to our final “F” word:
F-Word # 3: Fear
Has anyone ever told you that you have a fear of success? What poppycock! I had a classmate in eighth grade who was not a stellar student. He was repeating a grade for the third time. I used to be baffled by his behavior when we would take a test in class. He would fold his arms and sit back in his chair, not even looking at or attempting to take the test for the entire period. Now I understand that it was less painful to him to get a zero than to try to take the test and get half the answers wrong. If we try and fail, like the lane changer, this emotional experience can be almost unbearable. If we never try at all, however, we are in control of our failure. It is predictable and we can always say, “Well, I didn’t really try.” I have come to realize that none of us are really afraid of success; we are afraid of trying and failing.
If we try and succeed, well that is almost as bad as trying and failing, because with success comes added work, added responsibility, and added pressure to succeed again. Therefore, we do fear success in the sense that it may be even more overwhelming than failure, because success opens you up for more opportunities for failure in the future. Many attempts at self-sabotage can be viewed in this light. Holding the belief that eventually I will screw it up, I might as well do it right now. Then I’m in control of destroying the good things that are happening to me rather than having to have the painful experience of having those things taken away from me when I inevitably mess up. The destructive fantasy in this picture is “Failure always happens to me.” This is not an actual fact, but is a remnant shaped by our attention to the negative that informs how we feel about things going wrong in our life, since it is the things that do not work out that are the most present in our minds and the most easily recalled when we are trying to make decisions about the future.
The three “F-Words” in our thinking can be restrictive at best or dangerously self-destructive at worst. Distinguishing how to handle and divert these impulses is the task of the Higher Mind.
So, what exactly is the Higher Mind? The Higher Mind is greater than the fleeting instincts, impressions, and fantasies that we often self-indulgently label our “intuition.” At one end of the spectrum, we are seduced by childish longings and make terrible decisions that may fulfill our needs in the moment but do not ultimately help us. At the other end of the spectrum, we pay so much attention to negative fantasies of what might happen that we become too paralyzed by fear of failure to take actions and participate fully in our own lives. We can battle these natural, but unhelpful, functions of our brain by attending to our Higher Mind. The Higher Mind is perfectly neutral. It is not burdened with painful emotional resonance, fear, or a dangerous drive toward wish-fulfillment. It is not a feature of the brain, but rather a process of thoughtful soul-searching that can lead to knowing what to do. The Higher Mind tells us not to do what feels right in the moment, but to do what actually is right.
There is no current scientific formula for achieving Higher Mind, but there are many useful strategies. Here are three that I have found personally useful:
We are incredibly biased by our past experiences. Situations which baffle us are often plainly solvable from the outside. The only way to battle the distortions and cognitive errors of the mind is to consult with others. Our secret wishes and negative distortions become veritable monstrosities if we do not take advantage of the universal mirror that we have in others. Consulting with those we trust unfailingly reflects back to us those things we can’t see for ourselves. Be careful who you select to trust with your inner process. Try not to fall into the trap of conversing with someone who may very well be close to your heart, but who has their own agenda for your behavior. It is generally not safe to reveal your inner process to someone whom you have experienced as judgmental or critical.
- Listen for Truth
When you are speaking with others, listen to the words that are used, and listen for when something “rings with truth.” This is your brain’s way of telling you that it has detected a pattern that may not be conscious, but that resonates with some aspect of your personal truth. Listen for words that come up frequently. Some might argue that this is not a “coincidence” but some kind of universal or divine intervention. Another way to look at this is that this is evidence that your Higher Mind is picking up on a pattern that you can’t consciously detect. Since the majority of brain processing and functioning is unconscious, you can develop the trust that your brain is actually more aware of things than you have given it credit for.
You can also listen to your body. Certain emotional responses feel the same in the body. Fear and sexual arousal can cause similar physiological reactions, for instance, which can lead to unfortunate misinterpretations. Anxiety and excitement are also confusing. We often spend so much time avoiding anxiety that we don’t listen to what it is trying to tell us and we miss opportunities to let it help guide our behavior. Anxiety is the brain’s way of telling us that it has recognized a pattern. There is good anxiety and bad anxiety. Good anxiety lets us know that something important is happening and that we need to pay attention and possibly take action. Bad anxiety occurs when we are dwelling on negative stuff that has already happened, or negative stuff that has not happened yet and will likely never happen, or when we are doing something we really have no business doing. We need to learn to tolerate the good anxiety if we hope to ever make meaningful changes in our lives because it is almost impossible to be really productive without having some good anxiety pushing us forward. However, we also need to listen to when our bodies tell us that we are in the wrong place or wrong situation, even if it is only in our minds, and that we need to change some behavior, even if it is only thinking behavior that needs to change. If we are wracked with the bad type of anxiety, we are probably thinking wrong.
Now, many could argue that thinking is not a behavior because we can’t see and measure it. This perspective becomes less persuasive as technologies for measuring brain activity become more advanced, and researchers are able to track the places in the brain where thinking goes wrong. Evidence is also accruing for the idea that we have much more control over our thinking than we usually believe, and that changing our own thinking behavior holds the key to changing our emotional experience of the world.
- Do the Next Right Thing
When all else fails, it is hard to go wrong by doing the next right thing. How do we know what is the next right thing? Often we can figure it out by figuring out what it is NOT. The next right thing is not giving in to whatever immediate compulsion overtakes us, whether it’s eating a sleeve of cookies or picking up the phone to dial an ex. It is not turning on the TV instead of conversing with a spouse or reading to a child. It is not rushing through a conversation with someone who really wants your attention because you have other priorities. It is not rushing out to buy more, drink more, or do more. Doing nothing is often the next right thing.
The Next Right Thing has no drama. It is not dazzling or riveting and not all that sexy… at first. It is creating space for pure, uneventful connection with others, or lingering over a cup of coffee for uneventful reflection alone. Sometimes doing the dishes or sleeping on a problem is the next right thing. Often, an apology or just reaching out to support someone else is right. It can be picking up a piece of garbage that is not even yours, or spending an extra five minutes with someone who needs you (you really can spare that five minutes, I know you can). The non-events of our lives fill up 99% of our time, so paying close attention to how we are spending that time is critical for developing the patience and the stamina for higher-minded living. We are rewarded by a sense of mastery, a sense that life is not always so urgent, that what happens in every moment is precious.
In that peace and absence of drama, beautiful priceless relationships unfold, including a deeply trusting relationship with ourselves. Now, I’m not one of those people who will tell you that you need to love yourself before you can let someone else love you. To the contrary, we are truly lovable to ourselves when we find genuine connectedness with others, when we let others in and make space for their foibles, when we show them ours and they show us theirs. That can’t ever transpire until we trust others, listen to them, and do the right things in our lives and relationships. And then, trust me, the right thing can be very, very sexy indeed.