Can You Really Trust Your Gut?

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“Trust your gut.” We hear this advice a lot, but is it wise?

Your gut – or intuition – can be very helpful. It can alert you when something is “off”, signaling that you should proceed with caution; or it may give you a sense of “this feels right," prompting you to open up to a new relationship or experience. But listening only to your gut, without considering facts, can get you into trouble.

Your gut reaction and your thoughtful decisions are each largely processed in different parts of the brain. Your gut instinct comes from the right hemisphere of your brain, where you process things quickly and on a nonverbal level. It processes information that you may not even be consciously aware of, such as expressions that pass extremely quickly over people’s faces and that reveal feelings they are trying to hide (or are even unaware of). By being in touch with your gut response, you can gain insight that you would have otherwise missed.

As helpful as it can be to open yourself to influences out of your awareness, this can work against you, too. It can be influenced by factors that are not directly related to a situation. Your sense that a date is “the one” might have to do with their resemblance to your first love – something you might only realize much later. On the other hand, you might meet someone who could make you wonderfully happy, but you don’t even give them a chance because they resemble someone who had been cruel to you.

Similarly, people are often drawn to others who interact in ways that are similar to the family they grew up in. The dynamics are familiar, and so they have an immediate sense of kinship to those people. This can be a great thing if your family was healthy and you are drawn to supportive, caring relationships. However, this attraction also happens with dysfunctional aspects of families. The power of these dynamics is so strong that people often repeat patterns even when they try to avoid them. 

Because your gut instinct can send you in the wrong direction, it’s important to reflect on it before acting. With the help of the intellect-based left hemisphere of your brain, you are able to consider your emotional reactions, sort through any relevant observations or facts, and rationally assess a situation. This type of thinking can let you know when your emotional reactions or desires do not make sense in the current situation or are likely to cause a problem – either creating a bad situation or missing out on a good one.

Not surprisingly, people who use a “whole brain” approach tend to be happier and more successful, both personally and professionally. Your gut might urge you to pursue a person or situation; or send you running from what feels like danger. But when you are aware that your gut instinct can be fallible, you’ll know to reflect on that reaction. In situations when this creates an inner conflict, take your time in deciding what’s right for you, given what you know at the time. 

So, can you trust your gut? Absolutely. Trust that that your gut offers you important guidance. But take it as advice, not as a directive to be unthinkingly followed.


by Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD