“We need to learn to live with this virus.” So say an increasing amount of people ‘in the know’. While most of us are at the very least fed up with this whole pandemic or have been traumatised at worst, this reasoning is unavoidable in its truism. Not only do we have to accept we have to live with it, we also have to make personal decisions about how. No matter how ill-equipped we may be and with all the varied opinions and even contrasting evidence that abounds we are ultimately left with our own evaluation, required to use our intuition and instinct.
So what’s the difference between intuition and instinct? The two terms are often used interchangeably and the failure to differentiate them can lead us to think they’re the same thing. Because both intuition and instinct seem to appear out of nowhere and we don’t know how or why we feel what we feel, it is easy to confuse the two. I believe, however, that there is a distinct difference, which is especially relevant to our current situation – as well as to parenting and leadership – and they each serve a different purpose.
Instinct is a biologically hardwired survival mechanism. It is designed to help us sense danger or warning signs of threat and is often connected to our fight or flight response. Because we are not equipped to be consciously alert to all dangers, risks or hazards, our instinct works with all our physical senses and our subconscious to signal to us when we need to be on our guard or extra vigilant. Our conscious mind can only take in and process fewer than two hundred stimuli simultaneously, whether our subconscious – greatly assisted by our limbic system (often called our ‘emotional brain’) and its stored experiences – can process many millions per second, and herein lies our instinctive capacity.
If we have a ‘feeling’ that a certain path our teenager is pursuing could be dodgy or even perilous, our instinct may be warning us with feelings of apprehension, unease or judgment. Or, if we are walking alone at night and have a gut feeling that someone is following us even though we can’t see or hear anything, that is usually our instinct alerting us, and our accompanying fear will activate the appropriate ‘fight-or-flight- response.
Intuition, on the other hand, signals us through what is deeply important to us, through feelings of unconditional love, balanced care and being ‘in flow’, and often is in alignment with our values and our desired direction for growth. It does not tend to function in stress but rather when we are completely present and ‘in the now’. Intuition ca be described as our ‘north star’ that doesn’t necessarily show us why a particular direction is the right one; we just ‘know’ – it feels right.
If you’re a parent, your intuition is that inner conviction you have that your child needs a certain experience or connection and you have little or no way of explaining why; you ‘just know’. You may even feel there is a step that needs to be taken although you don’t know the step that follows it – this first step feels right ‘in your heart’. It is a sense of knowing that most of the time we cannot explain. If we trust and follow our intuition, inevitably it turns out to be a good or right decision. The key here is trust – trusting our intuition requires recognising it first, then having the confidence to act on it.
When our instinct alerts us, it is important to pay attention to it for obvious reasons. Physically it will feel uncomfortable like a nagging or uneasy feeling in the stomach that, if danger is present, needs to be acted on. When there is no evidence of immediate threat however, there is a chance that the instinct could be based on memories or unresolved emotions from a similar situation, so it might be prudent to also engage the intuition before acting.
The intuition, in contrast, tends to feel subtler, like a nudge or an urge that you can’t explain and a sense of calm clarity that can also register as a sensation or stirring in the stomach or heart area. Developing discernment between the two is like learning two different languages, and requires first and foremost increased self-awareness, awareness of what you feel – physically and emotionally (the two are inextricably linked!) - what you’re thinking, how you’re acting and how that looks and affects others.
Increasing self-awareness and drawing on both instinct and intuition will be a key to learning to live with Covid-19, and indeed virus variants and other pandemics that may appear in the future. When we are tuned in to what we feel – understanding how each emotion impacts our thoughts and behaviour and our environment – we also increasingly experience that while we respond to our instinct, we can also tune into our intuition. As a result, we develop better discernment and ultimately feel more trust in our capacity to make appropriate decisions and considerations, both for ourselves and others.
A few tips to increase self-awareness:
- Each morning before you get up, check how and what you are feeling. Name the feeling. Accept it without judgment. Then take a few slow, deep breaths before you take next steps.
- Check in with yourself how and what you’re feeling throughout the day. Tie a piece of string around your wrist to remind you, or if you wear rings, move a ring to another finger to remind you.
- Whenever you pass a mirror or catch your reflection, notice your expression and your posture. Check in with how you’re feeling. Then smile to yourself.
- Set a timer to message you throughout the day to remind you to check in with yourself, your body and what you’re feeling.
I'll leave you with one of my favourite quotes on intuition; "You will never follow your inner voice until you clear up the doubts in your mind." Anonymous
(Excerpted and adapted from INTUITIVE PARENTING – How To Tune Into Your Innate Wisdom –
By Jennifer Day (Robinson, London, 2019)
For more articles and tips, visit appliedemotionalmastery.com
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