Monday, September 19, 2011

Trusting Your "Gut"

Many times clients enter therapy and state a problem or concern and say, "I don't know what to do." My philosophy is that the answers to life's question lie within, and being in therapy is one way to help discover these solutions. People generally enter therapy when they have hit one of life's roadblocks and feel "stuck". Reconnecting with the "gut" is one way to navigate these roadblocks.

So what exactly is the "gut"? I think of it as the still, quiet, sure voice that lies within our core. I'm guessing that it feels different from person to person, but for me, I recognize my "gut" in the lower portion of my stomach/abdomen. I know that I am on the right path when my gut feels calm, and I know to move on when my gut feels unsettled or unsure. I have to admit, though, that I don't always move on when the gut says so, especially when the matter at hand is particularly emotional for one reason or another. No one is perfect when it comes to the gut, but learning to be better attuned to the gut can lead to feelings of confidence when making decisions in life.

You may be thinking, "I have no idea where my gut is," or "I haven't heard from my gut in ages." Reconnecting with the gut, if the connection has been lost, requires that you sift through all of the "white noise" that exists within and around you. This "white noise" usually includes a host of "shoulds"- self-imposed or other-imposed pressures or expectations. For instance, when making a decision, you may get stuck between what you want and what you think others want (either based on what they have said or what you think they would say). The ability to hear the gut can diminish over time if there are important others in your life who either don't understand your decisions or believe that they know what's best for you, especially if this pattern existed with your parents during your childhood and adolescence. There is a delicate balance between taking others' opinions into consideration and moving forward in a direction that feels satisfying to you. Important others generally know you well and, it is assumed, want the best for you, but it is also good to recognize that they may have their own desires and fears about your life (and theirs) that can potentially create white noise for your gut. Fear of the unknown (internal and external) is a paralyzing force, and the fear of "messing up" or "making the wrong decision" also keeps many people stuck in place. Becoming better attuned or reattuned to the gut can help you make a decision and move forward in confidence.

How, then, can one reconnect with the gut? First, think back to the last time that you were attuned to your gut. Your first instinct may be to say, "I've never been in touch with my gut!" but I guarantee that's not true. Think back to the last time that you made a decision and felt really good about it. Sometimes people get stuck here because, although the decision felt good at the time it was made, it may not have yielded the type of results imagined. This is particularly difficult if the decision was met with doubt from important others (or internally). This type of experience may create a sticking point if the person has not learned the skills necessary to navigate life's roadblocks. I always encourage clients to keep in mind that all experiences, "good" or "bad", are beneficial in that they provide insight into one's preferences, which helps in future decision making.

Once you have determined the last time that that you were connected to the gut, the next step is to think about how/when you became disconnected. This may have happened as mentioned above (e.g., an experience that did not turn out the way you might have imagined) or may have happened gradually over time due to a series of dissatisfying events or experiences. After identifying this it's time to "retell the story"- to reframe the experience in such a way that highlights the lessons learned from the experience(s). This is a chance to (re)discover what the gut was telling you at the time that you made the decision, which can inform future decisions and directions. It's also important to discern whether your gut seems difficult to hear regarding certain types of experiences or events (e.g., relationships, job/career decisions) or if it is global (e.g., it seems quiet with all decisions). If it is the former (e.g., only with certain events or experiences) then you can look to the other times when you were able to hear the gut more clearly and begin to find comfort and confidence in your gut's ability to direct your life. If it feels more global, then you may want to start by sifting through events that have felt successful verses those that have not. Part of your "stuck-ness" may be attributed to a tendency to discount positive experiences and focus on the negative ones, particularly if the fear is of negative outcomes.

I suggest that you try to connect to the gut on a day-to-day basis, starting with small decisions. Pay attention to when you are feeling satisfied and grounded, and use this as your "gut compass" for future decisions. Several weeks ago NPR had a great segment on the show Tell Me More that discussed the gut and highlighted articles from a recent O Magazine that focused specifically on the gut and intuition. Here is a link to the NPR segment, and below are links to a couple of articles from O Magazine that may help as you are becoming better attuned to the gut.

How to Tune In to the Voice Within

When is Intuition Not Intuition?

Be well-
Dr. Stanley