Avoid Pain, Maximize Success: Listen to and Follow Your Instincts

I’ve decided that this year I’m going to work smarter and harder on things that matter most, I’ll heed the advice of wise mentors even if (especially if) it pushes me outside my comfort zone, and I’m going to pay attention to and act on my instincts.

Listening to and acting on your instincts was the first key habit I listed in another popular post, 10 Habits to Keep You Out of Trouble . There, I wrote about a couple of incidents in my life (and there are many more) where listening to my screaming instincts would have saved me mountains of grief and inconvenience. 

An anonymous reader commented on that post (when it appeared on Psychology Today), challenging me about a "conflict" in my theory. "What if your instinct is not to eat breakfast?" they asked. This indicated to me that the reader hadn’t understood what I meant by the word instinct. If you don’t feel like eating breakfast, most of the possible explanations are physiological or habitual, not instinctual. In fact, I often talk to breakfast-skipping coaching clients about the need to eat breakfast even if they’re not hungry, as they need to retrain the body to activate hunger cues for this much-needed meal.

So what is an instinct? I like this excerpt from the Online Merriam-Webster dictionary definition: the "tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason."

The key here is "not involving reason." When it comes to these inner impulses or "knowings" that may carry a power to save, protect or bless us in some way, the key challenge is to recognize and value the feeling before the rational mind storms in and convinces us to listen to reason, to take whatever course of action is most practical and logical.

Women are apparently more instinctual than men. I enjoy financial guru Dave Ramsey’s advice and he often tells men: "If your wife tells you that there’s something wrong with a person or situation, because she has a ‘feeling’ about it, listen to her, no matter how good it looks, and run away from the deal!"

If you’d like to connect more to this strange yet often uncannily accurate form of wisdom, here are some situations where attention to your instincts can be powerful:

1) Act on your hunches

Hunches can come as a quick flash of insight, or may sit on your heart (or in your gut) for a long time, even on a daily basis, urging you to do something in particular. For a couple of years after I’d started working as a doctor (and had started dancing), something inside me kept telling me to move to a warm country where I could find time to dance and write. I finally acted on that when another, sharper instinct told me the time was NOW, in 2004. That’s when I moved to Mexico. I was there for four years, and the miraculous series of events that ensued changed my life forever.

Acting on that deep knowing, combined with the knowledge of when it was time to go for it, created one of the very best experiences of my entire life. Much of my career today emerged from events that transpired during that era. Many people thought it was a foolish career move for a doctor—thankfully, I didn’t listen to them.

More recently, I was in New York over Christmas and felt a strong instinct that I needed to spend more time there, and soon. It was really weird, as normally I can’t stand big cities. In fact, when I felt this instinctual "hit" while crossing a bridge over the Hudson, I’m pretty sure I said "What?!" out loud. The sense persisted for the rest of the trip, so I booked a return trip when I got home.

I was nervous about it for weeks after, and even considered cancelling as I wasn’t sure if I was being a little nuts (and maybe even irresponsible with my money and time). Sure enough, an amazing series of events unfolded, including a media opportunity, a prestigious speaking engagement, and free admission to a fabulous conference. My instinctual hit was dead on. (Note: all this talk of acting on instincts is obviously for the mentally healthy—I’m not telling people with bipolar disorder, for example, to act on instincts they experience while in a manic or hypomanic state)

2) If you sense something is off about someone, don’t ignore it

Your initial reaction to a person is usually right, and be careful about glossing it over if it doesn’t make sense. An example would be meeting someone who everybody "loves" yet you feel something isn’t quite right. Our tendency is to brush off our gut reaction and say "I must be wrong, look how much everyone likes this person." Proceed cautiously (or not at all), and don’t forget your first impression.

3) Watch out for exciting situations that don’t feel quite right

I once had dinner with someone who wanted to work with me. I was initially really honored and excited that they would even be interested in associating with me, yet as dinner went on I found myself getting uncomfortable about the way they were talking about our partnership. Even though this was our first meeting, they were already talking as if we were in business together, that it was a done deal. I ignored my discomfort, and ended up going along with it.

This person gained a lot of money (from me) through this endeavour, and I got almost nothing in return. Looking back, the uncomfortable feelings I’d felt—as unwelcome as they were at the time—were the truth. As exciting as the opportunity was on the surface, I should have walked away.

4) If your instincts are screaming, turn around and run (even if it’s highly inconvenient or embarrassing)

Look back over your life—can you think of times that your instincts were telling you "no, no, NO!!"but it was too inconvenient or potentially embarrassing to act on? The classic example is the bride who suddenly feels/knows she’s marrying the wrong person, but the dress has been bought, the party has been paid for, and everyone is waiting at the church.

Of course it could be "cold feet", but there are times when we know something and ignore it because it’s too costly in the moment or would upset someone or would make us look bad or crazy. The thing is, if you ignore an inconvenient yet accurate instinct it usually ends up being much, much more costly to you in the long run.

Listening to your instincts takes courage and practice. After all, until you start paying attention to and acting on your instincts, you won’t have the opportunity to verify how accurate they are. In some cases, you may never find out what disaster it is that you averted. I no longer care to experience the negative circumstances that listening to my instincts could have saved me from—and I’m having a great time listening to them.

What’s been your experience with your instincts? Have you had a situation where you listened to a strange instinct and avoided disaster? Or didn’t listen to your instinct and later regretted it? Please share your perspective here by leaving a comment below (you can do so anonymously), I would love to hear about it! 

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2 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    You hit the nail on the head with this article! I’ve had many situations over my lifetime that I could have avoided but one almost cost me my life. I was at a nightclub with friends & I wanted to go home early. As I was walking out the door a man appeared in a suit & tie beside me & said,”Let me walk you to your car, it’s dark in the parking lot & not safe for a woman alone”. I had an instant fear but I chided myself, I’d seen him talking to one of my friends so he must be OK. I was kidnapped, beaten & raped, managed to escape the next day when he finally passed out from taking so many drugs, ran into the street & thankfully was rescued by a good samaritan. I needed reconstructive surgery & extensive dental work to repair & replace broken teeth as well. If I had asked one of my own friends to walk with me, I could have avoided it all. I read somewhere that the difference between animals & humans is that an animal will ALWAYS flee or fight when they sense danger, regardless of whether it is their owner or a stranger, but we humans talk ourselves out of it. RUN!

  2. Matt Cimone says:

    Susan,

    I completely hear you on this. What rung most true was the cost that is sometimes involved in following your instinct, specifically a short-term embarrassment.

    For much of my life, there were a few key individuals who would often question my judgment and I grew to accept that their perception of my decision-making ability was accurate. As a result, I would constantly second guess my decisions and life choices. It was only more recently that I realized most of the choices they questioned were not necessarily because I may be negatively affected, but rather because it would become an inconvenience for somebody. Trying to be a “good” person, I would take this advice to heart in the form of being embarrassed to cause such inconvenience so I would swallow my instincts…and be miserable.

    I recognize now that the creative process is sometimes painful. Whether it’s the formation of new planets catalyzed by an exploding star or the birth of a newborn, there is pain involved to creating something new. I refrained from many of the instincts driving me to create new pathways, or new ideas in my life because I didn’t want to cause any sort of inconvenience to anybody. I recognize now that one cannot live this way. In the long run, I was causing much more pain not only to myself, but to others by ignoring these instincts and drives to live a more creative and risk-taking life.

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