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How I Learned to Trust My Intuition

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.”

Albert Einstein


We are sometimes so focused on achievement and meeting the standards imposed by others, that we disconnect from what we really want and love doing. We disconnect from our authentic self. Even those challenging goals we set for ourselves, are not always our goals. How do we know it? Because we don’t feel any joy once we achieved them. We tick a box and move to the next thing, and we forget to check-in with our heart. When we achieve something that is not in line with what we truly want, we don’t feel any pride and we don’t feel motivated to do more of that. We just don’t feel much of anything.


For a long time I was like that. Doing more and more with every goal that I achieved and every box that I ticked. There was never a finish line, but every achievement was just raising the bar higher and higher. The image I have in my mind is that of poor Boxer, the loyal hard working horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm. Whenever faced with a new life hardship, with a new disappointment or moral conflict, Boxer just kept repeating his credo: “I will work harder. I will work harder”.


As a young adult in my mid twenties, finding my way in the world of business, I learned very fast that work is a competitive space where, if you want to become someone and succeed, you need to work hard, exceed expectations, comply, prove yourself and impress others with how smart and reliable you are. Success seemed to have a clear recipe, but as I was looking around, I could not see anyone who was getting there. Everyone was running towards a distant future dream, like a Fata Morgana, but nobody knew how it actually felt like to be there. There was always a next thing that everyone was chasing.


What I also soon learned was that business was a tough game and no place for being soft and emotional. I was told that words like I feel, I hope and other touchy-feely expressions from the emotional repertoire, should be banned. They can make you lose credibility and diminish your power and authority. They can make you look weak and insecure. We should rather stick to facts, numbers and logical data at all cost.


I had internalized this idea so deeply, that any sign of emotion or intuition coming to surface, made me feel uncomfortable and insecure. I focused on using my analytical and logical left brain for so long, that I switched off completely from my intuitive and creative right brain. I lost touch with my authentic self, because I shut off an important part of who I was.

But as I started to practice mindfulness during the last few years, I realized how wrong I was to switch off and disconnect from my intuitive side. To start with, I realized I had an intuitive side, which was already a huge milestone, coming from being the one who didn’t believe in any spiritual mumbo jumbo. Moreover, as I started to reflect more on my life and who I was, I also realized that intuition has served me well many times, when I was standing at a crossroad and needed to take life changing decisions.


I remember when I was in the ninth grade, the first year of high school, and I felt like a complete outsider. I was still playing table tennis and had enrolled to the sports school, where we studied four hours a day and had no homework. I was shocked by how low the standards were, and everything felt completely off. So one day, out of nowhere, I asked my mother if I could move to another school. Somewhere studying was actually taken seriously. My mom was confused, as most teenagers of my age wanted to study less, not more. But that decision I took then, was the result of a feeling. The result of listening to an inner voice saying this is not the place for you, move on.


Every time I changed jobs or moved on to a different place, I noticed a similar pattern. At some point, the environment I was in, didn’t feel right anymore. Even when there were enough objective reasons to stay, something was telling me it was time to move on. I like to call this a “Goldilocks moment”. Like in the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, when there are too many times that I hear myself saying “it’s too hot” or “it’s too cold”, I know it’s time to act on that gut feeling. This doesn’t mean I take decisions fully based on an impulse. But that feeling tells me it’s time to stop and reflect on the situation. It’s time to gather all the facts, look at the situation from all angles and take a decision.



What Is Intuition Anyway?


If we look at the official definition of the word, intuition is the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning, but rather based on feelings. Another word for intution is instict, and when we say instint, we immediately make an easier connection to our evolution as human beings. Paul D. McLean developed a theory of the brain evolution that he called the triun brain, to explain in an oversimplified way the main functions of the three parts of the brain. You can also watch this very short explanatory video from Robert Sapolsky to better understand how these three parts of the brain work together:


1. The reptilian brain gives us the the same wiring that reptiles have and it’s 500 million years old. It’s responsible for all the regulatory functions like body temperature changes that cause sweat and shiver, our instinctive responses, body sensations and impulses. The reptilian brain is involved with primitive drives related to thirst, hunger, sexuality, and territoriality, as well as habits like putting your keys in the same place every day without thinking about it or riding a bike. This part of the brain gives us automatic responses and makes us act instinctively and unconsciously.


2. The limbic system that we inherit from mammals is 150 million years old and responsible for our emotions. Especially the amygdala, plays a vital role in controlling various emotional behaviors, such as fear, rage, anxiety. The fight or flight response, also known as acute stress response, is a survival mechanism that allows individuals to react promptly to a life-threatening situation. The limbic system plays a pivotal role in controlling such behavior.


3. The neocortex, only 200.000 years old is the logical and rational brain that differentiates humans from other mammals. It controls language and consciousness. The neocortex is also involved in higher functions like motor commands, sensory perception, conscious thought, and spatial reasoning. It builds connections between the different parts of the brain.


These different layers of our brain talk to each other constantly and influence each other both from bottom up (when we’re hungry, we are easily irritated and we take poorer decisions) and from top down (when we feel strong emotions, our heart beats faster, we sweat or feel sick to our stomach).


When we talk about intuition, we talk about certain automatisms that we either have built in our biology through human evolution, or we formed in time, by repeating certain actions, thoughts and behaviors until they formed into habits. Let’s call these native intuition and acquired intuition.


The native intuition, which comes with our standard packaging as humans, can be easily observed in the behavior of children. Small children have no understanding of cultural rules, they don’t know what is polite and what not, they don’t behave in socially accepted ways, in order to gain acceptance and recognition of others. They act on their first impulses and do whatever they feel like in the moment. Children say things like “you’re ugly” and they hide behind their mom’s legs when they are afraid. Their behavior is in large part determined by the reptilian and limbic brains. Only as their social and cognitive functions develop, they start learning how to regulate their impulses and emotions and they start developing socially accepted behaviors, that sometimes go against their natural and instinctual responses.


In her fascinating book, How to do the work, Dr. Nicole LePera goes deep in analyzing how social pressure and the way in which we were parented, can disconnect us from our authentic self and from who we were as children. We end up living a life that is not aligned with who we are (personality, motivations and beliefs) and what we truly want in life (fulfilling work, loving relationships and memorable experiences). Dr. LePera explains that when we feel that lack of coherence and alignment in our life, connecting to our intuition can get us unstuck. What she means by intuition is an innate and unconscious wisdom that can guide us in the right direction, when we feel lost.


“It’s the evolutionarily driven gut instinct that helped keep us alive throughout human history and still speaks to us; it’s that feeling of the hair on the back of our neck standing up when we walk down a dark alley alone, it’s the deep belly feeling of distrust we get when we encounter someone we have no logical reason to doubt, it’s that spine tingle we get when we meet someone we know is special. This is your intuitive Self speaking from your soul through your physiology.” Nicole LePera


When we are raised by parents who constantly tell us what to do, criticize us and deny our own reality, we start disconnecting from our intuition and may end up rejecting it and not trusting it anymore. The same happens at work, when we are surrounded by unsupportive peers, know-it-all critical bosses and a toxic environment where success is solely defined by achievement, results and status.



Expert Intuition. When It Helps...


The other type of intuition that we all have, is the one we acquired through experience and expertise. This type of intuition is equally based on feelings and facts. But the kind of facts that our conscious memory cannot retrieve anymore, so they’re more difficult to grasp. This happens when we have a deja-vu and the answer to a problem at hand, just comes to us out of nowhere. Researchers at Leeds University concluded that intuition is a very real psychological process where the brain uses past experiences and cues from the self and the environment to make a decision. The decision happens so quickly that it doesn’t register on a conscious level.


One interesting body of work that looks at this very closely, is Gary Klein’s research on firefighters and the way they make quick intuitive decisions in times of crisis. He looked at behaviors and situations that showed how expertise manifests itself by seeing patterns that other people don’t see. An experienced firefighter who saw thousands of fires in many different contexts, will be able to predict with accuracy how a fire behaves and what actions should be taken next. What seems like intuition from the outside, is a matter of experience generating automatic responses.


The same can be said of chess masters who can announce a checkmate in five moves or a doctor who names a clear diagnosis in a glance. Expert intuition looks like magic, but it’s not. Herbert Simon, who studied chess masters, showed that after thousands of hours of practice they come to see the pieces on the board differently from the rest of us:


“The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”

...and When It Doesn’t


Intuition is part of who we are and it can be a great guide when we get stuck. After all, it helped us and the generations before us, to survive. But it can also trick us and make us behave in a biased way. If this wasn’t true, we wouldn’t have an entire field of research called behavioral economics, studying how people make irrational decisions, in a very predictable way. Daniel Kahneman’s famous book Thinking Fast and Slow, provides an in depth analysis into common situations in which over relying on our intuition and automatic responses, leads to poor judgment and bad decisions.


When we are faced with a complex problem that does not have one obvious solution through previous experience and expertise, intuition actually tricks us: as it cannot retrieve an immediate answer, it finds an easier substitute that comes handy, but actually, it’s not the answer to the original question. The answer is based on a collection of stereotypes, cognitive biases and other automatisms we formed over time.


One place to find such examples is during job interviews. When a recruiter sees the candidate, she might have an objective list of criteria and skills and competencies to be met and checked. But as the candidate starts talking about the school she went to and what she enjoyed most during her studies, an unconscious connection is being formed, when for example the recruiter went to the same school and has similar passions. Her intuition is fast in telling her, she’s the right candidate, she’s one of us, even before she checked if the candidate had all the right competencies.


As social animals, we want to belong, we want to be accepted in the group and therefore we are more attracted to the familiar. It’s an unconscious, automatic reaction, the behavior of System 1, as Kahneman calls it. In situations that involve people and especially when rating other people, your intuition will tell you very fast if it’s the right or wrong person, based on social cues and body language. But relying on intuition alone, can mislead you into taking the wrong decision long term.


5 Ways to Reconnect With Your Intuition


The process of reconnecting to our intuition is in many ways similar to the process that activates our creativity. It’s a process that some of the most extraordinary inventors and artists like Salvador Dali or Thomas Edison have been using. It’s shifting between two modes: diffuse and focused, like Barbara Oakley calls it. When we are in a diffuse mode, our brain is relaxed, more connected to the subconscious, wondering. This state can be achieved by day dreaming, doing a visualization exercise, taking a walk in nature, taking a bath or hot shower.

Salvador Dali was practicing what he called “sleeping without sleeping”. He was taking a nap while holding a spoon in his hand, so whenever he was falling asleep and the spoon fell on the plate laid on the floor, he would wake up and continue working. Like that, he was shifting between the unconscious dreamy state and his conscious endeavors, and so, more creative ideas were coming to surface.


These five practical ways to reconnect to our intuition is not an exhaustive list, nor a scientific one. It’s based on my own experience and experiments that worked for me. Everyone is different, so you have to try different methods and see what works for you. If you are already a pro at connecting to your intuition, you might want to be careful to not over rely on it. There is always a risk to take biased decisions that turn out bad on the long run.


1. Listen to Your Body

When you are in a Goldilocks situation and something feels too hot or too cold, listen to what your body tells you. Take a few minutes before you take any decision and observe your reactions, without judging. Maybe your muscles feel tense, your heart is racing, your palms are sweating. You might feel a weakness in your knees, or butterflies in your stomach or you feel dizzy and light headed.


These are all cues you should pay attention to and not dismiss as unimportant. If you are not sure what they mean or when they occur, keep a journal for a few weeks and see if you discover some patterns.


You might feel your heart racing every time you pay for lunch. Why is that? Could it be that you feel some guilt because once again you didn’t take the time to plan a healthy lunch and instead you ordered take away? Sometimes our intuition is very fast to tell us when we are not aligned to our values and inner promises.


2. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is all about slowing down, paying attention and experiencing the moment. Meditation was the practice that stuck with me and helped me understand my emotions and develop more self awareness. But I know it’s not a practice that everyone likes. Luckily, there are so many other ways to practice mindfulness and connect with our creative, subconscious mind. A long walk, without headphones, without talking on the phone or anything else that keeps our mind busy, is a great gift you can give yourself.


When you let your mind wonder, it creates connections you didn’t know were even possible. Why do you think that the best ideas come under the shower or in bath?


There are plenty of apps you can try. I personally used Headspace for a couple of years, when I was a beginner meditator. The Headspace courses were a great foundation, but after a while, I felt there was too much distraction and noise around all the new videos and courses they were launching. Once I got my Oura ring, I started to use the meditation space offered with the Oura app. Another app I am using for more than a year now, is Synctuition. It’s a great way to relax for 20 minutes and I feel it really helps me be more creative.


3. Understand Your Ego(s)

Before I started to learn about ego and how it manifests in my daily experiences and interactions, I always thought that having an ego is a bad thing. That somehow it would bring the worst of me up to the surface. But egos exist to protect us. We all have a certain narrative about who we are, and that narrative was shaped since our childhood. If we were always praised by parents and friends about how smart we were, we ended up believing that about ourselves: I am smart.


The ego is the “I” identity, our sense of self and self worth. So when that identity is under threat, let’s say when we’re in a meeting and someone disagrees with us, our ego will jump in to protect us. We will feel our heart racing faster, we’ll want to fight back, bring counter arguments, have the last word. We will want to prove that we are smart.


Ego can sometimes inhibit our intuition, especially when it goes against some narratives or ideas that are deeply rooted in our identity, since our childhood. I wrote before about my experience from high school when the history teacher told me to not express my ideas freely, but learn the lesson by heart instead, because my vocabulary was not rich enough. As I internalized the criticism and complied, I developed this belief about myself that I am not spontaneous and I cannot express myself freely. I need to prepare extensively, to study, to learn more, before I could express. So every time I was in a new situation where my intuition was telling me “just do it, give it a try”, my ego was holding me back, protecting me from a possible failure.


With time, I disconnected more and more from that inner voice that encouraged me to try things, and I fell into the perfectionism trap. Once I started to observe my egos in action, I developed a toolbox of coping mechanisms that help me overcome those challenging situations.


If you want to do the work for yourself, you can start by watching this video from Dr. Nicole LePera. Also, reading her book, How to do the work, could be the best investment in yourself this year.


4. Ask Questions

There is an idea in creativity theory that in order to get to new ideas, you need to connect your conscious and unconscious mind. One way to do this is by asking a question and writing it down. You can have an idea notebook or just a folder in your Notes app. You ask the question without looking for an answer immediately. Let’s imagine you are looking for a new job, but you are not sure what direction to take. You can start by asking yourself “What type of work would I love doing everyday?” Then you put the question aside and let it incubate.


What happens is that your unconscious mind was activated and intrigued by the question and starts running in the background. You will notice more often what you like to do and what not, you might even see new opportunities that you were not noticing before. When talking to people, you will observe how they talk about their work and what they love doing. Gradually, your mind keeps working that difficult question and while you are talking to an acquaintance about her new job, you’ll have an aha moment, realizing that’s what you were looking for.


This doesn't mean it always works, and you will magically find an answer to any question. But by shifting from the conscious, rational part of the brain to the unconscious and creative brain, you start making connections that were not there before.


5. Sleep On It

Getting enough sleep is a meta habit that has a positive spillover effect on all areas of our life, including decision making and creativity. Dreams are the brain’s way of processing data from the unconscious, and information that’s left over from the previous days. It is well known that paying attention to what we dream of, can give us valuable information that we cannot easily access when we area awake.


I know people who keep a small notebook next to the bedside and write down what they can remember, first thing as they wake up. I intend to do the same, for a short 30-days challenge somewhere this year. I will come back with some additional insights. What works for me to increase the quality and the lenght of my sleep is to do a short meditation or visualization just before I go to sleep, I increase the time spent in REM sleep. There are a few additional tips to increase the REM sleep time, from Oura.


I often reflect on those things I wish I knew twenty years ago. Trusting my intuition and staying connected to my creative self are definitely two of those things. For a long time I was too focused on accumulating experience after experience, proving my worth and struggling to fit in. I was hungry to learn and understand how everything in my world worked, like a magic sponge absorbing any type of material. I know now that not everything was worthwhile being absorbed and not everything was aligned to what I needed, or who I was. I wish I spent more time with myself and took better care of myself in my twenties and thirties. Or maybe that’s just part of the process of growing up. Maybe that’s just how life is. We need to take in more than we need, in order to filter out the noise later. I like Bruce Lee’s credo to be more like water. To fully embrace what’s coming our way and adapt to changes. And when we remind ourselves to use our intuition as a sacred gift, we have the potential to create amazing things.


P.S. I am curious to hear about your own relationship with intuition. What resonated with you? Write me at heysparkingdrive@gmail.com.


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You can always ask me a question or schedule a Free Change Strategy discovery session, by writing me at heysparkingdrive@gmail.com or in the Contact form.


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