Instincts aren't just something to dismiss from your psychological arsenal. No, you shouldn't buy a car based on which sales pitch sets off the smallest amount of alarm bells in your gut; but psychology is increasingly looking into the fundamentals behind "gut feelings," and where they actually come from. The current psychological position, according to Psychology Today, is that instincts are in fact responses to real events or stimuli, but that those stimuli are so fleeting or subtle that we're not conscious of reacting to them. So-called intuition is a judgement based on experience and evidence, but the evidence is "hidden": a half-caught facial expression, a tone of voice, a subtle signal. We're social creatures and can detect huge subtleties in many situations. And there are certain signals that we definitely shouldn't dismiss as "irrational" or over-the-top.
Trusting your perceptions can be particularly difficult if they're inconvenient, mean difficult courses of action, or go against what everybody else says. If the overwhelming perception of a person or situation is "this is fine," you can feel as if protesting isn't a rational course of action. But it's your right to trust what you're sensing about the world, particularly if it centers on your safety or the safety of others.
Here are five situations in which you absolutely shouldn't dismiss your feelings as irrational or nonsensical. Chances are that they could be based on solid evidence, either about yourself or about the world around you.
1. "This Person Isn't Treating Me Properly"
Perceptions of mistreatment can be particularly difficult to parse because, in some abusive situations, "gaslighting" can diminish a person's trust in their own reactions and ideas. Named after the 1940s noir film about a woman being driven slowly mad, gaslighting is the practice, usually in intimate relationships, of gradually breaking down somebody's faith in their own perspective. "No, you're remembering that wrong;" "that didn't happen;" "what are you talking about, I didn't say that" are all common gaslighting phrases. The National Domestic Hotline defines it as "an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power". If you're subject to this, it can be very difficult to trust your thoughts about what's actually happening to you, and how you should feel about it.
This doesn't have to be the case, though. Worrying that a person, whether it's a housemate, a partner, a business associate, or a friend isn't treating you correctly doesn't have to come from a place of deliberate abuse. It can just be clouded by your affection, your loyalty, your wish not to "rock the boat," and your worry that you're "blowing things out of proportion". But if you feel fundamentally disrespected, are frequently upset or distracted by their treatment, and/or tense before you pick up the phone or interact with them, you should listen to your feelings.
If you want a good set of guidelines to poor treatment in friendships and workmates, Michele Corvi at the Huffington Post has an excellent list of negative signs — including the note that you should trust your intuition about them the first few times you meet them, as you're likely picking up cues you don't consciously recognize.
2. "I Don't Feel Safe"
Interestingly, there's a very strong physical component to the sensation of "intuition". A Scientific American examination of the topic found that a study revealed that people who could "intuit" the correct answer in a card game were actually just paying attention to their heart rates, but weren't aware of the fact. And knowing the physical root of intuitive feelings can be very helpful in situations where you feel unsafe.
There are circumstances in which your intuition of danger can be "off," and they're all dependent on your experience. If you've been mugged in an alley, you're very likely to feel alleys are unsafe in the future, even if they're fully lit and look fine. Scientific American also pointed out that children who come from traumatic backgrounds can have their intuitive body reactions destabilized, and feel threatened and unsafe in situations other people don't; the same is true of adults with PTSD. But there's something crucial about this: just because it's "off" doesn't mean it's not real or valid. If you need to avoid alleys to feel safe, avoid alleys. You're not being irrational or idiotic. If you don't feel safe, you should not repress that feeling. Your immediate priority is your own physical and mental protection.
3. "I Feel Worthless And Distressed"
This is less about intuition and more about taking very deep negative feelings seriously. It can be tricky to recognize that our emotions aren't in the realm of the "normal" anymore; Psych Central explains that being in denial is a common reaction to the development of a mood disorder, particularly depression. This is often the result of misconceptions about mental illnesses (that they happen to "other people," that they involve being "crazy," and that what the person is experiencing can be defeated by pure force of will).
You'd think that looking at emotions of deep distress and worthlessness and recognizing them as irrational might be helpful in the context of mental health; after all, they usually aren't exactly built on sound foundations of evidence. But it's the dismissal that's the problem. Looking at seriously worrying emotions, from bad anxiety to crippling depression, and depicting them as just "overreacting" or "being silly" is devaluing the reality of the situation. If you're feeling deeply upset, miserable, anxious, panicked, fearful and don't know exactly why, or come out of an episode and look back on it with confusion, don't dismiss it as weakness; talk to somebody sympathetic and seek out help.
4. "I Think Somebody Is Being Abused Or Mistreated"
Thinking that somebody is in a problematic situation without obvious evidence can be a very tricky position to be in. It can be seriously tempting to sweep it under the rug and think you're over-analyzing or being excessively cautious, but it may be that you've caught certain signs that indicate something isn't right.
Safer Families Safer Communities points out that many of the signs of an abusive relationship are subtle and difficult to detect: they may make strange excuses, seem subdued or upset when their partner is around, withdraw socially, or be angry for no apparent reason. You may simply have an uncomfortable feeling when you're around the person and their partner, parent, or whoever's responsible; even if the person you know is trying (too hard) to make everything look perfect, you may still have the niggling sensation of a problem.
If you do worry that somebody is being abused or mistreated, the Office on Women's Health has an excellent guide on what you can do to help them. It's specifically targeted towards women in abusive domestic relationships; if it's a child, the NSPCC has a guide for that.
5. "I Am Not Coping With This Situation"
Your perceptions of your own boundaries are something to be trusted. If you're feeling overtaxed, pushed beyond what you can cope with, or unnecessarily burdened, that's not a feeling to dismiss. Personal boundaries, according to an excellent definition by Essential Life Skills, are "the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others." And when we're pushed beyond those limits, it's an important emotion to recognize.
If you feel you just can't take any more, learning to say "no" in a diplomatic, polite way can be a valuable skill. The Counseling Directory advises that you can have several strategies beyond a blunt "nope," including checking in with your own emotions before responding to a request, and avoiding explanations or apologies. Always listen to your limits; if some part of you thinks you can't cope, it needs to be attended to.
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