How To *Actually* Follow Your Intuition

Don’t ignore the signs your body is sending you.

by Raven Ishak and Jay Polish
Originally Published: 
Experts explain how to know if your intuition is talking to you and how to listen.
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Sometimes you get a strong feeling that now the right time to pursue something, but you still wonder if it’s worth the risk. And whenever you ask your friends, they sagely encourage you to “trust your gut.” That’s all well and good, but when you don’t know how to follow your intuition in the first place, it’s not necessarily the most helpful advice. Figuring out how to know when your intuition is talking to you can be difficult for some. And spoiler: That gut feeling can actually be pretty helpful.

"Intuition is that sneaking suspicion that you feel when something is not right, but you can't put your finger on why,” licensed clinical psychologist Sarah Schewitz, Psy.D., tells Bustle. “Intuition can be a powerful guiding force and is more developed for some than others. Some people feel a strong urge or sense in their core when something is wrong, while others with a less developed intuition might feel a small inkling that they aren't really sure how to interpret.”

It’s OK if you’re not sure whether those butterflies in your stomach mean “take the leap!” or “run away” — intuition could potentially be telling you either of these things. You also might get your intuition confused with your scared ego and maybe even an inferiority complex, as Julie Holmes, a New York city-based life coach, explains.

"When you're taking risks in life that feel bigger than maybe what you think you can handle, there will always be some sort of resistance,” Holmes tells Bustle. “The scared ego usually shows up when you're about to do something new and different in your life, but in the end [it will] be beneficial. It could be a job promotion, being more social, or doing something outside of your comfort zone. Scared ego is usually scared of either failure or rejection.” If you’re doing something out of fear that you’re not good enough, Holmes says, you might want to go in the other direction.

Learning to listen to your gut feeling has a lot to do with trust — which can be hard when fear is involved. “To follow your intuition means that you do not have to put conscious thought into making a decision,” says Brooklyn-based therapist Bernie Crowl, MHC-LP. “It simply comes naturally and with no judgment.”

Of course, as Crowl explains, not judging yourself is easier said than done, especially when many people have been taught not to trust their own judgment. In fact, licensed psychotherapist Jaime Mahler says that she sees lack of self-trust as a major phenomenon in her millennial and Gen Z clients. “A cultural narrative that I see weaving through a lot of us — especially millennials and Gen Z — is that we struggle with trusting ourselves,” Mahler tells Bustle. “When there's a struggle with self-trust, there's most likely going to be a struggle with intuition, too, because that's part of it.”

So, how are you supposed to trust your gut if you’re not sure if you should trust yourself? Whether you want to know how you can follow your gut or learn to be more self-aware, here are 14 ways to know if your intuition is trying to tell you something and how to listen to it.


You Notice A Tight Feeling In Your Chest Or Stomach


Sometimes your gut instinct is so strong that you have physical signs of intuition. While some people might feel a peaceful feeling within their heart, others may notice their gut is trying to communicate by evoking a sinking feeling instead. "Many people describe their intuition as a feeling in their chest or stomach,” Schewitz says. “Often, it comes as a tightness in those areas and the feeling that something is off.” Butterflies and sweaty palms are also common physical effects.


You Feel Confident & Happy Even When The Decision Doesn't Seem Rational

Ever have those moments where you daydream about quitting your job, but you don't for financial reasons? That moment of clarity is your intuition trying to speak to you. While it might not sound like a logical answer, the thought you're having may actually be the answer you've been looking for. "When your intuition speaks to you, and when you learn to tune into it, you will feel confidence and clarity when it speaks,” Schewitz explains. “When your scared ego is speaking, you will feel fear and uncertainty.”


You Might Feel Hyper-Aware

Intuition can manifest itself in feeling hyper-aware of your environment and your senses getting heightened in some way — be it your sense of smell, sound, sight, and so on. Paying attention to these sorts of clues, as Mahler explains, can help you realize that your intuition is telling you something, particularly protective intuition.

“You might notice the lights get brighter or sounds get almost louder,” says Mahler. “It's almost like your brain has gotten keyed into something. That would be, to me, a sign of something internally trying to speak to you, and your intuition is getting almost more to the forefront of your brain.”


The Same Opportunities Keep Knocking On Your Door

"The way I knew that my intuition was trying to talk to me was in hindsight. Opportunity kept knocking on my shoulder and finally I noticed. Regretfully sometimes it took years," says career coach Jill MacFadyen, MSIR, ACC.

When your intuition tries to communicate with you, it may try to get your attention by forcing you to notice little patterns throughout your life. Been wanting to find a new job, but afraid to take the plunge? Your intuition may subtly let you notice certain career articles or job postings to help get your attention.


You Start Noticing Patterns

One of the telltale signs that you should be listening to and following your intuition is when you start detecting patterns. The fallout of ignoring the patterns we are attuned to pick up on can put us in vulnerable situations, be it intense scenarios or smaller situations. “It's that we're failing to recognize a pattern that our brain was already establishing for us,” Mahler says. “Our brain was actually connecting some of those dots.”


You May Notice Your Thoughts Are Being Pulled In A Certain Direction


Your intuition is usually there to guide you in the right direction, but figuring out how to know if your intuition is right can be difficult. After all, sometimes you miss the signs altogether or choose to ignore them. However, if you continue to notice that your brain wanders back to a particular thought, you might want to slow down and investigate why you're feeling this way.

"Often, I teach my students that if you are getting intuitive hints about things, and you don't listen to them, they will keep showing up in different ways,” John explains. “Looks for patterns, repeating thoughts, and repeating pulls in certain directions. Pay attention to when you feel pulled by something that seems out of the ordinary or surprising. Pay attention to those thoughts that seem to 'pop' in out of nowhere. Remember, intuition does not come from the logical brain.” Of course, if you feel these thoughts are not serving you in a positive way, they might be a result of anxiety or another mental health concern — and it’s worth pausing to consider whether you should listen to them.


You May Notice Your Instinct & Intuition Are Not In Sync

Sometimes your rational instinct (aka your ego) will try to protect you from failure or making a mistake, as evidenced by a 2008 study published in the Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. While your instinct is there to help you survive, your intuition will sometimes try to fight against your fears of failure so you can go after your dreams. "Instinct and intuition are different,” John says. “Instinct is an automatic response that has to do with survival. Intuition is more evolved and focused on your highest good. For example, your instinct may be to stay at your job because it is safe and secure, while your intuition may guide you to leave your job and start your own business.”

Psychotherapist Lillyana Morales, LMHC, says these instincts may take the form of ingrained coping mechanisms that no longer serve you. Maybe shoving down your feelings all the time helped make you safer as a kid, but you might notice that this instinct is hurting your relationships now.

To help distinguish when your intuition is serving you well and it’s not, Morales advises practicing some visualization — perhaps with the help of your therapist. “Envision a bunch of shelves and ask yourself what you have done to survive thus far,” she suggests. “Imagine placing those preferable and non-preferable coping tools on the shelves, and explore what has been easily accessible and what has been out of reach. As we develop new, preferable tools in therapy, we can start re-organizing those shelves. The more options people have on their coping shelves that are accessible, the less they find themselves using old tools that they may no longer need anymore.”


You Feel Uneasy About A Certain Situation

When you listen to your intuition, you’ll likely feel happy, but if you choose to ignore it, a wave of uneasiness may come over you. For instance, you may choose to listen to your ego to make a safe but wrong decision, instead of listening to what your heart is trying to tell you. If you’re being mistreated, but people around you are trying to pass it off as “no big deal,” it can become a lot harder to trust your gut feeling. Your intuition might be glaring red flags at you through stomachaches or chest pains, but if the people around you say they’re not seeing what you see, it can impact your relationship with your instincts.

Morales says you can help yourself out by paying attention to what your body is saying. “When we go inward, we can notice where the body is experiencing any sensations or tension and explore what emotions are connected to them,” Morales explains. “Getting attuned to the emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations will give you information to make choices of what feels right for you in any given situation.”


You May Feel Sick

When you don't listen to your intuition, you may actually cause more stress in your life. Physical signs like anxiety symptoms or being sick may slowly creep into your life because your intuition is trying to tell you you need a change.

"Physical signs in the early stages might feel like something's not quite right or something feels off,” Holmes explains. “As many of us tend to ignore our intuition, the feeling will naturally grow to something more severe like anxiety — even depression can be a physical sign that you are not living life the way you know you want to be. If these more obvious feelings are ignored, ultimately our body can manifest illness as an extreme way of letting us know we need to make some kind of change in our life.”


You Have A Sense This Feeling Won't Go Away

There likely is a reason why that particular thought keeps on popping up in your head: Your intuition is likely trying to speak to you. Be more receptive to these subtle nuances so you can allow your life to flow much easier. "The best way to determine if it is your intuition telling you something is that you will have the sense that it 'won't go away,’” says licensed psychologist Anita Marchesani, Ph.D. “In other words, that sensation of knowing you should or should not do something simply keeps dogging you.”


You May Feel Inspired

When your intuition is speaking to you and you are following it, you may feel more inspired and excited, as explained in a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology. This could happen after watching a motivating YouTube video or listening to a podcast. Hearing others' words of wisdom can help direct your thoughts and spark your own intuition. "Your intuition might start with a feeling of happiness or excitement [if it's about something good], while stronger intuition might be desire or an impulse to do something creative or beneficial for either yourself or others," Holmes says.


You May Experience More Vivid Dreams


While much of sleep science remains a mystery, dreaming about falling off a building or being chased by a giant spider could actually be your intuition trying to talk to you — that’s according to some research, including a 2017 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

"Intuition can come in many forms,” says celebrity psychic medium Thomas John. “Dreams are a major way that spirit communicates, too. It is important to also document your experience. Because intuition often does not have a specific timestamp, sometimes we can intuitively pick up things about our past, present, and future. I tell my students to make notes and journal about specific feelings, impressions, or senses they have.”


You Find Clarity When You're Not Busy

Have you ever had those "ah-ha!" moments when you’re in the shower or driving your car? That's an example of your intuition trying to talk to you. When you allow your mind to rest (i.e. meditation), your mind opens up and allows your thoughts and emotions to flow through. "Your intuition talks to you when you are less busy, when you sleep, when are you not trying to push for it, when you take your mind off what you are seeking," MacFadyen says.


You Find Yourself Pausing Mentally

For many, this is one of the hardest things to train yourself to do, but it is very beneficial when it comes to following intuition. “When we're developing tools or strategies of trusting ourselves, it literally is practicing pausing in the moment,” says Mahler. “I usually use the phrase ‘practice the pause.’”

As an example, if you’re packing for a trip and have an overwhelming sense of dread, pause and ask yourself why you’re feeling this way. Is it just a little bit of travel anxiety? Or is your brain telling you something because the group of people you’re going to be spending the next few days with makes you uncomfortable? “You're exercising a skill in that moment by pausing and saying, ‘Hold on. Where is this coming from?’” Mahler says. Doing this is a big step in learning to listen to your own intuition.

Following intuition can be tricky, but there are definitely ways to train yourself to be more aware of when your gut is talking to you and when to trust it. As with most things related to internal reflection, putting in effort and trying to be honest with yourself is the first step. The more you listen to your intuition, the happier and secure you’ll likely feel about the choices you make.

Studies referenced:

de Heer, E. W., Palacios, J. E., Adèr, H. J., van Marwijk, H., Tylee, A., & van der Feltz-Cornelis, C. M. (2020). Chest pain, depression and anxiety in coronary heart disease: Consequence or cause? A prospective clinical study in primary care. Journal of psychosomatic research, 129, 109891.

Berry, A. S., Jagust, W. J., & Hsu, M. (2019). Age-related variability in decision-making: Insights from neurochemistry. Cognitive, affective & behavioral neuroscience, 19(3), 415–434.

Pronin, E., Olivola, C. Y., & Kennedy, K. A. (2008). Doing unto future selves as you would do unto others: psychological distance and decision making. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 34(2), 224–236.

Settineri, S., Frisone, F., Alibrandi, A., & Merlo, E. M. (2019). Emotional Suppression and Oneiric Expression in Psychosomatic Disorders: Early Manifestations in Emerging Adulthood and Young Patients. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1897.

Jaeger, B., Evans, A. M., Stel, M., & van Beest, I. (2019). Explaining the persistent influence of facial cues in social decision-making. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 148(6), 1008–1021.

Paulson, S., Barrett, D., Bulkeley, K., & Naiman, R. (2017). Dreaming: a gateway to the unconscious?. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1406(1), 28–45.


Sarah Schewitz, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist

Julie Holmes, New York city-based life coach

Bernie Crowl, MHC-LP, Brooklyn-based therapist

Jaime Mahler, licensed psychotherapist

Lillyana Morales, L.M.H.C., psychotherapist

Jill MacFadyen, M.S.I.R., A.C.C., career coach

Anita Marchesani, Ph.D., licensed psychologist

Thomas John, celebrity psychic medium

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