Why Don’t We Listen to our Gut?
“Don’t listen to your heart. It will lead you down painful paths,” an old gypsy once told me, reading the fractured love lines in my palm.
“Don’t listen to your mind. Its calculations will turn you cold,” commented an investment banker, showcasing his ringless hand.
“Listen to your gut,” said a trusted colleague. “It always knows.”
I was given ‘gut advice’ many years ago when deciding to sever a relationship and move to another country for the second year of my MBA.
The choice would affect people I loved. My lower intestines writhed in their imagined pain. Yet the pain was worse when I thought about ditching FOMO, my lifelong accomplice. So I jumped and landed in South America, free.
Last week I discussed our over-analysis and inability to quickly choose and move the hell on. Quick gut processing with some decisions is easy. (e.g. Should I order the lamb?). As one reader pointed out, the luxury of a dinner choice is a benefit of living in an upper class society.
This doesn’t mean choice cannot cause turmoil. Regardless if you live in a hut or a mansion, hard choices can literally make us sick, especially if it goes against society’s expectations or if it has consequences for someone else. We are tempted to ignore any acidic gut gurgling, and just ‘grin and bear it.’
A few weeks ago, I was at a cocktail event overlooking the multi-million dollar homes of San Francisco. I assumed everyone went to bed tightly tucked into down comforters of luxurious lives. Their gut micro-biomes must be happy after perfectly balanced organic meals, right? Yet after a few champagne-induced conversations, many revealed that their heavy comforters made them claustrophobic, giving them cold sweats at 3am. Some even complained of stomach cramps. Whether it was assessing their staff, relationship, or job, something wasn’t right.
“Shelly is so sweet, “ said a suited man about one of his direct reports. “She brings in muffins every Monday. But I think she’s prioritizing baking over finishing her projects. Her analysis never gets done. I’m too scared to ask her the status, and just keep stuffing my face full of crumbs.” Question: Was his gut hungry for what she was making?
“I cannot leave Carl,” said a burgundy-mouthed woman in a hushed tone. Her fiancé was on the other side of the room brandishing his wine glass like a laser pointer, mimicking valuation graphs of his latest startup investments. “I mean, everyone would think I’m crazy. He’s funny and successful. Yet I get acid reflux when I think about spending every day with him for the rest of my life. I keep fantasizing about moving to Argentina and living off the pampas.” Question: Would she be able to stomach society’s ideal of “ever after?”
“I can’t quit!” said a middle-aged technologist. “I want to take a risk to join my friend’s startup but my boss made me who I am. I’m not a millennial that just bounces around. Loyalty means something. Right?” Question: Was the man just acting out of obligation, letting his dreams float away while his gut starved for more?
None of these people were much good at listening to what their insides were trying to tell them. Perhaps they were scared. What if their gut was wrong?
I get it. We all want to fit in and please other people. Much of our self worth derives from thinking that we are doing the “right thing.” Saying “yes” often seems easier than dosing out “no’s” and “stops.”
Whether we are making the decision to end a relationship, a job, or terminate an employee, we hate to be the naysaying wraith that inflicts hurt on someone else, even if it supports what we think, deep down, is the right thing to do.
Knowing what’s right isn’t easy. Emotions can hijack us and throw us into a dungeon of faulty conclusions. The trick is to separate intuition from sensation by thoughtful considerations.
Could the suited man provide more guidance to move his muffin maker to a productive analyst or was there no chance of change?
Could the burgundy mouthed woman find new ways to love her finance or is it impossible to ‘grow’ chemistry ?
Could the technologist find ways to innovate within his own company or was a startup the only way out?
I didn’t have the answers for any of my cocktail compatriots outside of recommending thoughtful meditation and some Pepto Bismol.
The poet William Burroughs was partially right that our mind will “answer most questions if you learn to relax and wait for the answer.” What Burroughs neglected to mention is that we also need a spoonful of courage.
Stepping out of society’s expectations and disappointing people we care about requires bravery. However, we would let them and ourselves down if we keep living a life that doesn’t feel right to us. As I wrote in my last post, we’ll never know if the choices we make are the right ones. But if our gut is aching to tell us something and we do not act, then we are likely making the wrong one.
I do not regret my decision to listen to my gut and explore a new life in Chile. It honored both my gypsy heart and and logical need to gain business skills in another language. The experience opened up doors I didn’t know existed and gave me courage to make bolder leaps in the future. But the best benefit was that my stomach finally stopped churning. Well, except for a few butterfly flurries of adventure.
*This post originally appeared on Medium here.