Intuition has an image problem, I reckon. It’s often blamed for leading us astray, but in fact when things go badly for us, that’s usually a result of following our instincts, not our intuition. Unfortunately, many of us struggle to distinguish between intuition and instinct… including myself, and it can lead us constantly second-guessing ourselves. Previously I’ve tended to use the words ‘instincts’ and ‘intuition’ interchangeably, but what I’ve learned in recent times is that they’re actually not the same thing. So what’s the difference?
Your intuition is your connection with the divine. It’s the channel for messages from your angels, your spirit guides, your higher self and the Universe, which can be transmitted in the form of feelings, thoughts, sounds and visions. By contrast, your instinct is an impulse that rises up within you in response to events or circumstances – and in my experience, it’s often fear in disguise. For example, when my partner and I are arguing, my instinct is to run away from the situation or stonewall him. (It goes without saying that I am not exactly proud of this.) But my intuition is generally telling me the only way out is through, and that something important will be learned if I sit down with him and talk it out. On a good day I’ll listen to that voice. On a not-so-good day I’ll defer to a familiar pattern of avoidance – and luckily, I’m in a relationship with someone who is not afraid to call me out on that BS.
Want to read more about the ways we dismiss our intuition? Read this post.
In one of her many insightful Facebook posts (read it here), author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about how following her instincts has led her to make some not-entirely-healthy choices, such as jumping into ill-advised love affairs, eating junk food to make herself feel better and buying stuff she could not afford. On some level these choices probably seemed like a good idea at the time, and I imagine it probably felt as if something unconscious was driving them. That’s because instincts are driven by impulses and reflexes, which means they don’t necessarily reflect what is truly right for you. What I believe is this: following your instinct is not the same thing as making a divinely guided decision.
FIGURING OUT THE DIFFERENCE
Recognising whether a guiding sensation is coming from your intuition or instinct isn’t always easy, but these tips should help.
Firstly, your impulse is usually automatic. It kicks in right away and it generally carries a sense of urgency. For example, if you’re struggling and someone close to you asks you how you’re doing, your instinct might be to suppress the truth, don the ‘I’m coping’ mask and immediately respond: ‘Fine thanks.’ By contrast, your intuition would probably tell you to be authentic and to share your real feelings with your friend. To use my earlier example, when I’m wanting to run away from an issue in my relationship, that impulse is driven by a desire to protect myself from hurt and the (perceived) risk of rejection – yep, it’s pure fear. My intuition, however, is generally telling me that we can only make relationships stronger when we show up and sit in that vulnerable place, express our feelings and come up with solutions together.
Your intuition will not rush you, because it knows you’ve got time. It will communicate messages infused with love rather than imbued with panic. And – as vague as this sounds – it just feels right. When you’ve experienced an intuitive message, and you compare that to the energy that an instinctive message carries, there’s just no comparison. Intuition has a feeling of authenticity that you can’t deny (although if it’s telling you something you really don’t want to hear, you might opt to employ some super unhelpful denial tactics!).
Secondly, instincts are normally habit-based – and Gilbert’s example of turning to food for comfort certainly speaks to this. The ego, the part of you that wants to keep you safe, is very fond of familiarity and routine. That’s because if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll know how things will play out and you’ll always have control over situations – if there’s one thing that makes the ego feel unsafe, it’s a lack of control. (It goes without saying that the ego is not terribly realistic about how the world actually works…)
My advice on understanding the difference is to pause before you react to a situation. Being aware of what direction you feel pulled towards might give you an opportunity to really check in and question whether that action is right for you, or whether it’s being driven by habit, automatic reflex or perhaps even by fear. That will take you out of auto-pilot mode. If you still feel it’s the right thing to do, go for it. But if you don’t, ask your intuition for some guidance on the correct course of action for you. Some great ways to do this are to spend time in stillness (ideally meditating, although that’s not for everyone), being outside in nature (ideally without your phone) and doing a creative activity – basically anything that quiets the noise in your brain and involves being fully present.
By the way, it’s OK to doubt your intuition – I do it all the time. What I suggest is, if you’re feeling doubtful, ask your guardian angels, your spirit team or the Universe – whomever you’re most comfortable communicating with – to give you a sign that you’ve understood your intuition correctly. More information on signs is available here.