The Fine Line Between Trusting Your Gut and Making Destructive Choices

Trusting one’s gut or following one’s heart is common advice many swear by. In media, main characters in dramas will turn to supporting characters and ask, tearfully, “What should I do?” The supporting character almost always responds quietly, “Your heart knows what to do.” Cue the main character running off. They believe by following their emotional impulses, they can achieve their goals and live fulfilling lives.

It is certainly true that the advice “trust yourself” is deeply impactful for many people. But there are just as many people who have tried to follow this advice and only ended up stuck deeper in suffering for their efforts.

The reality is, this advice only applies to those whose guts and hearts are well-calibrated. People who know how to assess their options and can deftly use emotional skills to select the best among them.

Because, unfortunately, that isn’t all of us. Or even most of us. Some people are lucky enough to have had psychologically supportive childhoods, learned certain life lessons, or have attended and grown from therapy. But not most people. Most people operate with the emotional skillset they passively adopted in adolescence.

The Consequences of Lacking Emotional and Mental Skills and Trusting Your Gut Anyway

People who lack emotional and mental skills and “trust their heart” without analyzing their feelings critically will likely experience some negative consequences sooner or later. For example, they may:

  • Make impulsive decisions based on their immediate feelings rather than considering the long-term consequences. This can lead to negative outcomes like consumer debt, unexpected medical expenses, and job insecurity.
  • Struggle to manage their emotions effectively. They may be prone to emotional outbursts, anxiety, or depression, which can negatively impact their relationships, work, and overall well-being.
  • Consistently fail to achieve their goals. They may need help to identify what they want or to make a plan to achieve it because they lack the skills to evaluate their emotions and thoughts in the context of their goals.
  • Find it hard to build and maintain healthy relationships. They may be prone to codependency or other problematic relationship patterns because they lack the skills to effectively understand and communicate their emotions.
  • Be at risk of destructive behaviors. They may be more likely to engage in behaviors that are not healthy for them, such as addiction, self-harm, or aggression, because they lack the skills to understand and manage their emotions healthily.

Overall, people who lack emotional and mental skills and “trust their heart” without critically analyzing their feelings may struggle to navigate life’s decisions and lead fulfilling lives. They need to develop these skills through therapy, self-reflection, and self-improvement.

Skills You Need to Develop Before It’s Safe for You to Trust Your Gut

There are so many cognitive skills out there to learn. It would be impossible for me to list them all for you. But here are a few:

  1. Mindfulness: staying in the present moment and paying attention to what is actually happening instead of what’s going on in your mind (thinking about the past, future, worries, etc)
  2. Checking the Facts: Attending to literal descriptions of problems when thinking about them (“He said he did not like the color of my dress”) instead of generalizations, assumptions, or opinions about them (“He is a jerk who feels the need to tell me when he thinks I look ugly”)
  3. Reducing Physical Vulnerabilities: Before allowing yourself to think deeply about a highly emotional topic, make a major decision, or have a difficult conversation, make sure to nourish your body with good food and high-quality sleep. When you feel like shit, you make shit decisions.
  4. Questioning Emotions: Many people operate as if their feelings reflect objective facts about the world. For example, they feel angry when they are cut off on the road, so they think cutting people off is a bad thing to do, so they think the person in the car ahead of them is a bad person, so they beep their horn and flip the bird out the window. Emotionally mature people instead ask themselves, “Is this amount of anger proportional to the offense?” They ask themselves similar questions about any emotion: “Is the strength of my emotion proportional compared to what actually happened? Or is something distorting my emotions?”
  5. Using “I” Language: The simple habit of using “I” language to communicate during conflict (“I feel annoyed when the trash piles up around the bin”) versus more aggressive “you” language (“You always forget the trash”) can on its own defuse tense conversations and make it more likely for two parties to resolve their conflict.

Rarely does your “heart,” “gut,” or other intuitive feelings center ever suggest skills like these. Ninety-nine percent of the time, your feelings center will suggest immediate impulsive action. It takes intellectual knowledge of these skills to apply them during challenging moments.

Where You Can Learn These Skills

Therapy

A licensed therapist or counselor can help youunderstand and manage your emotions and develop effective coping skills. They can also guide you on setting and achieving goals and making decisions based on what is truly important to you.

Self-help books or online resources

Reading books or articles on self-improvement, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness can provide valuable insights and strategies for developing emotional and mental skills. Experts in the field write many books on these topics that can help you learn how to analyze their emotions and situations more critically.

Support groups

Joining a support group of people going through similar experiences can provide a safe space for you to share and learn from others. Support groups can also help you learn how to manage emotions, set goals, and make decisions.

Mindfulness or meditation practice

Mindfulness and meditation practices can help you focus your attention on the present moment and can also help you to reduce the intensity of difficult emotions.

Online courses or workshops

Many organizations and professionals offer online courses or workshops on emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and decision-making, which can be a useful way to learn new skills.

In Conclusion

Trusting your gut or following your heart is often touted as sound advice, but it is important to remember that it only applies to those with well-calibrated emotional and mental skills. People who lack these skills and act on emotional impulses without critically analyzing their feelings will likely suffer.

To avoid that, you should strive to develop emotional and mental skills through therapy, self-reflection, self-improvement, and other resources like self-help books, online resources, and support groups. These skills can help you navigate life’s decisions and lead a fulfilling life.