Call it your heart, soul or gut, knowing when to listen to that inner voice and when to let logic prevail is something most of us find very tricky. But a good head and a good heart are a formidable combination, as Nelson Mandela once said, so it’s worth your while to figure out how to use both to your advantage.
That age-old problem
Our needs and wants aren’t always the same as what’s good for us, says life coach Penny Holburn. ‘If what we need or desire is the same as what is good for us, there isn’t any conflict and a decision is easy. But the opposite is also true,’ she says.
When there’s conflict between feelings and thought, an internal battle ensues. The greater such a conflict, the more difficult it makes the decision. In most situations in life, unfortunately, this will be the case and we have to weigh up the benefits and costs.
Why so detached?
We’re born with innate wishes and instincts, and we add to this list as we go along – making up a part of our heart-language. But prior experience teaches us a lot, and this information gets stored in the brain, where it helps to formulate our logical thought processes.
The head’s language is thinking, while the language of the heart is feeling and sensing, explains clinical psychologist Dr Zana Marovic. ‘When you have an undeniable gut feeling about something that’s happening, or butterflies in your stomach, that’s your heart talking.’
Dr Marovic says most people are not in tune with this feeling and try to rationalise everything, because that’s how they were taught.
Logic was established as formal discipline by Aristotle and paved the way for rational thought being seen as the correct way to look at life. Gut feelings, on the other hand, were seen as irrational, and Western culture still views emotions as an enemy of the truth, says Dr Marovic.
Connect the dots
New research reveals that intuition is a surprisingly accurate tool. In a 2012 study by Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences, participants made the right call up to 90% of the time when they were compelled to choose between two options based on instinct alone.
Intuition or gut feelings arise from a feeling we have – literally – in our gut, says Penny. The nerve cells in the gut are activated by signals from the brain, to kick our instincts into action and to make us aware of cues the brain might not have the time or capacity to process. ‘Some researchers refer to the gut as a second brain,’ says Dr Marovic, ‘because these nerve cells are able to guide us in our decision-making. Gut feelings arise when we recognise a cue – a facial expression, a tone of voice, a visual picture – so quickly that we’re not even aware of it. The brain then takes this and does a mental match with stored information to get your intuition on the move while you work through every aspect rationally, trying to get to a decision,’ she says.
Live in harmony
With any decision, combining the head and the gut will give you the best result, says Dr Marovic. If your head and heart are disagreeing, get in tune with what your gut is saying (see box below). ‘No matter how many different arguments your rational mind presents in a specific situation, be very careful if your gut feels that something is wrong. If you ignore it, you may well regret the decision.’ Make a list of pros and cons to sort through your options.
‘The more experience you have with a situation, the more likely it’ll be that your gut feelings are right, as they arise from a rich tapestry of past experiences,’ says Penny. ‘At times, we still pick out the wrong piece of knowledge or memory, so it’s best to always follow up gut feelings with logic.’
A happy medium
Although it’s best to combine head and heart, some situations call for slightly different strategies, says life coach Penny Holburn. Here’s her advice when…
• Buying a house Use your gut feeling first to ask yourself if you would actually like to live there, then follow up with logic to make sure you are paying the correct price and picking the right area.
• Making an investment Unless it involves an investment made based on personal preference, such as art, use your logical brain.
• Second-guessing a doctor If your gut feeling is that your doctor has missed something, trust it. Follow up with logic and get a second opinion from a different doctor.
• Quitting your job Operating on gut feelings alone can end badly, unless you have money to fall back on. If you don’t need the job and your gut says to quit, do so, but remember that work can give you a sense of purpose.
• Breaking up Gut feeling gets first pickings here. Then check in with your logical brain.
• Arguing with a friend When emotion is involved, a gut feeling can result in you digging up old dirt. Always confront someone when you’ve calmed down and can think logically.
Does your gut feel tight? Do you have a lump in your throat? Or are you relaxed or perhaps excited with butterflies? Tuning into your body’s cues can help uncover your subconscious feelings. Relaxing activities, such as yoga, taking a stroll, being in nature, or just having some quiet time can help you learn how to uncover them, says clinical psychologist Dr Zana Marovic.
These feelings operate in a similar way to traffic lights, she says. There is a red light signalling danger, orange with a vague sensation that something might go wrong, and green when everything just feels right.