The alchemy of intuition: How to trust ourselves

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In my previous article I suggested that our ability to trust other people is closely connected with our ability to trust ourselves and here I want to continue the discussion.

People often speak about “trusting your intuition.” But what is this mysterious thing that we call “intuition”? What kind of secret ingredients compose intuition and how can we account for the instances when it apparently fails us? Without pretending to be an adept, I would like to try and unravel the alchemy of intuition.

A very fine-tuned intuition presupposes a high degree of self-knowledge and ability to be in touch with your inner self on many different levels simultaneously. Awareness, I believe, is a key notion here and it includes:

  • awareness of your needs (physical and emotional);
  • awareness of your current state (physical and emotional);
  • awareness of the past experiences and how they may be affecting you now;
  • awareness of your desires, expectations and values;
  • awareness of your weaknesses and strengths.

(The list is, of course, incomplete.)

When dealing with a specific situation or a person we calibrate our self-knowledge against the knowledge that we possess about this person/situation and take a more or less informed guess. We draw upon our life experiences and acquaintance with human psychology. The more knowledge we have (both about ourselves and about others), the higher the probability that our guess will be accurate.

When our inner compass is confused

We rely on our intuition daily, making split-second decisions and evaluations that we often don’t even register. We sharpen it by making mistakes and learning from them. It is as if we had an inner compass that was guiding us through the complex maze of life-situations, suggesting which direction to take. Yet it can happen that our inner compass gets seriously confused and we don’t feel that we can rely on it. We then feel lost, bewildered and unable to make sense of what is going on. This state of confusion can be very painful and impairing. At one particularly difficult period in my life, when my whole world seemed to have turned upside down, I remember experiencing an ongoing physical sensation of a slight nausea, like a sea-sickness, when your balance is askew.

To repair our compass and overcome the confusion, it is important to understand what causes it. Reflecting on my own experiences and through my work as a therapist, I came to think that we lose trust in our inner judgment when our immediate – visceral – experience is forcefully contradicted or denied.

For example: imagine that everybody around you will start telling you that the grass is blue. At some point you will begin to doubt your own eyes and/or sanity. This is, of course, an exaggerated case, but it highlights the mechanism clearly. When our perception is invalidated by an overpowering authority we lose the point of reference. It is as if the hand of a compass habitually pointing North has been re-magnetized to point to a different direction. A Hebrew expression for feeling disoriented conveys precisely this idea: “to lose the North.”

Formative childhood experiences

As I suggested above, the ability to trust ourselves is intrinsically connected with our self-knowledge. We gain this knowledge by being in touch with our feelings and recognizing them for what they are. Childhood experiences are paramount in developing this ability. Especially, when we begin to speak. Young children don’t have names for emotions. They learn to recognize and articulate them with the help of adults. For example, when a child is angry and starts throwing things around and kicking furniture, the mother may tell him: “I can see that you are angry. You can say ‘I am angry’ – there is no need to kick this table.” Thus a child gets a word for identifying and expressing what is happening within him or her. Conversely, if the mother would shout “You are a bad boy!” the child will not learn to understand himself better. Instead he will associate the raging emotion of anger within him with being a bad person, someone his mother (and others – in the future) cannot love.

Unfortunately, it happens far too widely that a child’s emotional experience is not accurately acknowledged by parents or other adults in authority. In response to a child’s expression of his/her emotions parents impose valuating (often negative) judgment on it, deny or twist it.

Consider, for instance, a situation when a father teaches his little boy to cycle and the child falls and starts crying. The father says: “Stop crying, it doesn’t hurt that much! What a shame: you are a big boy!” The boy’s hurt is not being acknowledged, instead his feelings are denied and he is being shamed for having and expressing them. This creates a dissonance between an immediate experience and an ability to grasp it. If this “educational” trend continues it is very likely that the boy will gradually stop expressing his pain (physical as well as emotional pain) and even learn to block his feelings altogether.

As a child I was repeatedly told that I was selfish. My earliest memory of it goes to the age of 4 or 5 when I would refuse to share a candy with my younger sister. Reinforced by other incidents, the branding “selfish” became a part of my self-definition, my hidden shameful secret. Apart from developing a negative self-image, it also impaired my ability to acknowledge my needs and wants and to properly balance them with the needs and wants of other people. Every time I acted according to my needs I would feel bad about myself because it “confirmed” to me my “selfish” nature. It took me years to rid myself of this branding and reset my inner compass.

Perhaps one of the most painful experiences is when our sense of justice is violated. Consider such a typical situation (with multiple variations): two siblings are having a fight; the younger runs to complain and the older is being punished by default without a chance to explain what happened. Another quite common case is when a parent is in the wrong, but instead of acknowledging their fault he or she blames the child. In these cases a child’s sense of fairness and justice comes into conflict with an authoritative verdict of a parent. The child begins to doubt his/her own truth and this confusion may have very long-reaching implications.

Recovering trust in our inner judgment

Growing up with a parent who consistently invalidates your feelings and perception can be very damaging. It is difficult to own your feelings when they have been repeatedly denied or subverted. The first step towards recovering your ability to trust your inner judgment and developing your intuition is by separating your emotional experiences from your parents’ valuations. It may be helpful to ask yourself whose voice is speaking in your head when you tell yourself, for instance, that you are being “lazy”? Most likely that it is not your own voice, but the one of your father, mother, grandparents or a teacher.

As I said – we are not being born with ready labels for our emotional experiences and their behavioral expression. We acquire these labels through our parents/teachers who often misinterpret us and thus undermine our ability to trust ourselves. One gift that as adults we can give to our inner children is to acknowledge their feelings that have not been acknowledged in the past and thus help them (and us now!) heal.

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