When "follow your intuition" is terrible advice

When "follow your intuition" is terrible advice
Photo by Vladislav Babienko / Unsplash

A wise mentor of mine once told me: all advice can be good depending on where you are, your personal context. The key is to understand when the advice is good and when it's not.

This can be a real problem if you're looking for wisdom in your feed. Should you forgive? Or should you put up stronger boundaries? (or both?)

Should you exercise more or rest more?

Should you eat clean or "trust your body's signals" and eat what you fancy?

Should you wander the globe or plant a garden at home?

With all of these aphorisms and cliches, it really is a big old case of "it depends." Even loving more can require groundwork before it's feasible and practical.

A common piece of advice I see widely shared is to "go with your gut", trust your body or your heart. You are wise and hold the answer.

This guidance sounds good, particularly as an antidote to our analytically dominated culture. But when is this advice unhelpful and unpractical?

In order to go with your gut, your heart or your organ of choice, a few things need to be happening. First, you need to be getting clear signals from your organs to your brainstem and then from your brainstem up to your higher cognitive centers.

You basically need a current status report on your internal and external environment and then a "you" to go with it or not.

This prerequisite seems to be taken for granted with this advice. And yet so many people are missing some key, fundamental steps here.

If you have a dysregulated autonomic nervous system then your perceptions will often be distorted at any or multiple steps of this process. The signals that feed into your brainstem will be noisy and confused.

The integration of the various types of sensory information, such as sight, sound, internal sensations and so on, may be faulty so the mix is off and noisy.

Then this "status update" gets handed up to higher brain centers and I see two predominant patterns in folks with chronic autonomic dysregulation. Either the message is a big old hysterical fucking fire alarm that's constantly going off. These are your "hypersensitive" folks.

Or the person's bodymind may have taken mallet to the alarm and the messages are switched off. A lot of folks who get diagnosed with ADHD have this messaging, called interoception, turned way down, which is why it's common for them to miss meals without realizing or dress inappropriately for the weather.

Clearly, it's not uncommon in certain groups for these first steps to have issues. Any chronic illness will alter our perception of our internal state in ways that distort internal communication.

But then the final step before you can decide whether or not to "go with" this info is the interpretation of this status report, whether it's a hysterical warning or essentially turned off, is you need to interpret it.

And the ability to interpret this can also easily get messed up. In case of chronic limbic dysfunction, which happens with chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, ADHD, autism, cPTSD, mold illness, chronic Lyme and so on . . . we may have little access to our ability to "interpret." And when we can, this can very easily be highly distorted by default.

As nice as it is to practice cultivating safety in our body, we need to respect that for some people, especially those who grew up in an unsafe or under resourced environment, their nervous system has learned that feeling safe is unsafe. And that we need to honor and trust the wisdom of that.

So even when alarms aren't going off the higher cognitive areas may be in the habit of interpreting most messages as one's of potential danger.

And so again, we see two common patterns when our internal signals, such as they are, are interpreted. The totally risk averse ("everything's dangerous!" and the "fuck it, let's do it. What could possibly go wrong?" setting that is unable to sense danger or accurately assess potential consequences.

In either case, go with your gut or even "feel the fear and do it anyways" or "life begins at the end of your comfort zone" - all of these cliches fail to account for important aspects of the human experience that may make these ideas impractical and unachievable at best and toxic at worst.

So if you can't trust your feelings, what the heck are you meant to do?

First, know that part of the goal to recovering from illness is to work towards a place where you can trust your feelings. This is a skill that needs to be developed over time. But acknowledging that the conditions aren't currently there can often be very helpful, rather than continuing to try to do something that you currently can't do.

And what are you meant to do in the meantime?

In the bigger picture, developing a healthier self-trust in the face of chronic autonomic dysregulation wants to be supported by a step by step plan towards health, going in a logical order. Help calm the immune system, which is throwing off all kinds of crazy signals. Support your gut so that it's healthy enough to actually give you good advice. Rewire the nervous system. Heal damaged tissue.

Then in the meantime, while this process is unfolding, you may need to go with your head and treat yourself like you were caring for a child or a pet. In other words, let's say your gut is telling you to eat an entire box of cookies or to drink a bottle Chardonnay. Should you go with it?

Well, on paper, you know that's probably not going anywhere helpful. So if you identify that your ability to sense and interpret what you want is currently compromised then it may be easier to ignore these urges. This is one of those knowledge is power scenarios.

It can also be helpful, when we have the capacity, to see if we can understand the need we're trying to meet beneath a behavior that we see is unhelpful. Even if we still go forward with it, it's helpful to recognize when we're eating for hunger or for comfort or as a distraction from boredom, for example. This can move us towards developing the skill of better interpreting our sensations.

When our own perceptions are distorted by limbic dysfunction, a really helpful piece is to have other people who you trust who can help provide calibration and feedback. Sometimes, these can be hard to find, especially when being around other people generally feels unsafe. But it's definitely worth persevering, knowing that the discomfort is really temporary.

Whatever your current situation, I find that simply acknowledging that you may not be currently able to do something as simple as follow your gut and that this isn't your fault to be helpful and healing in its own right.