One of the things I love about getting older is how we learn from our experiences and mistakes and cultivate a powerful inner wisdom that we can trust. As a psychiatrist in practice for more than 20 years, I’ve devoted my career to helping patients connect with their inner voice — their intuition — and use it in very practical ways to make wiser and more authentic choices in areas as divergent as health, relationships and finances.
When I talk about intuition, I’m referring to the small, still voice inside each one of us that can tell us the truth about things. Throughout history and across the spectrum, intuition has been a proven asset for successful people. Conrad Hilton was known for “Connie’s hunches” in business decisions. Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey have publicly acknowledged their instincts. In a rousing speech to Apple employees just prior to his death, Steve Jobs reminded them to “have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. … Everything else is secondary.”
Over the years I’ve worked with numerous people whose lives have dramatically improved – or been saved – by trusting their intuition. One patient went to see her internist for severe headaches, which the doctor wrote off to “stress.” But this woman had an intuitive flash that something more serious was going on. Thanks to that intuition she sought another opinion. The second doctor found an aneurysm in her brain and sent her for surgery. If she hadn’t had it, she would have died. Another patient trusted his gut when it told him to beware of getting involved with a potential business partner. Luckily, he listened: The man was indicted in a Ponzi scheme.
Intuition can come through as a gut feeling, an “ah-ha!” moment, a body signal, a flash of insight or a dream. Research shows that during dreamtime, for example, the brain does creative problem-solving, which can help you make the right choice in your waking life. There are also techniques you can practice to become adept at tuning into intuition, as well as ways to learn to distinguish it from wishful or fear-based thinking. Give these techniques a try. One of the great practical benefits of using our intuition is that we are less likely to make bad decisions and are empowered to get on with the business of leading more discerning and fulfilled lives.
Techniques to Develop Your Intuition
1. Quiet Your Mind Whether you call it an inner knowing, your higher self or something godlike, that wise inner voice inside is always communicating with you. The problem is that it can be hard to hear until you learn how to quiet your mental chatter. Most people have an overactive mind and over-identify with their thoughts, which they mistakenly believe define – or are – them. We are so much more than our thoughts. Once you can learn to quiet the mental chatter, you can access your intuitive intelligence. Take a few quiet moments to tune in and mentally set aside your to-do list. Close the door. Turn off the phone. Shut down or move away from your computer. Then take a few deep, slow breaths to relax your body. Focus your attention only on inhaling and exhaling. When thoughts come, picture them as clouds floating by in the sky. Then refocus on your breath. You can call this meditation if you want to, but it’s ultimately just a wonderful way of stilling your mind.
2. Listen to Your Gut Pay attention to what your gut says, especially during situations like initial meetings, when this visceral reaction occurs before you’ve had a chance to think. Among other things, it conveys whether you’re at ease with others or not. Science associates these feelings with a “brain” in the gut called the enteric nervous system, a network of neurons that process information almost instantaneously. Before your thinking mind kicks in, start to train yourself to check in with your gut. How is it reacting to other people? Is it in knots? Do you suddenly feel nauseous, acidic or have cramps? Do you feel relaxed around a certain person and get a sense of trust, or does something feel off? Be careful not to talk yourself out of these intuitions. If you’re unsure about your gut reaction to a relationship, try to avoid taking action until you can get more information.
3. Let “Ah-ha!” Moments Guide Your Actions In conversations, you may get an eerie feeling about people that comes in a flash. Stay alert so you don’t miss it. We tend to go on to the next thought so rapidly that these critical insights are lost. If your spouse is upset and you get a sudden picture of her as a frightened child, this is your cue to make that child feel safe and understood rather than wage a war. Or if a colleague isn’t budging on a point in a negotiation and you get a flash that says “let him think about it overnight rather than push,” follow that impression. See if this breathing room allows things to shift. These "ah-ha" moments are great guides once we learn to trust them.
4. Pay Attention to Your Body’s Signals Your body provides powerful information about your health, decisions and other people. On a basic level, when you’re tired, rest. If you’re sad, cry. Stressed-out: Take a break and have some fun. On a deeper level, it’s also instructive to notice which people give you energy and which sap it. Use this information to create a positive circle of support around you and work to avoid or limit contact with “toxic” people.
5. Ask for Inner Guidance This creative way to consult your intuition can help you solve problems, especially seeming paradoxes. Set aside five to 10 minutes to be quiet and still your mind. Inwardly pose a question to yourself, like “Is this financial direction a good one for me right now?” Stay open to any flashes, sensations or impressions you receive. If your gut feels good about it, go forward. If you get a sense of “beware,” either don’t take action or proceed with caution.
6. Listen to Your Dreams Intuition is the language of dreams. Every 90 minutes, during the REM stage of sleep, we dream. Dreams can provide answers about health, relationships, finances or any area where the solution isn’t always obvious to our rational waking mind. While dream recall can be elusive for some people, one trick to remembering them is to keep a dream journal by your bed. Before you go to sleep each night, pose a question, such as “How can I improve my relationships with my parents?” The next morning, immediately write down any dreams you remember before getting out of bed. Then see if and how the dream answered your question. Be patient. Results don’t always happen right away — though they will come if you stick with this practice. Like exercising a muscle, it gets stronger with use. Try repeating the question every night for the next week.
Distinguishing Between Intuition and Fearful or Wishful Thinking
As you become adept at interpreting your intuitions, you need to be able to distinguish authentic ones from fear-based or hopeful thinking. Reliable intuitions convey information neutrally or unemotionally, though they may have a compassionate, affirming tone. They often come through as exceptionally clear and crisp. Or you may have a detached sensation, as if you’re in a theater watching a movie. In contrast, fearful or wishful thinking can feel highly emotionally charged, be accompanied by no sense of rightness in the gut, be cruel or demeaning, or reflect some old issues or psychological wounds, like fear of intimacy or insecurities.
As you practice these techniques to develop your intuition, remember to have fun. Look at it as an adventure to learn how to be smarter and more discerning in your life. The best way to know if intuition is accurate is to test it out, then observe the results. As I’ve observed time and again with patients and in my own life, working with your intuition is like having your own secret weapon.