My gut or my trauma: how do I know which one I'm feeling?

If you're a person who comes from trauma, or an unhealthy family, how do you differentiate between your triggers and your gut?

- Mona, Los Angeles


You're on a date with someone who's giving you bad vibes because they're being really nice. Your gut is telling you they're charming because they're narcissistic, because that's what your abusive parents were like. But what if you're just being triggered? Maybe your date is a healthy person who is genuinely into you.


Or, your boss at work throws a sarcastically cryptic comment your way. Your gut is telling you that they want to fire you, so it's time to look for another job. But what if you're still recovering from your last job, one marred by regular managerial abuse? What if your boss values your work and is just having his or her own bad day?


We are often told to follow our guts, but when we've been through hardship or trauma, our guts can be hard to trust. So what do we do?


First, recognize that our guts can deceive us whether we've experienced trauma or not.


Our "guts" are a combination of instinct and experience. Think of instincts as what drive us to survive: our instincts tell us to eat, sleep, reproduce, and protect ourselves from threats. These things we don't need to question.


Sometimes our "guts" are just intense feelings brought on by particularly intense experiences. We meet someone we like, they make us feel good, we get caught up in the romance, and our guts are telling us to go for it. Not because our gut knows that the person is right, but because we simply feel really good. You don't have to go through trauma to experience that.


Other times our "guts" are mental shortcuts, quick snap judgments we make to evaluate a situation so we can know what to do. Mental shortcuts are developed through life experiences. If you grew up in a family that threw you tons of undeserved accolades, showering you with attention and helicoptering you into overconfidence. In this case, your gut might tell you something's off when your new boss treats you like everyone else.


If you think trauma gives you a disadvantage, you might be under the wrong impression. According to Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist, intuition is "thinking that you know without knowing why you do." You don't have to be traumatized to do that.


Second, realize that our guts aren't the only source of information we have.


Our feelings and mental shortcuts aren't useless. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes we fall passionately in love with the right person, for all the right reasons. Sometimes our bosses are unappreciative assholes. So how do we know what to do?


Our choice isn't between following our gut or going against it. We have more options than that.


It's human nature to fall into the trap of believing that what you see is all there is to see. The situation you're in and the context cues you're picking up on aren't all there is to the story. But because the human brain is wired for efficiency, it pushes us to believe that there's nothing else to know than what happened on that date, or what happened in the hours before your boss was sarcastic.


To know what to do, the first step is to ask what else you might need to know. And how much time you have to know it. There's no need to jump to conclusions when you might have more time. Go on more dates. Ask your boss some questions. Get more information - and then use your reasoning, not your feelings, to make the right choice.


Your feelings or snap judgments don't aren't the only folks at the party. Your rational, evidence-hungry brain is there too. Use it.


Third, make decisions with a combination of gut feeling and objective information.


Analysis paralysis isn't great. You don't need to keep hunting for information until you've got it all perfectly. That might not even be possible; there's a lot you can't ever know, like what's really going on in someone else's head.


Striving for perfection isn't great either. It's unrealistic. You could do everything right, and make the perfect decision, but still not end up where you want to be because life happens. So much is out of your control, and so many other people are making their own decisions that will impact the outcome of your life.


Before making a choice... before even laying out your options... ask yourself: "How much time do I have to make this decision?" Then don't rush it if you don't have to.


Also ask, "Is this decision reversible?" If you can't undo your choice very easily, then you need to take more time.

Once you know what kind of time constraint you're working against, you'll have a better idea of how much information you are able to get in that time frame. The more time you have, the more you can rely on data or evidence to form your opinion.


The less time you have... well then you might just have to rely on your gut. And when you do, be aware from the get-go that your instincts could be right or they could be wrong - past trauma or not. If they're right, or if they're lucky, then great. No harm done. If they're not, then just know you're tough and you'll work through it. You'll be ok.


Life isn't perfect, and happiness is elusive. Your goal isn't perfection. It's setting yourself up for the best chance possible. As long as you slow it down a bit, you'll be much better off.