Your gut or your trauma: how to know which is speaking to you

If you've experienced trauma, it's hard to trust your gut. It's hard to know whether your feelings will betray you. But whether recovering from trauma or not, our gut feelings only deserve so much weight. What your gut tells you is just one data point. Consider all relevant information and avoid impulsivity.

You're on a date with someone you connect with instantly. Your gut is telling you this person is “the one,” and you trust your gut, so you dive right in. You fall in love. But what you don’t know until later is that “the one” is actually a nightmare, and your gut was wrong. Or rather, your gut wasn’t reacting to your partner as much as your trauma was: you fell fast not because you felt this person was your soulmate but because their personality closely resembled that of an abusive parent. They were familiar, but for the wrong reasons.

Your boss throws you a cryptic comment. Your gut is telling you that your boss doesn’t like you, maybe doesn’t even want you around. You worry about getting fired, so you decide it's time to look for another job. What you don’t realize is that you don’t really need to go job hunting. Your gut isn’t reading the situation right. Instead, you’re reacting to residual emotions from your previous job, one in which managerial abuse was intense, prevalent, and damaging, to where you constantly felt like your livelihood was under threat. Turns out your current boss was just having a bad day.

Our guts can feel so right… but if we’ve had painful past experiences, it’s hard to know whether our gut or our trauma is telling us what to do.

So, what do we do?

First, recognize that our guts can deceive us whether we've experienced trauma or not. What you think is your "gut" might just be a type of a decision-making shortcut, a quick snap judgment we make so we can make a choice and move on. Whatever your life experiences, traumatic or not, your gut is going to push you to make a decision without evaluating all the evidence, without slowing down, without thinking things through.

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.

So, whether trauma is part of your past or not, follow the same steps to make sure that your gut doesn’t lead you in the wrong direction.

Start by listening to your gut – and by “listen” I mean exactly that: hear what it’s telling you but don’t give it more weight than it deserves and don’t jump to react. Your gut feelings are important enough to pay attention to, to unpack and understand. But they’re not so important that nothing else matters. So, listen, but fight the urge to act. It’s actually our impulsivity, and not our gut feelings, that cause the most problems for us – whether we’ve experienced trauma or not.

Then, consider your gut feelings as one data point but not the only data point.

In every decision, you need to consider many bits of information. You need information to know whether you’ve considered all the best options. You need information to determine what outcomes might result from each option and how likely each outcome might be to occur. Information is also necessary for knowing how valuable each outcome is to you.

Your gut can inform how valuable each outcome might be to you, by telling you how you'd feel if each outcome came to fruition. But it isn’t handy in forecasting the likelihood of each outcome, or whether you’re missing a good option. And even when it comes to telling you the value of each outcome, your gut only tells you part of the story. It might tell you how good you might feel, but not whether your overall wellbeing will improve.

Whether trauma is in your past or not, your choice isn't between following your gut or going against it. We have a more nuanced option than that. Before impulsivity takes hold and pushes you to follow your gut, stop for a moment. Don’t ignore your gut feelings, but don’t them too much respect either. There’s a lot more information to consider, so consider it - with your head as much with as your gut.

There are no guarantees in life. Setting yourself up with the best chance possible is the best we can hope for. To do that, giving your gut only as much weight as it deserves is the way to go.