There is a common wisdom, particularly for women, to “trust our intuition.”

That “just have a feeling” that tells us not to trust our partner’s reason for lateness, or that “gut feeling” that tells us our coworker is out to sabotage us.

But what exactly IS intuition, and how do we know when it’s speaking to us?

Most people think of intuition as subconscious messages from the deep. Wisdom from our bodies that is truer than our logical, conscious thoughts.

But you know what ALSO shows up in your brain without you thinking it on purpose?

Every anxious, paranoid, or fearful subconscious thought pattern you’ve ever experienced in your life.

Which is why I recommend digging deeper into what intuition means for you, and how to think about it in a way that doesn’t just validate spinning in your deepest fears.

Instead, you have to learn how to distinguish between intuition and unhelpful thought patterns. This is crucial because of confirmation bias.

We have a tendency to completely misremember reality such that it confirms our beliefs about our “intuition.” Our brains may offer us 1,000,000 unwarranted doubts about our partners’ commitment to us but we only use the ONE time where we called an ex out for checking out of the relationship, and we were right, as evidence of how “intuitive” we are.

What I find with my clients is that most of the time, what they are calling intuition is not intuition – it’s anxiety.

So we have to know how to differentiate between intuition and anxiety (or any other emotion caused by an unconscious and unhelpful thought).

Anxiety is unpleasant. You feel anxious, agitated, in a rush to find out more information or take action. Anxiety is urging you to act your way out of the emotional state. Anxiety is a feeling that comes from a story we’re telling ourselves – they’re cheating on me; I’m getting fired.

Intuition is more of a quiet knowing. There is no rush, no agitation – because nothing has gone wrong. Intuition doesn’t categorize things as good or bad; it merely OBSERVES them. 

It’s the perception of a circumstance without any meaning attached to it. 

Intuition notices, but it doesn’t hypothesize – something has changed in my partner’s communication with me; I’m getting different types of projects at work.

But intuition doesn’t attach a meaning to it. Maybe the texting is different because their feelings have changed or maybe it’s because they are busy at work. Intuition doesn’t tell a story. 

Anxiety feels like fear. Intuition feels like curiosity, without attachment to the outcome.

If you find yourself resistant to this distinction, I encourage you to explore why.

Many of my clients think that if a thought stems from intuition, it is somehow a more valid basis for decision-making.

They think “if it’s intuition, I should just believe those thoughts and act on them, but if it’s not, I should coach myself and explore the reasons for taking action.”

Sound familiar?

Again, the helpful question here is why.

Why would you ever not want to coach yourself on purpose?

Why would you ever want to act on your unconscious thoughts, without questioning them?

Coaching yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you CHANGE your thinking or feeling or actions.

It just means you clarify your why. You tease out what the neutral, objective circumstance is – partner sent 20 texts a day last week and partner sent 2 texts yesterday. You explore what you’re thinking about that circumstance, and how those thoughts are making you feel.

Does it serve you to automatically believe your partner is cheating on you with his ex and that’s why they aren’t texting? How does it make you feel to think that? How do you act when you’re feeling that way?

How else might you think and feel about this situation?

What other actions might be available to you here if you were to think about the situation differently?

Think of your intuition like a sixth sense that gives you information about the world, which you then choose what to do with – how to think and feel about it.

How would you show up if you were CURIOUS to find out what might be going on, rather than CERTAIN you already know there’s a problem?

When you approach all of your thoughts with curiosity and openness, it doesn’t actually matter whether they stem from intuition or anxiety, because the next step is the same: you coach yourself about it.

Whether or not you shift your thinking.

Whatever you choose to believe.

The objection I hear most often about this approach is from people who worry that if they “ignore their intuition” they will discover later that their intuition was right.

But so what?

That’s only a problem if you’re MEAN to yourself and you criticize yourself for making the “wrong” choice; if you beat yourself up for not “listening to your intuition.”

But you can always just…choose not to do that. You can always choose to be kind and compassionate to yourself in the future, no matter what.

Determining whether something is intuition or not won’t save you from future pain. Your future will ALWAYS involve pain because you have a human brain and it’s a pain-producing machine, and you always get to decide whether self-recrimination is how you’re going to respond to it.

So the question isn’t “should I listen to my intuition or ignore it?”

The question is neither.

Just coach yourself the way you always do.

Identify the neutral, true circumstance in a situation.

See what your thought is about that circumstance.

Decide if you want to keep it.

That’s it.

You don’t have to change your thoughts about anything.

It’s totally valid to keep the thought “I have no hard evidence but I think this person is lying to me, so I’m going to stop hanging out with them.”

You are allowed to think any thought you want.

The point is to get as much perspective as you can by teasing out the circumstance and deciding how to think and feel on purpose.

Whether it comes from your intuition, the internet, your sense of smell, anything.

You don’t need a reason or an excuse to do what you want to do.

You can just not go out with someone again because you don’t really like them.

Or quit a job because you want to.

Or fire a client because you’d prefer firing them to coaching yourself about it.

You don’t need to justify your decision as “intuition” or anything other than what it is: An optional thought you are choosing to keep because you want to. Women are socialized to think they need a good reason to be allowed to exist, much less to do what they want.

But you don’t.

So ask yourself this: If I didn’t think intuition had magical powers to tell me the right decision and I was never going to be mean to myself or regret my choices in the future – if every choice and experience was just a way to grow and learn and evolve – would it even matter if intuition exists or not?

And paradoxically, the less you judge yourself for where your thoughts are coming from, the more you will be able to actually connect with your intuition.

The more you leave it alone and stop trying to control it or interrogate it, the more it will point you toward circumstances that it notices and observes, giving you the chance to be curious and coach yourself on what you notice.

Intuition doesn’t tell you what to do. It just helps you perceive what IS.

You still have to coach yourself on that perception.

Start with coaching yourself, and let your intuition come to you if it wants to.