When it comes to analyzing our complex world, experts warn your gut is a risky guide, but when it comes to personal decisions like where to move, whom to marry, or which job to take, science proves nothing beats intuition. Literally. 

When a Stanford psychologist conducted a head-to-head test between more rational decision-making strategies and going with your gut, there was no contest. Intuition led to the best choice 68 percent of the time, compared to a 26 percent success rate for more head-focused strategies. 

That's a blow out. 

But while this research makes clear you should take your intuition seriously, it doesn't address another important question: how do you do that? When you're facing a difficult choice and your mind is churning with anxieties, feelings, and thoughts, how do you sift through this soup of sensations to figure out what your gut is trying to tell you?

Expansive or contractive? 

I've heard various tricks and frameworks for honing your intuition before, but I recently came across the simplest and most convincing advice along these lines on the blog Cup of Jo. It comes from a therapist friend of post author Caroline Donofrio and it basically boils down to one simple question: Does it feel expansive or contractive?

Wait, you're probably thinking, that's not helpful at all. I don't even know what that means. Which is reasonable, I didn't get it instantly either, but Donofrio goes on to explain the difference between feeling "expansive" and "contractive" in terms that just about all of us will recognize.  

Expansiveness feels light, powerful, exciting. To me, it's like the sensation you get after a workout or when you're "in the zone" doing something you love. When you can't wait to get started on something, there's a good chance you're feeling expansive.

Contractive feelings exist at the other end of the spectrum -- heavy, tight. Perhaps it carries with it a sense of dread or secrecy. You can also sense it physically -- are you hunched over? Is your jaw clenched? Do you feel like you're stuck in molasses? If so, your intuition may be telling you it's a no.

In short, reading your gut isn't about anything specific to your stomach region. It's about reading your body as a whole. Sensations that feel tight, heavy, slow, or clenched indicate a big no to whatever you're contemplating. Meanwhile, light, open, energized sensations suggest you should go ahead and pull the trigger on a choice, even if those feelings are also accompanied by fear

How does your gut communicate anyway? 

That's simple enough, but the power in this framework is its physicality and specificity. Expansive vs. contractive gives you specific feelings to look out for in your body and a way to pull an answer out of a mental and physical state that's more "whirlwind of feelings" than "orderly pro/con list."

For those of us who struggle with more rational approaches to decision making (my hand is way up in the air) that's gold. Donofrio insists she's been road testing the approach and it has consistently worked for her. 

"I've applied this advice to choices big and small," she writes, "and have found it works every time. A week ago, I got an offer about a potential project that, on paper, sounded great. But as I considered it, my neck tensed up. I didn't want to jump into it. In fact, I didn't even want to respond to the email! Despite feeling pressure over what I 'should' do, it was clearly a no. Realizing this felt like such a relief."

So next time you're struggling with mixed emotions and contradictory considerations remember Dinofrio's trick and see if it can help you figure out exactly what your inuition is trying to tell you. 

Published on: Oct 8, 2019
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