What is intuition?
For clarity, when I talk about intuition I don’t mean some esoteric sixth sense, or being carried away by random mental images or temporary emotions. My definition of intuition is a subtle feeling of knowledge which is the result of subconscious processing of subconsciously perceived data. Yes, there is a lot of “subconscious” in that former sentence, but I wanted to emphasize how both the perception of data and its processing evade our conscious minds.
While our conscious minds are quite narrowly focused and, allegedly, can notice only about 5-9 details at the same time, our subconscious minds keep scanning and processing peripheral data. Just how much data, is still an ongoing debate, but plenty enough to, for example, allow us to drift away into the “auto-pilot” state even while driving or playing a musical instrument, only to snap us back out of it at the first sign of anything unusual. Or to be instantly attracted to somebody who, years later, turns out to have traits similar to our parents’ (see “Patterns In Love Relationships“).
On top of perceiving such “micro-signals”, our subconscious minds also store endless memorized data– not only data we consciously noticed in the past, but also unconsciously noticed and processed data. When children learn to walk or ride a bicycle, do they use every experience of a fall to analyze their posture, tension of specific muscles, speed, weight, proximity and shape of a rock and what not, to learn what to change in the next attempt? Of course they can’t and don’t do it consciously, but that’s pretty much what their subconscious minds do, even at such young age.
Our unconscious minds store not only vast data from our own experiences, but also the “knowledge” – or instincts – developed through eons of evolution – and there are more of them than we are aware of. Did you know that we can, for example, unconsciously smell emotions or, sometimes, disease? (Pheromones in humans are still disputed, but apparently men can smell when women ovulate.) Our recognition of non-verbal communication is also partly rooted in inborn instincts. All of our senses are continuously exposed to information from the environment, and most of it is received and processed unconsciously.
Human unconscious mind does a fabulous job of receiving various tiny signals and instantly comparing them to all of our previous experience and instinctive knowledge. And it does this all the time, even, partly, when you are asleep. The raw result of all this processing is presented to you through subtle impressions or urges you might call “gut feeling”.
Distinguishing intuition from emotions
If people ask me how do I make decisions, I will usually say I already know what the end decision will be almost before I’d started thinking about it. You could say my body has made the decision for me. Then I usually spend some time exploring my doubts and arguing with either my emotions or reason or both, all the time knowing pretty well what the end decision will be. I can’t remember ever regretting it – but I can remember regretting going against it. Interestingly, this process works much better for important decisions than for everyday small choices such as what to order in a restaurant. Probably my intuition finds such small things not worth bothering with.
Did you ever find yourself thinking, “I should have listened to my gut feeling!”? This means you already know how true intuition feels, and that (at least that one time) you ignored it in favor of stronger emotions – hopes or fears, whether your own or induced by other people.
When you remember how the “gut feeling” felt, you probably wouldn’t describe it as an emotional state. True intuition is rarely tied to a strong emotion – except if we are in an immediate danger, in which case our subconscious minds send us instant fear. But if we are making a decision we have time to contemplate, intuition feels more like information or knowledge – either relaxed “yes” or somewhat tense “no/ something’s wrong”. Both ways, the feeling is subtle, which is why people often disregard it.
However, if childhood emotions wake up and come into play – and it’s not difficult to trigger them – they can easily overpower the subtle feeling of knowledge given by intuition. It’s safe to say that whenever an emotion is strong and urgent – it’s very likely not the result of intuition (except, again, if you are in an immediate physical danger). Common emotions which make people ignore their intuition are fear of missing out, fear of making a mistake and unrealistic hope. (See “When Hope Is A “Negative” Emotion“.)
When is intuition unreliable?
All of the above sounds like intuition is some magical, unlimited, indisputable force. It is not – it’s simply more complex and more powerful than our conscious minds; faster and based on much more data. Yet it’s still limited by our experience and available information. Sometimes the information needed to make the best possible decision is simply not available in the present moment. For example, intuition is often based on our unconscious assessment of others’ nonverbal behavior, and such details are often missing in modern communication through electronic devices.
That’s why it makes sense to include your conscious mind – not only your logic, but also your imagination which might be able to come up with possibilities for which your experience didn’t prepare you. Let all parts of you cooperate.
Fear of making a mistake is a common fear installed by overly controlling and impatient parents. I often need to help clients build a perspective that mistakes are not only normal, forgivable and usually fixable, but the best way to learn. In fact, it’s possible that sometimes your intuition might deliberately lead you into making a “mistake” – because in the long run it would be a good learning experience for you and save you some future trouble, or take you somewhere you wouldn’t go otherwise. If you make decisions with good intentions and a healthy, balanced approach, it’s very unlikely that you’ll make a mistake you won’t be able to repair.
How children learn to ignore their intuition
Even in the “old times” which were presumably simpler and much more in touch with nature, it wasn’t at all difficult – quite the opposite – to get people to abandon their inner voice in favor of adapting to the society. The need to belong and to be accepted tends to be stronger than a child’s own sense of truth. Nowadays, while more parents are emotionally literate, the noise from other channels – primarily social media – is deafening.
The problem with intuition is, it’s quite subtle and mild compared to strong temporary emotions, especially for a child. To be able to hear their “inner voice”, people need to learn to go beyond the surface, to be in peace with themselves and to detach from many loud, seductive and confident voices from the outside. As technology makes our attention spans shorter, noticing subtleties becomes more difficult, especially for young ones who didn’t even yet have a chance to learn it.
So rather than just letting things be and hoping for the best, it’s a good idea to get actively engaged in teaching your children such subtle skills. Just like with swimming or riding a bicycle, it will be much easier for them if somebody helps them rather than leaves them all alone.
You could start with asking your kids something like, “What would your heart tell you about this?” (You can also go with “your gut” if you wish – but “heart” encourages children and adults to focus more on their kind and warm feelings.) Encourage children to feel deeper than their first response. Teach them that the wisdom from their heart is quiet and calm rather than loud and emotional. Keep asking questions such as, “If there was another voice inside you, what would it say?” or “Is there something else you can feel if you look deeper inside yourself?”
Don’t get discouraged or disappointed if their answers are not what you hope for – remember you are planting the seeds, not harvesting the fruit. Years later, your children will probably spontaneously remember your advice. Sometimes they might be bored or irritated with your questions, but it’s a part of parenting, as you might now by now.
Reading, as I wrote in “Children Need Challenges“, helps children develop a better connection with and recognition of their feelings through identifying with the characters in stories and imagining their emotions. Awareness of feelings is an essential aspect of the ability to recognize intuitive urges. Any other activity that encourages emotional and bodily awareness – art, dance, being in nature – helps. Interaction with many different people helps children build experience their subconscious mind can later refer to.
Ask them questions about how they feel often, and refrain from judgement and criticism. Not only this will help children process their emotions, but their trust in you and the sense of connection with you will grow.
Making mistakes helps children learn from them – not only what to do or avoid in future, but what kind of internal process led to the mistake and how to distinguish such urges from those which prove themselves worth listening. So allow children to make mistakes. Ask them directly what could they learn from them. Better if they learn early from small mistakes than later from big ones.
More than anything, show them with your own example how it looks like when people go inside themselves and listen to subtle knowledge rather than responding automatically to their environment. Hopefully you know by now that children learn from your example, rather than your words. So show them how thoughtfulness and centeredness looks like. Don’t make a show out of it – their intuition will pick up on lack of authenticity, as well as the subtle signals of genuine mindfulness. Even if it seems you are not achieving much in their younger years, once they settle into their adulthood they are likely to understand the wisdom of what you taught them.