Instinct vs Intuition: When to Trust Your Gut Feeling

Is your gut feeling always right? Knowing when to trust your gut feeling or inner voice is a common dilemma and can get in the way of living a freer life. There are certain elements to learn in spotting the differences. This article covers what I’ve learned about instinct vs intuition and ways of dealing with the dilemma.

Instinct vs Intuition, When to Trust in Your Intuition, just know, gut feelings, instinct, steps to learning to know the difference

This is No. 3 in my 3-part series: #JustKnow. In this series, I’m stepping through what I would do if I were to start from scratch in the process of developing ‘just know’ smarts to cut through blocks in deciding what’s best. Here’s what you can expect in this series:

  1. Answering the How to ‘Just Know’ What’s Right for You
  2. About Developing Intuition for the Tough Decisions
  3. Instinct vs Intuition: When to Trust Your Gut Feeling

Part 1 and 2 explained why we need to be listening to intuition when making decisions. This article looks at the differences between intuition, gut feelings, and instinct.

#1. You’ll make better choices by listening to intuition

What is intuition? Is intuition real?

According to Albert Einstein: “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”

  • Intuition is an understanding or knowing without conscious recourse to thought, observation, or reason (Oxford Dictionary).
  • It is a subliminal processing of information that goes beyond rational thought.
  • “An intuitive statement is one that you know is true even before you know why or how it is true.” ~ N.D. Walsch.
  • It is valuable for deciding and judging what’s best in today’s world of rapid change and complexity (1).
  • See my article: Answering the How to ‘Just Know’ What’s Right for You.

Where does intuition come from?

  • Science is not clear on this, but it’s considered a way our brains gather and store information and how we tap into that.
  • The answer is abstract – but it’s to do with your brain recognizing patterns.
  • As an experience, intuition feels like a ‘just knowing’.

You should trust your intuition

  • Studies show intuition leads us to better choices (1, 2, & 3)
  • Professionals succeed by trusting their intuition (1)

But, what about trusting your intuition in relationships?

#2. But gut feelings can lead you astray

Why can’t I always trust my gut feelings? I had this dilemma for years.

I had felt intuitively smart in every area of my life… except with relationships…where it seemed… I was a dumbass. I made poor decisions. Why?

You hear: “Go with your gut”, “Listen to your gut”, all colloquial terms, much like: “follow your heart” or “stick with your hunches”.

Hadn’t I followed my gut feelings, my heart? It felt like I was acting from gut feelings. I felt sensations in my gut after all. But I was left with: “why should I trust my gut? Why does it lead me astray”.

Here’s the real story…

My gut instinct in relationships amounted to … fear.

The penny finally dropped. After years of soul searching, I finally realized I was being driven by fear…fear of rejection, fear of loss.

So, my gut feelings weren’t always right!

Here is another example of where my gut feelings were leading me astray:

I would get a bad gut feeling whenever I had to deliver a talk – I couldn’t dismiss it – whenever I had to take to that stage. It felt like I should just run and hide. I certainly felt a strong sensation in my gut. But it was coming from a place of fear and anxiety about failure, driving a sense of urgency to retreat – it was not intuitive thinking.

Let’s be honest:

This is fear vs intuition.



#3. Learn to spot the difference between instinct and intuition

I discovered my stakes were high in the relationship department. The reason being I’d lost my mother at a young age, and I never completely processed that loss.

As a result: I had this internal, preconceived understanding of how things would work out when I got close to someone. Subconsciously, I was primed for ‘red alerts’ in that part of my life. Yep, it was a potential ‘danger’ zone.

It is easier to sit in denial with your delusions and pray God will intervene, not realizing he has. He gave you common sense and intuition, but you didn’t like how it made you feel. This is what true mental illness really is: Following your gut instinct through hell because you want to prove you are right, either to yourself or others. You sacrifice choosing to do right, in order to avoid pain. However, you don’t realize that you have been in pain for a really long time and believed this was how happiness felt. ― Shannon L. Alder

What is a ‘red alert’ response?

Here’s the thing…

When we perceive danger we are hardwired in a way that our intestines react. This is a primal connection, between the brain and the gut, that works to keep us safe from predators or other physical threats. It is part of our fight or flight response (4). This is instinct (vs intuition).

… the reason for the expression ‘gut feeling’.

The difference in modern society is that ‘danger’ is perceived from threats other than being eaten alive by a wild beast. These modern threats come with forming (and keeping) significant relationships, study, jobs, and financial status.




Gut sensations are common when stakes are high! When people feel they have something great to lose they are often emotionally charged. It is easy to confuse emotion with intuition because they can ‘feel it in their gut’.

Literally, a gut feeling is a ‘visceral emotional reaction to something’ (3).

Pure intuition differs to this (2).  See below.

Learning to recognize the trustworthy voice of intuition over that tainted by anxiety, fear, and wishful thinking is a major step in ‘just knowing’ what’s best for you.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. ― Steve Jobs

#3. Know the eight elements of instinct vs intuition

Want to know how to know when to trust your intuition? Then, start with understanding these differences:

Pure IntuitionGut Feelings or Instinct
 Sense of calm and a ‘knowing’ Feeling of compulsion or wanting to flee
 Confident and trusting Insecurity
 Devoid of strong physical sensation Physical sensation – a twang in the gut
 Neutral – not driven by attachment Driven by attachment
 Inner voice of guidance Reaction to ‘red alert’
 Led by true Self Led by Ego
 Cognitive process Behavioral process
 Higher intelligence Immediate reaction without forethought

Though different, the two may work together:

Your intuition might quickly process observations and relay a message to which your instincts will respond.

The best part? Having a presence of mind in the midst of chaos is a precursor to inviting and acting on intuitive thought. This was Napoleon’s secret to success (see Answering the How to ‘Just Know’ What’s Right for You).

But here’s the kicker:

You need to check your ego is not running amuck. Feeding on anxiety, fear, and wishful thinking, and operating from a place of competition and comparison, the ego will limit your intuition. Learn more at: How to Distinguish Your Ego from Your True Self.

#4. The secret to spotting false ‘intuition’ flags is this:



  1. Get to know your vulnerabilities — your ‘red alerts’ that are likely to taint intuition. Start by making a list of everything that you fear.
  2. Practice calming to reduce anxiety and fear. Daily meditation is good for this (see my article: benefits of daily meditation). Journaling will also help.
  3. Notice your body sensations. What are they telling you? Take note of whether you are responding out of fear, anxiety, or wishful thinking.
  4. Tune in and align with your true Self so that it leads you rather than your ego.
  5. Stop and check-in on the eight elements listed above.

Tip: Find new interests to broaden your outlook on things, move past your limitations, and look for opportunities for ah-ha moments.

Pure intuition gets better with practice. See How to Develop a Strong Intuition for the Tough Questions. I hope this has helped with knowing instinct vs intuition for when you need it.


  1. Robson, M & Miller, P 2006, ‘Australian Elite Leaders and Intuition’, Australasian Journal of Business and Social Inquiry, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 43-61.
  2. Hogarth, Robin M. (2002) Deciding Analytically or Trusting your Intuition? The Advantages and Disadvantages of Analytic and Intuitive Thought. UPF Economics and Business Working Paper No. 654. Available at SSRN:
  3. Betsch, T.  & Glöckner. A. (2010) Intuition in Judgment and Decision Making: Extensive Thinking Without. An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory. Volume 21, 2010 – Issue 4 effort

The articles in this series:

  1. Answering the How to ‘Just Know’ What’s Right for You
  2. About Developing Intuition for the Tough Questions
  3. Instinct vs Intuition: When to Trust Your Gut Feeling


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