Feelings IV: Intuition

This is the fourth in a series of blogs of feelings. Feelings I had to do with identifying basic feelings, namely joy and sorrow, the feelings related to love; and anger and fear, the feelings related to defense. Feelings II dealt with expressing feelings, and Feelings III on hearing feelings. We have granted that the very word “feelings” is nondescript and covers a multitude of things including emotion, and yet feelings remains to be an extremely important concept and central in relationships. In this study we want to discuss what we are generally calling intuition, although we will broaden this concept to some degree. To look at this general category of intuition is to look at what some people say is “a sense of,” “a gut level feeling,” “just knowing” or “just feeling.” Let’s start there.

“Just feeling”

The word “just” is ad adverb, meaning a word that modifies a verb, in this case the verb “feeling.” People use the word “just” when they are trying to convey something that is nebulous but also important. In my evangelical Christian background I used to hear people pray saying something like, “Lord, we just pray that…” which meant that didn’t know exactly how to say what they wanted to say but that the feeling that they had was important. The word “just” is much like the very popular use of “like,” which can be an adverb or an adjective that attempts to convey something nebulous but also important. It can be entertaining to hear a teenager say, “Like, I really, like, like him, like you know, like, what I mean. Like, he may, like, like me to, but like, I’m not, like sure.” This young lady is trying to convey something that is important to her but doesn’t have the words to articulate those feelings so she litters her statement with this filler word hoping to convey the depth of her feeling. People often use the statement, “I just feel” or “I just know,” or more rarely, “I just think” when they want to convey a deep feeling that does not lend itself to exact measurement but remains important to them. Other folks use the phrase “a gut level feeling,” “a sense of,” or perhaps just a “hunch.” I think that the best word, albeit a technical term for this having a hunch is intuition, but there would be many people who would challenge my use of this term, not the least of which some Jungians. However, we convey this matter of intuition, we know that it is a deep feeling, that it is important, and that it doesn’t lend itself to an exact definition. We’re left with trying to give some objective meaning to this very subjective experience. Let’s look at when and why intuition occurs, and then how accurate it is, and how to use it.

When and Why Intuition Occurs

There is great debate over this question ranging from an attempt at a super scientific answer with brain functioning to a “spiritually-based “understanding. Roughly, there appear to be essentially three ways of understanding how someone can have intuition: genetic disposition, spiritual disposition, or acquisition (training). So do some people have this ability while others don’t? I don’t know, but I tend to think so. Certainly, however, anyone can hone their ability to have hunches. The more super scientific way of understanding intuition is to consider that people who are intuitive simply gather more information from the external world more than utilizing information from the internal (personal) world. In general, it appears that while intuition appears to be spontaneous and instantaneous, it probably originates long before the hunch of “feeling” occurs. Specifically, it seems that a person will gather information over a period of time, which could be seconds, minutes, or hours, and then piece this gathered information together in what appears to be a moment, where in fact, the intuition or hunch developed over these seconds, minutes, or hours.

The character Sherlock Holmes was not so much intuitive as we would normally think of when we use the term, but rather someone who had a very well developed ability to notice everything that he saw and heard. So whether or not some people have the “gift” of intuition or not, certainly everyone can hone this ability to see what is happening around them, primarily in what is seen and heard. Yet it may not singularly be what is seen and heard that leads to intuition. There may be a kind of “energy” that transpires between people, an energy, if we use that term, that is very emotional. For instance, haven’t you had the experience of walking into a room and feeling “something”? This feeling may be related to what you saw or heard but it could also be something at a different level, a different one of the five senses, or perhaps this sixth sense that we call intuition.

I should mention tangentially that some people “just feel” so often that they seem to live on these feelings and intuitions, if we even call them such. Some of this kind of intuition is based on the lack of the person’s full personal development, and usually lack of objective success in the world. Hence such a person relies on this “just feeling” something as a way to have life be meaningful when, in fact, his/her life may not be meaningful. I am particularly suspicious about someone saying that they “know” something about another person, or even more tellingly, they know what that person did or should do. People who are inclined to “know” what everyone else should do usually have a lack of self, and as a result live through other people to some degree. The few people who do this kind of “knowing”, however, should not dissuade us from believing that intuition, whatever it is, certainly is valuable.

How accurate is intuition

As you might expect, there are several opinions on this matter, opinions that seem to line up with the scientific orientation that this is all brain functioning, as compared with the more “spiritually”-based folks. I can’t accurately know the answer to the question of how intuition works but probably between these two extremes, meaning that there is undoubtedly a neurological function and some kind of a personal function that remains ethereal. While we can’t say for certain the exact nature of the origin of intuition, we can say a few things about how it operates and how to use it. Some people may have some kind of special gift in this way, but most people who espouse this universal “knowing” are not well adjusted. That having been said, there is much to the accuracy and value of intuition.

I think this: true intuition is never wrong (or perhaps rarely)…with a caveat, actually two caveats. Notably and most importantly, intuition is never (or rarely) wrong if it is not mixed with emotion…any emotion. This means that if you are sad, happy, angry, or afraid (the 4 basic emotions, remember?), you can’t trust your intuition. We literally some swamp land in northern Wisconsin about 13 years ago when we were looking for the cabin that we now have, but we bought this land because it seemed cheap, seemed right, and we liked it. But the better part of wisdom came to us within 24 hours and we were able to cancel the sale. We lost a good sense of intuition in our good feeling of excitement and joy of find a place to build. More often, however, emotion interferes with intuition when people are scared, angry, or sad. A child is scared of the dark and so his/her intuition conjures up ghosts; the man is angry at his wife and conjures up the idea that she is having an affair; the wife conjures up the idea that she will never be happy because she is sad. Conjuring up is not intuition. So the first caveat is that you can’t trust your intuition if you have some strong emotion at the same time.

The second limitation to the accuracy of intuition has to do with objectivity. This means that we may have an intuition that we should do something but we don’t know why we should do it, or we may have an intuition that we shouldn’t do something, but equally we don’t know why. So I would say that the intuition is right, but intuition is by its nature, subjective. Objectivizing something that is intrinsically subjective is often a mistake. If you read my blog on Regrets, you know that I have many, but the outstanding one is the regret I have for getting married to my first wife, now 52 years ago. I knew better. I knew that I didn’t want to marry Sandy. Sandy was and remains a fine person; my feelings then and now have nothing to do with her. Rather, they have to do with my having overridden my intuition that I shouldn’t marry her. At the time, at 22, I wasn’t wise enough, much less trust my feeling enough to honor that intuition. I over road my intuition because I couldn’t objectify it; I couldn’t find any good reason for not marrying Sandy. People tend to objectify some action that is an outgrowth of an intuition, which as I said, is not naturally emotional or concrete.

How to trust and use intuition

These are the principles to keep in mind when having an intuition:

  • Intuition is a real thing, not to be dismissed
  • It is not objective by nature, so leave an intuition in the subjective realm until if and when some objective action also feels So you have an intuition that something needs to be done, and then you have a later intuition of what needs to be done.
  • Be very wary of people who live on hunches, gut feelings, and other forms of intuitions. They may often be spot on, but likely they also mix emotion with intuition.
  • So don’t trust your intuition when you are emotional. Don’t trust your thoughts at a time when you are emotional. Let the emotion, particularly sadness, run its course. When that happens, your intuition might be very valuable for you.
  • Don’t trust your intuition about someone else, like what he or she should do. Likewise, don’t trust someone else’s intuition about what you should do. This is projection, and rarely accurate, much less helpful.

Further reading

  • Hope you have read Feelings I, II, and III
  • G. Jung has some good stuff on intuition, but it is substantially different than my ideas
  • Bloom, P. (2016). Against empathy.