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Instinct vs Intuition. When to Trust Your Gut Feeling

Is your gut feeling always right? Knowing when to follow your gut or trust your inner voice is a common dilemma. Are instinct and intuition the same? There are certain differences to spot between instinct and intuition and whether you can ‘trust your gut’. In this article, I look at these differences, including when it comes to relationships.

gut feelings, how do I know?
In deciding, ‘follow your heart or your head’? – Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay 

In conversations we might hear this defined as following your heart versus your head.

This article uses the following definitions.

Instinct Meaning

Instinct is the natural tendency that a person or animal has to behave or react in a particular way. (Collins Dictionary).

Think of it this way: I didn’t have as strong a maternal instinct as some other mothers. (Collins Dictionary)

Intuition Meaning

Intuition is unexplained feelings you have that something is true even when you have no evidence or proof of it. (Collins Dictionary).

Think of it this way: Her intuition was telling her that something was wrong. (Collins Dictionary).

Your intuition is your subliminal processing of information that goes beyond rational thought.

It is valuable for deciding and judging what’s best in today’s world of rapid change and complexity.¹

What does intuitive mean?

Being intuitive means that you more often know or sense without conscious reasoning what is right or true.

“An intuitive statement is one that you know is true even before you know why or how it is true.” ~ N.D. Walsch.

Is Intuition Real? Where Does Intuition Come From?

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

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’.

In the Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Galdwell refers to the origins of this ‘just knowing’ (or intuition) as the adaptive unconscious and likens it to our internal computer.

Author Malcolm Gladwell believes that “The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift given magically to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves.” It is one of nature’s gifts.

Should You Trust Your Intuition?

Studies show intuition leads us to better choices¹ ² ³ and that

Professionals succeed by trusting their intuition¹

But, do you look to the heavens? And, what about trusting your intuition in relationships?

when to trust your intuition
When to trust your intuition?

Below looks at whether you should trust your instincts in relationships. But more than that…Should you trust your intuition in everyday decisions?

We share common experiences. Is trusting your gut feeling the same as trusting your intuition, or trusting your instincts? Let’s look at that also.

Fear vs. Intuition in a Relationship

Some people are intuitively smart in many areas of their life – they win at life… except with relationships…where it seems… they can be a dumbass. They make poor choices. Why?

They might feel like they followed their gut feelings, led by their hearts. It might feel like they are acting on gut feelings. They felt sensations in their gut after all. But they are left with: “why did I trust my gut? Why did it lead me astray?”

Why can’t you always trust your gut feelings? Shouldn’t you always go with your gut feelings?

You hear: “Go with your gut” or “Listen to your gut”. How many times has someone said to you: “Follow your gut feeling”, “Follow your heart”, or “You should trust your gut” in relationships? These are common sayings, much like: “stick with your hunches”.

How to know when to do this — to trust your gut, to trust your gut instinct in relationships?

Here’s What Could Be Going Wrong

Your gut instinct in a relationship might amount to … fear and anxiety.

It’s not easy knowing if it’s relationship anxiety (or gut feeling) or intuition. You ask: is it intuition or anxiety?

It can take years of soul-searching before you realize you are being driven by fear…fear of rejection, fear of loss.

Are gut feelings always right?!

Here is another example of where gut feelings can lead you astray:

You might get a ‘bad’ gut feeling whenever you have to deliver a talk – You can’t dismiss it – whenever you have to take to that stage.

You might feel like running and hiding. You may have a strong sensation in your gut.. but driven by fear and anxiety about failure, driving a sense of urgency to retreat – it is not intuitive thinking.

This is the interplay of fear vs. intuition.

Learn to Spot the Difference

There are subtle differences between fear and intuition that are not easily recognized when we are emotionally charged.

how to tell the difference between fear and intuition
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You might discover the stakes are high in the relationship department or in a work situation. The reason being you may have suffered loss or rejection once before, and never completely processed that loss.

As a result: You might have this internal, pre-programming of how things would work out when you get close to someone. Subconsciously, you are primed for ‘red alerts’ in that part of your life. Yep, it is 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.  

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.

You might know your gut does this weird thing. It’s 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. This is instinct (vs intuition)…the reason for the expression: ‘gut feeling’. There’s no instinct vs. gut feeling in this instance.

The difference in today’s western society is that ‘danger’ can be perceived from threats other than the likelihood of being eaten alive by a wild beast (a real physical danger). Modern threats are more likely to arise from issues with forming (and keeping) significant relationships, study, jobs, and financial status (NOT saying there are no real dangers there either).

Which One Should Be Followed, Intuition or Instinct?

Gut sensations are common when stakes are high! When people feel they have something great to lose, when their instincts tell them they are in danger, their gut reacts. It is easy to confuse instinct with intuition because you can ‘feel it in your gut’.

Literally, a gut feeling is a ‘visceral emotional reaction to something’. Fear can be this emotion.

Pure intuition differs to this.¹

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. This is not saying that instinct is unimportant. Just that there is a difference.

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

8 Elements of Instinct vs Intuition

People who wonder “why is my gut feeling always right” may be confusing it with instinct.

What is the Difference Between Instinct and Intuition?

To know the difference between instinct and true knowing; to know when to trust your intuition…start with understanding the subtle differences.

chart of intuition vs instinct, 8 ways to tell the difference

The above chart shows 8 ways to spot the difference and identify whether it’s intuition or instinct you’re experiencing.

Instinct and Intuition In Unison

Though different, the two may work together.

Your intuition might quickly process observations and trigger your instincts to respond in the case of an emergency, where you need to trust your instincts. Cases like this happen in life-threatening situations, such as potential traffic accidents and in personal attacks.

Here’s the kicker:

There may be a real danger that you are being alerted to by your instincts (led by your intuition almost simultaneous).  Most likely, the litmus test is whether you are driven by insecurities and/or (de)attachment or not.

When You Have a Gut Feeling About Someone

Do you have a gut feeling that a relationship is wrong?

The secret to spotting false ‘intuition’ flags:

  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 to help guide you on intuition vs fear. Fears of failure or rejection are common and especially high if you are a perfectionist.
  2. Notice your body sensations. What are they telling you?
  3. Practice reducing anxiety and fear. Try natural ways of improving your outlook.
  4. Stop and check-in on the eight elements of instinct vs intuition, 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.

Calm the Gut Instincts in Relationships

So, gut instincts in relationships can lead you astray. But, trust your inner voice – the one guided by intuition.

It could have triggered your instincts and the ‘red alert’ could be for good reason — A knowing that something is genuinely wrong.

What will help the most is learning to still the mind, to be mindful whichever way you find works for you? This could be through a hobby, meditation, or learning strategies to relax and open your mind to objective insight.

What you may find is…

Other people’s advice is well-meaning and might make sense, but it’s not always the whole picture nor an objective view.

A Final Word on Intuition and Relationships

If you suffer from anxiety that is sabotaging healthy relationships…

Try doing things to still your mind, get a clear focus, and stop emotions taking over and sabotaging your future. Meditation journaling can be extremely helpful for self-reflection in this respect.

Meditation and mindfulness help with this. They may also open channels and help you to trust your intuition.

Lastly, there is a caveat to this. Do not disregard your instincts if they are informing you of real danger.  This may be the case if your relationship or situation is an unhealthy one – seek professional advice in any case.

Any info given here has the best intention but is not a substitute for professional advice.


  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