A while ago I was under huge pressure to pursue something that I thought would change my life for the better, but despite everything being fantastic on the surface, something felt 'off'. I just couldn't shake off this sense of foreboding and it left me panicky and frustrated. I tried to slow things down and make space to work things out at my own pace, but it was moving so fast that I couldn't catch my breath. Rather than lose something precious to me, I ploughed on, ricocheting from one perspective to another. Being so out of alignment with what my inner voice was telling me resulted in an anxiety that totally consumed me, but I was determined to 'override' it because I thought it was rooted in irrational fear. It turned out that it wasn't, and in the end I learned a very painful lesson.
But how do we know the difference between intuition and anxiety or fear?
As Soren Kierkegaard said, we live life forwards and understand it backwards. And although we can never understand something fully unless we’ve actually lived through it, I believe there’s a rich and far-reaching roadmap of support and gentle encouragement within us and around us, helping us make the best choices we can in real time, rather than in hindsight. We just have to choose to know that it's there, and what it feels like to follow it. That, for me, is intuition.
Hearing our intuition speak to us isn’t always easy. It requires calming the mind for long enough to eliminate other noise.
Hearing our intuition speak to us isn’t always easy. It doesn't scream frantically at us in the same way that anxiety does - it's gentle, calm and constant and rarely anything to be scared of. But that means that in order to hear it, we need to calm the mind for long enough to eliminate other noise. If we're out of alignment, we can start to feel detached from our intuition, almost as though it's a separate entity. Anyone over 40 will remember the *Del Monte adverts, and the palpable relief when after waiting with bated breath: "The man from Del Monte said YES!" When our anxious mind is masking it, it can feel like we'll suddenly discover our truth via a similarly dramatic 'thunderbolt' moment. But if that does happen, it's usually because we've ignored the real message amongst the anxious chatter for way too long, and it needs to make itself heard.
*Apologies to my younger readers who don't know who on earth the man from Del Monte is.
I’m ashamed to say that until I realised that I'd actually experienced it, my attitude to anxiety was quite casual. But I now have huge respect for people who deal with this insidious, shape shifting monster every day. Several years ago, I started to experience a constant gnawing fear of being or becoming seriously ill. Every symptom (usually a non-symptom) was accompanied by frantic googling and catastrophising, leading to lack of sleep, loss of appetite and palpitations. But anxiety is so clever at masquerading as a concern about something rational that when we experience it, we don't necessarily know what it is! It took me a long time to figure out that this was health anxiety. I look back now at what I was really afraid of, and see how the surplus, anxious chatter masked my intuition so efficiently.
When I started to experience debilitating anxiety around forming relationships too, I decided to start the messy work of pulling it all up from the root. After exploring the many resources that were available to me, I pursued a path I felt would help me identify why I'd got myself into such a pickle, totally unable to 'tune into' my true self for fear of what I'd find.
One of the things I did was to seek the help of the wonderful healer Sheryl Paul, who I was lucky enough to speak to last year. The premise of her work is that we all have an innate sense of knowing that we're born with. She calls it the well of self. When it’s full, it absorbs many of our worries and irrational fears. Rather than continuing to ping pong chaotically around your psyche, intrusive thoughts subside to make way for your real voice. You can then more ably and confidently navigate your way through life’s challenges without the need to rely on the opinions of well-meaning friends and family (or psychics).
It sounds quite simple, but the actual work involved in rebuilding one’s self trust is bloody hard. I won’t even attempt to replicate Sheryl’s skilful approach here, but it involves a mixture of self-care and often messy healing work that leads us back to the events that bent our intuition out of shape in the first place. It gives the parts of us that we bury a voice so that there's nothing left to be frightened of. Once we can forgive and understand ourselves for our mistakes, and others for theirs, we create something of a clean slate. We're free.
Eventually, I understood that my anxiety was a by-product of something deeper and once I'd done that, started to work on identifying what I was really afraid of. I found that I hadn't really forgiven myself for my marriage breakdown. And that the health anxiety was about the enormity of now being on the main carer to my wonderful son, and wanting to be around to protect him.
Although we should never be led by our fear, it should still be respected and listened to.
The relationship anxiety was about being terrified of the gut-wrenching, claustrophobic panic of wanting to end my marriage, and never wanting to feel that way again. It was also about the heavy burden of having someone make me responsible for their happiness before taking responsibility for it themselves. But most of all, it was about fearing the guilt of hurting someone if my feelings changed.
In the most part, the anxiety dissipated, but although identifying the underlying causes doesn't mean the relationship anxiety in particular will completely go away, it does mean that in future, I'm confident that I can better-differentiate between fear associated with valid red flags and irrational self-limiting beliefs.
Feel the fear and don't do it anyway
Although we should never be led by fear, it should still be respected and listened to. But the tricky part is discerning between real red flags and the fear-based 'decoys' we create for ourselves in order to avoid risks which could lead to us getting hurt or - even more scary if we're honest - reaching our full potential.
So how do we do that? The truth is that we can never be 100% sure, but the best cut-through question for me is: Is this serving my highest good?
It's taken me until my mid-forties, but I finally feel able to make decisions in a calmer, more considered way. When going against my intuition before, I’ve always learned later that it was trying to protect me, I just didn't necessarily know what from. In future, I won't bow to external pressure or opinions.
Because no one can guide me better than me.