What's Your Gut Telling You?

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Everything is information. Every encounter we have, every experience, everything we see, every place we go. There’s information. It’s encoded into things. DNA, MP3s, barcodes, credit cards are all literally programmed with information. The laptop you use for work, and the traffic lights that made you late this morning. Systems run on information, devised by clever humans, or evolved by clever nature.

Other information is less literal. It needs translating, or decoding. Foreign languages, books, or even art. And sometimes the translation itself is information. Art critics use their expertise at explaining art to give you the information that they are experts in their field. I touched on this recently in my Language of Identity essay series.

Something else I touched on is the information that our emotions are offering to us. Generally, when we react emotionally to a stimulus, we think that it’s the stimulus that’s causing the emotional reaction. It’s that person who makes us angry. It’s the situation that’s frustrating. It’s the world that’s at fault and not us. But the truth is that the reaction is being generate within us, and it tells us a lot more about ourselves than the thing that is the focus of that reaction.

Perhaps the person behind you in the queue is standing a little closer than you would like. They’re evening brushing up against your backpack. How annoying is that? You might turn around and push that person away from you or, more likely, you’ll do what the rest of us do and stand there seething with annoyance.

But what does that situation tell us? If we are of the inclination that our situation is caused by someone else, that our discomfort and annoyance is the fault of someone behind us who has no concept of personal space, then we have two options. We can either choose to confront the idiot and raise tensions for us both, or we can choose to do nothing, and seethe inside, allowing those tensions to rise within us, causing ourselves stress. In both circumstances we are an aggrieved victim. The world is unfair.

But there is another way. Rather than seeing the external stimulus as the cause of our annoyance (i.e. blaming the world for our problems), we can choose to recognise that the annoyance is generated from within. We can understand that what we are feeling is our reaction to the stimulus of the person standing too close behind us, and that this reaction is information.

Information about us.

It might be revealing that we’re uncomfortable with people in our personal space. It may be an indication of mild agoraphobia. It might tell us that we’re still being affected by some incident that happened earlier in the day. It might simply be a signpost that this situation isn’t right. It might be a call to action.

But in this moment we now find ourselves in a different position. Rather than finding our heckles rising, our blood pressure increasing, our teeth grinding and our fists clenching as we seethe with anger, we are now in a much more advantageous place. Rather than react with anger, we now have information that we can work with and we can choose a measured response.

Perhaps we can take a breath to calm ourselves, and step forward to give ourselves space. Perhaps we can look over our shoulder with a loaded smile, or even ask politely for more room. Perhaps we can see that we are intolerant somehow. Or perhaps we can simply let it go.

Whatever option we choose, there is a difference in the outcomes. When we react angrily, not only have we caused stress to ourselves and possibly the person behind us, but we’ve amplified the negativity of the situation. Afterwards we may even feel bad about overreacting, which increases our stress even more. In any case we have given away our power.

But when we thoughtfully respond with intent, we have recognised the nature of the problem within ourselves and we’ve chosen a measured outcome. We don’t feel stressed or anxious because we have done what we have consciously decided to be the best course of action, rather than being a puppet of our inner programming and overreacting. We are comfortable that we have done the right thing. We have retained and grown our power.

We don’t dwell on the outcome.

More than this, though, we have seen our internal processes as information about ourselves. Information that we can use.. And this is a skill that can be hugely valuable if we want to build a life we want and be the person we want to be, in harmony with the world that we are trying to create.

This is because our internal emotional reactions can be powerful signposts for things that we need to work on or decisions we need to make. When we react to a stimulus with anger or sadness, or disappointment or frustration, does it reveal our inner biases and prejudices? Does it reveal a weakness or maybe a strength? Does it reveal a lack of tolerance? Are we impatient, judgemental, uncaring, only waiting for our turn to talk, sexist, racist, ageist, unsympathetic? Are we lacking the information we need to understand the situation?

How can we use this information to improve ourselves and our circumstances?

I recently found myself faced with a project that made me uncomfortable, and I could feel myself resisting it. I was annoyed, irked, and saw that I could potentially become difficult with the other members of my team. So I removed myself from the situation to try and figure out what this information was telling me. How could I use this negative internal emotional reaction as a tool — how could it become a beneficial problem solving exercise?

I figured out the problem. The structure of the workflow for this phase of the project was more complex than that last one, which had worked very well. My negative reaction was my subconscious telling me that I didn’t feel in control — information that highlighted an obstacle I needed to overcome. So I sought out the information I needed to make myself comfortable with this new level of complexity — I regained a sense of control — and got on with the project.

I had used the information that had been presented to me in the form of that negative emotional reaction — internal tension — to positively solve a problem. Rather than allowing my negative reaction to do the driving, and then becoming difficult and holding up the project, I used that information as a tool.

These feelings within us can help us solve problems and ace the situation, or they can move us closer to a punch in the face. They can be used for our benefit, or they can make the situation worse.

What’s really useful about employing this as a tactic is that when we really learn to tune in, it’s not just the obvious internal signposts that we become attuned to. We can teach ourselves to notice the subtle signals that our intuition is sending us that we might otherwise be oblivious too.

Our senses are constantly feeding us information about the world around us, and those things that we’re conscious of make up just a fraction of what’s going into our brains. We’re not aware of the many things that we see out of the corner of our eyes, most of the sounds that we hear, of the changes in air pressure that our skin senses in our ambient environment, of all the inputs and stimuli that we’re receiving all the time, that we’re not focusing on. Our conscious minds are aware of just a fraction of the information we are absorbing constantly. But our subconscious is receiving and processing this information all the time. Ever get a feeling that someone else has walked into the room, but not sure how you knew that?

We are surrounded by information, and both our conscious and subconscious minds are filtering it for things that it might be useful, desirable, or beneficial to us. And it is also looking for dangers to protect us from. Whether we are aware of it or not our brains are painting a picture of everything that’s going on around us. If we choose to tune into the shitty aspects of life then our intuition will become attuned to more of that. But if we choose to listen to our internal processes, to feel for our intuition, and look for the positive things that can be used for our benefit and turned into action, then the results can be very, very good.

So next time the person in front of you is driving too slowly, or someone doesn’t hold the door open for you, or you read a news story, or you are faced with an obstacle, and it makes you feel a certain way, before you react ask yourself what it’s telling you. What’s it telling you about you?

That information, and the momentary pause it offers as you stop to understand it, could be the best thing that’s happened to you all week.