As a new mom I didn’t know when my instinct was kicking in, I’m not even sure how should it feel. One time when I noticed my daughter slightly bending down with her hands on her knees — a pose which she does not usually do — I decided not to fuss over it and ignore whatever “that feeling.”
I rationalized that maybe she’s just staring on something down the floor, and that it will soon pass. I didn’t investigate further the reason behind that unusual pose, until it took her more minutes on that same position. That’s then I soon found out that her tummy aches and rushed her to the bathroom! Good thing it was nothing major. That time, I wasn’t sure what instinct is, how it feels, or if I could really trust it.
In marriage, the phrase “a woman’s instinct is always right” is ofentimes associated with a cheating husband. It is when a wife started noticing or sensing something different about her spouse, but then at times shove it under the rug because the “feeling” seems illogical and has no rational basis. But then when the tragedy of infidelity strikes up, some wives started blaming themselves for ignoring what is already under their nose.
So what is instinct really? How do you know if something that you feel is instinct? How can you differentiate instinct from paranaoia?
Our primitive mind is constantly on the guard to keep us from safety and avoid harm. Instinct or intuition is our mind’s subtle, non-verbal way of communicating with us. Our mind seems to be expertly responding and taking in the patterns in our environment without us consciously knowing1. So instinct or intuition happens when our brain draws on past experiences and realizes that there’s something amiss.
When that happens, we automatically feel the sensation of “butterflies” or uneasiness in our stomachs. That may explain the “gut feeling” that a mother like me would want to investigate or act upon a daughter’s unusual behavior, and a wife’s urge to start investigating her husband. The mind is probably picking up on subtle cues such as a new body language and behaviour of the daughter; or a slight change in a straying husband’s hygienic routine or celfone use.
When this “gut feeling” surge over us, sometimes the best response is to allow our mind to respond for us, not to push it aside, nor argue with it. As in my case, I could have immediately responded to my daughter’s unusual behavior, and didn’t wait up for the obvious signs. And as for the suspecting wife, it would help her to put into words her intuitive experience: I don’t feel comfortable about this situation, something’s different about him. Why might that be? Often, simply recognizing and verbalizing our internal experiences is enough to add clarity1.
How is it different from paranoia?
In one online forum, a certain wife who was always reading about infidelity started to suspect that her husband might be cheating on her. She started interpreting some of her old husband’s behaviour in a negative way which made her anxious, on whether she should worry or not.
We all have bouts of paranoia at times, but unlike instinct which happens automatically, paranoia is a consistent, unfounded view that others want to hurt us in some way or that something awful is going to happen. It’s marked by a tendency to interpret neutral situations with a negative slant2.
Paranoia happens when we try to make sense of an idea and evidences we created, and then project it to the people around us. We apply the events in the world in our own lives just like the worried wife above who kept on reading about infidelity. While instinct is a subconscious and non-emotional reaction, paranoia is a preconscious one and is rooted from a certain emotion like fear3 – may it be perceived or real – or from past traumatic events.
To reiterate, instinct is our mind’s subtle, non-verbal way of communicating with us. Its purpose seems to be to help us accurately read the environment and other people, in order to avoid problems. It can help us keep our family safe from unwanted events. But there’s a thin line between instinct and paranoia, yet if the latter is driving us to be more proactive — believing that prevention is better than cure — then both of these can work to our own advantage.
In the end, maternal instinct, wifely intuition, gut feeling, call it whatever you like, is an inner feeling that has an important role for our safety, it is a sensation we must attend to when it strikes us even when we least expect it. We need not always react on it impulsively, but we can respond to it appropriately.
1. Smith S. The user’s guide to the human mind: Why our brain makes us unhappy, anxious, and neurotic and what can we do about it. Oakland; New Harbinger Publications:2011.
2. Booth S. A slew of suspects [Internet]. [Place unknown]Psychology Today; 2011 [updated 2012 Jan 2; cited 2011 Nov 1].
3. Campbell M. & Morrison, A. The subjective experience of paranoia: Comparing the experiences of patients with psychosis and individuals with no psychiatric history. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 2007; 14: 63-77.