Recently, I conducted an interview with Herminia Ibarra around the idea that being overly attached to your own authenticity may in fact be holding you back. A controversial idea for sure, it explores that if we’re too wedded to what we have been and who we think we are now, we’ll perhaps be too afraid of and resistant to stretch beyond that concept, because it doesn’t feel like the “real” us to stretch beyond our existing self-definition. I’m a huge fan of authenticity, because I was so constrained in my former corporate life and felt I simply couldn’t be real, transparent and honest, ever. But I see what Herminia means and have to agree.
In fact, I believe that the same problem exists with regard to following our “gut instincts.” I’m not talking here about hard-wired human survival instincts, but about the natural, intuitive way of acting or thinking that each of us has personally developed through the specific experiences of our lives. Other words for the type of instinct I’m talking about are: natural tendency, inclination, urge, drive, compulsion, hunches, and your gut “feeling.”
Regarding these instincts, there are times when our gut is right on, and tells us accurately what to avoid — or pursue — in order to grow and thrive. But often, our instincts are not the best signals to follow, in isolation. They may tell us to run like the wind away from new, stretching experiences and opportunities that are “perceived” threats but in fact would bring us to a higher level of success, satisfaction and reward. Sometimes, you experience the same level of fear and high alert when contemplating significant positive change as you would if you were in a potentially life-threatening situation. Our instincts try to keep us safe and secure, but “safe” in our lives and livelihoods can often bring misery, pain and suffering. My instincts told me to “tough it out, Kathy!” and “C’mon, be a survivor!” and “You’re weak if you give up too soon,” or “Don’t let them get the better of you,” during the very tough times in my corporate career. Sadly, those instincts guided me on a long detour that took years to recover from.
What should we do then? How can we know when we should we follow our instincts, disregard them completely, or balance them with other signals?
I’ve seen that when 6 conditions are present, you need to be extra vigilant to avoid blindly following what your gut tells you to do, and instead, weigh all the other important factors before you make a decision.
These 6 conditions are:
You’re deathly afraid to stretch beyond where you are today.
I’ve connected with literally thousands of professionals in the past 10 years as a coach and a therapist, and I cannot count the times I’ve heard people say “I’m scared to make change.” The “what if” syndrome keeps so many planted firmly in one place, paralyzed, until a crisis hits like a cosmic 2×4’ across their faces and wakes them up. Human beings naturally want to grow and become more, but our fears, insecurities and anxieties can thwart that process. If you want more in your life and livelihood, but find yourself afraid to move, then listen to your heart and your mind as well as your gut. Say “yes” to stretching.
You don’t know yourself or what you want, so your gut says “Stay put!”
If you don’t know yourself – what you want, what you care about, who you are uniquely and what you have to offer the world (in short, if you’re walking unconsciously through life), then your natural intuitive reactions aren’t going to help you, because they’re not based on the authentic you, but on some smaller version that you’ve been taught to see. You’ll miss the real clues about the real life you want to live. Once you open your mind up to the possibility that you deserve better than unhappiness, disrespect or lack of fulfillment, and then dimensionalize for yourself what a happier life and career would be, your instincts can start supporting you better. You have to understand more about what you value and care about, and what gives your life meaning and what you deserve. You need to create a map. But if you remain unconscious and oblivious, your instinctive way of behaving won’t take you in a positive direction.
You have an intense negative reaction to an individual, and think you know why (but actually you don’t).
I’ve had this experience numerous times recently, until I finally “got it.” Just because you have an intensely negative reaction to someone doesn’t necessarily mean you should run from them, or shun them. Sometimes it means that they’re “perturbing your system” – agitating you, clashing with your worldview or values, and threatening the way you think and feel. And sometimes you’re intimidated and jealous but you just don’t want to admit it. When this happens, it’s a sign that your worldview and thinking need some expansion or revision. Your discomfort and agitation with people who are very different from you – or with people who are 10 steps ahead of you in ways you’re envious of — need examining. In these cases, it’s helpful to look more deeply at what specifically threatens and disturbs you, to make sure your bruised and fragile ego isn’t getting in the way.
You’re driven to say “yes” to a terrible job or career move solely because of the money.
Many career professionals come to coaching confused about how to decide on a number of alternatives in front of them. They haven’t formulated a solid decision making process for themselves, so they’re thinking they’ll just go with their gut. The problem is, they’re so consumed with financial worries that their gut tells them to “Take the money!!” even when there are a million other signs that this next move or job would be a disaster, and even when they have other better options in front of them. If you’re in terrible financial straits, or have deep, long-standing fear and trauma over money, you need to address your money challenges in an empowered way, quickly. The answer isn’t to take a terrible job that you’ll fail at or lose. The answer is to strengthen your financial management skills and your overall relationship with money so that you can create more financial stability, which in turn will pave the way for more positive outcomes and opportunities.
You fear that “there will never be anything better than this, so I have to settle.”
I remember when I was a young adult, I was in a relationship I wasn’t happy with, but I was afraid to break up with my boyfriend for fear that no one would love me as he did. I asked my beloved father what to do. He said something I’ll never forget: “Kathy, if you’re staying with him only because you think you’ll never experience a happier relationship, then it’s time to go. Don’t settle.” That was the best advice he ever gave me. If your gut is telling you to settle and compromise in your life or career because you’re afraid you don’t deserve something better or won’t ever get it, then your “instincts” have been programmed with the wrong input.
You’re driven to leap to new direction and run away – chucking everything because of the pain you’re in.
Finally, if you’re in a lot of pain and anguish over your current job, career or professional situation, you might be driven to just quit and run – chuck it all, walk away and never look back. What I learned in my therapy training, however, is that this wish to run is called “emotional cutoff” – attempting to manage our unresolved emotional issues with family members and colleagues by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them. The problem is, if you haven’t learned how to deal with these situations in a more positive way, they will very likely repeat themselves again and again, until you do. The better solution is to find new ways to improve your situation and relationships right now – today. Whether it’s a toxic boss, being passed over for a promotion, having your ideas ignored, or feeling undervalued – start behaving differently in your work and taking empowered, authoritative steps to rectify these situations in a strong, confident way. If you don’t, these painful situations will re-emerge in the next role.
What is your gut telling you to do now, and what other signals should you be heeding?
(To learn when NOT to listen to your gut but to stretch boldly instead, join me in my free webinar training Fast Track To Career Bliss.)