Friday, February 5, 2010

Are Your Instincts Taking Over?

By Amy Phillips-Gary

In a few days, the culmination of American professional football's year happens. The Indianapolis Colts take on the New Orleans Saints at the Superbowl.

I recently listened to an interesting story on NPR about Colt's quarterback Peyton Manning. The story about Manning lauded his abilities as a quarterback-- especially when he's in what's called “the clutch.”

I'm not even close to a football expert so please forgive my generalizations (and possible mistakes) here....

“The clutch,” from my novice understanding, is when the quarterback has the ball and is under pressure from the opposing team's defensive line. Sometimes “the clutch” also refers to a situation in which little time remains on the clock, the team is behind in scoring and the quarterback needs to lead the way to pull out a win.

In the NPR story, quarterbacks who, like Manning, are known for thriving when in the clutch talk about operating from instinct.

The adrenaline is pumping and these quarterbacks don't recall going through a rational thought process in the moment-- their training, repeated practicing and body memory literally take over.

For Peyton Manning, and other quarterbacks who tend to succeed in the clutch, operating with automatic precision can mean a big win for the team as well as a boost to his (or her) stats and career.

When you or I go through life operating mainly by instinct, however, we can end up repeating and reinforcing habits that don't allow us to succeed or live the lives we desire.

Instinct or Intuition?
There is a difference between instinct and intuition.

Instinct is a survival reaction. The squirrels in my backyard instinctively gather nuts and food scraps from our compost heap when they sense an oncoming storm. When I have to slam on my car's breaks to avoid a collision, my arm instinctively flies out attempting to block my passenger from jolting forward.

Intuition, on the other hand, has been associated with thriving rather than surviving. Your intuition provides guidance and a sense of direction toward self-actualization.

For example, intuition comes into play as I feel drawn to take a different route home instead of my usual one.

In past blog posts, I've offered ways to tune in more clearly to your intuition and to take notice when fight or flight instincts kick in so that you can choose a different path if you'd like to.

When you react instinctively, there is an element of always having known how to react in such an occasion. Just like those clutch quarterbacks, you may not have even thought about it-- you just reacted.

Instincts are by no means bad. But there are times, particularly stressful or tense ones, in which you find yourself reacting instinctively and later regret the behavior or reaction.

You instinctively reach for a cigarette, a beer, a candy bar or the tv remote when you feel overwhelmed. Ingrained habits like these-- that are often linked in with addiction-- can appear to be instinctive over time.

We don't usually think about it too much, if at all, in the seconds before doing.

When you make the decision to change a habit or limiting way of thinking, it's instinct that can seem to stand in the way.

As committed as you might be to quitting smoking, drinking more moderately, stopping binge eating or even ceasing the hateful self-talk, it can feel impossible to do.

This is because all of these habits and ways of thinking, being and believing about yourself are all so practiced that they can appear to be instinctive.

Instinct Doesn't Have to Dominate
A significant first step in shaking loose the hold that instinct may seem to have over you is to recognize it for what it is.

Yes, there are times when an instinctive reaction can literally save your (or another's) life.

But, hopefully, these occasions will not be an everyday occurrence for you!

After you've made the intention to change a habit or belief, be on the lookout for instinctive moments. You can stay present and tuned in to your feelings and actually head off an instinctive reaction.

If you are struggling trying to stop smoking, even after that first draw on the cigarette, you can interrupt the habit and the instinctive reaction that brought it to your lips in the first place. Return to your commitment and make a deliberate decision about what your next move will be.

There are specific techniques, such as NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) and Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), that have been developed to help people change beliefs and habits. A trained practitioner can teach them to you.

These techniques actually re-program the brain. There is an element of going back to the past to heal or alter the behavior or belief involved as well.

You don't have to go through life regretting or being held back by reactive and instinctive behaviors and beliefs. Know that change of any kind is possible.


  1. Re: "Instinct is a survival reaction." No truer words have ever been spoken! This is a difficult thing to overcome, too.

    I guess we've had our whole lives to learn to shoot from the hip (so to speak), so it makes sense it's hard to learn to consistently come at things from a new and more productive angle - and coming from a place of intuition is exceeding more positive and productive, so it's worth it.

    At least in my own experience it is!

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  3. (trying again without the typo...) My experience has borne this out as well.