Learning to Listen to Yourself


You know that nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach? The one that says something’s not right?

Or the ease and comfort you have when you’re with someone you really trust? The feeling that says, “This person is safe. I can let down my guard.”

Or maybe you’ve noticed how energized and excited you feel about certain aspects of your work and how drained you feel by others.

These feelings have important messages to tell us if we only listen. But too often, we don’t tune in enough to hear what they have to say. Or if we do, we don’t trust them.

Maybe we did trust them once upon a time — but we’ve been burned.

That feeling of “get me the heck outta here” doesn’t always mean that you should immediately run away. But it means something — and you can only get to the bottom of what it means if you pay attention and remain curious. 

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that our interpretation of our feelings isn’t always accurate.

We may feel safe with someone who later proves themselves to be untrustworthy.

We may feel uncomfortable in a situation not because it’s unsafe but because it’s new and different.

That feeling of “get me the heck outta here” doesn’t always mean that you should immediately run away. But it means something — and you can only get to the bottom of what it means if you pay attention and remain curious.

The trick is to be aware of and curious about our feelings without overly identifying with them.

How We Learn to Distrust The Voice Within

Many of us have had experiences that teach us that it’s not safe to trust our guts.

Maybe we let our guard down with someone who seemed safe, and we got hurt. (Maybe even really badly hurt.)

Or maybe we look back and see how our fears got in the way of our taking important risks that were probably worth taking. Maybe we missed out on opportunities because of those fears, and we don’t want to keep missing out.

We start to ignore the inner voice. We tell ourselves that it was wrong. That it betrayed us, that it’s untrustworthy. But it’s not wrong or untrustworthy at all.

Let’s get one thing straight. Our inner voices (or our guts, or whatever you want to call them) cannot predict the future. They also cannot read other people’s minds. If that’s what we expect them to do, then yes, they will come off seeming untrustworthy and occasionally downright wrong.

Ok, So Then What Are Feelings — and Inner Voices — Even Good For?

“We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. If we can learn to read our own responses to our own experience — a text which we are writing unconsciously every day we spend on earth — we will receive the guidance we need to live more authentic lives.” —Parker Palmer

The fact that our feelings and our inner voices can’t predict the future or read people’s minds doesn’t mean that they don’t have important information to give us. But that information is about our own needs, our wishes and fears — not the facts of the outside world.

Someone may remind you of a person who has hurt you in the past, and you may feel instinctively distrustful. This doesn’t mean that this new person is necessarily going to hurt you. Maybe they just look like the other person. Maybe they use the same perfume. Or maybe they actually behave in a way that’s similar, and that behavior is truly a red flag. You can’t tease this apart unless you first notice that your emotions are trying to get your attention.

Or maybe as you’re getting close to someone new, you feel especially vulnerable. The last person you opened up to may have betrayed your trust, so now you’re afraid to open up. That feeling doesn’t mean that you should never open up again. But it may mean you need to acknowledge the feeling of vulnerability and make sure that you’re opening up to people who are likely to deserve your trust.

Home Practice: An Exercise in Mindful Listening…

If you’d like to practice listening to that inner voice (and yes, like most things, it does take practice), you might set aside a few minutes each day or a few times a week to do this exercise. Over time, if you practice, you’ll find that it comes more naturally.

1. First, set your intention.

Remind yourself that, for the next few minutes, you’re only job is to allow yourself to become aware of whatever feelings might be present. Not to judge them or interpret them. Just to observe.

2. Practice mindful awareness (i.e., just observe — no judgement).

clouds womanYou can let the thoughts and feelings come and go as they will. No need to hang on to any of them. Just let your attention rest lightly on each one as it comes, and watch it gently as it goes.

Some people find it helpful to use imagery. For example, you can imagine your thoughts or feelings as leaves on a stream or clouds in the sky, gently floating by.

Remember that you don’t have to do anything about your feelings. No decisions need to be made right now. No interpretations made, no conclusions drawn.

All you’re doing is noticing. (Decisions and conclusions can come later.)

3. Be curious about the need, but remember that there is no goal — other than awareness.

If you become aware of a feeling that seems important, allow yourself to be curious about it. You could gently ask yourself, “What might I be needing right now?” See what comes up.

If no answer comes, there’s no need to feel frustrated. Just try to remain open and curious. Tune into what you’re feeling in your body, and just be aware. The answers may come later.

If an answer does come, though, notice your reactions to it. Does it feel comfortable? Frightening? Sad? What might those feelings be telling you? Be equally curious about your reactions!

4. Notice the urge to interpret.

You may notice an almost automatic urge to interpret these feelings as meaning something about the situation itself. Just be aware of that urge. Notice where that automatic interpretation takes you. No need to judge it, but no need to buy in fully to its message either. Stay curious. Perhaps your interpretation is accurate, but perhaps it’s not. It’s one hypothesis. Make note of it to consider later.

The most important thing right now, though, is your need. Not the facts of the outside world.

5. As always, be gentle with yourself.

There are no “right” or “wrong” feelings. And, remember, feelings are not the same as actions. (Feeling angry isn’t the same as chewing someone out.) And becoming aware of the feeling allows you to be more intentional in how you want to respond to it, rather than acting out in a knee-jerk sort of way. It’s important to be kind and gentle with yourself as you do this practice.

Of course, some feelings are more comfortable than others, but they all have important messages for us — if only we can start to listen.


p.s. As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post.

If you practiced, what did you notice?

However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.

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