Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Trust Your Instincts: Advice from The Gift of Fear

I'm a great admirer of Gavin de Becker's book, The Gift of Fear. He makes it so clear that we all have the skills to evaluate potentially dangerous situations and to get ourselves out of them.

His core advice is to trust your intuition, your instincts. If your intuition tells you there's danger ahead, act on it -- cross the street, lock the door, duck into the nearest shop. Later you can figure out what tipped off your intuition.

Here are two important things de Becker says about intuition:
  1. It is always in response to something.
  2. It always has your best interests at heart.

The Gift of Fear impressed me so much that I recommend it to everyone I meet. But recently, a woman who had heard me praising it in a group discussion asked me why I liked it so much. "It just scared me," she said.

I was surprised, because the book hadn't scared me at all. I had found it liberating to learn that my instincts would protect me. But I dug it out and reread parts of it, and I can see why she was frightened: de Becker tells some very scary stories. If you're not quite sure you could act on your intuition -- despite his confident assurance that anyone can do it -- these stories can terrify you.

The stories didn't scare me when I read the book because I immediately saw the point: If you acted on your intuition, you could keep yourself from ever playing a starring role in a nightmare. But when I read it, I'd been training in martial arts for years and I already had some understanding of trusting my instincts. For me the book was validation of something I'd discovered already: You can read another person and tell whether they pose a threat to you.

Many people don't realize how well they read others. But in truth, most people can do amazing things if they follow their intuition.

Take an everyday example: You're at an intersection, the light turns green, and yet you wait an extra second or two. And sure enough, the driver you thought was going to run the red light goes sailing through. You don't even have to be driving yourself -- or know how to drive -- to make this kind of intuitive decision: Pedestrians and bicyclists do it all the time.

Given how dangerous cars can be -- according to the World Health Organization, 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents worldwide each year -- your ability to read other drivers is an important survival skill. It may sound ordinary, but that's the point: Following your instinct is an ordinary skill that you already know how to use.

You are constantly picking up signals from other people and your brain is processing them much faster than your conscious mind can think. Try paying attention to all the ways you use your instinct every day -- the times when you can tell someone's upset and know whether to ask questions or leave the person alone; the situations where you know someone is going to ask you to do something you don't want to do and the way you manipulate the conversation so they won't ask; the way you know whether an interview went well or badly.

Learn to appreciate how well you use this skill. And start trusting it. Your intuition can keep you safe.


sadie said...

Hi there! I recomend that women in particular read DeBecker's follow up, Protecting the Gift. It's geared toward parents and women in particular, and he talks a bit about some of the barriers those of us socialized as women have to trusting our intuition.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Thanks for mentioning this book, Sadie. It's also excellent.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Reminds me of an experience my friend and I had when we were about 15 and walking home from school. We started to turn down a street that we walked down every single day. For no reason that we could explain, we both got "creepy feeling" about going down the street. Definitely a gut reaction We turned around and walked a different way. Later we heard that another girl had been raped in that area that same afternoon.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

That's it exactly. You can sometimes figure out after the fact what caused the gut feeling -- someone you saw who didn't look right or an unusual sound. But you want to act first and then worry about why.

Your experience is also a classic example of being flexible: You and your friend went the other way. Self defense can be just that simple.