Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A step back

People are fond of saying that in a crisis you should "follow your instincts" or "do what feels right". I've long been a bit wary of that advice, as instincts can be as disastrous as they can be spot-on.

My habit has always been to reflect on what I'm about to say or do before I leap into it. Which makes me a slightly reticent and cautious person, but I'd rather that than make some colossal blunder simply because I didn't think first.

You only have to look at the torrents of abuse and spite unleashed on the internet to see that "following your instincts" can sometimes be pretty destructive, especially if your instincts are tangled up with heated emotions and it's actually the emotions that are holding sway.

I think instincts can be helpful in some situations but calamitous in others. Parents getting conflicting advice on how to bring up their children usually fall back on instinct, and since that instinct is guided by love and affection for their child, the result is usually positive.

But relying on instinct in fraught public arguments, where delicate sensitivities are at stake and it's all too easy to fan the flames and make everything worse, is a mug's game. So much tragedy and distress could be averted if those involved first took a step back and thought about the effects of their actions.

Following your instincts is not much help if it means bingeing on junk food or having 19 children or squeezing into your budgie smugglers. A pause for reflection might have led to a happier outcome.

Instead of "follow your instincts", how about "follow your thoughts" or "chew it over"? Or how about another old phrase "Look before you leap"?

Unless you're a bemused parent, that is.

30 comments:

Ursula said...

Most times I haven't follwed what I call my "gut" instinct I have regretted it. Gut and thought are not mutually exclusive, Nick. Hesitate, prevaricate, reason till the cows come home and you often will miss the boat. Fact of life.

U

Jenny Woolf said...

I think you're completely right. I was also intrigued by the expression "budgie smugglers" - not one I have come across.

Nick said...

Ursula: Or instinct will tell you to board the boat and then you find it's going in the wrong direction.

Jenny: Budgie smugglers - men's tight-fitting Speedo-style swimwear. I think the phrase originated in Australia.

Bijoux said...

I can't really think of a time I had to make a quick decision on something that had long-term consequences.

Nick said...

Bijoux: Lucky you! It's pretty hair-raising if a quick decision is unavoidable. Like the current housing market in London, where if you don't say yes or no after a 5-minute viewing, someone else will beat you to it. Terrifying!

Bijoux said...

Nick, I've always wondered about that! You know I like those realtor shows and all the European cities seem to be like that......you snooze, you lose in the rental market. I guess it is not exaggerated on TV!

Nick said...

Bijoux: Not exaggerated at all. Added to which, prices are going up by thousands of pounds A DAY! And rental prices are going up equally fast. Very glad I don't live in London any more.

Jenny's very keen on the property shows too. She likes to second-guess the buyers' final choice of which to buy!

susie said...

I go with my gut.

I'm guilty of blurting out the first stupid thought that comes to mind.

I need to work on it.

Ursula said...

You missed my point, Nick. My point being, and I can't emphasize this enough, that NOT following my gut instinct has cost me. Every single time. It's uncanny. Sure, like you and many others, I will mulch over the rationale. But, by golly, give me that first instinct every time. Whether it's people, decisions, anything.Won't let you down.

U

Helen Devries said...

It depends what it is I'm having to cope with: when it comes to people or proposals people are making then if it feels wrong instinctively, then I drop it fast. I've overridden that instinct and it has always turned out badly for me.

If it's a decision in my own hands - to move house, for example, or to buy some expensive item - then I like to chew it over...so it's lucky I'm not living in London from what you say!

Sol said...

if going by gut instinct is checking and researching for weeks, then I go by gut!

Although, as my Mum says "I know a wrong'um, at a thousand paces"

*snort* budgie smugglers!

e said...

I love learning new phrases, ie "budgie smugglers"...

The few times I've not followed my gut, I've sorely regretted it...

Nick said...

Susie: Maybe you do, but it doesn't seem to put anyone off! Personally, I like your spontaneity, even what you think are stupid thoughts!

Ursula: Not following your gut instinct has cost you? In what way exactly? I can think of occasions on which I followed my gut instinct and it was disastrous.

Nick said...

Helen: I do find with tradespeople that I quickly trust them or distrust them, which I guess is a kind of instinct. Or maybe it's just how competent and efficient they seem to be?

There's no way I could decide on a really expensive purchase on the spur of the moment. Luckily I've never had to do that.

Sol: Checking and researching seems like the opposite of gut instinct. In fact gut instinct would say, forget the checking, I just have to buy this house.

Nick said...

e: Hi, long time no see! There's a definite consensus here that following your instinct is the thing to do, and ignoring it will end in tears.

Isn't budgie smugglers a wonderfully vivid description?

kylie said...

following one's gut is not the same thing as being reactionary and getting into trouble! some people are so tied up with their head that they wouldnt recognise a true gut instinct if it hit them on the head but people can learn to listen to their instinct and get it right.

in the world of birth gut instinct is very important, in fact it is considerably more difficult for a woman to birth if she doesnt become controlled by primitive urges. a woman will have a gut instinct for example to take up a particular position which will assist baby or given the opportunity she will instinctively choose the safest, smallest, darkest part of a house to birth in. gut instinct tells a parent to pick up a crying child or when a seemingly simple illness needs to be investigated further.
having said all of that, i think there is a very real danger of instinct becoming contaminated, habitually fearful people will only ever feel fear so we all need to be careful of that.

long live the intelligently applied gut instinct, i say!

susie said...

Blurting stupid thoughts is more of a real life thing...

CheerfulMonk said...

I do some of both. My brain is my favorite toy, but a few times when I was working I was told a certain problems couldn't be solved, but I trusted my instincts and found solutions.

The first time was right after I was hired after being out of the workforce for ten years. The boss had been happy to hire me, but once I started working on the problem --- which took a month --- it was clear he thought he had made a mistake. Fortunately my instincts were right and he was impressed again.

Nick said...

Kylie: No, instinct is not the same as being reactionary, and in certain situations it can be an invaluable guide. But as I said, if your "instinct" tells you to persecute some innocent person, that's not helpful at all.

I'm sure you're absolutely right about mothers' instincts telling them what is the best thing to do. But I think in many cases instincts get confused with unsavoury emotions.

I have to say I'm a habitually fearful person, so maybe my real problem is that I'm out of touch with my instincts?

And what exactly is an intelligently applied gut instinct?

Nick said...

Susie: Well, surely most of us blurt out stupid thoughts from time to time, unless we're totally mute? And anyway they may not be as stupid as we think....

Jean: I'm glad your instincts led you in the right direction and your boss realised he'd taken on the right person after all.

kylie said...

persecuting people is not instinct, its bad behaviour.

being fearful disconnects you from your instinct. the problem is the fear, not that the instinct is faulty. you just have to ignore the fear and see what happens, when things work out ok, which they mostly do, you have more confidence to try it again.

i cant explain an intelligently applied instinct, there are no rules for it and someone who is fearful thinks their fear is intelligent. the best i can say is that if "the gut" says to be abusive or reckless its not intelligent, if it caves to fear too quickly, its not intelligent. an intelligent gut is born of trial & error, practice and background knowledge. it wouldnt be possible in every situation but often a person can prepare for a situation so that their instinct is informed by research and then at the point of decision making the preparation comes into play

Rummuser said...

I have followed my instinct mostly throughout my life and no great harm has befallen me. May be I am just lucky!

Nick said...

Kylie: You have some very original and interesting perspectives on all this. Re the fear, I tend to follow that maxim "feel the fear and do it anyway". And usually it turns out just fine. Doesn't stop me being fearful though.

You seem to be saying that instinctive actions can only be constructive and loving, so destructive, hateful actions by definition can't be instinctive. You also seem to be implying that persecution and abuse is usually a response to fear rather than instinct.

And re preparing for a situation, some people would say instinct is in fact the sum total of our unconscious knowledge and experience, and when we say we did something on instinct, actually it's all that unconscious data that's guiding us.

Nick said...

Ramana: Well, see my comment to Kylie about unconscious knowledge and experience. Maybe that's why your "instinct" always worked out for the best?

And if instinct is that reliable and sure-footed, then surely luck doesn't come into it?

kylie said...

i agree that instinct is the sum of our knowledge and i considered mentioning it specifically but thought i rambled enough.

i think that instinct is the internal and often unacknowledged knowledge of what is best in a situation. if that is the case, then instinct must be positive.

i hadnt intended to imply that bad behaviour comes from a place of fear but i do think that is often the case

Nick said...

Kylie: I think most bad behaviour is driven by fear. People lash out against what they can't understand, what they find hard to deal with, what reminds them of their own weaknesses. And fear seems to override instinct, which might suggest doing something more sensible.

Ursula said...

"Feel the fear and do it anyway". Though do understand her premise I didn't like the book.

You ask for examples where NOT following my instinct/gut feeling has "cost" me. There are a fair few minor ones, negligible. And one major.

Makes me smile what you say about parents. In my experience parents are the the least likely to advise their offspring to follow their 'gut instinct'. I had it particularly hard in that respect as I knew exactly what I wanted, my father (never lost at putting obstacles and his rationale in the way, him totally opposed by my mother (also of the instinct persuasion) suggesting yet something else. That the desired didn't come to fruition I do not blame my parents for. Only myself. The one thing in my life I fucked up. And find it impossible to forgive myself for.

Never mind. In the grand scheme of things it's nothing. No loss to humanity. Only to myself.

U

Nick said...

Ursula: My parents behaved much the same way. They were happy to follow their own instincts on many occasions, but me and my sister were expected to abide by all sorts of household rules or be severely ticked off.

Keith said...

If I "followed my instincts" and the police found out I think I would be locked up for the duration, and the key thrown away!

Nick said...

Keith: Me too. If I always followed my instincts, especially against some extremely annoying people, I'd be serving a long jail sentence by now.