How My Gut Instinct Let Me Down

If you’re a regular here or you have ever hired me to be your Life Coach, then you probably know my take on employing gut instinct, or rapid cognition, as it is more accurately known.

The following is a guest post from the brilliant Alisa Bowman author of Project:Happily Ever After one of my best self development books of 2011.

I’m going to keep out of the comments because rather than offer my take in bits and bobs I want to write a full post offering a counterpoint later this week.

However, I’m still really keen to get your opinion and open up the debate about gut instincts because it’s a really interesting subject.

By the way, I will be closing my Holiday Life Coaching deal at the end of this week, so if you’re pondering coaching, ponder now more.

How My Gut Let Me Down

It was my freshman year in college. I was at a fraternity party and I was dancing with my friends. A cute guy walked up to me.

I was flattered. I wasn’t the kind of girl that cute guys noticed. Usually they noticed my roommate.

I looked behind me to see if he was really approaching someone else.

Then he did something that didn’t make sense. He bent forward. I thought that maybe he was about to pick up something he’d dropped.

He wasn’t.

He reached his arms around my waist, lifted me, and tossed me over his shoulder into a fireman’s carry.

Then he started walking.

I thought, “Very funny.” It didn’t occur to me to be scared. After all, he was a nice looking guy. He had been dancing with me and my friends. He was harmless.

I assumed he’d put me down at any moment. This was just a joke. That was all.

That’s what my gut told me.

My gut was wrong.

Soon he was walking up steps. Then he tossed me onto a mattress, pinned my arms to my sides, and crawled on top of me. That’s when I felt the fear—and by then it was almost too late to save myself.

I managed to get away by analytically thinking about my options. My fear told me to kick, fight and scream, but analytically I knew that would never work. He was twice my size, and screaming would probably bring his brothers into the room and they might want to join in.

So I pretended to dig him. “I’d like to get high first,” I told the guy. “Do you have any pot?” When he got off me to get the pot, I ran out of the room, down the steps and out of the fraternity.

Here’s a story of another time when my gut was wrong. It happened just the other day. I woke from a nap. My husband told me that he and our daughter were going out to eat. I said I would stay home as I had a stomachache.

About an hour later, I found warm grits on the stove. I called my husband and got his voice mail. “Hey, is it okay if I eat these grits?” I asked.

An hour went by. He didn’t call back.

I began adding up the minutes since they’d been gone. Hadn’t it been too many minutes?

My gut told me that he and my daughter were in a car accident. They were either trapped in the car, almost dead, or dead. I felt the urge to throw up.

My rational mind told me, “Check the voice mail. Maybe he called back and you didn’t hear it ring.” I checked the voice mail. “Yeah, sure, you can have my grits,” his voice said.

I could tell you countless stories about my gut being wrong. I could tell you, for instance, about various boyfriends I dated before meeting my husband—boyfriends who all seemed like my soul mate in the beginning but who all turned out to have serious issues—ranging from compulsive lying to narcissism.

If I told you about all of this, however, this would not be a blog post. It would be a book.

What’s interesting, however, is that, until quite recently, I was convinced that I had impeccable gut instincts—and I relied on them to help me do everything from navigate unfamiliar cities to vet potential baby sitters. I thought this because I didn’t take notice of when my instincts were wrong. I only noticed the times they were right.

I took notice, for instance, of the time I’d plunked $100 on a randomly picked roulette number – one that just felt right – and won. I opted not to remember the time I tried to find my way out of Philadelphia by sensing which way my gut thought I should go. After walking in circles for hours, I finally had to ask for directions—many times.

It wasn’t until I met former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD, and worked with her on her book Dangerous Instincts that this all began to change. She told me that gut instincts were what often got people into trouble.

“People think they will get a bad feeling when they are around someone who is dangerous. From my experience, that doesn’t happen until it’s too late,” she said.

From O’Toole, I learned:

Dangerous people often don’t give off a dangerous vibe.

To the contrary, she told me that dangerous people often know how to put us at ease.

They can be exceptionally charming and disarming. Many of them are also good looking, clean cut, intelligent, well dressed and generally harmless looking. They also wear wedding bands, walk dogs, or even have children—all in an effort to seem harmless, normal, and trustworthy.

On the other hand, many perfectly harmless people—often those with long hair, tattoos, or who resemble the type of person portrayed as a serial killer on TV—seem harmful to us and we keep our distance for no good reason.

If you doubt this, do an Internet search for Ted Bundy, Joran Van Der Sloot, and Andrew Cunanan. Find photos of them when they are not dressed in orange jump suits. Let me know if you think they look dangerous.

They don’t to me. To me they look like men many women would be proud to date.

My gut is most likely to be wrong when I am out of my element.

I generally make pretty solid gut decisions when I’m writing. That’s because I write for a living. I work with words for hours every single day.

When I’m coming up with a table of contents for a book, I often go by feel—but that’s because I’ve written more than 30 books. It’s second nature to me.

Similarly, police officers practice a “shoot-don’t shoot” exercise. It’s designed to sharpen their instincts so they pull the trigger only when appropriate—shooting the bad guys and not shooting the good guys.

I, on the other hand, don’t practice shooting a gun. I don’t own one. I’ve never even held one. I don’t understand how they work. Do you think it’s a good idea for someone like me to use a gun for protection and trust my gut to guide me in how to use it? I certainly don’t.

What’s most sobering is this: I’m out of my element a lot. I’m out of my element whenever I’m in an unfamiliar city. I’m out of my element whenever I’m trying to do something for the first time. I’m out of my element when making financial investments.

Right now I’m attempting to refinance my home—and I’m totally out of my element. I’m out of my element when I’m trying to fix, upgrade or purchase a computer—and I’m often out of my element as I try to use the dang thing, too. I could go on and on. I’m not embarrassed to admit this about myself.

How about you?

Dangerous people can be better at reading me than I am at reading them.

People who are dangerous for a living—such as thieves and rapists—read people all the time. They need to know which victims are least likely to scream, report a crime, or have their guard up.

They know how to pick up on your vulnerabilities—loneliness, low self-esteem, greed, anxiety, fear—and use it against you. If you are lonely, they will be your companion. If you have low self-esteem, they will compliment you. If you are materialistic, they will buy you what you want.

They will seem like the answer to all of your problems when, in reality, they are about to become to source of more problems than you’ve ever had.

Since working with O’Toole, I still rely on my gut at times, but only for the small stuff—like impulse purchases at the mall. And I also use it at times to guide my writing. I’ve stopped relying on my gut when making important decisions—decisions that affect my health, wellbeing, bank account, and professional reputation.

In such times, I instead think analytically, asking myself questions O’Toole taught me:

  1. What’s the likely outcome of this decision one month, 6 months and a year from now? Will I be able to live with the worst-case scenario?
  2. How can I mitigate the risk of the worst-case scenario? What steps can I take to make this a safer situation?
  3. What do I really know about this person? What don’t I know? Do I know enough about this person to trust him or her? What should I find out?
  4. Has this person behaved in ways that indicate he or she might be dangerous? Does he text and drive or become angry when it’s not appropriate (road rage, sidewalk rage etc)? Does he hold onto grudges or talk endlessly about himself?

Those questions, for instance, helped me decide not to open my storm door recently when a door-to-door salesman came knocking. He wanted to come in and give me a free estimate on replacing my windows.

I told him that I didn’t have money to replace my windows. He still wanted to come in and give me an estimate. He didn’t look scary. He was wearing a uniform. He told me that he was replacing my neighbor’s windows and that he happened to be in the area. He was carrying a clipboard.

Before meeting Mary Ellen, he’s exactly the kind of guy I would have let into my house. I would have felt sorry for him. I would not have wanted to inconvenience him or make him feel bad.

This day, however, I thought, “How do I know this guy isn’t casing my house? How do I know he’s not a rapist? The best-case scenario is him wasting my time. The worst is me ending up dead.”

I didn’t let him in.

As he turned to walk away, I saw the friendly smile change to a different look. His face went hard and cold. Suddenly he didn’t look harmless. He looks quite angry, mean and dangerous.

Alisa Bowman co-wrote Dangerous Instincts with Mary Ellen O’Toole, PhD. She’s also the author of Project: Happily Ever After, picked by Tim as one of the best self development books of 2011. She’s also co-authored or ghost written more than two dozen other books, including 7 New York Times Best Sellers. Her blog is Project Happily Ever After and her professional site is AlisaBowman.com.