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Listening to your gut

Posted: Monday, Jan. 03, 2011

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Emily Achenbaum Harris

Hi, I'm Emily and this is my blog about career-questioning, minimalism-seeking, gardening, earth-saving, pregnancy, parenthood, and my pathological ability to make the same mistakes over and over again. See more at littlehousesouthernprairie. wordpress.com.

This week's tip: Listening to your gut.

Perhaps you're thinking, wait, I already trust my gut. And that's good - or at least a good start. I trust mine to the point that I don't think it will lead me astray. What I haven't been as good at is acting on those gut instincts when they first rumble. Doing so will continue to simplify my life. Here's what I mean:

Several months ago, I was introduced to a woman at a party. As soon as we met eyes and said hello to each other, the most instinctive, animal part of my brain (which apparently has an even more limited vocabulary than the rest of my brain) said No. Bad. Don't Trust.

I overrode that thought. She had a new baby and had lived in Michigan. I had a new baby and have lived in Michigan! Her hair was shiny, but a non-threateningly shiny, and she wore a tidy button-down shirt - you know, things that meet conventional standards of "normal." What's your deal, brain? Maybe this is a new friend.

A funny thing happened as she started talking to a group. She told several personal stories, ones she undoubtedly told because she thought they were highly unusual and attention-getting at a party. What she didn't know is two of those highly unusual instances are things that have happened to me. (Nothing sinister, just a fluke. Think like "I was born with 12 toes" or "Let me tell you about this time I made out with David Lee Roth." No, those are not the actual scenarios. Although, if I'd been invited backstage at a Van Halen concert...)

Because I'd lived it, I knew she was lying.

Even then, I let the first one, let's call it the Van Halen story, slide. Maybe she's just had a bit to drink or is nervous and doesn't realize she's getting the details of her own story wrong. It happens.

When she told the second fake story, let's call it the 12 toes story, I left the conversation for another group at the party. Even still, later, I had a flicker of self-doubt. Had I remembered things wrong about the toe-correcting operation? I went home and Googled 12 toes. No, what I knew was right, and what she'd said was wrong.

It was ridiculous: She lied to me twice, but I still was worried about being wrong, not giving her the benefit of the doubt, or being an unkind party guest. I even felt guilty about branding her, in the privacy of my mind, a liar.

So what does this have to do with simplicity?

This:

We all have a limited amount of time and energy. This time and energy, as much as possible, should be poured into things we care about; simplicity is about cutting out the crap. Somethings that require our time and energy (laundry, filing taxes) we can't control. But we can control an enormous amount of the rest. A major hurdle to a simpler, more peaceful life is the drama we allow in our lives.

More often than not, we know this drama will happen before it happens: The business relationship with someone who's a flake. The friendship where you're the one making most of the effort. The neighbor who's been clingy and will suck you dry with requests for favors and obligations.

You knew he'd be a flake.

You knew she'd keep being a friend who wasn't there for you.

You knew if you gave the neighbor an inch, she'd take - demand - a foot.

You knew. But didn't walk away, or prevent the ties between you two from getting deeper, thus (1) inviting in even more drama and (2) making it harder to extract yourself from it.

We know why we do it, though - give these people a chance even when our brains are saying NO DON'T DO THIS. Because we're taught to give people the benefit of the doubt. O.K., that's fine and good. But the trickier part (especially for women, I think, because of how we're socialized) is getting away from a huge societal pressure: We fear being perceived as impolite, mean or unhelpful.

One thing that helped me get past that pressure was a passage from the book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker. The book is mostly about how sociopaths operate and ways to prevent being a crime victim. But the ideas still apply to the non-felonious but misery-causing people who are trying to grab our attention.

Becker writes that ignoring warning signals because we fear appearing impolite or inappropriate (My brain says Bad Dude but he looks nice and asked for help with the groceries he dropped, why would I be rude and not help?) separates us from all other animals. A dog, for example, never acts sheepish after barking in response to a threatening noise, Becker writes.

Think of it this way: The dog felt fear and so it barked. Maybe the threatening noise turned out to be a chipmunk. But the dog didn't feel fear and think, what if I bark and it's nothing? Maybe I should wait to see how this pans out and bark later. Did I hurt the chipmunk's feelings?

We over-rationalize to the point of overriding instincts there to protect us. Listen to yourself.

Limiting interaction with people who you don't trust, who you suspect will take advantage of you or drain your energy will simplify your life. Walk away! And don't waste a moment worrying about it or mulling over it later. Let these people find someone else to suffocate with their drama.

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