4 Ways to Tell the Difference Between Fear and Intuition

Feeling stuck? Learn how to distinguish feelings of fear from the power of your intuition.

Emily Fletcher is just one of the luminaries you can learn from at Wellspring this October. For tickets and more information, click here

Many of us practice yoga in order to tune into ourselves and better understand our sincere desires. Yoga and meditation offer the opportunity to find silence, which allows us to better understand our thoughts and make decisions from a place of awareness. That being said, even the most dedicated of yogis have moments when we don’t know WTF we want.

You’ve likely heard of “intuition.” Intuition, especially for women, can be an incredibly powerful tool for understanding when something feels right or when something needs to change. That being said, there’s also a little thing we like to call “the inner critic”, or fear. Like intuition, this is a powerful (but way more annoying) voice that alerts us when something feels dangerous or unsafe. The two are very different and yet it can often feel impossible to distinguish what they have to say.

Just a quick google search and you’ll find you’re not the only ones to ask this question. It can be a paralyzing thought when have to make a tough decision. “Am I afraid to move further in this relationship, or is my gut telling me to leave?” “Am I crazy to quit my high-paying job in favor of this new business venture?”  It feels impossible to make a decision because, even though we’re attempting to tune into our body and innermost desires, we’re not sure what it is that we actually desire. We’re doing the work, without the answer.

One of the first steps to understanding the difference between the two is looking at them are their own unique entities. Intuition is not pseudoscience: Many argue that intuition is not without cognitive elements, and uses past knowledge, experiences, and present details in order to make informed decisions. Psychology Today defines intuition is being “the process that gives us the ability to know something directly without analytic reasoning, bridging the gap between the conscious and unconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason.” In other words, there is some reasoning behind our intuition, we just don’t always understand why.

The inner critic and fear are not so different. These voices shout (critics are rude) things like “you’re not good enough” and “this project will fail” or “you will never find love again.” The critic lives in a world of absolutes with no room for gray area. Rather than create space for growth and discovery, the critic constricts, creating the attitude of “why even bother?” After listening to the critic, you likely feel discouraged and deflated, whereas listening to your intuition, you feel uplifted and hopeful.

According to Emily Fletcher, meditation instructor and founder of Ziva Meditation, one characteristic of the intuitive voice is that it leads us toward the creative. It’s calmer and quieter, which can be a problem when paired alongside the pesky critic.

“Intuition whispers,” Emily says. “‘’Write that book, call that guy, start that company.’ It’s very hard to hear that little tiny whisper of intuition if you’ve got the fear voice screaming in your head.”

There are other ways to recognize intuition versus fear. Intuition is about being present, calm, affirming, and patient. It’s not the sort of voice that yells, or criticizes. Rather, intuition is a gentle guide that’s attempting to lead us onto a better track. It politely, yet firmly, speaks when there is trouble. It does not stem from the ego, rather a place of deep knowing.

Fear, on the other hand is demanding, often anxious, heavy, demeaning, and cruel. Many of it’s accusations are based in delusional thinking—avoiding the end of a bad relationship due to the fear of being alone, for example, might be your fear presenting an irrational thought. Fear is also fairly easy to recognize physically. It’s tight, restrictive, and is often felt in the chest or gut.

Learning to distinguish the two takes practice, but once we start listening to that intuitive voice, it becomes easier and easier to understand. Below are some tips to get you started.

Practice awareness on and off the mat.

You know that moment right when a yoga class starts and the teacher asks, “how are you doing?” This form of “checking-in” is super helpful on your journey to sharpening the intuition. Make presence a priority. Meditate daily. Try to lessen the influence the alcohol, drugs, social media, and other forms of escapism. Take time to truly be present, whether that’s in a daily meditation practice or on a distraction-free walk. If it’s a particular situation you’re questioning, such as a job or romantic partner, notice how you feel when you’re in the moment with those influences. Is there restriction, or expansion? Do you feel peaceful, or overwhelmed? Learning to clear distractions from the mind-body is a great way to uncover what you truly want.

Forgive yourself.

Nothing muddies up our ability to understand ourselves more than low self-esteem. By beating ourselves up over past mistakes (or perceived mistakes), we spend an unnecessary amount of time in our heads and complicate our relationship to the present moment. When we step away from self-harm or negative self-talk, we create more space for mindfulness, and thus better understanding where our intuition is leading us. Forgive your transgressions so that you can move on to trusting yourself. 

Move toward creation.

As Emily says, intuition tends to lead us toward the creative. If something inside is telling you to take action—write that story, take that teacher training, try this relationship—them most often times, it’s your intuition. This is because your intuition is speaking to your subconscious desires while simultaneously using your current situation as evidence. When there is a voice telling you to take action, it like means you’re on the right path.

Track the feelings of fear.

There are times in our life when our fear is a easier to pinpoint, like before our first solo trip or prior to a date with that super cute dude from our 4:30 vinyasa.  This type of fear comes with a layer of excitement—we do the trip and we go on the date because it’s easy to identify the fearful feeling. Note other areas where you may feel fear in your life. Is there any commonality? Do you feel afraid before public speaking (fear of being judged), or before breaking up with someone who treats your friends like crap (fear of being alone)?

Keep track of the physical feelings of these fears. When does fear feel restrictive? What physical feelings come with with the inner critic? By understanding the physical feelings that accompany fear, you’ll be more prepared to recognize fearful thinking when it’s a little less obvious.

Honor your intuitive moments.

And on the other hand, take note when you feel something intuitive. Have you ever made a decision based off a gut instinct and then witnessed a huge payoff? Or heard a super soothing voice tell you that everything was going to be okay? That’s your intuition. Breathe in these moments. It might be tempting to run when faced with a truth (especially if that truth is hard), but coming home to yourself can be deeply comforting.

Give yourself props for trusting yourself. The intuitive voice is only getting stronger.

Amanda Kohr is the editor at Wanderlust. You can find her exploring new highways, drinking diner coffee, and on Instagram