How Do You Know if You’re Making the Right Decision/Following Your Gut?


I’m not going to keep you in suspense on this one. You know you’re making a “right” decision, or following your “gut,” when you’re acting from the rational part of your brain, not from the fear part of your brain. What I’m going to help you with today is learning the difference between the two and my top five tips for knowing if you’re making the right decision and listening to your gut.

10-minute read

What’s Happening in Your Brain

I’m not going to get crazily scientific here, so for any neuroscientists listening today (and I do hope you’re out there), know that I’m keeping this simple so those of us who aren’t brilliant like you can still understand what’s happening in these pretty little heads of ours. And let me say, it’s important that you understand how your brain works so you can understand if you’re following your gut instinct and making a “right” decision for yourself.

I’m not going to spend an hour talking about your brain, just the parts you need to know for our discussion today. You likely already know that your brain has two hemispheres and four lobes. You’ve got your occipital lobes in the back of your head, your temporal lobes on the sides, your parietal lobes on the top, and then your frontal lobes in the front.

Your neocortex is comprised of the four lobes on each side (or hemisphere) of your brain. The neocortex is the most modern or new (hence “neo”), and you’ve got another part called your prefrontal cortex, which is part of your neocortex that sits at the very front of your brain (behind your forehead). This is where your executive functions live. Your executive functions include your problem-solving, your goals, long-term planning, and basically approaching things from a rational perspective.


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Now, that parietal lobe I mentioned near the top and center of your head (right behind your frontal lobe and above your occipital and temporal lobes) is the major sensory processing hub of your brain. It basically helps your brain construct the way it understands the world around you. It’s involved in your self-awareness, awareness of other people, and how you process your attention. It’s also where scientists believe your spirituality lives.

Now, parts of your prefrontal cortex (your thinking brain) and your parietal cortex (your spiritual brain) are very involved with one another. They work together to create your working memory and decision-making. So, if you had a gut instinct or a deeper knowing that something was right for you, it would be at this juxtaposition of where the spiritual part of your brain meets the rational, problem-solving part of your brain.

The last area of the brain I want to talk about is actually involved in knowing if you’re not making a right decision. This is your amygdala. Your amygdala is part of your Limbic System found in your temporal lobes, and it plays a central role in your emotional learning, particularly within the context of fear. Your amygdala is fear central in your brain and it’s always on high alert looking for threats. You can think of your amygdala as your emotional/fear-based brain and your prefrontal cortex as your thinking/rational brain. The way they work together affects your emotions and influences your decisions as well as how you control or manage your feelings.

We’re going to use all this neurobiological information to talk about your gut instinct. But I want to point out that this is why I call a right or gut decision as being aligned with your Inner Being or Higher Self. It’s because you’re coming from your calm, rational-thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) and your parietal brain (your spiritual connection to yourself and the Universe).

What Happens IRL

There are two scenarios that happen in real life that are at the base of why you question yourself and whether you’re listening to your gut.

The first scenario (and probably the more common one) is that you’re in a fear-based place when you have your initial thoughts or conversations about an issue. Which college or major should I choose is fraught with everyone else’s opinions, social media doom scrolling and comparing yourself to everyone else. You end up making a decision that’s more fear or amygdala-based in these moments. Your emotions take over your rational brain and this causes the insecurity, feeling unsure, and waffling in your decisions (or not making any decision at all).

Scenario two is one I see most often with my clients. Someone comes to me with a tough issue like whether or not to leave a relationship. We discuss it in session and, because I’m there and helping to reframe anxious thoughts, my client maybe decides they need to leave. They’re able to make this decision from a calm, confident and thoughtful place. In the moment, they’re making the decision from their thinking and spiritual brains. In this instance they, of course, have many feelings, but these aren’t overriding their logical brain, so they make what I call a love-based or gut decision; a decision from inner knowing and alignment where things seem relatively clear (even if it’s painful).

But then, my client speaks to their mom, who’s aghast at the idea of them leaving, or they look through their IG pics and see all the happy times they’ve spent with this person, and they start to swirl. Now, their emotional brain takes over, and from this agitated, fear-based place, they start to question their decision. “What if I never find anyone else?” “What if they find someone else and I’m all alone?” The fear takes over because now the amygdala/fear brain is overriding the thinking brain.

Basically, they were in a good place when they made the decision but then allowed fear to override their initial healthy thinking. This alone is a place you have to stop and think about when you’re waffling or changing your mind. How am I feeling right this moment? If the answer is anxious, worried, depressed, overwhelmed, resentful, frustrated, sad, helpless or hopeless, you’re not following your gut or making a right decision.

What Causes the Fear to Take Over?

The main causes of your emotional brain taking over for your thinking or spiritual brain tend to be:

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Abby’s Five Tips for Following Your Gut, Not Your Fear

Tip #1:

When thinking about any issue, you must get yourself to a good-feeling place first. You cannot make a rational, healthy decision when you’re consumed with fear. This means you might need to meditate, listen to an inspiring or calming visualization, speak to your therapist or supportive friend, make a gratitude list, think of one thing you really appreciate and get yourself into that state, or take a walk in nature.

The point is that you cannot make a healthy decision from your thinking brain when your emotional/fear brain is running the show. Not because it’s spiritual woo (although you know I love that too) but because your brain can’t work that way! It’s always one or the other that’s in charge! While these two parts of your brain are connected, one is always more dominant.

Tip #2:

A lot of people make a pros and cons list when they’re trying to make a “right” decision, but I think these can be a bad idea because they can be misleading. If you’re deciding whether to end a relationship, you might have 50 things on the “pro” side, but the one or two things on the “con” side might be dealbreakers. For example, maybe your partner is smart, funny, makes great money, is great in bed and has a wonderful family. But, if the one thing on the con side is that they flirt or have cheated, this might be a deal breaker for you. The problem is that you then minimize the damage of the cons because there are all those pros (which don’t mean a damn thing if you can’t trust your partner).

Instead, make a beliefs list. What are your beliefs about leaving this job or relationship? They might be fear-based issues such as, “I’m wanting too much from one person/job,” or “I’ll never find another relationship/job” or “This is really good enough. I need to lower my standards.” When you look at a beliefs list, you’ll have a much better idea of why you’re making the choice you are. You’ll be able to better identify what’s coming from fear and what’s coming from rationality.

Tip #3:

Feeling scared doesn’t mean it’s a wrong decision. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron said, “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” It’s almost impossible to keep your negative thoughts completely at bay. But being scared is no reason to change your mind. It’s only your anxiety lying to you! If you feel paralyzed (aka: indecisive) that’s fear!

What I find most common is the real issue is keeping your boundaries after you’ve made a decision. It’s when you indulge in fearful thoughts after you’ve made the change. Other people will push back at the new boundary you made, or you see your ex happy in a new relationship and now you’re questioning your choice.

Tip #4:

What you want to do is reframe this idea that you can even make a wrong decision. Don’t start screaming here; let me finish. When you make a decision that you later think is “right,” it’s because it’s moving you closer to what you want. But it’s time to reframe a decision that feels wrong because it hasn’t brought you closer to what you want. See that instead as a decision that’s now given you more clarity. From there you can make a next decision towards what you really want.

Tip #5:

Stop thinking you can see the future. Never regret a decision because you’re actually telling yourself lies about it but don’t realize it! You think things like, “I should have stayed in that relationship because I would have been happier,” or “I should have gone to school for software engineering instead of psychology. I would have been happier.”

But you don’t know this is true! You might have gone to school for software engineering and made more money, but you also might have developed a drinking problem because you hated your work so much. And then you might have driven home drunk from a pub and gotten into a car accident and killed someone. YOU DON’T KNOW! Or you might have met someone in one of your software engineering classes and gotten into an abusive relationship with that person. YOU DON’T KNOW!

If you’d stayed in that relationship, you’re now regretting leaving, it might have turned violent or it likely would’ve gotten worse and you’d be depressed and anxious now wishing you’d left years before when you were younger and felt like you had more prospects. YOU DON’T KNOW!

You know your next step from this step. There aren’t mistakes. There’s learning and understanding yourself better. There’s really knowing what you want and every time you make a decision, you get clearer about what you want and what brings you joy.

There are no right decisions because this is the best decision right now. Of course, with hindsight you might think it wasn’t, but you were doing the best you could with the tools you had at the time you made the decision and you have to trust that.

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