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Reflections / Self-care & growth

How to learn to listen to yourself

Today I ignored my instincts again.

This found me trudging rather sullenly along a winding country lane with rain spitting into my face, tired and grumpy.

I’m on a blissful yoga retreat. We were given the afternoon off to do what we liked. I had spotted a ancient stone circle not far from our retreat house on the map. It was called the ‘Merry Maidens’. Being a fan of prehistory and the folklore of the British Isles, I decided to walk to it.

I set off merrily enough. Our host had given me very clear instructions on how to get there – walk to the first T-junction, and there turn left off the road onto public footpaths. From there it should be a forty minute tramp across the fields in the sunshine.

And yet. When I reached the T-junction, I wasn’t sure if it was right, so I kept walking and tried to find another footpath further along. In spite of it being exactly as my host had described.

Forty minutes and several fields later, I’m being upbraided by a man for tresspassing on private property, and end up having to cut back a ways before I can rejoin a public bridleway further down the road from which I’d come.

I seem to get into situations like this in various aspects of my life – not just when a sense of direction is needed. Sometimes, if I stopped and listened to my body, I would be able to read clearly the way I feel about a situation. For example, during lockdown, a friend suggested popping round with their toddler, and I said yes, even though I was experiencing a lot of Covid anxiety. My chest was tight, my heart was thumping and I was tense and fidgety. My body was yelling at me that it didn’t feel comfortable taking this risk, no matter how sensible and socially distanced we might be. When the person left, I had a panic attack because I realised I hadn’t felt in control of an anxiety-inducing situation.

I’ve started to realise I’ve gotten very used to ignoring the nudge in my gut.

I let it get shouted down by louder voices. Sometimes the conversation is an obvious yelling match – other times, it’s just a sense in my body that I’m not listening with all my faculties to what is happening around me. I’m used to ignoring even my body’s most reasonable requests, like having a coffee when I know I’m already a bit tense and caffeine will only make me feel stressed. Or rushing through things, not really enjoying them, when if I took just one deep breath and slowed my pace, I could take on the day much more mindfully.

Can you relate?

A long-term medley of therapy, meditation and embodied practices such as yoga and dance have helped me start to listen better to my various cues. Today is a silly example really – and more down to my inability to follow simple instructions – but it was a reminder that a life-long tendency to ignore my own inner wisdoms, to look externally for ‘rational’ guidance or to see ‘what everyone else is doing’ takes practice to work oneself free from.

It’s even more important for women to listen to themselves, as we’re raised in many little ways to distrust our judgement.

Describing our ability to act out of instinct as ‘women’s intuition’ could be belittling a more informed, embodied way of navigating the world using all of our senses. Our bodies do hold great intelligence, if we learn to listen to them. It’s a hangover of Enlightenment rationalism that we subjugate embodied knowledge to the ‘rational’ processing of our minds. In The Power of Ritual, Casper Ter Kuile writes ‘in a culture that values rationality and dismisses emotion as untrustworthy, it has become difficult to access our vulnerable core through words and thoughts alone.’ But we’re starting to see that we are embodied beings, and our minds, thoughts, emotions and judgements are entirely connected to and informed by our existence as physical beings.

So I invite you to ask yourself whether you listen to yourself? Whether you engage all layers of your intelligence – or whether you doubt, ignore or undermine the cues of your body, or your intuition?

4 ways to start tuning in to yourself

  1. Stop!
    The absolute best thing you can do to tune back into yourself is to put the brakes on your racing mind, body and breath. Simply learning to stop when you’re in this space will invite reflection on how you’re really doing. Trust me, this sounds simple, but takes practice!
  2. Meditate.
    If you have time – do a ten-minute body scan meditation. There’s lots of guided ones out there on meditation apps/YouTube. You turn your attention to each part of your body in turn, inviting yourself to notice what you sense there without judgement. It can be hard, especially if your mind is racing. But it will help return to you to yourself and your body. If you’re on the go – run your thumb across the pads of your fingers and focus on the sensation – an instant way to return to your body when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
  3. Write.
    Try to articulate what you are thinking and feeling to yourself. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I write in my phone notes app ‘I’m feeling anxious because…’ and then try to explain my feelings to myself. You could also write ‘what does my body feel? What emotions am I feeling? What thoughts are currently most dominant?’ and see where your reflections take you.
  4. Rest!
    Learning to honour your body invites conversation between your thoughts, body and emotions. Put down your phone. Sit outside or by an open window for five minutes and look at the clouds. Lie on the carpet with your hands on your belly and just breathe. Go to a yin or restorative yoga class. Take a bath. Find what works for you.

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