I was once talking with an artist whose work I admire, particularly for her ability and willingness to take risks. And she said something that pulled me up so short. She said,

“Basically, if I’m feeling fear, I know I have to do it. That’s where I know I have to go.”

It was a revelation for me. The idea that fear could be a roadmap. Fear had only ever paralyzed me before.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I start working with clients, one of the first things we do is work on bringing an awareness to their intuition. I’m not talking necessarily about intuition in the woo sense (although, that, too). No, I mean the gut feelings that we all have, our instincts about what is right for us in a given scenario. I had always heard a lot about “trusting” your intuition, your gut, your instincts–but no one had ever told me how. And then the problem was, once I started trying to figure out what my intuition was telling me, I had a really difficult time separating my intuition from my fear. My clients are usually in the same boat. Fortunately, it just takes a little practice. And it’s even fun.

So, let’s start with the how. I used to have this trick I would do, where when I thought I couldn’t decide between two things, I would flip a coin and let that decide. Of course half the time, the coin flip wouldn’t go the way I wanted, and that’s how I would learn, “oh, this is what I wanted.” Now, I check with my body. (It’s way more reliable than a coin flip–sometimes with the coin flip, I still didn’t know.)

I envision the choices I’m considering and I notice how it makes my body feel. When I do this with clients, they often don’t feel anything–at first. That’s okay. That’s normal. Keep trying. Notice where you feel tight, clenched, open, relaxed, giddy, heavy, etc. When your body feels relaxed, open, giddy–more free, essentially–it’s telling you, go for it! When your body feels clenched, tight, pressed-down-on–more trapped, more paralyzed, essentially–then it’s telling you, halt!

But what about when you body feels trapped and paralyzed about something that you KNOW you want?

That’s fear talking. Not intuition. And fear and intuition are so easily confused. There is an entire part of your brain dedicated to broadcasting fears to you 24/7, so it’s no surprise that when you intend to check in with your intuition about a big decision, you sometimes find a whole host of fears instead.

How to tell the difference?

Fear paralyzes you and intuition gives you momentum.

When you are faced with fear, it usually tells you to do one of three things: freeze, resist, or numb. It paralyzes you from action–you don’t know what to do. Remember the last time your loved one was late coming home or meeting you somewhere? And you spun a million stories about what had happened to them? Did any of those stories inspire you to take action? If you did take action, was it the reactive kind–freaking out on them when they arrived, or even calling the local hospitals looking for them, for example? This is where the saying, “worrying is like a rocking chair–gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere,” comes from. You can tell something is fear because it doesn’t get you anywhere. It doesn’t give you a roadmap for what to do next (unless you know how to use them correctly, which I’ll get to shortly). It paralyzes you from acting. And when you do act, it’s ineffective.

It’s not a coincidence. That’s what it’s designed to do. Not because fear doesn’t want you to achieve your dreams, per se. Fear just wants you to stay exactly where you are–because that feels really safe.

Intuition, on the other hand, gives you momentum. When you get the intuition to try something new, and you feel both simultaneously excited and terrified, you know it’s intuition because you are faced with all the ways you can overcome those obstacles and get it done. You feel a burning desire to do this thing. You feel enough momentum to overcome whatever fears your lizard brain is broadcasting. Your fears present a problem–“but you don’t know how to do this”–and your response is “I can learn that, sure.”

Interestingly, sometimes your intuition can tell you to get the hell away from something or someone. That’s why it’s all the more important to learn the difference between your fears and your intuition–your fears will tell you to be afraid of everything, indiscriminately, if given the chance. Your intuition tells you what you should actually be worried about, what you should actually do something about.

Fear tells you to trust no one, intuition tells you to trust certain people and let others “lay where Jesus flang ’em,” as Anne Lamott says.

In other words, fears are generalized, and intuition is specific.

Once you’ve been practicing tapping into your intuition, using your body, and then noticing the difference between fear and intuition by noticing what gives you momentum and what leaves you paralyzed, then you can go the advanced stage my artist friend had achieved: Then, you start using your fears as a roadmap.

Because, actually, the truth is: fear and intuition are both sides of the same coin.

Your fears are not random. They are linked to your deepest desires. Especially the fears that are strongest for you.

So, another way to look at fear vs. intuition is to treat them to same way–as a roadmap to your desires.

So, to sum up:

1) Fear is generalized, intuition is specific.

2) Check your body–fear paralyzes you, intuition gives you momentum.

3) Both tell you what you really want, if you know how to look at them clearly.