Though the world is full of therapists, I actually believe good therapists are hard to come by. I work in Los Angeles, for example, and know hundreds of therapists, but I consider only a handful to be the kind of therapist I would take myself – or a loved one – to visit. Back in the day, I had a good one who truly changed my life. One of the points he was always trying to drill into my (sometimes stubborn) head: “Trust your instincts.” Sounds great, but how do you do that exactly? To begin, what are instincts?
Instincts, in essence, are thoughts you have that are meant to help you survive. Even in a relationship, your survival instincts are at work, little voices that tell you that your relationship is on or off-track. The easiest way to understand instincts is to realize that anxiety is the messenger of instincts. In other words, you know you’re instincts are telling you that something is wrong when you feel anxious. I’ll break this concept down for clarity. When people don’t listen to their instincts, they start getting anxious and they engage in a particular set of behaviors unique to them. For example, let’s say David is dating Alissa, and David’s instincts are telling him that Alissa isn’t good for him. As a result, he is feeling anxious and his anxiety is manifesting itself in the following ways:
• Drinking more alcohol and going out more frequently with his friends, without inviting Alissa.
• Going to bed later and sleeping less, so he wakes up feeling irritable.
• Getting into lots of meaningless arguments with Alissa, almost as if he’s looking for a fight.
Does David know that he is going through an anxious phase? Does he know that he is experiencing more anxiety because his instincts have been telling him that something is wrong with his relationship?
Understandably, David doesn’t really want to break up with Alissa and start the dating process all over again with someone new. He hates the fact that she cheated on him and he has been trying to get over it, but his anxiety won’t go away. Accordingly, he pushes those breakup instincts under the rug and refuses to listen to them. Does the anxiety surrender and go away? Um, not a chance in you-know-what. Instead, the anxiety keeps mounting.
I, like any good therapist, have had therapy myself, so I’m used to looking at behavior through a clinical lens. Many people, however, haven’t been shown how to evaluate their behavior in a big-picture way. That’s why people like me have a job! The goal is to learn how to detect changes in behavior – yours or someone else’s – because changes in behavior are often the result of instincts trying to send a warning message.
With David, his behavior was usual and positive when his relationship was going fine, but once his gut started to have a bad feeling about Alissa, he started feeling anxious. Instead of facing the anxiety and asking himself if Alissa was truly good or bad for him, he decided to take the easy route and simply go out drinking more with his friends. The truth was that David’s instincts (telling him that Alissa would hurt him further if he stayed with her) were actually his best friend, even though he chose not to listen.
David is not alone in not listening to his romantic instincts. I talk to men and women every day who want so much to believe that their current relationship is a good one that they cover their ears and try to drown out what their instincts are telling them. If you are dating someone and find yourself engaging in any of the following behaviors, it’s a sign that your instincts are trying to warn you that your relationship’s survival – or your own sanity! – is in jeopardy.
• Obsessiveness: You may fixate on certain things he has said or told you, or obsess about his whereabouts, motivations, or attraction to others.
• Defensiveness: When anyone tells you he isn’t right for you, you set off on a blitz to defend him. “You don’t even know him!” you might say, or “You’re just jealous.” If you find yourself getting defensive when others make comments about the person you’re dating, it’s a sign that your instincts are telling you that you might be with the wrong person.
• Withdrawal from friends or family: Detaching from people close to you is a common consequence when your instincts are telling you something you don’t want to hear. Rather than put yourself in a situation where friends or family could emotionally protect you, you detach from them for fear that they will tell you what you don’t want to hear.
Deep down, we are all a little smarter about people than we sometimes know. At root, your instincts know who’s good for you and who’s not, so it’s just a matter of whether you decide to be a friend to yourself – or an opponent.
Dr. Seth Meyers has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.