There’s a difference between being afraid to do something
and simply feeling that you should not do something. The former is called cowardice. The latter is called your gut feeling, or gut instinct.
The Gut Feeling
When my gut feeling comes into play I feel a sort of mental-emotional block that guides me in a certain direction and perhaps keeps me from taking a certain action. At least on a logical level, I don’t know why I’m feeling the way I do. I don’t feel afraid of anything in particular. Rather, I get an intuitive ping that says, “Don’t do that.” And I think, “OK.” And that’s about it.
Here’s an example. I went running in the woods this morning. It had rained out hard for a couple hours, and the air temperature was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. I got an idea to go to a spot where I sometimes like to go swimming, and just hang out in the cold water for a few minutes. That always feels good.
After running for a while I showed up to the spot, took my shirt off (ooh baby), and slowly eased my way in. I felt perfectly fine with going into the water up to my knees.
However, I felt blocked from going in any further. Not physically—there wasn’t anything in my way. I wasn’t afraid, either—I had done this multiple times before. But I just got that feeling—“This is fine: no further.” And I said, “Okay,” and stood where I was for a couple minutes before getting out.
That intuitive message didn’t come with any explanation for why I shouldn’t go in any farther. Objectively viewing the situation, however, it isn’t hard to imagine why. The water was very muddy—all brown. No matter what I felt like doing, I was definitely NOT going underwater. Additionally, the water was running fast—much faster than usual. So that posed the danger of getting swept away and hitting lots of rocks.
Logically I don’t see why going in deeper would have been a problem as long as I didn’t put my head underwater. But maybe mud-laden water is more dangerous than my knowledge is aware of—I don’t know.
It Feels Good!
Another key characteristic of the gut feeling is that it does not make you feel badly. The gut feeling itself might be unpleasant, such as a queasy feeling in your stomach when you’re around a creepy person. But actually heeding the feeling- doing what it asks of you- feels fine. For example, I didn’t feel any need to call myself a wimp for only going knee-deep into the water. I didn’t feel any regret or like I had missed out. I just did what felt right, and then I kept going. I felt good about the decision I had made.
When I follow my gut, I would generally describe the experience as feeling “clean.” I don’t feel any fearful energy grabbing at my ankles. If I stop and think about what I’m doing, my logical brain might explode into hyper-analysis. But I seem to now trust my gut enough where I usually avoid that. It’s just unnecessary. The gut likes to keep moving, though not out of anxiousness. It knows the pace it needs to take. It just does what it has to do.
Here are some key characteristics of cowardice—particularly how it differentiates from gut instinct.
The gut instinct seems to arise on its own, without the prompting of deliberate thought. Cowardice, on the other hand, feels more like a choice. Obviously you get a choice whether you will follow your gut instinct. But cowardice seems more deliberate.
By “deliberate” I don’t mean “consciously chosen,” but rather, logically pored over. Cowardice is more likely to come into play when you try to analyze your way through a situation. You get hung up on too many variables, your mind can’t handle it all at once, and you end up caving in.
Choosing cowardice- though it is a choice- feels very, very bad in the moment that it is chosen. I feel like my world shrinks, and I become trapped behind metal bars.
When I choose cowardice, I become enflamed in self-doubt. I feel less capable, less intelligent, and less human. Regret digs into my skin. I wonder what’s wrong with me. I can’t believe myself. Cowardice feels horrible.
Few things bother me more than my own cowardice. It is my biggest enemy.
A New Experience of Cowardice
Recently I had a substantial experience of cowardice which seems to have taken an unexpected turn.
I’ll spare the details; basically, I gave up in a situation where courage, persistence, and success were very important to me. I caved into cowardice, and I felt horrible about it for the rest of the day. I imagined things could have gone quite well, if only I had not made the mistake of choosing fear.
The next day, however, I woke up feeling much lighter. This was a somewhat drawn-out situation that had been injected with a lot of fear and mistrust. However, at this point it feels like all of the darkness has now been extracted from that situation, and I don’t have to feel all that fear and mistrust anymore. I feel freer and better about myself.
Logically, this makes no sense to me. I will never justify an act of cowardice, including this one. I would think that everything would feel worse, and that I would still be quite upset with myself. But I’m basically experiencing the opposite.
So far I’m feeling like I really don’t need to give attention to this situation anymore. In the moment when I chose cowardice, I also decided that this was going to be the end—that this was ultimate defeat, and I was not going to pursue this situation any further. So maybe my feelings are simply coming in line with that intention.
It’s hard to say for certain what is happening here. Considering that “the next day” is today, there simply hasn’t been enough of a passage of time to tell what’s up. All in all, this is very interesting, and is worthy of further exploration. I’m excited to see how it goes from here. At this point I don’t feel attached to any particular outcome. This situation has shifted from being a battle I’m a part of to a movie I’m watching.
Conflict Between the Two
Though they have completely opposite outcomes (your gut serves you, cowardice degrades you), the gut instinct and cowardice don’t seem to be at odds with each other. They don’t seem to be in conflict. Listening to one doesn’t negate the possibility of the other.
I can get myself into a situation via my gut instinct, and then flake out of that same situation via cowardice. At the very least, cowardice can make that situation more clunky. Cowardice creates a slower, bumpier, more convoluted, and more painful ride. It’s like walking barefoot on a path of rocks and gravel.
Level-Headedness vs. Mania
A similar dichotomy exists between being level-headed and being manic.
Acting on mania can be fun occasionally, though the nature of mania is anxiety. This means that it feels quite bad. Mania often feels that it needs to rush-- to be the biggest and the fastest and larger than life! Additionally, some of mania’s ideas are just plain stupid, and it doesn’t concern itself with safety or endurance.
I know the feeling of hiking up a huge hill in the middle of a 20 mile run, the day after a 40 mile run, and my quads are screaming, “MORE!” They’ve had a big meal, and they still want more. Even if they’re sore. They just want to fill themselves to the brim.
I certainly do entertain this desire for more. More hill, please! But I also have to say, Calm down, you crazies—we have a long haul here. If I just straight-up gave you what you wanted you’d be done in minutes.
Mania is a sugar high. It’s a 4-year old running around, jumping on and climbing up things. It’s fast, it’s frenzied, and it’s stupid. It doesn’t last.
I prefer the much more mature level-headedness. As opposed to the rampant recklessness of mania, level-headedness involves deliberate thought. Level-headedness staves off cowardice by avoiding analysis. It looks at the realities of the current situation, meanwhile dismissing the variables that don’t matter. Level-headedness is like gut instinct with a brain.
The conflict between level-headedness and mania is most apparent to me when I’m running a race. Mania wants to go fast, fast, fast, right now! It wants to race ahead of everybody and rile up the spectators and maybe even spook the other runners. Mania likes to sprint wildly.
Level-headedness likes to speed up too, and it doesn’t necessarily use a logical strategy for when and how much to do so (I certainly don’t). Rather than jump into sugar-high mode, however, level-headedness just runs. It stays on the edge of the cliff without diving headfirst into the rocks below (which is what mania does).
The experience of level-headedness is powerful and mature. When I use level-headedness I feel strong and sure of myself. No mistrust is present. I feel like the captain of a ship who has sailed these waters many times before, and is glad to do so again. It’s like talking to an old friend.
When I run with level-headedness, I discount factors such as what place I’m in, how close behind or ahead other runners are, how much time has passed, what my pace is, and what spectators are saying (though I appreciate support). I make note of how far I have to go, though I don’t logically say to myself, “OK, I have this many miles left, so I should speed up this amount right now!” I roughly did that when I was younger: maybe I’ve largely internalized it by now, and don’t need to think about it.
The main role of the “brain” part of level-headedness is ignoring disempowering, fear-provoking thoughts. When you’re running for, say, 45 minutes (such as in a 10K), thoughts will pass through your head. It’s not the same as jumping in a cold river for 2 minutes. As such, level-headedness is needed to keep the mind clear and focused on the goal, whatever it may be.
I like to focus on the simple act of running itself. I basically do what feels good while avoiding mania or sloth (i.e. running too slow). I simply make a goal of being fully engaged with the movements of running. I give myself a little push, and I don’t constrain myself with a leash nor hype myself up with a whip. It may sound over-simplistic, though I have run personal best times this way. So for now I’ll continue using this “strategy.”
The “brain” of level-headedness also searches for empowering thoughts. This isn’t delusional, “positive” drivel. That usually feels fake and contrived, and it doesn’t feel good. For a thought to be empowering, you have to mean it. It has to feel right to you. For me, these thoughts are usually a bit abstract, but, well, they work. I’ve told myself, in the middle of a final lap, that I’ll love myself no matter what happens (in high school I usually said the opposite. LOL). Other times I’ll make a simpler declaration, such as I am.
I can’t plan before the race to think any particular thought, though. It has to arise from the act. Such is the role of the gut-instinct part of level-headedness: it is very much in the moment. Indeed, a key characteristic of level-headedness is presence, which you could also call engagement.
Mania = Cowardice
Level-headedness is an outgrowth of the gut instinct. On the surface, mania appears to be the opposite of cowardice, though I’d consider that they are actually quite the same. Both feel bad. Both involve a choice. Both lose sight of what’s important.
In particular, both mania and cowardice are a form of hiding. Cowardice directly shrinks from whatever is feared. Mania hides in a more roundabout way, taking on ludicrous stunts so as to avoid the real work that needs to be done.
It might sound courageous to sprint halfway through a 10K. It certainly is ballsy. But if you can’t sustain it, what honor is there in that? You’ll just wear yourself out and spend the rest of the race in a tired gray zone. You’ll try very hard to distract yourself from fatigue. You won’t be engaged. You’ll want to be admired for going out on a limb and then enduring pain. But, really, you’re just being stupid.
When you disengage with the work at hand, whether by shrinking from it or going into sugar-high mode (and exhausting yourself), you put yourself in a fearful, sub-par state. You won’t feel good about yourself. You’ll know you’re living below your potential. You’ll know you’re missing out on what could have been a more enjoyable, gratifying experience. You’ll feel immature.
Why you sabotaged yourself, I do not know. If that’s what you really wanted to do, then fine. Otherwise, make note of this defeat and resolve to stay level-headed next time. You don’t have to let fear and anxiousness get the best of you. You can choose to stay with the situation. You can choose to do the work. You can choose to exercise your power. You can choose to express yourself to the end.
Which do you tend to cave into more—mania, or cowardice? Do you see any meaningful difference between the two, or are they two sides of the same coin?
What does level-headedness feel like for you? How about your gut instinct? What sorts of thoughts empower you, and how can you keep your attention on them more often?
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