Intuition vs Impulse vs Instinct: The Three Big I's

Are they secretly the same thing?

Instinct. Intuition. Impulse. (Try saying that fast 5 times)

Three beautiful, delicious, and oft-confused “I” words.

I was chatting with a friend a few months ago and this conversation came up. What is instinct? How is it different from intuition? Where does impulse come in? All questions that I believe we need to ask ourselves, and individually know and understand how each shows up in our bodies and communicates with us.

  • Instinct: Your biological, survival-brain led desire, motivation, or action. Instinct to me lives in the world of muscle memory and your rational brain being overcome by your survival brain. Instinct is fast. It is the savior.

  • Intuition: The little quiet knowing that comes from within. It is your voice, and also not your voice. It is being able to intake and process information through all 5 senses and beyond that you immediately “know” with no rational proof behind it. Intuition is calm and confident. It is the guide.

  • Impulse: Comes up like a flame, an ignition. Very often tied to our ingrained values, habits, and conditioning. Impulse is strong. It is the doer.

Now clearly these are not the dictionary definitions so please feel free to go look those up, this is simply how I understand the three. I believe that they are all necessary - we need all 3 working together for our best and highest. All three of these “I” words want action. They are a way for the body and the divine to communicate with you and get you to DO something, to make a choice, to say something. But in order to work with them effectively you need to be able to differentiate between them and how to feel them in YOUR body (because none of us are exactly the same).

As an actor, I was trained to honor my impulse. To do what it is telling me to do. And while that is great for theatricality and drama and the raw, honest truth that is necessary for great storytelling, it does not always serve me in the real world. Of the three, in the day to day humdrum of “real life”, impulse is the one to watch out for. While all 3 of these processes are mostly unconscious, impulse is the one that can be unconscious and untethered - the one that can just run a muck and comes from a place of our conditioning. For example, if you have been raised in a home that taught you that 2 biologically male humans should not be together and deserve to go to hell, then your impulse upon seeing 2 gay men making out on a park bench might be to recoil or for some people as far as to say something and berate them (why in gods hell people think they have a right to do this is fucking beyond me, but they do and we need to acknowledge how wrong and frankly ridiculous it is. Go live your own damn life. But i digress). That impulse comes from your conditioning, from the soup you grew up in. And now, as a grown up, it is your duty to inquire and investigate the why behind that impulse. You can feel the impulse without taking action on it. Impulse pushes and shoves you, before you even realize it is behind you, into action.

Instinct also arises from fixed or habitual behavior and more often than not, it is tied to our survival. Now instinct on its own is fine. Great actually. It’s what gets us out of sticky situations and ensures we don’t die in fires and shit. However instinct is so closely tied to the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response that it comes from a place of an overstimulated and stressed nervous system. No one wants to live there. Let instinct come and go. Instinct activates you and scares you into action.

Intuition is our friend. They all are (but we like intuition the most). Intuition ALWAYS comes from a place of love and with the voice of love. Your intuition is the thing in you that believes in you and has faith in the world around you. Always. Your intuition might even say to you “get up, quick, get out of here”. But it will never do so with the panicky energy of instinct or the combative energy of impulse. Intuition whispers, dances, and lovingly seduces you into action.

Play with this for yourself. Define the words for yourself. When has each showed up for you? Did you heed the call or not? What were the results? What does it feel like in the body?

  • Impulse feels like I’m being punched from the inside towards something. Literally my solar plexus moves up and forward when I connect to impulse.

  • Instinct feels like everything is slowing down around me and that my senses have become razor sharp. My whole body feels focused and in a bracing position, awaiting some kind of stimulus.

  • Intuition feels like my shoulders dropping, and my breath dropping down into my low belly. My whole being slows down and I get chills all over.

Now that I know this about myself, I can quickly decipher who is communicating with me by listening to my body and take action accordingly.

  • Not in immediate danger? I can let go of the physiological responses to instinct and begin investigating what the message was.

  • Feel that push of impulse? Take a beat, is it coming from my highest self or conditioned self? Once I know I can choose to act or not act.

  • Hear that whisper of knowledge that feels wholly ephemeral yet so present? Honor it. Always and forever.

These are the little tools I use to engage with these three delicious “I” words. Other favorite “I” words to think about include: inspiration, invitation, and inquiry.

Hasta next week lovers!