“I don’t know what I feel,” says Brian. “I guess I feel numb. Nobody talked about feelings in my house when I grew up. Now when my wife asks me how I feel, I don’t know what to say. It drives her crazy.”
“Why do I feel the way I do?” says Jill. “I get anxious all the time. Lots of things upset me even when I know they shouldn’t. If I get hurt I can’t stop thinking about it. I tell myself to stop feeling this way, but I can’t.”
Do either of these sound familiar? Like someone you know (or maybe yourself)?
Many people (more commonly men) feel unaware of their emotions. They can’t tell what they’re feeling, or even, for some, that they’re feeling anything at all.
Other people (more commonly women) feel almost too emotionally aware. They feel flooded with feelings practically every day – feelings they often wish they could just make go away.
While these may sound like completely opposite problems, surprisingly, there may be one skill people can develop that can help with both.
It’s not developing greater emotional awareness —at least, not the way we usually think of it. It’s developing greater interoceptive awareness
What Is Interoception?
What’s interoceptive awareness? It’s the ability to sense and accurately interpret the signals and sensations coming from within our bodies.
All the time, we feel sensations from within our bodies, like the ones that tell us whether we’re hungry or tired. These sensations come from a vast network of internal senses sending signals from every corner of our bodies to our brains. Collectively these senses are known as interoception.
Interoception tells us a whole lot more, however, than whether it’s been too long since we ate a meal (or gone to the bathroom). Through all sorts of subtle sensations, most of which we’re barely conscious of, they tell us everything about our internal state. In fact, they’re what gives us the sense of being alive.
Think back to the times when you felt “most alive.” Didn’t you feel as though you could feel life energy pulsing in every part in your body, and the blood coursing through your veins?
Conversely, think of those terrible times when you felt “dead inside.” Didn’t it seem as though all sensation of how you felt inside had grown silent and dark?
Most importantly, a subset of these internal sensations, which generally appear to originate somewhere in your throat, chest, stomach or abdomen, determine and generate your emotional state. (Though it probably doesn’t seem like it, your thoughts are secondary.) While at times these sensations are intense and urgent, the majority of the time they’re subtle enough that you don’t consciously notice them, although you probably could.
Being aware of these subtle interoceptive signals and sensations, and knowing how to respond to them, can help you be more emotionally connected and aware, whether you feel “too little” or “too much.”
Most of Us Are Disconnected from What’s Going On Inside Us
Unfortunately, a lot of us—maybe most of us—don’t spend a lot of time being aware of how we feel in our bodies. We’re “in our heads.” Whether we like our body or hate it, take care of our body or ignore it, we still don’t think of our body as “us.” As the comedian John Mulaney has said, “I don’t know what my body is for, other than just taking my head from room to room.”
This is very adaptive, of course. You couldn’t have gotten where you are if you never pushed yourself further than where your body wanted to go. The trouble happens when we do it so much we lose touch with our internal state completely.
People have many different reasons for losing the connection to those inner sensations. Many men, for example, simply learn that it’s “weak” and “unmanly” to be affected by feelings. Since almost all feelings are suspect and likely, in their minds, to cause them to do the “wrong” thing, over time they cut off the ability to feel them at all.
Another reason is when someone has experienced a terrible trauma or is in such physical or emotional pain that they’ve disconnected their awareness of what’s going on in their bodies. To be “in their bodies” feels too frightening or painful.
But what about those of us who “feel too much”? Don’t we have too much interoceptive awareness?
Not really. Even those of us who feel very emotional can have a disconnect between our brains and what we’re feeling in our bodies.
This is how it can happen: Those original visceral, bodily felt sensations are the way our inner selves speak to us. These sensations can be easily missed: a knot in the stomach, a frightened tensing up of our shoulders, a sudden sinking feeling.
But those of us who feel a lot often become afraid of the intensity of our emotions. We become afraid of the pain or discomfort that we anticipate will come from these visceral feelings, and afraid of what it means about us that we feel fear or pain when others don’t seem to. So without realizing it, we don’t really let ourselves feel them in a bodily way. Instead, we react to them. We get angry about them. We analyze and ruminate about why we feel the way we do. In the process we begin to over-react to our own feelings and distrust our body’s ability to handle them.
This doesn’t make the original feelings go away however. What’s left is a background sensation of agitation or disturbance, of something not dealt with that’s waiting for the first chance it can get to re-emerge.
Feeling what you’re feeling in an interoceptive way may settle them more quickly and easily than the ways you’re accustomed to dealing with them.
How to Develop Interoceptive Awareness
Developing interoceptive awareness works then for both feeling” too little” and “too much.” In a nutshell, raising interoceptive awareness means bringing mindfulness to your bodily felt sensations. That means paying attention to them, with interest and curiosity, without judging or trying to change them.
The good news is, you don’t have to do this for 20 or 30 minutes at a time to get results! You can begin raising your interoceptive awareness in less than five minutes. That’s all the time it takes for your emotional interoceptive system to “wake up” and begin telling you what your feelings mean and showing you how it wants you to handle them.
Raising your interoceptive awareness – tapping into your interoception and becoming more aware of how you are on the inside – can make you feel more alive and connected, if you have trouble knowing what you feel. And if you feel at times emotionally overwhelmed and upset by your feelings, it can make you feel more grounded and centered and in control—and still be a feelingful person!
Our bodies are designed to be felt, outside and in. Our inner senses exist not only to help us survive, but to thrive. They can show you the way out of “stuck” modes of both thinking and feeling. You just need to pay attention.
How to Raise Your Interoceptive Awareness in Five Minutes – Whether You Feel “Too Little” or “Too Much”
Exercise #1 — “Too Little”
Sit comfortably with your feet on the floor. Take a few long, easy breaths, let go of whatever you’re thinking about, and bring all of your awareness into your feet. Sense your feet on the floor. Notice if they’re cold or wam, tight or relaxed. Feel the soles and heels of your feet “grounding” you to the floor.
Once you’ve gotten the feel of that, let your awareness travel up through your legs, as if with an inner searchlight, to the bend of your knees. Feel your body sinking into the chair below you. Feel your back and shoulders. Feel your arms, forearms and hands. For just a few moments, let your body simply be a body.
Now direct your attention to the center part of your body – your chest, sternum, down to your navel. What does it feel like “in there”? Notice where you feel “something”—anything—and put your hand on that spot.
Then look for some simple word or words to describe it. This may take a few moments, so be patient with yourself and keep breathing easily. Some of the most common words are “warm,” “tight,” “happy,” “full,” “relaxed,” “empty,” “good,” “calm,” “happy,” “tense,” “angry,” “sad,” “afraid” or “lonely.”
When you find the word that fits it best, just hang out with the feeling, without trying to change it or do anything with it, for just two minutes. Notice if it changes in any way—gets weaker or stronger or changes to something else.
That’s the whole exercise. Do you feel a little bit different inside? Congratulations! You’ve just strengthened your interoceptive awareness and reconnected your mind to your bodily felt sensations that are related to your feelings. It may be hard at first, but like learning an instrument, it gets easier and more rewarding with practice.
Exercise #2 – “Too Much”
Sit comfortably, take a few easy breaths, and for just the next few minutes, resolve to not think about what you’re feeling. Just for now, stop trying to figure out a solution to the feeling or issue you’re having. Instead, bring your attention down to the center part of your body and notice where and how you feel the feeling you’re having. You’re going to be mindful of your feeling—noticing it, observing it without judging or trying to change it.
When you locate the feeling in your body, gently put your hand over that place. Continue sensing the feeling, freshly, with “beginner’s mind.” Exactly what does it feel like? What sensation does it create? Name it. Maybe it’s not the feeling you thought it was. For example, maybe it’s not “anxiety,” but sadness, or fear, or feeling left out, or even love. Or something else.
For just two or three minutes, let yourself “sit” with the feeling. If your mind “jumps away” from it or goes back to looking for solutions, return to simply being with the sensation of the feeling again. It may get a little bigger, or possibly a lot smaller, or change to a different feeling. Or it may even reveal a way of resolving the feeling or issue that you never thought of before.
If the feeling gets a lot bigger, see if you can take a few slow, deep breaths and slow yourself down inside, relax, and turn toward the feeling. See if you can tolerate the sensation of it. The feeling may come in waves that rise and then subside. If you can’t tolerate this feeling at this time, come out of the exercise and don’t worry about it. Try it at a different time.
Notice how you feel after you’ve completed the exercise. You’ve just raised your interoceptive awareness, and with it, your ability to feel “centered” no matter what you’re feeling.