How to Raise Your Emotional Awareness in Five Minutes or Less—Interoceptively
“He’s really in touch with himself.”
“She’s comfortable in her skin.”
“He’s all in his head.”
Everyday phrases like these show that we all sense intuitively that some people are more connected to themselves than others. But connected to what? The phrases give us a clue: The first two suggest that the people must be feeling something, touching something in their body, while the last phrase suggests the opposite – a person who’s only aware of the thoughts in his mind.
Over the past thirty years, science has begun to discover that these are not just turns of phrase. Being in touch with yourself, or comfortable in your skin, is related to what is known as “interoceptive awareness,” or the ability to sense and accurately interpret the signals and sensations coming from your body that tell you how you feel.
The full details of interoceptive awareness—all its components and how they fit together—has yet to be fully mapped. Yet it’s clear that the ability to feel the bodily signals and sensations of your emotions, accurately interpret them, and use that information in a constructive way is a key element in emotional awareness. It makes a tremendous difference in how good you feel about yourself, how well you understand and respond to other people’s feelings, and how well you make decisions and handle the stresses in your life. Either blocking out or continually misunderstanding those signals and sensations can leave you “stuck” in an echo chamber of your thoughts, unable to take in new information.
Of course, it’s probably impossible, and certainly impractical, to be interoceptively aware all the time. But most of us have learned to fear the raw emotions that stir in our bodies. We believe that if we don’t deny or tightly control the ones we consider “unacceptable,” they’ll overtake us. But if you reconnect to those feelings without getting lost in them or overwhelmed by them, it will lead you to feel more comfortable in your own skin—and more open to life.
Luckily, you don’t need to spend twenty or thirty minutes a day for years to begin to have more interoceptive awareness. Most of us can get back in touch with what’s going on inside us in about five minutes. It’s almost like making a phone call to yourself. You dial the number, wait for your body to answer, say “hello”…..and instead of immediately talking, you listen attentively. It’s all about paying attention.
Here are two exercises to raise your interoceptive awareness. The first is designed especially for people who have trouble either feeling or naming what’s going on emotionally inside themselves, while the second is more for those who feel overwhelmed by all the emotions that frequently arise within them. But in fact, both these exercises can be helpful to anyone.
Exercise #1 — “Feeling 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 or maybe longer, 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.”
Another possible way to do this is to give yourself a “weather report.” What’s the weather like inside you? Cloudy, stormy, sunny, partly cloudy, gray, gloomy, dark? You get the picture.
When you find the word or words that fit it best, just hang out with the feeling, without trying to change it or do anything with it, for just two minutes. Time it. Two minutes may sound like a short time, but if you do this correctly it will feel surprisingly long. Notice if the feeling 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 – Feeling “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, starts replaying the reasons for why you feel the way you do, 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. It may even reveal a way of resolving the feeling or issue in a way that hadn’t occurred to you 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 this exercise. You’ve just raised your interoceptive awareness, and with it, your ability to feel “centered” no matter what you’re feeling or how strongly you feel it.