Updated: Feb 15, 2020
"Agency starts with interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater potential to control our lives" - The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
A few years ago, I dove into the work of local author and international teacher, Heather Plett. She taught me the art of holding space: how to hold it well for others (family friends and clients) and more importantly, how to hold it for myself.
Over the course of 18 months (it was a 6 month course, I just liked it so much that I stuck around to mentor others and learn more from Heather), I learned what holding space well means (things like compassionate curiosity, healthy boundaries, and non-judgement). I realized how my unconscious bias's, my own shadow, and need to fix situations with a colonizing approach was impacting spaces I held. I learned to recognize complexity and built more capability for having brave and difficult conversations. It was a rich, at times humbling, and expansive experience.
Recognizing my unmet needs and learning to 'ask for what I need' was one area of growth for me.
Heather wrote, 'Our unmet needs are generally linked to a sense of unworthiness and if we don't believe that we are worthy of having our needs met, we'll consistently ignore them until we don't know how to recognize them anymore.' Christina Baldwin states in her book, The Seven Teachings, 'As we ask for what we need and offer what we can, we become spiritual traders of life's energy, time and abundance...through this practice, we are reminded that everything lives in reciprocal relationship...'. Asking for what I need was not a new concept, but actually doing it with those close to me was something I needed to get better at. To state my needs to my husband (instead of blowing up after he failed to read my mind), to reach out to a friend when I was having a rough day (instead of isolating), to take time in rest (instead of pushing through). This is a practice I continue to work on.
" Agency is the technical term for the feeling of being in charge of your life; knowing where you stand, knowing that you have a say in what happens to you, knowing that you have some ability to shape your circumstances' - Bessel Van Der Kolk
To be our own agent, means we need to ask for what we need...and that means we have to actually know what those needs are.
Most people experience being out of touch with their needs at some point in their life and sometimes we don't realize them piling up until we have a catastrophe: a leave from work due to stress, a health condition, or an explosive blow up in a relationship. Our needs can be frozen or asleep due to a variety of life circumstances including family and social conditioning. Whether we have suffered physical or emotional trauma, parental or spousal neglect, shame for 'being needy', or we're running a fast-paced, stress-filled life, we can become numb to our needs.
The science of how we get out of touch.
So what is Interoception? It's the technical term for the ability to feel one's own body states and emotions - they inform us about the internal state of our bodies, like feeling a sensation in your hand or sensing anger. It's different from exteroception (our ability to sense what's going on around us through our 5 senses) and proprioception (our ability to track our position and movements in space). Interoceptive neural fibers are smaller and slower (unmylinated), compared to our exteroceptive nerves (that aid in quickly moving a hand from a hot stove). Thus, sensing hunger, myofascial tension, emotions and our gut sense about a situation, often take longer for our brains to register and respond to.
According to Alan Fogel (BodySense, The Science and Practice of Embodied Self Awareness), '...if the pattern of self avoidance goes on for too long, we will develop neuromotor pathways that amplify and reinforce our ability in the future to suppress our body states from reaching self awareness. Our muscles play a role in literally holding ourselves together and clamping down on receptors to block sensations from entering into embodied self awareness, diverting our attention to conceptual self awareness.' Basically, if we ignore (or are ignored) long enough, we suppress true sensations and emotions and replace them with thoughts about ourselves. We tune out and create belief systems and stories about our lives and situations.
How do we re-awaken these neural pathways?
1. Notice when you are triggered.
In Heather's course, we learned about recognizing our unmet needs and how they often show up in disguises like anger, frustration, depression, guilt, and jealousy - so we'll sometimes miss the signs - expressing these emotions instead of taking time to really assess what we need in that moment. She coached us to recognize that when we are feeling triggered (by family members, colleagues or clients), this is often a signal to pause and check in with ourselves, asking 'What is is that I'm needing right now?' Explore a list of needs from The Center for Non-Violent Communcation's website.
2. Engage in interoceptive practices
Find a bodyworker, therapist or movement coach that use somatic-based (meaning, sensing the body from within) approach. According to research (The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk or Body Sense by Alan Fogel for numerous references), practices that bring your awareness to your internal felt sense are a way you can improve your ability to recognize your needs. This can be anything that brings your awareness inside and usually requires slowing down (or pausing altogether) in order to tune in to sensations and emotions. This is often assisted by inquiring guidance (meaning you or someone asking you) what you feel, in this moment. These practices require curiosity, present moment awareness, patience and often a guide or coach. It's not what you do, it's how you do it. Alan Fogel writes, "Interoception is a way of monitoring ourselves so that we can ease the felt pain, expand the felt joy, and make sure that we get the resources needed in any given moment."
Note: if you have suffered trauma, I recommend working with someone who is trauma-informed and trained and/or experienced in holding space for strong emotions, memories and sensations that may surface.
3. Ask for what you need.
Once you realize a need, ask yourself who, when and how can you get your needs met. Can you meet your own need or do you need help from someone else? Identify helpers and the appropriate time to ask (i.e ideally you are calm and they are listening). Rehearse what you'll say or write it down. Try these statements;
'When (situation) happens, I feel (feeling or sensation). I need you to (what).
'I'm feeling (sensation or emotion) and I'm not sure what that is about. I need some space to sort it out.'
I'm feeling (depressed, overwhelmed). I don't need you to solve or fix things. I need you to listen and witness what I'm going through.
This change doesn't happen overnight (remember, interoceptive nerves are slower and re-wiring ourselves takes time), but change can happen. We can develop both the awareness and skills to ask for what we need, and find more agency to live our best life.