My good friend and colleague, Peter Vermeulen, and I have been discussing a certain topic lately, and that is something called Theory of Own Mind. In the field of neuro-differences, we have an over-focus on Theory of Mind which refers to our ability to think about how other people are feeling, thinking, etc. However, what we DON’T do enough of is nurturing Theory of Own Mind and helping our clients to discover more about themselves—to understand their own bodies, feelings, experiences and to learn what it is that they need to successfully flourish and thrive.
This means increasing the use of supports that help a person to discover and understand more about themselves, including:
- understand their own strengths & interests
- understand what they need to feel safe
- understand their own inner interoceptive experiences
- understand their own emotions
- understand their uniqueness and see all of the value that they have to offer the world
Shifting the Narrative to a Focus on Self-Understanding
Peter and I are focused on shifting this narrative and advocating for more supports that help develop the Theory of Own Mind, to build that level of self-awareness, to build that understanding of personal inner experiences. Research tells us that developmentally, for most people, from the time we’re young, even in the trajectory of typical development, we come to understand ourselves first, our own experiences and emotions first, before we are developmentally ready to think about the experiences and emotions of other people. And so, it should not be any different for the clients we serve. We need to do a better job at using supports that allow them to gain a firm understanding of their own experiences and emotions rather than prematurely over-focusing on understanding the experiences and emotions of others.
There are a lot of different ways to shift the narrative to a focus on ‘self-first’. The following 3 tips will help you get started on this journey:
Tip #1 – Strength Discovery
Tip #1 is to use a strength-based approach: help our learners discover what are their many, many strengths. Sometimes we accidentally, no harm intended, become so solely focused on the things that that person might be needing to improve upon in order to help them be successful. And for many that becomes part of their identity, that they are a summation of all of the things that people are helping them to ‘fix’. And my gosh are we missing out on all of the beautiful strengths of our learners. We really need to shift that focus and concentrate on their strengths. Help them to discover the things that they are good at, the things that bring them joy and fulfillment, the things that they are naturally motivated to do. Incorporate these strengths in all aspects of life including play, education and self-care. Consider their strengths as we help them plan for the future and looking towards leisure and work pursuits.
Tip #2 – Develop Interoceptive Awareness
Tip #2 is to develop interoceptive awareness and, whenever possible, support our learners in discovering their own interoceptive experiences, and to use a process that validates this experience. It is important to help our clients notice their body signals and figure out what their body signals mean for them. For example, what does hunger, or anxiety, or sleepiness feel like in their body? We all have such different interoception experiences. For example, what your body feels like when you’re hungry is different than what my body feels like when I’m hungry. What your body feels like when you’re anxious is different than what my body feels like when I’m anxious. And what your body feels like when you’re sleepy is different than what my body feels like when I’m sleepy.
There is no such thing as a right or wrong interoceptive experience. So, really helping our clients to uncover their own unique, inner experience and validating it every step of the way, and nurturing that understanding of their own inner experience when it comes to their body signals and their emotions is so important and can be really empowering. For an evidence-based framework for developing interoceptive awareness check out The Interoception Curriculum.
Tip #3 – Discover Feel-Good Actions
Tip #3 is to help our learners to discover feel-good actions that promote comfortable feelings within their bodies. If you know my work, you know that I talk so much about feel-good actions and strategies. I believe so strongly in them. What makes your body feel comfortable, safe or regulated is different than the things that make my body feel comfortable, safe or regulated. It’s really important for us to help our learners to explore a wide variety of feel-good actions, and to help them to identify those unique strategies and actions that help them to feel regulated, that help them to feel comfortable. It cannot be a one size fits all approach. It does not work to come into a classroom and give every single student in the classroom the same three tools. For example, teaching all of the students to just use deep breathing, or squeeze a stress ball or do chair pushups. That’s not the way it works for any of us. We all have such a vast array of feel-good strategies and our clients are no different.
And so, providing a framework that helps our clients to discover for themselves what helps them to feel most regulated is best practice. And then working towards helping them to use these feel-good strategies proactively as well as helping them to feel confident using them. For example, if you have a client that finds noise-canceling headphones helpful within many environments but may be worried that they make them ‘stick-out’ or look ‘different’.
I have many clients who want to mask their regulation needs for fear of what others will think of them. They have so much theory of mind. It is really helpful to build their confidence in using what helps them to feel safe and regulated. And encouraging those that surround our clients to remove their masks and feel confident in openly using and discussing the things that promote their own feel-good sensations can be very helpful. We live in a society where it is not widely celebrated to take breaks, to nurture our own bodily needs. Rather it is “go-go-go” ; “push through it”; “everything will be fine”. So, empowering our clients as well as ourselves to openly use feel-good actions can be life-changing for us all.
I am so grateful for Peter and Kelly to bring awareness to this important topic. All too often we are focused on teaching our clients to consider the thoughts and feelings of others, but we don’t stop to think about if our clients have a firm understanding of their own thoughts and feelings first. This course challenged my thinking and got me excited to provide supports that help my clients understand themselves in better way. Thank you, Peter and Kelly!