Emotions, Emotion Language & Human Connection: The Influence of Interoception

Hi everyone. Kelly Mahler, Occupational Therapist, and I want to take a moment to talk about emotions. Science is rapidly changing the way we understand the human emotion experience, how we come to identify our own emotions, how we understand emotion words, the differences in how we each come to experience our inner feels. There’s so much learning in this space. I wanted to offer three areas of learning that I have been pondering. We don’t have all the answers when it comes to these areas, but they are really important to consider if you’re not already.

Emotions are not a one-size-fits all experience. In my interoception work, we emphasize over and over that we all have different inner experiences and we are each correct and valid in this experience. What my body feels like is different than what your body feels like. 

But this variance goes even deeper than that. There are many ways to experience and conceptualize our inner world…that includes how we come to understand emotion words, interoception sensation words, etc. 

3 Areas of Learning

Area 1: Interoception Sensations give Meaning to Emotion Words (for some people)

Number one is that interoception is what gives emotion words meaning for many people. Not all people, but many people come to understand emotion words through their internal interoceptive sensations. For example, they come to understand what the word excited means for them based on their inner body sensations or signals that they are experiencing.

So for me, how would I define the word excited? It’s when my heart is racing and my muscles have this jumpy feeling in them, and that is the word or the definition of excitement for me. It’s how I have come to understand what that word means. And research shows us that these interoceptive sensations ground the concept of emotion, words and emotion language.

It’s really not how I originally taught or discussed emotions with my clients. For example, I learned to use teaching tools like emotion flashcards to explore facial expression or body language in the relation to each emotion. I might have said: this is what happy looks like, and it’s a smiling face or involves certain body language. That’s what this emotion means. But, there were a lot of flaws with that method, and interoception science is showing us that our understanding of these emotion concepts and emotion words actually come from within. Its not about memorizing facial expressions and body language (that can lead us to some false understandings of emotion words). Rather emotion language is heavily influenced by interoception–our interoceptive signals help to ground the concept of emotion and emotion words. 

Area 2: Not all people come to understand their inner feels through language or words

The second area of learning is all about language. Many people do not translate their inner experience through the use of words or language. They might be experiencing their inner sensations as colors, or textures, or shapes, or animals, or whatever is meaningful to them. It’s not always through the use of a label or a word.

This area of learning is all about embracing the different ways that we come to understand our own inner experience, that words might not be meaningful for all people. We really need to try to find a way to gain that insight and to help a person understand and increase that self-understanding in a process that’s a match for the way that they actually experience their world. This is really, really important.

Area 3: Developing a process of putting words to a person’s inner experience may enhance mutual understanding and social connection (for some people)

And that brings me to point number three, and that really is all about how, while a person’s innate experience might not be to put words to their interoceptive sensations or to their emotional experience, sometimes, for some people, that can be a meaningful process to learn; to give some way of explaining or communicating their inner world to other people. This can be helpful for many reasons including:

  1. To have your experience be better understood by other people. When you can express or share what your experience is like, it can help people understand you better. And I know that for so many of my clients, they feel really misunderstood, chronically misunderstood by other people. So it is super empowering when they’re able to be able to put words to what is going on inside.
  2. Having a way of expressing your inner feels to other people also really helps drive social connection. When we have this shared language, it can really help to bridge certain types of relationships that are meaningful for my clients. We’re always trying to operate in a way that is aligned with their personal beliefs and values and what’s meaningful to them. For many of my clients, it is to develop a way of putting words to their experience so that they are better understood and can further enhance some of the social connections that they have.

Until next time.

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