a person writes their interoception intention in a notebook

Interoception Intentions for the New Year

Hi, everyone. Kelly Mahler, occupational therapist. It’s a new year, and each year I try to reflect on what I learned, which is so much! Last year, we learned so much from our interoception communities (so thank you!). After reflecting, I like to take a minute to think about my interoception intentions moving forward, and what my goals are for the upcoming year. As I was digging deep and really reflecting on this, it became clear that 3 main intentions emerged for myself when it comes to interoception.

Interoception Intention #1: Stop Labeling the Feelings of Others and Get More Curious

My first interoception intention is to stop labeling the feelings of others and get more curious. It has become so evident to me that labeling someone else’s experience is deeply ingrained in my past and in my experience. I do it from a place of goodness, but it really is very derailing or can be downright gaslighting to a person’s experience in the world.

Saying something like, “Oh my gosh. That must have made you feel so tired,” or, “Geez. That sounds really boring.” Labeling someone else’s experience is presuming that I know how they’re feeling. What interoception science is telling us is that many times when we assume to understand someone else’s inner experience, we are dead wrong. By labeling what it is we think is happening with them, we are at risk of being wrong and gaslighting their experience, or mislabeling their experience.

For many people, that can lead to a lot of inner confusion. Like, “Well, Kelly said I must have felt this way. But I don’t feel that way. Am I a wrong person for not feeling that way? Maybe my inner experience is not something to be trusted,” and so forth. It can lead to this downward spiral of inner confusion and doubt.

Rather than labeling, I’m trying to get more and more curious. Saying something instead like, “Oh, I wonder how that made you feel.” or, “What was that like for you?” or, “I wonder what that was like for you.” Instead of labeling what I think it was, I give them a chance to ponder and share–if they want to or can– what that experience was like for them. I love those “I wonder” statements because it’s an “I wonder” without an expectation of response. If someone wants to share with me what their inner experience was all about, that’s great. But if they don’t, that’s great too.

Interoception Intention #2: Continue to Advocate for More Regulation and Less Compliance-Based Approaches

Interoception intention number two is to continue advocating against compliance. If you know my work, you know I am passionately against compliance-based approaches. If we’re talking about interoception specifically, compliance completely disregards, invalidates and derails interoceptive awareness. It can chronically condition somebody to ignore what it is their body needs for regulation, for comfort, for safety. It conditions them to ignore what their body is telling them that they need in order to please another person, to meet somebody else’s demand, and get that reinforcer or get that approval of somebody else. That is so damaging for many reasons, including to our interoceptive experience.

You will be hearing a lot more from us in terms of compliance-based approaches. How did we get so far off track with the over-use of compliance? Compliance-based approaches are so far away from what it is people actually need to be successful in life. How do we get less compliance and more regulation? We need to be so much more focused on regulation–and on encouraging people to discover and listen to what their body needs. Giving them the opportunity to honor and follow their needs. Let’s work together to do better. 

Interoception Intention #3: Ensure My Expectations are Aligned With a Person’s Capacity for Regulation

Finally, my interoception intention number three is to continue to check myself and ensure that my expectations are aligned with a person’s current capacity for regulation. Self-regulation is a huge buzzword, and is something that my work is all about. But what becomes very evident is that sometimes we’re putting so much emphasis on teaching or building self-regulation that it’s at the expense of something else that is so desperately needed. That’s something called co-regulation. That co-regulation is where we’re relying on other people to help identify and meet our regulatory needs.

For so many of my clients, especially early on in the process when I’m first meeting them, they are in a place of needing a lot of high-quality co-regulation. They come to me with these IEP goals and therapy goals for self-regulation. The student will independently seek out a break, or the student will independently use a sensory strategy when it is needed. Those goals all require a high degree of interoceptive understanding. You have to be able to notice and understand your bodily sensations in order to have reliable clues of when you need to take a break or when you need those sensory strategies. Furthermore, even if you have reliable clues coming from your body, you need to feel safe enough to seek out what it is your body needs without your actions being pathologized (e.g., “you are being oppositional”; “that is attention-seeking or escape/avoidant behavior”) or needing to be earned (e.g., “First do math, then you can have a break”).

We need to rewind our expectations. Check our expectations. Are they fairly aligned with a person’s current capacity for interoception and regulation? We need to, for many of our learners, shift back to a place of co-regulation where we’re lovingly providing support in a way that’s meaningful to them and their neurology. A lot of times, through that co-regulation and interaction with us, they learn a lot about their interoceptive needs. It can also put them in a place of regulation. A regulated body and brain is a body and brain that’s ready for learning, including that oh-so-important interoception learning.

I’d love to hear what your goals and intentions are. Share them with us on social media! Until next time.