The importance of interoception for effective social change work

by Kristy Kuecken

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night at a friend’s house and tried to find the bathroom in the dark?  How’d that go?  When we don’t have full use of our available senses, living well becomes increasingly difficult. And although most people don’t associate social justice work with sensory experience, allow me to show you why a sense you may not even be aware of, called “interoception,” is foundational to our success in creating social change.

Interoception is a fancy word scientists use to describe the ability to feel what’s happening on the inside of your body. It’s actually a sense, much like sight or taste. If you’ve never heard the word interoception before, you may think it’s a sense that doesn’t apply to you. But, we use it every day for things like knowing when we are hungry, knowing when we need to use the bathroom, and knowing when we need to shift in our chair. Our body is constantly sending information to our brain, through our nervous system, that is informing our experience of ourselves and the world around us.

All of this happens outside of our conscious awareness because our body functions are governed by our “lizard” brain; the part of our brain that acts on survival instinct. However, because we have the gift of consciousness from our more evolved brain functioning, sometimes referred to as the “human” brain, we can intentionally tap into this innate body wisdom. It is in the joining of lizard and human brain, mind and body, that we have access to our complete experience.

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To understand this, I like to use the simplified metaphor of our lizard brain as a small child and the human brain as its parent. The child’s experience of the world is different than the parent’s. In an ideal parenting scenario, the parent is aware of and present with the child’s experience, and thus able to respond effectively. However, if the parent is living in our modern society, they are more than likely inundated with other responsibilities such as work, finances, and other stresses. When the parent is stressed and distracted, despite their best intentions, they may respond to the child’s experience in a less than helpful way. They may yell, shame, ignore, or criticize. Over time this will lead to maladaptive behaviors from the child and the parent may think that either they are a terrible parent (they’re not) or that the child is just being “bad” (they’re not).

The same thing happens with the parts of our brain and body. Our human brain may respond to our body sensations with fear or anxiety, or it may just start to block out body sensations altogether because they have become too overwhelming. When I was a child, I would wait to ask my mom to do something I really wanted to do until she was talking to her friends on the phone. I knew that she would be otherwise occupied and she would just say “yes” to get rid of me. It wasn’t a big deal if what I wanted was an extra cookie, but you can see where this could run amok if I wanted to go drive the car or use the chainsaw—”but mom said I could!”

Similarly, our brain can get away with not being aware of, ignoring, or responding poorly to our body. This is why as humans we can do so much more than sit around all day and wait for our bladders to be full, or wait for hunger cues to come. We can hold ourselves back from snapping at our boss, wait to use the bathroom until the appropriate time, or drink some coffee and stay up late working on a project every once in a while. However, if we are under too much stress or we’ve experienced trauma in our lives or maybe we’re just having a heated argument with our partner, we can start to pay the price for poor interoceptive awareness.

I work with people with chronic pain and other chronic health issues. In many cases what got them there was, at least in part, not possessing the skill of being able to feel and respond appropriately to their body’s sensations and cues. To be clear, this doesn’t mean it’s their “fault” that they are in pain. It just means that there is a really good reason why they had to ignore their inner experience—be it childhood stress or other life circumstance—and their nervous system is now in a sustained stress response and they didn’t even know it until their symptoms popped up. An explanation of the reasons why we become disconnected from our bodies is far outside of the scope of this post. But just know that if you are a person who feels even somewhat disconnected from your body: 1. You’re not alone, 2. it’s not your fault, it’s most likely what helped you to survive difficult experiences, and 3. It’s very possible to reconnect!

Now, how does this relate to social justice work?  At first glance it may seem like feeling your inner experience and effecting social change have nothing to do with each other. Wouldn’t it be better to not feel your inner experience when you’re trying to change a broken system? I know firsthand the pain of watching a mother desperately fighting Child Protective Services (CPS) to get her child back, doing everything asked of her, only to have her parental rights taken away. I have felt despair at seeing a man suffering from addiction who badly wants inpatient treatment but the county won’t pay for it. I have experienced fear of having a suicidal client who is denied admission to the psych ward because they didn’t disclose their plan to end their life.

My heart is beating faster just from writing those last three sentences! Why would I want to feel that?  I’ll tell you why: Because it’s there whether I want to acknowledge it or not, and if I don’t develop the skill of being able to feel it, my human brain is going to interpret those signals and decide that the world isn’t safe. Returning to our metaphor, my “child” is going to feel so angry, fearful and alone in the absence of guidance from my “parent” that it becomes aggressive or shuts down completely. Then I’ll make a snap decision to yell at a CPS worker and risk that mother’s future with her child. Or I’ll slip up and make yet another micro-aggression, or expose my white fragility at a racial justice event, or fail to respond to a racist statement, and decide I’m not good enough to do social change work.

All of these examples are things I have been tempted with at various points in my career. But here’s where it gets real: I was once so unaware of my limits and spread myself so thin that my body had no choice but to start screaming at me through depression, panic, and full body pain. When we don’t have access to our inner experience, we are more prone to making poor decisions and acting on impulse and conditioning. We are also opening ourselves to health issues such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, high blood pressure, heart issues, lower immune function, and the list goes on.

Being effective in our activism means we will become intimate with the rawest of human emotions, consistently witnessing and experiencing conflict, pain, shame, and loss. These experiences have effects deep within our bodies and minds. If we are not aware of, and dealing with, these effects, they will begin to take a toll. Healthy interopception is key to recognizing and healing from these effects. It’s imperative for staying effective over the long haul, and knowing when to step back.

So how can we start to develop this skill of feeling on the inside? It’s a lifelong journey, but luckily there are many tools we can use. There are lots of free mindfulness apps with body awareness practices. There are books, podcasts, and videos on the topic of interoception (a search for “Body Scan Meditation” brings up lots of helpful resources). Our emotions are great places to tap into body sensations, since our emotions register not only in our brains but in our bodies. I find it’s easier to start with positive or neutral sensations than to dive head-first into the difficult ones. This could mean drawing to your mind a beloved pet or loved one and then just noticing how your body feels. Or taking a few moments the next time you are in the presence of your favorite people to just really feel how your body is responding. Do you notice a flutter in your stomach? A warm sensation in your chest? A tingle in your feet? Are your shoulders a little more relaxed? Whatever it is, see if you can just be with it. If you’ve never done anything like this before it can seem a little strange at first. Trust yourself and your body. Go slowly, and most importantly, treat yourself with compassion and kindness.

It can also be very helpful to practice in a group. One opportunity is the upcoming CORE Circle: Building Our Container, on Thursday February 20th, 4:00-6:00 pm at Threshold, 2717 Atwood Avenue. Jamie Pekarek Krohn and I, Kristy Kuecken, will share practices designed to help us connect with our bodies and deepen our compassion for ourselves in order to grow our capacity for responding to the inevitable mistakes we make in our social and racial justice work. Please join us!