Interoception is an Essential Leadership Skill: Here's How to Use It

Jonah Larkin

What if I told you  that you have this special sense that would allow you to make better, more intuitive decisions, feel energized or more relaxed, and be happier and live healthier?

The good news is that you, like every other person on this planet has this sense and it’s called interoception.

Interoception is like having a golden key that opens the door to experience the inner landscape of your body.

Most have never heard of the word, nor are familiar with it.

Fortunately, with the rising popularity of things like breath work and mindfulness practices, it’s starting to penetrate the lexicon of our culture.

But most people are just scratching the surface when it comes to their ability to use intercoception as a navigational tool for their life.

The good news is that with a little bit of directed intention this “sense” can become a superpower that will give you access to the some of the most important information you could ever perceive.

Interoception in Practice

Let’s say you’re stuck in your head about something that’s been bothering you.

The thoughts rush in at a million miles an hour.

All the stuff you have to do, the little fires you have to fight, the commitments you’ve made, the project with the due date coming up, all fighting for space while you think to yourself  “How am I ever going to get all that stuff done?”

You feel overwhelmed.

So you grab another cup of coffee and get to work.

As you work through the day the thoughts become more intrusive.

“I’m not being a good parent.”

“I should be getting outside and exercising more.”

“Unfortunately, I’m the only person who’s going to be able to do this work and do it right.”

“I just need to make it through this week.”

So you push yourself harder, working late into the night.

When you do finally lie down for rest, your sleep is neither deep nor refreshing.

You wake up the next day, and do it all over again.

You know that this isn’t the optimal way to operate but you just need to get through these next two weeks then you’ll be able to relax, at least for the weekend.

Until then, it’s pedal to the metal and you’ve resigned yourself to the consequences.

If behaving like this is simply a one off for a major push, it could be considered a temporary sacrifice.

But if this is the type of behavior that you’ve gotten used to, it could be called burnout.

But what is the ultimate cause of burnout?

Is it just that you’re overwhelmed with tasks and commitments?

Or is there something much more insidious, and if so what is the root cause?

Because every system in your body is geared towards homeostasis, if you pay attention to your nervous system it will signal exactly what your body needs.

The answer to burnout, overwhelm, anxiety, decision paralysis and every “problem” in your life is the ability to feel inside yourself.

Let’s look at the Pyramid of Experience to help us understand what exactly is going on inside us.

Every experience you have takes place within the context of general conscious awareness.

Conscious awareness is that thing inside you that is you that knows it exists.

If I ask you if someone is in there you would say “Of course, and it’s me.”

That’s conscious awareness and every experience takes place inside of it.

There are the stories you tell yourself about everything that has happened, is happening or might happen.

Below stories is the constant train of thoughts you’re having.

Below thoughts are the emotions you experience, many of which are caused by your thoughts.

At the deepest level are the sensations that you can feel inside your body.

The ability to sense inside yourself is interoception.

If your relationship to these sensations is not well developed you’ll react to them at the level of emotion, thought and story instead of understanding what your body is telling you.

When your energy is low, instead of resting, you’ll choose to push through.

When you’re angry, instead of understanding it, you’ll strike out at someone or something and/or become passive aggressive.

When you feel joy and appreciation, instead of expressing those feelings you’ll keep them to yourself or express them in an awkward way that might not be well received.

When you’re energized and inspired instead of going after what you really want, you’ll simply daydream about it and turn it into a fantasy, or kill it with “paralysis by analysis” overthinking.

Most of people were taught to ignore the sensations of their body,  and instead were told or figured out that that the way you get ahead is to “buckle down, man up, push through , get tough, have grit, increase our willpower, and make it happen no matter what.”

What if there was an easier way to do life?

Enter Interoception

Interoception (inter=internal) plus (ception=awareness) is an internal awareness of what is happening.

Interoception includes:

Mind: A mind full of thought unable to shut down vs. a mind with few thoughts that is calm and alert.  

Awareness: Expanded and receptive vs. narrow, focused and protective.

Posture: Open, relaxed and upright vs. collapsed, tense and closed.

Emotion: Pleasant vs. neutral vs. unpleasant.  (In Buddhism they this call this spectrum“feeling tones.”)  At a deeper level, the ability to describe the emotion (anger, joy, sadness, compassion, appreciation).

Breath: Deep and slow vs. shallow and rapid.  Also soft and easy vs. tense and difficult.

Sensation: Ability to describe the state of the body.  You might use words like open, expansive, light, soft, sharp, tense, tight, hard, cold, hot, burning, moving, contraction or any other words that evoke an internal picture.

Perceptions of your internal landscape occur in a nifty little part of the brain called the insula.

The insula are small spongy regions buried below the inner part of the neocortex, and common to mammals.

There are insula in both lobes and this cortex is heavily involved in most perceptive abilities that you have, from self awareness, to pain processing, to addiction and interoception.

What distinguishes the insula and interoception from other somato-sensory abilities is that interoception is motivational and is related to maintaining homeostasis within the body.

The motivational and homeostatic aspect of interoception is why it’s so important.

By tuning into and being receptive to the present moment you can become highly sensitive to the immense amount of data that is being transmitted by your body to your brain.

You may feel the excited rush of dopamine and norepinephrine and realize it’s time to knock out some of your most difficult work.

Or you may sense the buildup of adenosine which gives the body a signal that it’s tired and ready for sleep.

You may notice your breathing moves up or down the arousal ladder allowing you to either calm or energize yourself.

You’ll begin to notice all sorts of valuable signals.

Why You Need to Practice Interoception

The good news is that integrating a practice into your day to day activities is not putting another thing on your to-do list.

It’s a simple mind switch from paying attention to stories and thoughts to paying attention to emotions and sensations.

A simple mnemonic that I use is called “APES,” because, well, you and I really are just upright apes walking around pretending we’re the center of the universe.

It’s a quick check in that you can do anytime.

A=Awareness.  Where is my awareness?  Is it open or narrowed?

P=Posture.  Am I upright, relaxed and open or collapsed, closed and defensive?

E=Emotion. What is the primary emotion I’m experiencing right now?

S=Sensation. If do a quick internal scan of my body what do I notice?  If I were to describe the internal sensations of the body as an object, what would be the characteristics of that object? What does my breathing feel like?

When you stop and check in with yourself in this way, you’ll suddenly be tuning into the only moment that ever exists, the ever present right now.

The beauty of this practice is that simply by noticing what is happening, you’ll naturally move towards a more desirable state.

Try it now by tuning into your breath.

You’ll notice that you spontaneously slow and deepen your breath when you begin to pay attention to it.

Plus, there are a bunch of other benefits.

Better Decision Making

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow,”  neuroscientist Daniel Kahneman points out that humans have a perception of two selves.

There is the “remembered self,” which includes things like your identity, your life story, your values and what kind of person you think you are.

Then there’s the “experiencing self” which is the moment to moment experience of simply being alive.

We might call the experiencing self simply “the present moment.”

Most western humans spends very little time consciously aware of the experiencing self and instead are caught up in the remembered self.

While the remembered self might help you make an ethical decision as you recall your core values, it is fundamentally missing more information than it is receiving.

By tuning into this current present moment, you avail yourself to the information superhighway of interoception and consciousness.

The effect is that you’ll make better intuitive decisions because you’ll be receptive to ALL the information at your disposal rather than simply the memory of a series of thoughts.

How to do this?

Use the APES mnemonic throughout the day and start to notice what motivates you, pulls you, or repels you.

Notice when you have a decision to make, whether it’s going to the gym or saying something in a meeting, and do a quick APES check before you take action.

More Energy and Productivity

When you’re attuned to the natural ebbs and flows of your energy you’ll have a better sense of when to take action and when to rest.

For instance I like to exercise in the morning.

Afterwards I have a sense of openness and flow in my chest and a subtle harmonic vibration in my limbs and the rest of my body.

It energizes me yet also calms me down.

That’s when I focus best and like to get to work on whatever projects I have at the moment.

After lunch my energy usually feels less concentrated and more dispersed.

There’s less vibration in my body and I’m more in tune with my breathing.

That’s when I like to have meetings with clients, do creative work that requires expansive thinking or brainstorm ideas.

At the end of the afternoon I feel usually feel impatient, my limbs feel restless and want to move.

I may go for a walk, play the drums or do anything as long it requires some physical movement.

By lightly paying attention to my body throughout the day, I’m able to ride the waves of energy and slow down or speed up when I need to.

Not only is it a great way to work but it ensures that I’m rarely fighting against the natural rhythm of what my body wants.

Now you may be thinking “But Jonah, I work in a corporate environment and I don’t control my schedule so I can’t operate like you.”

Even in this case, interoception will still help you to navigate your day in a way that expends less energy.

Decrease Anxiety

Most people deal with anxiety by trying to “think through” a situation.

This will rarely work, because it’s not the facts about a situation that are triggering.

It’s the emotional response to a perceived threat.

Anxiety is a useful emotion when it pushes you toward immediate action to solve the situation that may be causing it.

But if it’s more generalized anxiety about everything, then you’re not paying enough close attention to your body.

Most actions that people take to “solve” anxiety end up making the problem worse by overworking, using stimulants, depressants, lashing out or bottling things up.

When someone is a “control freak,” oftentimes they’re just trying to manage their anxiety with awkward attempts to control their environment or the people around them, which usually doesn’t work too well.

By momentarily putting thoughts and stories on hold and sensing into the areas of the body where your attention is drawn, you can immediately become calmer and more centered.

So though you may not control your schedule, understanding and doing an APES check in will help you waste less energy resisting what is happening and allow you to ride the current rather than fight it.

Communicate Better

Though we communicate constantly much of that communication is not as intentional as it might be.

When you’re communicating, you’re usually trying to get someone to do something by passing along information, or you’re giving them your opinion about that information.

Someone who has spent time developing their communication skills knows that “seeking first understand, then to be understood,1is a building block of great communication.

If you’re a people pleaser like me then learning to say “No” is an important developmental step, and paying attention to your body signals can help you do that.

Paying attention to your body can allow you to get more in touch with what is true for you.  

When you’re feeling pressure to say yes, a quick intercoceptive check in can work wonders as you realize everything in your body is saying “No.”

If on the other hand you’re more assertive or aggressive and tend to externalize blame to other people or situations, paying attention to your body can help you realize how much tension you’re holding.

This can allow you a few deep breaths before you open your mouth.

Lastly, it can be an extremely powerful practice to listen with your body while in a conversation with another person.

Do this by keeping a small amount of your attention (say 20%) on your body while you listen.

As you practice you’ll be amazed at the type and volume of useful information that becomes available to you.

The point is to keep this interoception operating in conversations so it becomes a valuable navigational tool.

Avoid or Recover From Overwhelm and Burnout

Burnout is usually a case of doing something over and over that you really don’t want to do.

It happens when you go against your true motivations.

The signals of burnout are usually pretty obvious and yet, they can be easy to ignore.

You might have mornings where you dread going to work.

Your sleep might be horrible.

Maybe you use caffeine and alcohol to regulate your energy.

Your emotions could be on a hair trigger.

When you’re paying attention to what your body is telling you, you can spot these signs before they start doing real damage.

A friend of mine used to say, “First you get brushed with a feather,  then comes the pillow, then the brick, and finally the 18-Wheeler semi.”  

Far better to tap out when the feather brushes you or the pillow hits then get hit with a semi.

If you’re already deep in the throes of burnout, paying attention to your body can help you to understand whether to move or rest or have some water or eat a little snack, connect with a loved one or quit your job!

Improve Emotional Regulation

Finally, regulating your emotions is not only an important life skill but it’s essential for effective leadership.

To regulate your emotions you need to have the ability to notice and evaluate body signals related to stressful events.2

Next you need to understand how to up regulate or down regulate your nervous system with breath, posture or awareness.

A 15-20 minute meditative technique called NDSR (Non-Sleep Deep Rest) where you perform a body scan in a highly relaxed state can work wonders to increase your interoceptive skills.

It takes a some practice as well as some experimentation but once you start, you’ll never go back to how things were before.

Be the Investigator of Your Experience

By switching 20% of your attention from the outside of your experience to the inside you’ll start to notice significant changes in the way you operate.

It might seem a bit arduous at first as you attempt to stay mindful of what you’re feeling.

But as you practice keeping subtle attention on the inside there will come a moment where you’ll be blown away in a good way.

It might be in a moment of stress, of calm or excitement and you’ll find your attention spontaneously noticing the sensations inside your body.

Along with one of those sensations will come information in the form of a past memory, an urge to do something or say something.

It might arrive simply as a subtle noticing of what is true for you in the moment.

Whatever you may start to notice, practicing the art of interoception will give you access to level of knowledge and wisdom previously unbeknownst to you.

Go forward and feel ;-)

1 Steven R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


3 Multdimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness