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3 (and Only 3) Ways to Know One’s Self

Restorative, modulated, and dysregulated embodied self-awareness.

Key points

  • Restorative embodied self-awareness can help us find peace and contribute to health.
  • Modulated embodied self-awareness can help us focus, get things done, be productive, and access needed self-care.
  • Dysregulated embodied self-awareness is when we can't modulate or control the experience of disturbing thoughts and emotions.
 Kevin Turcios/Unsplash
Ways of knowing ourselves.
Source: Kevin Turcios/Unsplash

Embodied self-awareness (ESA) is both how we feel ourselves and how we think about ourselves. Feeling and thinking are both embodied, cellular, organic processes but because they arise in different neural networks and have different pathways around the body, they are for the most part mutually exclusive. We can’t do both at the same time.

Whenever thoughts come into our awareness—even thoughts about our felt experience, such as “I wonder what caused this pain” or “I just need to slow down and focus on what I am feeling”—we immediately go offline from our felt experience. Almost any kind of thinking is a symptom of an impairment in the ability to sense our felt experience (sensory experiences from the body and emotions).

Thinking in humans, however, is so pervasive that it takes up most of the space in our self-awareness during both waking and sleeping. It’s amazing, really, that when we are thinking, we can’t at the same time feel our breath, our heart beating, our pain, our sadness, our joy, our love. To feel these things, you have to commit to taking a break from your thoughts.

When we are totally captivated by our felt experience, completely in the present moment without any kind of logical thought, we have an opportunity to let go of the effort of thinking and sink into a state of restorative embodied self-awareness. Indulging in our joy, sadness, love, or pain might bring us to tears, might allow us to sigh with relief, or might give us the feeling of coming home to ourselves.

There are basically two different neural networks for thinking about ourselves when we are not in a restorative state: the task-positive network (TPN) and the default-mode network (DMN). The TPN specializes in focusing, problem-solving, explaining, guiding, and getting things done. We need this powerful ability to focus in order to work and live and survive.

TPN thoughts occur in what I call states of modulated embodied self-awareness. Deeply felt experiences of the kind that occur during states of restorative ESA are not “allowed” to form in Modulated ESA states because we have so many demands to meet during an ordinary day and we have to stay focused on TPN thoughts just to keep up.

We might have a moment of feeling a pain, or a good laugh, or feeling rejected by someone, but the actual feeling fades rapidly as we begin to think about it. The TPN wants to label the feeling, explain it to ourselves or others, or tell ourselves that it’s not that important.

The TPN does not permit us the luxury of awe at a beautiful sunset or being moved by music or getting a hug and feeling warmth and love. Instead, the TPN distills and organizes all these scenes and senses into “just the facts.” “Yup,” our TPN might think, “the sun is setting. That’s nice. I like the colors.”

Suppose you spend a day or two feeling grouchy and easily irritated by something your partner or child or coworker says or does. You think about this situation using your TPN. “Hmmm. Why am I so grouchy?”

And then come the explanatory thoughts: “Maybe it’s that I haven’t slept well? Maybe I haven’t been getting any downtime or time for recreation? Maybe I am not getting enough loving attention or sexual intimacy with my partner?” Maybe, maybe, maybe … and you are still infinitely far away from what you really feel.

The Default Mode Network (DMN) is thinking that is not focused but jumps around, as if it is picking up the bits and pieces of thought that got left behind by the insistent momentum of the TPN trying to get somewhere and figure out something.

During a state of Modulated ESA, the DMN produces thoughts like daydreaming, reviewing, rehashing, rehearsing, and creative mind-wandering; thoughts we think when we are off-task. Maybe DMN thought happens when we are going for a walk or exercising or resting or preparing food.

The modulated DMN also wonders about doing the “right” things with other people, thoughts about our body size and shape, our clothes, our looks, our personality. The DMN invades even intimate moments of tenderness or sexuality—“Am I good enough?” “Sexually appealing?” “Too fast?” “Too slow?”—and keeps us at a distance from our felt experiences.

If, however, we are stressed about something or suffering from the aftereffects of some kind of trauma, the DMN can produce worried and anxious self-related thoughts that repeat endlessly in our heads. We are now in a state of dysregulated embodied self-awareness and this self-repetitive DMN thought is called rumination.

Dysregulated DMN thoughts can also be about addictive cravings such as for junk food or drugs or sex; about not caring about anything; about risk-taking and self-harming; or even about suicide. People who have suffered from a trauma are more likely to ruminate about anger, self-blame, guilt, or revenge related to the traumatic event.

In restorative ESA, felt experience fills up our awareness and leads to the sense of what we “really” feel about something. In modulated ESA, felt experience is brief and translated into sound bites of thought, explanation, or interpretation. In dysregulated ESA, felt experience is overwhelming and unbearable, and we can’t stop or modulate it.

Our only access to the experience of ourselves is via these three forms of awareness. There is no other way to be embodied. There is no other way to be human. This means that part of the work for you, if you want to find more restorative peace, is to hone your awareness of when you are thinking and when you are feeling, and when you are modulated and when you are dysregulated.

Catching yourself immersed in thought and accepting when you get dysregulated takes time, practice, guidance, support, and courage. Try complimenting yourself for catching yourself in modulated or dysregulated ESA.

Just noticing your normal patterns of self-awareness—today, tomorrow, and the next day—is enough for starters. Begin to notice the everyday situations when you are thinking more, when you are ruminating, and the situations when you are more relaxed and just feeling. Keep a journal, if that helps you.