Somatic Signals: How I use the Four Needs Framework

This post marks a second anniversary of my self-work journey. Wow. 2020 has been kind of impossible, and I am grateful to have held on to my self-work routine and even to have made more progress.

When I first started doing self-work, I had this idea of identifying and documenting somatic signals that I experienced. Throughout the day, I would try to capture the concrete physical sensations of that moment. Instead of narrating my state as “I am stressed out” or “I am elated,” I would try to focus on what my body was experiencing: “A knot in my upper shoulders,” or “Very tense muscles around my mouth,” or “Warm pressure, like sunshine, at the top of my head.”  My hope was that by cataloging these experiences, I could create a sort of a topographical map of emotions and be able to orient myself: “aha, I am experiencing <somatic signal>, therefore, I must be feeling <emotion>” I reasoned that once so oriented, I could step out of the context of the emotion onto the riverbank, and then somehow find my way to inner peace.

This exercise yielded surprising results. The somatic signal catalog did indeed produce a fairly stable set of signals that seemed to cluster into a few buckets. I also recognized that these signals are squishy: they tend to move around and not always be consistent or specific in their manifestation. Looking back, there appears to have been a progression in my understanding of what the heck the somatic signals were. First notes on the somatic signals sounded more like role descriptions–“A Silicon Valley Guy”, “Forgot-my-homework Guy”, etc. Then, I started classifying them more as behaviors: “relitigating conversations,” “fret-scanning”, etc. My next big shift was toward trying to generalize these signals as markers of emotions: shame, anxiety, depression, anger… Eventually, I settled down on the descriptions that you’ve seen above. These seemed to be the least context-dependent and most useful as topographical markers on my map of Self.

In parallel, I’ve made some progress on developing the Four Needs Framework. The framework started as notes on similarities and differences of mental models in various books, and my attempts to apply these mental models during Archaeology of Self. At some point late last year, I realized that the framework and somatic signals are pointing at the same thing: they are both telling the story of the tension of Existential Anxieties. This terminology and the narrative didn’t solidify until July, but it’s been on my mind most of this year. As an aside: I find it fascinating how the understanding of a concept comes so much earlier than my capacity to tell a story about it. 

Anyhow, I started recognizing that there’s a distinct cluster of signals that I experience for each Existential Anxiety. My catalog, full of disparate records at first, collapsed to four groupings. To describe these groupings, I’ll also use the typical Western culture emotions that I associated with the experiences.

Not-Belonging feels like a sense of shame, of not being enough. It’s the thing that Brené Brown talks about in her books. The strongest physical markers for me are the onrush of blood to my cheeks or ears, a heavy weight in the stomach.

Not-Agency feels like irritability or desire to be aloof. It comes with a weird feeling of suspended reality, like an out-of-body-experience, tense nostrils, tension in the upper part of the neck, which tends to lift the chin upward, sometimes a sense of cold around my face and heat concentrating in my chest.

Not-Safety feels like angsty worry, with the somatic signals of tension in the lower part of neck, around shoulders, jaws, chin, mouth, increased heart rate.

Not-Purpose feels like depression and existential dread, and the signals usually feel like a heavy pressure on my chest, loss of muscle tone on face and shoulders.

Viewed within the quadrants of the Four Needs Framework, the combinations of these markers create a rich canvas of emotions. For example, I recognized that the Not-Agency + Not-Safety quadrant of the coordinate space is occupied by anger, blame, defensiveness, and fuming. Whenever I say that I am “mad at someone,” the somatic signals help me identify that I am in that quadrant. I am now roughly able to place myself into a quadrant pretty quickly based on the somatic signals I perceive. In the moment, I imagine pressing the pause button to introspect. “Whoa, I am suddenly feeling very tense. What’s happening? This feels like Not-Safety. Where is this coming from?” Asking these questions–gently and without judgement–usually yields insights about my state of expectations, or specific injured identities.

What helps the most, however, is the exploration itself. This process of inquiry helps me sit with an Anxiety, embrace it and be next to it, rather than be ridden by it. By focusing on a somatic signal, I can go “aha, I hear you, Not-Purpose. Yep, I see the giant negative delta prediction error, and yep, it sucks. I can feel the face muscles forming into the frown … there they go. I hear you, Not-Purpose, and I feel you.” Somehow, and I am not yet sure how, the mere fact of just observing somatic signals and accepting them opens up this tiny space of serenity, where the next action is not another reaction, but something altogether different.

The Suffering of Expectations

I have been thinking about the relationship between expectations and suffering, and this framing popped out recently.

Let’s suppose that there’s a scale of experiences, spanning negative and positive. This scale is relative to the current moment, which we will consider the center of this scale. There’s some way in which we evaluate experiences and determine whether they are positive and negative. Adding the dimension of time, we get this continuum of experience.

Within this continuum, I can now frame our predictions of experiences and their outcomes as expectations. When we predict experiences to happen in a certain way, we create new expectations. When we look at the past and recall our experiences, we evaluate our prior expectations. My guess is that suffering is somehow related to encountering a difference–a delta–between our expectations of experiences and our actual experiences.

At every moment of time, we subconsciously evaluate two expectation deltas.

The first delta is the prediction error. It’s the difference between what I expected to happen now and what really happened. Let’s say that the prediction error value is positive when my expectations were exceeded–that is, when what really happened was better than what I expected to happen.

When my expectations were unmet–what happened was worse than what I expected to happen, let’s say that the prediction error value is negative.

The second delta is the expectation gradient, or the difference between what I expect to happen in the future and what is currently happening. Let’s say that the expectation gradient value is positive when I expect better things to happen in the future …

… and the value is negative when I expect the future to bring worse things.

There’s something about these negative deltas. The bigger they are, the more inaccurate the prediction, whether in the past or in the future. The less accurate the predictions, the stronger the signal about the inaccuracy of the model that was used to issue these predictions. I wonder if we humans interpret that signal as suffering. We are wired to reduce the strength of this signal, to reduce the suffering. And boy, do we try.