Although felt senses arise in the body, they don’t work the way emotions do. We’ve all learned to lean forward when clients cry and sit up in silent applause when clients allow anger to break through. But sadness, anger, and fear can be part of a repetitive cycle, and sometimes emotional expression is just another way to be stuck. While emotions serve the vital function of weaving us together in our humanness, felt senses do something else—they take us to the place where we’re unique, where our response to a situation is our own and unlike anyone else’s. So with an emotion, a client can say, “Of course I was angry. Wouldn’t you be?” And the therapist can honestly say, “Yes, I would.” But with a felt sense, there’s a uniqueness beyond shared emotion that’s not as readily accessible and understood. It allows a client to break through to a new way of experiencing a familiar situation: for instance,
“It’s a gripping in my stomach like a tight fist. I thought it was anger, but it’s more than that.”
Emotions naturally narrow our awareness. When we’re sad, our attention zooms in on the situation we’re sad about; when we’re angry, we focus on what makes us angry. If we have to mobilize resources to fight or escape, this narrowing is extremely helpful—it lets us shut out what’s irrelevant to the charged situation. But felt senses do the opposite when we feel safe: they widen our awareness to enable us to take in the complex whole of a situation and its many interconnections.
Felt Senses and Change
Perhaps one of the most surprising things to learn about felt senses is that by the time they emerge, the change has already happened. We’re not just on our way to a new place, we’re already there. The change just hasn’t manifested outwardly yet. Imagine an artist staring at a painting with the feeling that something more is needed. At first, the artist feels stuck, frustrated. Thoughts like This is crap and Just give up may arise. If she forces herself to paint anyway, she feels it’ll come out wrong. She stares at the canvas—then, if she can slow down and become attuned enough to her own experience, she may get it, the immediate felt sense of what the painting needs. It’s not a rational thought, not something she can explain, but a sensing of a place inside that she can paint from. She hasn’t yet lifted the brush, but her inner state and her body have completely changed. When she begins to paint again, she inhabits a new world, bursting with fresh colors, shapes, and possibilities. Getting felt senses in psychotherapy taps into the same ability to go beyond what’s ordinary and conventional. They involve dropping down below language to the creative soup that lies beneath, and they embody the following three crucial characteristics.
Felt senses form freshly. A felt sense can’t be the chronic ache in your shoulder or gut that’s been there all week. For a felt sense to emerge, there needs to be an intention, a pause, an invitation, such as “Let me see. . . . How am I feeling about what happened?” As Gendlin reminds us, feelings aren’t always discovered, as if they were buried or stored—they can sometimes form freshly.
Felt senses are of a whole situation. Like the proverbial picture that’s worth a thousand words, a felt sense is an intricate whole that sums up, captures, includes, contains all the aspects of a situation at once. Those aspects can then be unfolded or unpacked in a way that’s quite different from just having emotions or talking about a problem.
Felt senses have a more-than-words-can-say quality. A felt sense contains so much that’s subtly uncategorizable that it takes time to find an apt description for it. Often a single word is inadequate, and a pair of words is needed instead, like “jumpy queasy” or “knotty constriction.” Metaphors and similes may be useful as descriptions as well, such as “It feels like a knotted rope.” But even after we find an apt description, we typically feel that more remains unspoken.
What does this mean for clinicians? Two things: first, we need to recognize when a felt sense arises naturally in clients and help them stay with it despite an understandable resistance to holding an experience that’s usually murky and hard to describe. Second, we need to recognize that we can help clients invite felt senses to form.
The Giant Squid
Daniela came in for a session with me after several months away from therapy. She’d been spending long days caring for her terminally ill mother, and as she sat down, looking drawn and weary, she let out a deep sigh.