“It’s this overall feeling of exhaustion, just too much exhaustion,” she started. “I can’t deal with it. It’s all through me, everywhere. I’ve got these dark thoughts, heavy emotions. My body is worn out.”
At this point, I had a choice to take this session one of two ways. I could’ve listened to Daniela talk more about her days with her mother, her need to put her own life aside, how hard it was to drag herself out of bed in the morning, and so on. I could’ve easily sympathized, assured her it was all perfectly understandable, and offered some self-care techniques.
Instead, I invited Daniela to find another way to take in what was going on inside her by saying, “See if it would be okay to get a fresh sense of all you just told me. Pause for a moment and stay with what you’re feeling right now deep in your body.”
Daniela stayed silent for a while, eyes closed, inwardly sensing. “It’s like a giant squid,” she said at last. “It has its arms wrapped around every part of me.”
This wasn’t just a guess at how she was feeling, and it wasn’t part of her usual story. It was the kind of nonlogical shift that comes with a felt sense. Yes, the giant squid was a new way to describe how she felt, but it was more than that—it was a fresh sensing of what her whole situation felt like. It went beyond her “exhaustion,” abstracted and separated from her life, to encompass this exhaustion, her whole taking-care-of-my-mother-day-after-day exhaustion. Rather than getting more abstract, the felt sense allowed her to take in and feel the unique gestalt of the whole situation she was dealing with, right at that moment.
Rather than discussing with Daniela what the image of the giant squid meant, which would lead to her thinking and analyzing, I wanted her simply to be present to her immediate felt experience, which I knew was likely to change as she stayed with it. Even before it shows up in a client’s awareness, we can often observe that a change has happened in the microprocess of the client’s physiology. We see moments of relief and release through somatic indicators, such as deeper breathing, dropping shoulders, pinkness in the cheeks. These also indicate subtle shifts in the felt sense: loosening, opening, lightening. Since inviting logical analysis at this point might actually stop the shifts that are taking place, as therapists, we want simply to help the client remain open to what’s happening. In Daniela’s case, I said, “If it feels right, maybe you could sense what the squid is feeling or doing, from its own point of view.”
With her eyes still closed, her head tilted to one side, she said, “It’s protecting . . . something precious.”
Questions like “What is it protecting?” can come across as pushy at moments like this and may shut down a client’s inner process. So I remained silent and waited, sitting patiently with the vagueness that was coming to Daniela.
A minute later, Daniela said, “It’s protecting something precious in me—something . . . ah, it’s my own life!” Tears came to Daniela’s eyes, not of sadness, but of being deeply touched by this unexpected wellspring within her. Now that she’d sensed the giant squid was actually protecting her own life energy and purpose, she began to feel something different happening in her body. She opened her eyes and smiled at me. “I feel so much lighter in my body now,” she said. “My life isn’t shriveling up and disappearing while I care for my mom. It’s just being guarded.”
In subsequent sessions, this shift in Daniela’s perspective deepened and expanded, and she began to focus on how to allow this protected inner treasure of her aspirations, currently being placed on hold, to surface more actively in her daily life. Eventually, we worked with specific, concrete steps Daniela could take to move forward in her life, but these steps would never have evolved into such an organic source of new possibilities if we’d arrived at them through some kind of logical analysis or deliberate planning.
The shift into a felt sense always begins with a pause. The client could keep talking, thinking, telling his story, but instead, perhaps at the therapist’s invitation, he pauses to sense how all this—the full, uncategorizable range of immediate, hard-to-verbalize images and sensations shaping the moment—feels right now. He may get quiet, grope for words, look down or away, gesture toward the middle of his body, and use vague words like kind of or something. As therapists, we can’t afford to miss those crucial moments or rush past them. In fact, we need to become guardians of clients’ uncertain searching, and to encourage them by saying things like “Let’s stay with this for a while, just getting the feel of it.”