Something New, Here & Now

Breaking Free of the Habitual

Magazine Issue
November/December 2013
Placeholder Image for

You’re sitting with a client, fighting your own feelings of frustration and boredom as she tells you the same sad story that you heard last week and the week before. She’s explaining to you, again, what’s wrong with her and why she can’t change. You long to be able to help her, but nothing that you say seems to get through. You start wondering if someone else could do a better job. You even wonder if you should refer her to a physician for medication, which shows you’re really starting to get desperate. In the end, all you want is to see her eyes light up, her shoulders lift, her breath deepen, as she finally “gets it” and makes important connections, sees her life in a new way, feels fresh hope. These are the moments we live for as clinicians.

Of course, we know that not every session needs to bring that kind of dramatic change. Some clients just need to sit with difficult feelings without much seeming to change from week to week, and yet their sessions still feel productive. We appreciate their willingness to remain engaged in their own inner exploration, however difficult it may be, and we can tell they appreciate our willingness to hang in there with them. Even if we can’t foresee the outcome, we trust that eventually they’ll work through their trauma, or gain confidence, or learn whatever it is they need to learn through the safety and empowerment of their alliance with us.

But then we have sessions that feel like we’re slogging along with lead weights around our feet, getting absolutely nowhere. It’s as if the client keeps hovering around a doorway but never goes through. She can talk about her problems all day long—and frequently does—but something in this “talking about” never really drops down to a deeper level or shifts into another gear. Her stories are like journeys on a well-worn road filled with ruts—a path that doesn’t lead anywhere except back on itself.

Clients need to tell their stories, of course, but it’s not the stories themselves that are the problem: it’s when the stories manifest habitual categories—ways of labeling and explaining experiences—that the process can get stuck. The pioneering philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin illuminated this key point in his 1978 article “The Body’s Releasing Steps in Experiential Process” when he wrote, “We think in the terms and pieces of the problem as we have it cut up. And it is just these terms and pieces that would change if the problem moved toward resolution. Therefore, there is often no way to think about a problem except in a way that simply reinstates it in the very act of thinking it, and draws it, in heavy lines, all the harder.”

Clients who are getting nowhere have sliced up their world into categories that explain their problem: “He betrayed me so . . . I’m not the kind of person who can . . . It’s probably that I . . . .” Even as they’re doing their best to think their way through their issues, they keep going down familiar pathways, ruts of thought and behavior that circle back to the same place. A perfectionist, for instance, might work hard to arrange and organize himself out of his difficulties, but those difficulties essentially arise from an exaggerated tendency to arrange and organize—so instead of moving forward to address his problems, he’s reinforcing them.

No wonder so many clients feel frustrated, helpless, and angry! It’s as if they’re going in endless circles or digging deeper in a hole they can’t get out of. This stuckness isn’t caused by some personality defect or innate inability. It’s simply a consequence of being inside the problem, imprisoned within automatic habits of thinking, feeling, and verbalizing. As Gendlin points out, thinking doesn’t always help our clients solve their problems. Instead, they need a fresh, immediate experience to take them outside the box of their narrow, frozen ways of experiencing life.

As a young man in the 1950s, Gendlin headed a research project that’s had a profound impact on nearly all the somatically oriented, mindfulness-based work being done today. The study showed that clients who freshly referred to ongoing felt experiencing during therapy sessions tended to have significantly more positive outcomes than did clients who merely talked about their problems or emotions. At the core of Gendlin’s research was the discovery of a new type of experience, which he named a felt sense. The formation of a felt sense is a breakthrough moment, which takes a person outside his or her usual concepts and habitual categories. It’s not the same as having a simple emotion or thought. We speed up to think; to get felt senses, we slow down and form a new bodily awareness of some life situation.

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.

“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.”

Of course, felt senses aren’t limited to one modality of therapy. Whether you work psychodynamically, somatically, cognitively, or eclectically, you always have room for moments of pausing, fresh sensing, and discovery. All you need is to be comfortable letting go of orderly logic and analysis and to allow yourself to follow the client into the murky, hard-to-describe dimension of felt experience. After all, the murkiness can be fertile territory, a place to find the opposite of the same old descriptions and categories and labels that keep our clients frozen in place. It’s where the veils pull back, allowing something new to happen right here and now. Yes, habits are strong—but if we know where to look for it—and have the patience to tolerate uncertainty—the potential for breakthrough and illumination is always there.


Illustration © Jim Frazier / Illustration Source

Ann Weiser Cornell

Ann Weiser Cornell is the author of Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change and The Power of Focusing. Through her organization, Focusing Resources, she offers more than 85 Focusing seminars each year.