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.
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.
As Eugene 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 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
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 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.
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.
Illustration © Jim Frazier/Illustrationsource.com