Felt Sense: The Vitality and Liveliness of Our Inner World

Side view of wolf on snowy hill, ears perked, head high, looking off to right side of photoAs we begin, here is an invitation for you:

In your mind’s eye, create a mental picture of a wolf. The wolf is alone; perhaps he is a young male who’s just left his mother’s side, setting out for his first solo adventure. The sun is setting, and our wolf is atop a hill, standing, all four paws on the ground. His head is high, his eyes scanning the horizon. His ears are perked, swiveling to capture sounds from all around. His nose receives all sorts of information from the evening breeze, information that would be imperceptible to us, his human observers. Perhaps his tail is lifted ever so slightly as it curves gracefully behind him. He is fully alive, vibrant, and completely in the present moment.

Now imagine what it would feel like to be that wolf. Feel the pads of your four paws on the ground, the bones and sinews of your legs supporting your spare, muscular torso. Feel your spine elongate as you gently test the wind with your finely honed sniffer. Feel the strength and springiness in your shoulders, your haunches. Imagine you are ready to respond in a split-second to any tiny change in the environment, reacting from instinct before you can even think about it.

Feel the energy that arises in your body as you spend a moment with this experience. And congratulate yourself, because in doing this exercise, you are contacting your felt sense.

The felt sense is a term coined by Eugene Gendlin to describe our innate sense of everything we know and experience in a wordless, non-cognitive way, from the interior of our bodies. The common term “gut instinct” is closely related, as is the scientific term interoception, the process of sensing inside the body. Dr. Gendlin founded a school of therapy he called focusing. Essentially, focusing involves paying attention to our felt sense, and learning how to work with what it has to say. As the focusing website says, “This sensation in your body is called a ‘felt sense.’ It lies behind your thoughts and feelings and is significant and full of meaning. It is a message from your body to you, and will speak to you when you listen.” As Dr. Peter Levine is fond of saying, its language is sensation.

Much of this non-cognitive, somatic information involves not only our body, but also our reptile brain. As I have noted in previous articles, we are interested in the body and the reptile brain because this is where most mental health symptoms “live.” The felt sense is the place where we can work with painful symptoms to get them to subside. Then, the energy these symptoms used to drain from us becomes available for more joy and more productive engagement with the world.

Although modern Western thought has been quite resistant to this idea, there are other valid ways of knowing things besides our thoughts. In some cultures, people regularly converse about this innate, biological, or instinctual source of knowledge. As owners of living, human bodies, our access to our intuitive felt sense is our birthright! It is where the experiences of pleasure, joy, and liveliness originate.

Our felt sense is incredibly useful when we cultivate a relationship with it. As the focusing website points out, “Your body knows more about situations than you are explicitly aware of. For example, your body picks up more about another person than you consciously know.” Although modern Western thought has been quite resistant to this idea, there are other valid ways of knowing things besides our thoughts. In some cultures, people regularly converse about this innate, biological, or instinctual source of knowledge. As owners of living, human bodies, our access to our intuitive felt sense is our birthright! It is where the experiences of pleasure, joy, and liveliness originate. Unfortunately, there is very little discussion or guidance about the felt sense in our culture.

So, then, how do we cultivate a better relationship with this “interior us”?

Well, some of us have to be careful about it. If we have a trauma history, whether or not we’re aware of it, the felt sense is (predominantly) where it lives. In my experience, this is why some people have a difficult time even accessing any of their interior sensations: They are dissociated (disconnected) from their inner selves as a protection from the traumatic residue.

Unfortunately, shutting down pain inherently involves shutting down at least some pleasure. On the other hand, some people experience emotional flooding, physical pain, or other distressing experiences when they turn their focus inward. Of course, this is not true for everyone. People’s experiences with their inner selves vary greatly, largely depending on their life histories. Many people already have a rewarding and lively relationship with their inner lives—and that is ultimately one of the primary goals of somatic psychotherapy.

For more information about focusing, please refer to the focusing website. For those who suspect or already know that contacting this aspect of themselves can be challenging, I would recommend working with an experienced guide, such as a somatic psychotherapist. The work of Dr. Levine uses the felt sense as one of several fundamental tools for trauma healing. Pursuing such therapeutic support can greatly help in reclaiming access to one’s birthright of joy and vibrant well-being.

References:

  1. Gendlin, E. (2016). What is Focusing? The International Focusing Institute. Retrieved from http://www.focusing.org/newcomers.htm#what
  2. Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea L. Bell, LCSW, SEP, therapist in Long Beach, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sofia

    November 22nd, 2016 at 8:51 AM

    I do truly believe in the power of this kind of inner knowledge but usually most people think that you are a little off your rocker if you talk like that so most of the time I will keep things like that to myself.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    November 22nd, 2016 at 2:02 PM

    Sofia, I’ve seen that happen–and not infrequently! To me, that derision speaks to just how disconnected our culture is from our inner world. I believe the disconnect isn’t total, but it’s pretty extensive. I have heard it said in the somatic therapy world, that as a culture we are “incompetent” around some basic elements of our humanity. These elements include human touch (for example, it is not at all the case that all touch is sexual!) and the feelings and imagery of our inner world. However, many people find that this same connectedness with their inner sense, that is referenced in my article, also provides us with intuitive information about who’s “safe” to share these experiences with, vs. who might act in a more derogatory manner if we shared with them.

  • whit

    November 22nd, 2016 at 11:21 AM

    Most of us, and i include myself in this statement are afraid of confronting those inner most feelings head on

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    November 22nd, 2016 at 2:18 PM

    Indeed, I have noticed that many people are really afraid to confront these inner feelings head on. Or else, they may not have an idea as to how to go about doing that. Or if they try, then the feelings might be experienced as overwhelming.

    Other people, however, have a rich inner life, a nice, steady connection with these feelings as well as an ability to handle them. Now, I know there is danger in generalizing, but here goes a very general hypothesis : I think these tend to be the people who feel more vitality and aliveness. They tend to have the capacity for more joy. The flip side is that they feel the sorrows more deeply–but they have the ability to handle that; and thus they don’t suffer nearly as much from the many bad effects of emotional repression.

    Another thought is that people learning how to connect with this inner stuff, often benefit from Dr. Peter Levine’s technique of titration, or time limited exposure: a momentary touching into elements of the felt sense, only to whatever extent is comfortably manageable; and then moving out again. The time spent with the feelings, and how deep they go, gradually increases over time, as the nervous system grows its capacity to comfortably manage these experiences. When the nervous system gets the hang of doing this on its own, we have “pendulation”, the waves of emotion that rise and fall on their own–not leaving the person stuck in them.

    Thank you for your comment! I would like to remind everyone that the best way to work with one’s inner world, especially if it’s felt problematic, is with a qualified therapist who has training in this area. None of my articles or comments can be taken as therapeutic advice; they are only educational in nature. That’s very important.

  • Adelaide

    November 22nd, 2016 at 2:01 PM

    I agree with you. These are things that we rarely like to meet face to face with and rather than taking this as a chance to learn something about ourselves we look away and decide to be scared of it instead. I think that there is probably far more to learn from these experiences than many of us are willing to take a chance with, because it is always that fear of the unknown that holds us back and keeps us perpetually frozen in place, where things feel the most comfortable and comforting to us.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    November 22nd, 2016 at 5:31 PM

    Yes! And in my experience, there are a million different things people might do, consciously or not, which help them to turn away from their felt sense. Even when it’s clamoring for their attention.

    To name just a few: Overeating; substance abuse; excessive exercise (which pushes the body past its capacity, causing injury and/or fatigue); gambling; “zoning out” in front of the TV or Internet; compulsive shopping; working too much; smoking. Etc. etc. etc.

    I find that in many cases, these excess behaviors tend to diminish or disappear when people develop better self regulation, including an improved relationship with their felt sense. Of course, we might do some of these things for other reasons. An honest look at oneself might suggest what’s going on in each individual case.

  • ruth

    November 23rd, 2016 at 7:55 AM

    Sometimes I think that many of our ancestors were probably far better at accessing this than we are today. Maybe too many distractions now, more than there were then?

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    November 27th, 2016 at 1:38 PM

    Hi Ruth,
    I agree–I believe that our ancestors were generally much better connected with their inner senses than we are today; and indeed, that their lives probably depended on this skill.
    I think modern life has a *lot* of aspects that disembody us–that is, discourage the integration of our “smart” cortical thinking selves, with our somatic or felt sense.

  • Taylor

    November 24th, 2016 at 7:11 AM

    I find at times that our body and our mind are both far more intuitive then we give them credit for being.
    You know those wary feelings that you get sometimes but you can’t quite put your finger on what that is that you are feeling?
    That is our bodies way of trying to tell us something, but we just have to be a little more willing to listen at times.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    November 27th, 2016 at 1:40 PM

    Taylor–I completely agree!
    Let’s also note that listening to our felt sense, does not in any way detract or remove from our “thinking” cortical selves. It just adds and enriches: More information, and a richer life experience!

  • Reg

    November 27th, 2016 at 7:31 AM

    Incredibly useful when we cultivate it and incredibly non understood when we don’t

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    November 27th, 2016 at 1:42 PM

    Exactly! That’s why I wrote this article–to help promote understanding of this vital interior aspect of our lives.

  • Zachary

    November 29th, 2016 at 11:18 AM

    Do you think that in some ways this could help when you start to look to visualizing what you WANT to be? Getting in touch with those hidden inner feelings that you may be struggling with whether to keep buried or not?

  • Sara Louise H

    January 25th, 2017 at 9:12 PM

    Do you think political correctness and the state telling us what we can and can’t do plays a part in not connecting with our felt senses. We are told what we should and shouldn’t be thinking doing all the time. Guilt and shame playing a big part too. Media showing and telling us stuff that cause us to desensitise. Also seeing things constantly in the news and media that stick in our minds. Animal abuse, child abuse, wars, torture etc, causing us to switch off. It’s like we are being exposed to trauma everyday. I have images floating in my head a lot of times and it is awful. Causes me to switch off. I am aware of not allowing myself to feel, but when I do it’s like a flood gate. I rock from depression to anxiety daily. Lots of death in family and illness. I’m exhausted.

  • Doran w

    February 27th, 2017 at 9:35 AM

    Looking forward to seeing more.

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