“There is always a story waiting to be told in my body whenever I notice feelings sensation and 'felt senses'. My body has its own language through which it wants to talk to me.”
- Gene Gendlein, PhD
It is a common occurrence in my work to have people look at me like I have lost my rational mind when I ask what they might be feeling in their body. To compound their confusion, I ask them to describe the sensation. Does it have a color or a shape? Is it static or moving and where it is located? Most of the time I am asked what is the purpose of these questions and what do they have to do with what we are talking about.
What is "Felt Sense"?
I am looking for the “felt sense”. A felt sense is not a mental experience, it is a body awareness of a situation or person or event. An internal physical feeling that encompasses what you feel about an experience. A felt sense doesn’t come to you in the form of thoughts or words, but instead as a body sensation. (Gendlein)
Emotions and memories are stored in our bodies. That gives us an internal body awareness and body-sense of meaning about ourselves and our experiences. The body knows what the conscious mind cannot articulate. The way you experience this is can be through vague feelings that may not register with you, much the way you don’t pay much attention to non-acute pain when you cannot explain the origin. It's worth noting, these sensations can be pleasant or painful.
A Surprising Experience
For example, George was talking about the feelings he had when he unexpectedly saw a rainbow. It was like a warm, flowing energy was filling his chest and running down his arms. In that moment, he felt he did not have a care in the world. As we talked about this experience, he remembered a day long ago when he and his grandfather were hiking in the woods. There was a quick summer shower and when they crested a small hill, in front of them was an unexpected rainbow.
I Will Know It When I Find It
Here's another way of understanding the concept of felt sense. We have all had the experience of looking for something and not knowing what it is. We are sure we will know it when we find it. In this situation, we experience a knowing and a not-knowing at the same time. What is known is tacit in our body and our unconscious; what is needed is that which will move it into conscious knowledge.
Agnes was having headaches, and often would tremble when she needed to leave her house. Her stomach hurt and she was short of breath. She felt that her life was falling down around her and she was going crazy. She was told by a friend to take a hot bath and relax. The advice left her feeling trapped and made it even harder to breathe.
In the past several years, she had three major deaths in her family, and her husband had accumulated several thousand dollars in debt. Through all of the deaths, she served the caretaker for her family, her sister, her daughter and her husband. She did not allow herself to feel her feelings of sadness, loss, fear or anger, much less allow herself crucial time to grieve. Her body was experiencing her emotions and talking to her through all these physical sensations.
Agnes knew that she was anxious all the time and that she no longer felt like herself but she did know consciously know what the core of the problem was. She could not make the connection between her body's sensations and the unresolved grief.
What Good Will Recognizing Felt Sense Do Me?
You might say, “So what? What practical good will this do me?” By paying attention to your body and those slight sensations, and focusing on what you are experiencing, you may find clarity in a confusing situation. Rather than frantically trying to find an answer or doing something to make a vague feeling of unease go away, simply stop, breathe and get curious about yourself. Give the sensation a label. Ask yourself if there is a hidden message within this sensation and listen. Ask if there is something needed. Be open, curious and playful. There may a rainbow waiting inside of you. Are you struggling to hear what your body is trying to tell you? I can help you learn to listen. Call me at (919)608-1797.