Focusing and the Felt Sense of Depression

(From the Storied Mind Newsletter Archive. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can sign up by using the form in the sidebar or the one on the newsletter page.)

One of the mantras of depression treatment is the idea that you are more than your depression. Over-identifying with illness and believing that there is nothing of human value left in you is the real danger that pushes many toward despair and suicidal thinking.

But how do you come to believe that you are more than your depression? It’s one thing to repeat the words like an affirmation, but that only gives intellectual meaning that can quickly desert you in a crisis.

Deeper Awareness of Experience

I think you need to learn this at a gut level, to feel it deeply in such a way that your mind can’t simply blank it out. More than that, you need a method that can help you when depression is so severe that it can overwhelm you even after you have learned that the illness doesn’t define who you are.

One method that can be effective in this way is called focusing. It helps you understand your experience in a pre-verbal, pre-emotional way by cultivating awareness of sensations deep in your body. Actually, “body” doesn’t capture the fullness of the experience. It’s something that I feel in my whole being. There is a totality about it that seems to underlie the thoughts and feelings that flow through conscious awareness.

In mindfulness practice, you learn to observe thoughts and feelings and so stop yourself from identifying or fusing with them. You could think of focusing as moving your awareness into a realm that gives rise to the ideas and emotions you observe through mindfulness.
 

The Felt Sense

It’s not easy to describe any of this since the experiences are pre-verbal and depend on a form of sensing that doesn’t require specific content. I heard one expert compare it to the feeling left over from a dream right after you wake up. You can’t remember what the dream was about but you are still lingering in the sensation of it.

That feeling is called the “felt sense” in the practice of focusing. The method was developed on the basis of research by Eugene Gendlin and Carl Rogers in the 1960s when they were trying to understand if success in psychotherapy could be predicted. What happened to therapy clients that made the difference between successful change and failure to make any progress?

It turned out to be the quality of experience within the clients themselves rather than the techniques or skills of the therapists. Clients who could be aware of their experiences with this deeper felt sense could find ways to learn from that sense and make long-lasting changes. Those who focused on intellectual explanations of their behavior and its causes generally failed to achieve a turnaround in their condition.

The Focusing Method

Eugene Gendlin developed an approach to psychotherapy based on this insight and also explored its applicability to everyday life. He found that focusing could be learned. Clients in psychotherapy could master it to make better use of therapy, but it could also be practiced as a self-help method.

The book, Focusing, is his popular presentation of the method. He summarizes it in six steps. I’ll give a quick overview of those steps, but since focusing is about nonverbal experience it can seem too vague to be useful. It is not to be confused with a superficial idea of “getting in touch with your feelings.” It may be hard to capture in words, but I think the felt sense gets at the most basic level of self-knowledge we can have about what we’re experiencing.

Clearing a space

The first step is to open a space between your larger self and the particular problems that are damaging your life. You ask what’s bothering you not by talking about the difficulties but by sitting with yourself and opening up to what your body and inner sense are telling you. You settle in with yourself and let all the problems rise but without trying to delve into any one thing. The idea is to get a sense of everything that feels problematic and to keep going until you can say to yourself that you’ve covered everything that feels wrong. Except for all that, you feel OK – there is a part of you that is separate from the pain.

You hold in check all tendencies to analyze and explain and just note all this. Instead of letting yourself feel overwhelmed by the scope of it all, you visualize the problems, perhaps as a package, something that you can put aside, close by but separate from you. That’s what is meant by the metaphor of clearing a space – finding a part of you that isn’t overwhelmed. You have succeeded in identifying in a vague way all the bad stuff and then put a little distance between you and it.

Getting the Felt Sense of the Problem


Then you pick the one thing that feels worst and focus on that. You don’t stop on details, just stay with it until you feel you have the a sense, which is likely unclear or fuzzy, of the whole extent of what’s bothering you the most. This is where you have to be able to sit with that inner feeling and let it tell you what it’s all about rather than trying to cover it up with words and ideas and naming the feelings or symptoms to explain it all.

You can locate it in your body, and that adds to the sense that it can be localized and bounded. It’s a process of listening rather than talking to ourselves. You stop trying to explain, just as you would in mindfulness practice, but here you keep redirecting your attention back into your bodily sense to let that speak to you.

Finding a Handle

Once you can settle in with the felt sense of the problem, it’s important to come up with a word or image that helps you summon it up. This is called a handle and serves as the personal code that lets you return to the sense of the problem as you work with it over time.

When you get the right word or image, you feel a shift in your body on a deep level. There’s a relaxing sense telling you, yes, that’s right.

I had an experience like this once when visiting a friend. I felt a deep sense of healing in a certain place near his house. When I told him about it, he walked me to another spot that had special meaning for him. But he was taking me away from the inner sense of healing I had felt in that one spot. Moving away, I was losing touch, getting “cold.” Returning to the original place, I felt I was getting “warm” again. I was getting closer to the source.

That is what this exploration of the felt sense is like. You know when you are getting deeper into it, and gradually, you can learn more specifically what it’s about.

Resonating, Asking and Receiving

The next three steps capture what happens when you can sit with the felt sense of the problem for a while and learn from it. Since it’s nonverbal and vague, you have to resist the temptation to start supplying the answers. Your verbal mind is ready to explain and attach labels to the inner sense, but that would only block you from learning anything new.

You need to stay with the experience and keep trying out words and images to give you a more specific sense of what’s going on. Each time, you hit it right, there is a sense of a shift in your body that tells you you’re getting close. The experience is pointing toward something that needs to change. It’s likely that you will have to come back to it in a series of focusing sessions in order to bring it more fully into conscious awareness.




Such a quick overview can sound a bit like mumbo-jumbo, but there is something very powerful in this approach. As I mention in the posts I’ve linked to below, I had several experiences at this level of sensed awareness long before learning about the specifics of focusing. This method did not come from a theoretical model but from listening to people in therapy explain what really changed their lives. Focusing is a method to help get everyone closer to that source of insight.