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Felt Sense

Making sense of how we feel

Feelings can be confusing. This article looks at how we can access what is known as our felt sense to enable us to make sense of this confusion and perhaps begin to see a way through. What is meant by our felt sense? More explanations and examples below – but in brief, it is the ability to pause and notice our body sensations at a particular moment when our emotions are a bit all over the place. And then to begin to connect the dots to previous experiences we have had, often ones that don’t seem relevant at all until we dig a bit deeper.We are aware of our felt sense all the time, we just don’t label it as such. 

Anne Weiser Cornell (her picture is above) and Barbara McGavin are superb writers and and teachers in this area, building on previous work by Eugene Gendlin. They have worked together on this for many years and call their adaptation “Inner Relationship Focusing”.

Inner Relationship Focusing has three key parts:

  1.  The first is something called the “felt sense.” 
  2. The second is a special quality of engaged, accepting inner attention. 
  3. And the third is a radical philosophy of what facilitates change. 

What is our felt sense?

Here are some everyday examples:

  • Imagine being on the phone with someone you love who is far away, and you really miss them and you just found out in this phone call that you’re not going to be seeing them soon. You get off the phone, and you feel a heavi­ness in your chest, perhaps around the heart area. 
  • You’re sitting in a meeting at work, the room is full of people and each person is going to take a turn to speak, and as the turn comes closer and closer to you, you feel a tightness in your stomach, like a spring winding tighter and tighter. 
  • You’re taking a walk on a beau­tiful fresh morning, just after a rain, and you come over a hill, and there in the air in front of you is a perfect rainbow, both sides touching the ground, and as you stand there and gaze at it you feel your chest welling up with an expansive, flowing, warm feeling. These are all felt senses.

How do I check into my felt sense?

Sit quietly for a few minutes in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Find a comfortable position… Relax and close your eyes… Take a few deep breaths… and when you’re ready just ask, “How am I inside right now?” Don’t answer. Give an answer time to form in your body… Turn your attention like a searchlight into your inside feeling place and just greet whatever you find there.Now something is here. You can sense it somewhere. Take some time now to notice just where it is in your body. 

Notice if it would feel right to begin to describe it, as simply as you might tell another person what you are aware of. You can use words, images, gestures, metaphors, whatever fits, captures, expresses somehow the quality of this whole thing. And when you’ve described it a bit, take some time to notice how your body responds to that. It’s like you’re checking the description with the body feeling, saying “Does this fit you well?” Don’t answer with what you already know about it. Listen to your body. Sense the issue freshly. Give your body 30 seconds to a minute for the feel of “all of that” to form.

Ask some questions

Now finally you might ask the felt sense some questions. Ask the questions with an expectantly friendly attitude and be receptive to whatever it sends you. For example you might ask:

  •  “What’s the main thing about this feeling?” Don’t answer with your head; let the body feeling answer. 
  •  “What’s wrong?” Imagine the felt sense as a shy child who needs caring encouragement to speak. Go over to it, sit down, and gently ask, “What’s wrong?” Wait… 
  • “What’s the worst of this feeling?” Wait…
  • “What does this feeling need?” Wait… 

Felt sense versus emotions

If you’re operating purely with emotions, then fear is fear, no more than that.  But if you’re operating on the felt sense level, you can sense that this fear, the one you’re feeling right now, is different from the fear you felt yesterday. 

Maybe yesterday’s fear was like a solid rock in the stomach, fixed and unmoving. But today’s fear is like a pulling back, withdrawing. As you stay with today’s fear, you start to sense something like a shy creature pulled back into a cave. You get the feeling that if you sit with it long enough, you might even find out the real reason that it is so scared. 

A felt sense is often subtle, and as you pay attention to it you discov­er that it is intricate. It has more to it. We have a vocabulary of emotions that we feel over and over again, but every felt sense is different. You can, however, start with an emotion, and then feel the felt sense of it, as you are feeling it in your body right now.

References is Ann Cornell Weiser’s excellent website. She offers a free email course on this, plus lots of further information and resources. She also has many interviews and talks on YouTube which expand further on focusing – she is a very warm friendly engaging speaker! For example:


Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!


See also: Managing EmotionsTune into your SupersenseFifty Shades of Crappy