I’d like to bring in the new year with new awareness instead of new year’s resolutions. I have my intentions for the year, markers for what I’d like to create AND, most of all, a continued desire to learn how to help people gain the tools and knowledge to heal. When we heal we can let go of the parts of the past that create stress in our lives because of our behaviours, points of view and how we hold our bodies’ changes. For me this focus begins with learning more about somatic work and how it can help you release trapped trauma and shift your understanding to a happier and healthier life.
For many, talk therapy is one avenue to healing. And although therapy can be very beneficial it can also keep you trapped in loops of reliving the past. Without the balance of somatic and trauma-informed work you’ll end up spending hours and hours hashing out how you feel to only repeat the same patterns, even if you are aware of them. This is why I’d like to start the new year with the somatic practice of Focusing.
Why therapy doesn’t work
Eugene Gendlin, the founder of focusing, did extensive research in the 1970’s to find out why talk therapy didn’t work. He found that analysis alone didn’t help people change. He also found that the technique a therapist used wasn’t a factor either, neither were their years of experience. A client’s success had very little to do with the therapist. What he found was that how the person talked about their problem mattered, and more importantly it was what they did inside of themselves that allowed them to be successful in therapy. Clients changed when they were able to connect within and listen to their felt sense in the body and what it was telling them.
Often people I work with feel stuck and they circle around the same issues over and over again like a broken record. Sharing, being seen and understood is very important in healing, however repeating this loop only keeps the information, patterns and habits trapped in you. A shift happens when you are able to connect with the body and what felt sense comes up for you when you describe these problems.
What is focusing and a felt sense?
Gendlin writes ‘The word “Focusing” means to spend time, attending to that inwardly sensed edge. When that happens in the silence, the next thing and the next come gradually from deeper and deeper.’ Deep within can be the memories we have of an event, a deeper meaning or understanding of a situation. It is here that you can gain clarity on what is stuck inside of you and allow it to shift and transform without you doing anything, just allowing and observing.
A felt sense is what we can see come up when we connect with a particular issue, topic, or just connecting with the state we are in at any given moment. When we think of someone we have a sense of who they are, it is a different felt sense then when we think of someone else. We don’t list a bunch of qualities about them, instead there is this sense of who they are.
Going through this process allows you to get a deeper understanding of yourself, a problem and life itself. The problem may still be there, however, with this internal shift that occurs and deeper awareness you are able to tackle a problem more resourcefully, with more confidence and take action instead of being stuck.
How Focusing can help you let go of your life clutter
When you run on autopilot and are unaware of what you are feeling, thinking and doing, you have lost connection to what’s going deep inside of you. This sense of disconnection puts you in a state of reacting and operating with many coping mechanisms that don’t serve you anymore. For example, if your family didn’t have a lot of money growing up you learned to hold onto things. Even though you logically know that you have more than enough money now as an adult and that you can afford things when you need them, you still have this strong need to hold on. The reason it hasn’t changed is because the memories are stored in the body and the brain has hardwired those patterns making it difficult to change.
The beauty of focusing (and other somatic techniques) is that it allows you to uncover a deep understanding of what’s inside that the mind cannot do through analysis alone. Even though it is true you grew up in hard times, there is something else underneath all of that, specific to you and your experience. That can only be uncovered through the messages and felt sense in the body. In this example where you may have grown up poor, your body may feel tense in the shoulders and you clench you hands a lot out of fear of loosing grip on what you have. Tuning into the body and the felt sense of this problem will help you release these body and mind patterns.
Once you are able to make contact with these felt senses around why you hold on, you can naturally shift and release that energy, gain insight into the problem that is still there and approach it with new eyes, attitude and approach. Your relationship to the problem changes and so much of the work I do with clients is about helping them change their relationship to their belongings, beliefs, habits, and thoughts. Doing this with the mind only doesn’t work. That’s why using a technique like focusing can help you make the deep shift within that will help you transform your outer world as well and be able to let go of clutter creating habits, beliefs and points of view.
Six Steps to Focusing
There are different ways that focusing is described, some use six steps and others use four. I’ve combined them in a way that will help you practice on your own or with someone.
- Preparing + overview
- Make sure you have a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted
- Connect with your body, breath and notice your thoughts
- Sense what is coming up for you and wants your attention or if you already have something in particular you want to look at you can begin with that
- Once you’ve grounded yourself and made contact with a particular issue connect with it without trying to analyze it
- Be sure to not go inside of it, rather watch it from a distance
- Continue to ask yourself what you are feeling and just notice what comes up
Alternatively you can list all the things that are bothering you right now and place them in a pile in front of you. Once you see all of them there, ask yourself, “Except for those, I’m fine?” to see which one stands out the most for you .
- Narrow it down – connecting
- Now out of all of these thoughts, problems, sensations, feelings that came up connect deeper with the one that stood out for you or that you started with
- Put the others aside and if they come up again just acknowledge them and say “I see you and right now I’m focusing on…”
- Notice what the whole sense of this problem or sensation is
- Stay with it even if it’s unclear, distant or not strong
- Ask, “What do you sense in your body when you see the whole of that problem?”
- Find a word
- See if you can find a word, phrase or image of that describes the quality of this felt sense
- Some examples: scary, sticky, stuck, heavy, lost
- Stay with this quality and allow the description of it to come to you without thinking – this can happen in seconds or minutes, don’t rush
- Check if it fits
- Now go back and forth between the word and the felt sense to see if they match
- Notice what happens in the body, usually if it’s a match there will be a shift in the body, a sense of relief and understanding
- If it is a match and there is no shift continue to connect with the felt sense and see if any other information comes to you
- Ask – deepen contact
- Here you can deepen the contact with this felt sense and ask, “ What is it about this whole problem that makes it ________?” (the word, phrase or image that came to you)
- You can also ask, “What is in this sense?”
- Continue to stay connected to the felt sense and notice when you are thinking and analyzing vs allowing the information to come to you
- Listen + coming out
- Continue to stay with this felt sense and listen to what’s underneath it and what else shows up
- Be sure to let go of thinking and analyzing and allow the body to speak to you
- More information may come and the felt sense can continue to shift and change, this allows new words to describe the new felt sense
- Take note of these changes and what you discovered
- Thank your body for what is has shared
- Let the felt sense know you will come back when needed
- Slowly come back to your body, breath and the room you are in
I highly recommend trying this technique with a friend or counselor. I’ve attached a cheat sheet that Gendlin provides in his book, Focusing.The more we get in touch with our bodies and the messages it sends us, the more we can release trapped trauma, rigid points of view and free ourselves from feeling stressed with life.