When Your Felt Sense Speaks to You…What to Say Back

by Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD

This article originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of The Focusing Connection.

If you’re lucky and persistent, you’ll get to the place in Focusing where something inside you is communicating with you. Celebrate! I remember how long it took me-months and months-before I began to get some kind of meaning and communication from the inner “it.” And even longer than that before I began to trust what I was getting, not being wracked by doubt whether I was just making it up. I spend a long time in my book, The Power of Focusing, giving helpful tips for how to get to that place where it feels like something inside is communicating. Yet once you’re there, once the felt sense does begin to “speak,” there’s a whole new set of things to watch out for.

I like to remind the Focuser that “You are the listener.” You, the person Focusing, are the listener to this inner felt sense. If you’ve learned the kind of empathic listening taught in Focusing workshops, this phrase “You are the listener” makes even more sense. You are saying back to it what you hear about what it feels and wants.

Whatever it says, you the listener say back, “I hear you.” This inner hearing is what brings the shift, the release. If it says, “I’m so sad that we don’t have any friends,” you say back, “I really hear how sad you are about the feeling of not having friends.” If it says, “I’m angry enough at Susan [your boss], I want to kill her,” you say, “Ah, I hear that that’s how angry you are, you even want to kill her.” If it says to you, “I don’t trust that you’re ever going to come back and listen to me again,” you say, compassionately, “I hear how untrusting you are that I’m ever coming back, and I hear that you want me to come back.

Not, “We do too have friends-what about Alice?” Not, “Hey, don’t show that anger or we might lose that job!” Not, “It’s OK, you can trust me.” You might have parts of you which have the urge to be informative, or protective, or reassuring-and that’s OK-but those parts should not be the Listener. They might even need a listener! You might need to spend some time saying hello to and listening to (for example) the part of you that’s scared you’ll lose your job if this part lets out its anger but the angry part still needs a turn to be heard, with no argument.

One of the ways to remember this is: if you say, “I hear you,” don’t say “but.” Let’s say you’ve been spending time with the part of you that wants to eat too much. You’re listening to its positive purpose for you. It says, “I want you to have comfort and pleasure.” You feel that, deep in your body, that this part of you is trying to help you have comfort and pleasure. “But” Of course there’s a “but,” of course there’s another side to the picture: there’s another part of you that knows that finding comfort and pleasure through overeating is not the best thing for your whole being. Don’t say it! Let that knowing stay quiet for now, let it wait its turn. Because the part of you that wants to eat too much needs to feel heard, it needs to know that you have received and heard it, and it won’t feel heard if you say “but.”

We’re the inheritors of a Doing-Fixing culture, and it’s habitual for us to think that nothing changes unless we make it change. This is not true, and as Focusers we know it’s not true. As Focusers we’ve felt this so many times, that just sitting with something inside allows it to change, that change does not need a Do-er. Yet the habits of our culture are deep, and it’s still too easy to forget, especially when we’re working with something that feels important, that some part of us really needs to change.

I was working with a woman who wanted to release an obstruction in her throat. She was a singer who had a block to singing, She knew, even before we started, that this thick obstruction in her throat was about not expressing herself freely, not bringing her true self out into the world. And how much she wanted it to change!

This was her first Focusing session, so she didn’t know yet about saying “I hear you” and no more. Her previous experience was with a number of well-meaning methods, popular today, that invite the client to “negotiate” or “bargain” with an obstructing part, or to “explain” that things are different now. So when her throat started to speak to her, naturally she said “but” to it.

“It told me that it has saved my bacon on a number of occasions,” she reported to me, “when I would have gotten into big trouble by speaking out, and it stopped me. And I told it,” she went on, without giving me time for a word in between, “that I really appreciate what it has done for me, but I would like to take back the power to choose when I express myself and when I don’t.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Sounds very empowered, saying “I would like to take back the power” There’s only one little problem – it doesn’t work.

“How’s the obstructed place in your throat doing now?” I asked her.

“It’s still there.”

“Ah,” I said. (I was not surprised.) “Well, would you be willing to try a little experiment?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Tell it that same thing again, only this time leave off the last part, the part with the ‘but’. Tell it that you hear that it saved your bacon on a number of occasions, and then stop, and listen.”

“OK,” she said, and was silent. After about a minute she reported, “Wow. It’s saying a lot.”

“Good,” I said. “Just keep letting it know you hear it.”

“It’s giving me chapter and verse on all the times it has saved me. It’s showing me every single time that happened.”

“Just keep letting it know you hear it,” I repeated.

There was a very long silence, the kind where you can tell there’s a lot going on. After about five minutes she said softly, “It’s melting. It just let go and now it’s melting down the sides of my throat.” We just spent time receiving that new feeling.

I’ve found this to happen so consistently that the phrase “I’m letting it know I hear it” is now part of the Focusing Protocol that I hand out to all new classes. This means not arguing, not reassuring, not comforting, not agreeing to do as it asks, nothing but just “I hear you” and listening to it. (And of course if there are parts that want to argue or comfort or reassure, saying hello to those.) It is when something in you feels heard, just heard, that it is free to change in the way that it needs.