Updated: Oct 1
Reading your body
Most people do not consider the body as something to read. They tend to think about it as the vessel that carries them around in this world, or they don’t think about it as a separate entity at all. There are a small group of others who absolutely know what I’m talking about and have already learnt (or never forgotten) how to read their bodies. Especially if you’ve worked with me. It’s been an intrinsic part of my personal journey as a Psychotherapist, Coach and as a human being. It has been possibly the most important tool I have (re)discovered in my journey to good health and good wellbeing (including mental health).
Intuition vs felt sense
Although similar, I feel these two concepts are different. So, I’m going to try to describe their difference here:-
This is an almost unconscious process that only comes into consciousness once we allow it to. Our awareness gathers information from all the data around us that our minds may not even be conscious of, adds it to the data we choose to be aware of, plus data from our past experiences and gives us a generalised sense of knowing.
This is a way of using our body as an instrument to gain information about you and your immediate environment. This taps into your personal wisdom – acting almost like a personal barometer – that can be lost connection to. But when connected to this ability, it is akin to having a 6th sense about yourself.
Disconnecting from body sense
I have learnt that the body is very readable, and we are generally doing it already to varying degrees. Even if we don’t know it. The essence of this skill comes down to understanding the language of your body.
Each of us start life knowing how to do this - including when we need the toilet, or when we are hungry. When we learn the language of communication – verbal or sign – we start to learn to put labels on body messages.
The forgetting starts when we have to constantly override or ignore body messages because those around us teach us to do so. Things like delaying hunger, when overdone, can lead to us ignoring our hunger pangs which in ordinary circumstances signal a time to eat. The bodily sensations that are more subtle, perhaps more related to emotions, are forgotten by the time some of us reach adulthood, so that we don’t know what our body needs anymore; for example when we need a hug of comfort, or when we just need to sit and rest rather than work.
This becomes a fundamental disconnection from the self and our environment.
To elaborate, it is our bodies that pick up signals from our environment, including other people and tell us whether we are in danger or safe, whether we are comfortable in our environment or not.
Our bodies then send signals to our brains, which translates these signals into words like ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’, ‘warm’ or ‘cold’, ‘happy’ or ‘sad’, ‘joyful’ or ‘thoughtful’ etc. Moreover, it is this part of us that tell our brains we are tired, or that we are feeling energized and could manage another lap around the circuit. It is our bodies that give us, and others, clues as to how we feel about something or someone in particular. Our body tells us what we need in any given moment.
Beyond the physical
I can’t even speak of physicality when I discuss the body because I mean something more than the physicality. There is an interpretative component to the human being that enables us to know more than the sum parts of the information coming into us from all angles. It is more than just the physical part of us: it is a knowing that emerges if we can tune into our bodies. Many of us refer to this as a ‘felt sense’ because it is an additional sense that tells us more than logic or reason.
It is a difficult concept to describe, as you may have gleaned from my attempt here.
‘Felt sense’ are the words that best describe this concept - a level of awareness that our body communicates to us. When we translate that awareness into words or thoughts, we can become aware of our true feelings about something or someone.
It is these sensations or the emerging knowledge of self that enables us to be true to ourselves or authentic. When we are in this state of congruence with ourselves, then our ensuing actions will be rooted in an unshakeable knowledge that we are making the correct decision for us, in this particular moment.
‘Felt sense’ is fundamentally about connecting with your body and becoming aware of how it is responding to things, situations, people. It takes self-awareness to a deeper level when we can locate a response not only in our minds but also in our bodies. It is a concept first coined by Psychologist Eugene Gendlin during the late 1970s, and he created a whole school of thought around this concept.
If you are one of those people that have lost the ability to know what your ‘felt sense’ is saying, whether you feel tense, anxious, guilt, shame, grief, or joy, then you may have become a person who rarely checks in on themselves. You are likely to be a person who rarely puts their own needs in focus. In this case, you may be a person who has lost connection with yourself.
If this has been going on for years, it will have become an ingrained habit and you may even have become unconscious of it. Trauma can bring on such disconnection, as can abuse and prolonged denial.
How to reconnect
So how to re-connect with yourself and your felt sense?
It is a skill that can be re-learnt. We all hold a level of cell memory of it because most of us know when we feel hungry or need the toilet.
Whatever the reason for the disconnection from self, any one of us can become separated from our felt sense as well as our emotions. Many people cannot verbalise emotions beyond the four main ones or happy, sad, anger and fear (what I term emotional groups). Learning to connect with your felt sense can also help to connect you to the more subtle of emotions like contentedness, calmness, joy, fury etc.
At times we may have learnt to put words to an emotion or sensation, but more as a learnt behaviour; and that will be with the smaller grouping of emotional groups.
The way to learn to be in connection to your felt sense is to focus in on different parts of your body and be attentive to how you are experiencing something. You may need to consciously move parts of your body to realise what is being held in that part of the body. For example, there are certain parts that we know are commonly associated with holding stress. Some of the better-known areas are shoulders or neck, but there are other parts of the body that also hold stress. In a similar way, we can connect with yet more areas of our body to tap into other emotions.
Being in touch with your felt sense gives a greater self-awareness and clearer communication (with self and others).
You may better recognise ‘felt sense’ from an example:
Imagine you are attending a networking event, a party or gathering of some sort. From a distance you spot someone who you’ve have met before, maybe even know. An unexplainable but tangible sensation envelopes you / your body – it may be positive like excitement at meeting them again; or it may be negative, like an unspecified unease, which will inevitably impact your next reaction/ action. Do you remain and listen with avid attention, or do you find an excuse to leave? Or do you remain but squirm internally the whole time and feel a sense of distaste whilst you remain there?
Have you ever felt awash with a sinking sensation at the prospect of meeting a person? But you don’t know why?
All these are your ‘felt sense’ at play.
Of course, I cannot do the topic justice here in a short blog, but if you feel that you don’t know how to read your body, and that it might benefit you, get in touch. I can teach you to learn the language and then how best to use it in the service of your wellbeing.