“I don’t know what’s going on with me.” Five minutes earlier, when the session began, Jared seemed like his usual smiling, energetic, positive self. But that was a ruse. He was as distraught as I’d ever seen him.
“I feel exhausted. Overwhelmed. Paralyzed. I’m even depressed. It doesn’t make any sense.” He sounded like he was about to cry.
“Did something happen since Monday?” Only three days earlier, he’d been on top of the world. A project he was leading at work had reached an important milestone, and he felt like all of his dreams were about to come true.
“No. That’s what’s so crazy. I can’t do it. I just can’t,” he said, talking about the project he’d devoted the last year of his life to. “I need too much encouragement. No one is there for me. I need more friends,” he said desolately. “I don’t know. Maybe I have some weird fear of success. Or maybe I caught Covid. I feel awful. Maybe I’m just not meant to be successful. I can’t handle it. I’m falling apart and I can’t even say why.”
“Let’s slow it down, Jared.” He locked eyes with me and calmed down a little, waiting expectantly for what I would say next. “What’s going on inside, underneath all this? See if you can let go of all these thoughts for a moment, and feel what’s going on in your body right now.”
Learning to Listen to Our Emotions
From previous therapy sessions, Jared understood what I was asking him to do. Lowering his eyes, he breathed deeply as he sensed into the middle area of his torso, seeking to tune in to some inner sensation, no matter how vague or small, of the “whole” of what he was feeling inside at that moment, without any attempt to explain it or give it a “story.” Very slowly, with long pauses, the words came out.
“I don’t know……I notice I feel really tired……like weak…….and small. Small,” he repeated, sounding surprised. He opened his eyes and looked at me. “Where did that come from?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “But can we just stay with that?’
“Yeah, okay.” He closed his eyes again, his face calm but intent. “Yeah, like I feel so tired, and weak, and small…..Like I can’t get up.” He sat in silence for over a minute, eyes closed, feelings crossing his face. A tear gathered in the corner of his right eye. Finally he spoke again. “I want to be supported somehow……. I want, I want, to be picked up or, or, to be carried….” The word hung in the air as Jared again grew silent for a very long moment. “Wow!”
“Wow what?” I said.
“Did I just say that? I just said I wanted to be carried.” A look of amazement covered his face. “Was that a memory? That was so weird. For a moment there I felt really little, like a little little kid, low to the ground, you know?”
Making the Connection
I nodded. Early in his therapy with me, Jared told me the story about how, when he was a toddler, his mother, an immigrant from El Salvador, had to leave him in the care of her kind but elderly grandfather for weeks at a time while she traveled for work.
“And I felt so tired and weak, like I couldn’t stand up. I wanted to be picked up and carried and nobody would. I don’t remember anything like that happening. But I just felt it, like I was feeling it happening right now.”
The thrill of discovery filled his voice. With wonderment, Jared noticed that everything he was feeling at the beginning of the session had changed. His depression and fatigue evaporated. And something more happened: Out of the blue, he understood for the first time why, whenever he felt overwhelmed, he felt a desperate need for male encouragement that never felt like enough, even after finding me as his male therapist.
Feeling Below the Level of Words
What happened in this session? None of the issues and feelings Jared brought up were totally new to him. He had worked in therapy for years with various therapists, including me, on the trauma of feeling abandoned so young by his mother and growing up fatherless.
But this time Jared had gone below the level of words, and even below the level of the very upsetting emotions that roiled him at the start of the session. Like a swimmer diving below turbulent waves, he was accessing, as close as a human being can, the direct experience of his nervous system as he was feeling it in the session at that moment, before it gets interpreted and translated into words, feelings and explanations.
That experience unlocked something inside him. Contrary to what you might think, Jared was not processing or “fixing” the past. The wordless emotional brain is always living in the present. The events of the week activated an old implicit memory — a memory encoded below consciousness—about feeling tired, weak and needing to be carried by a man, yet not being picked up, which caused a feeling of distress to flood his body in the present moment. It had done this to him many times before, whenever it had gotten activated. It had, without him being aware of it, gotten “stuck,” disconnected, inaccessible, unable to change and let go, a phantom pain that repeated like a broken record. That day, Jared simply accessed this activated feeling replaying within him at that moment. There was no huge emotional release of traumatic pain. Yet when that unconscious bodily feeling and memory rose from its inchoate state into his conscious mind, it was felt, exactly for what it was, and then it disappeared— because now, in the present, it no longer made sense.
Jared’s session wasn’t a “miracle cure.” He had many sessions before and after. But something major shifted inside him that day, and he felt differently than before, a shift that stuck with him.
Jared wouldn’t have been able to experience this shift, however, had he not learned how to consciously access and then pay sustained attention to an inner sense within him. Everyone has this sense (which is comprised of a group of related senses). Indeed, having it is vital for biological survival. Yet you’ve probably never heard of it.
It’s called interoception.
What is Interoception?
We all learned in grade school about the five primary external senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. These are how our brain receives information about the world around us.
But there is a much, much larger network of internal senses sending information to our brain about what’s going on within us. Collectively these senses are called interoception. Your heart beat, your respiration, the level of fullness in your stomach, the balance of electrolytes in your cells, the soreness in your muscles and thousands if not millions of other bits of information are being transmitted from your body to your brain every second to form a kind of internal “weather report,” updated constantly.
But that’s just the beginning. The internal state is combined with the signals coming from the external senses and then compared with an enormous “log” of past experiences stored within your brain to determine what your body needs to do next to meet its needs.
I say “your body” instead of “you” because none of this has even entered your awareness yet. Neuroscientists call this full “status report” — internal, external, and memory — emotion. Most of it remains subconscious because it runs in the background, on “automatic.” If you had to be aware of all of it, you’d be too overwhelmed to function. The portion of your emotions that you become aware of is what neuroscientists call feelings.
This neuroscientific definition of feeling is different from our normal definition of the word. This is the feeling of being alive, of being viscerally aware of what you’re experiencing right now. It’s how you know you’re inside a body reading these words right now, a being with eyes and ears and hands and a heart and a brain.
More to the Interoception Story
But all of this is still not the end of the story. Because all the processes described above are still done below the level of words. The brain and nervous system of your dog does practically the same thing. But at this point things begin to differ, because we humans have a whole other, newly evolved system (analogous to a computer “interface” or “platform”) to send our “feelings” through.
Our feelings get “sent” to our word-filled cognitive mind. This miraculous biological creation, this evolutionary leap unique to humans, has its own system of codifying memories and weaving them into stories (called narratives), conscious and semi-conscious, and creating well-developed belief systems about ourselves, other people and the world (called schemas). The cognitive mind interprets the wordless feelings, gives them names and labels, and comes up with all sorts of meanings and explanations to “make sense” of what we’re feeling, so we can understand and predict our world and determine what we should do next.
This is where things can go wrong, because the cognitive brain can mis-interpret and mis-label the feelings. It simply doesn’t always get it right.
This is the state Jared was in at the beginning of the session. The current challenges of his work had activated a very old distressful feeling: I’m tired. I’m too weak to walk. I need to be carried. That feeling of “toddler-tiredness,” followed by the feeling of helplessness from not getting that need met, must have happened often or intensely enough to have become encoded as a bodily memory. But it was a memory below the level of words and conscious memory, what neuroscientists call implicit (as opposed to explicit) memory.
But when the events of his week activated Jared’s old toddler–feeling of “I’m so tired and I need to be carried!,” it made no sense to the cognitive mind of grown-up Jared. So it interpreted the feeling as “I’m an emotional wreck and I don’t have enough support in my life.” From there it was a quick step to “What’s wrong with me? I’m too needy. Maybe I can’t do my job.” These feelings of helplessness and neediness, triggered repeatedly for decades, created their own recurring pattern and theme that darkened his entire view of himself. The opportunity to unlock the mystery of what he was actually feeling and then be freed of it had to wait until he could get his cognitive mind out of the way — not forever, but just long enough for the wordless knowledge to come through.
A Revolutionary Discovery
Seventy years ago, a young philosophy graduate student at the University of Chicago named Eugene Gendlin was grappling with a question: Does experience come before words and thoughts, or do words and thoughts come before what we experience? It was a major, important philosophical question. Certainly, our thoughts—the words we tell ourselves—shape our experience. They become the concepts and beliefs that form our world. They even shape what we see and don’t see. So words and thoughts, many people argued, must come before experience.
But this answer didn’t fully sit right with Gendlin. As any poet or writer knows, there is a process of sensing or experiencing something within, and then looking for the right words to describe it. That would say that we have a “purer” form of experience within us, before we put words and concepts onto it.
During his early years at the University of Chicago, Gendlin met psychologist Carl Rogers, one of the most important and influential psychotherapists of all time, who was a professor of psychology there. “Your questions are psychological questions,” Rogers told Gendlin and enlisted him in his program and research.
Over the next 15 years, Gendlin’s and Roger’s research found that people who progressed furthest and most quickly in psychotherapy were not people who expressed the most emotion or whose insights into their behavior matched any set theory. Rather, they were people who often “consulted” something inside themselves during therapy sessions, some inner bodily awareness that at first was vague and unclear, not yet put into words, but would become clearer as they stayed with it. Though nobody instructed them, intuitively they knew how to look inside for something they didn’t already know; to search for something just beyond the edge of their awareness to answer what was bothering them. When they came upon it, they experienced a palpable sense of “rightness” about it, an inner “aha!” that resulted in, or at least helped them see, their own direction forward. They were less “stuck.”
They were accessing what Gendlin had intuited: an inner bodily experience that preceded words. He called this experience, which differed from both thoughts and emotions, the “felt sense.” He posited that the felt sense was organismic — that is, produced by one’s entire organism – – and had within it the implied message about what it needed to fulfill or “right” itself, the way hunger “implies” eating.
Over decades, Gendlin, who had become by now a renowned psychologist and psychotherapist, developed many ways to help people, both in and out of therapy, reach that place of inner bodily awareness below the level of words and stay long enough in that “unknowing” place to unlock the meaning that is often lost when we let our thinking brains interpret our experience too quickly. He called this process “Focusing.” His book, Focusing (1978), was translated into 17 languages, and the process has since been taught to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world. We believe it’s the most effective (yet gentle) self-help and self-awareness body-mind process around.
Gendlin’s work was prescient by at least 40 years. While the terms “interoception” and “interoceptive awareness” had already been coined when Gendlin began his work, it wasn’t until the 1990s, with the advent of modern neuroscience, that the mechanisms behind emotions and feelings, and the amazing neural networks of interoception, had begun to be understood. Although Gendlin, who died in 2017, never used the term, Focusing could be understood as a special form of applied interoception, listening to the bodily signals within long enough, and openly enough, to let the message “below the level of words” to emerge.
Applying Your Interoception for Self-Growth and Healing
Try it. Bring up an emotional issue you’re struggling with. Now bring your awareness to the center part of your body – to your throat, chest, stomach and abdomen – bring the issue to those places and stay there, patiently sensing into those places with a kind of interested curiosity. See if you can sense something from there that may at first be unclear and only visceral, and allow it to slowly unfold with its meaning. See if you can get below the words, below the feelings, below the story that quickly comes about what you’re feeling – the familiar, “oh-I-know-what-this-is-all-about” narrative that so easily runs through our heads. See if you can wait just a little longer to let new sensations and images, and surprising yet strangely “fitting” words to emerge, so you can get below what you already know.
Something new and amazing just might come.
More instruction on how to do this amazing process will be coming in future blogs.