If you are highly sensitive, you can benefit profoundly from maintaining a Focusing attitude throughout the day.
In honor of this new year, I’d like to share with you some good news from the Focusing world. As a long-time Focuser, I’m well-aware of the many ways Focusing contributes to my life. A newly published research study once again bears out this subjective impression.
In the study, Dr. Siebrecht Vanhooren— the first-ever recipient of the Gendlin Grant, established by The International Focusing Institute in honor of Focusing founder Eugene Gendlin (1926-2017)— examined more specifically what forms of Focusing contribute most to a sense of life satisfaction, while also lowering distress and existential anxiety.
We are bombarded these days with laser-focused studies: the kind of study that, for example, takes a single nutrient out of its typical food context, feeds insane amounts of it to mice in the lab, then draws conclusions that create a short-lived fad among us humans. This study is different. It was conducted in a meaningful context, and it delivered specific, actionable information.
If you practice Focusing already, this new information about the “Focusing attitude” will inspire you. Whatever inner work or therapy you do, though, understanding and adopting a Focusing attitude will make that work more powerful and effective.
About the study
Dr. Siebrecht Vanhooren is a Focusing-oriented psychotherapist and an assistant professor of clinical psychology at KU Leuven, a research university in Belgium. With two colleagues, he studied 385 Dutch-speaking Focusers (Vanhooren, Grosemans & Breynaert, 2021).
Dr. Vanhooren predicted that “to the degree that one adopts a Focusing attitude (defined as the practice of contacting one’s felt sense), one would experience greater life satisfaction and less distress and existential anxiety.” The study focused on five variables:
- Focusing training
- Focusing partnership
- Frequency of focusing
- Perceived impact on one’s life
- Focusing attitude
The researchers found that meaning was not as powerful a mediator of life satisfaction as they had predicted. Still, they concluded that:
By making a regular daily practice of checking in with your bodily felt sense of the various life situations you encounter allowing this felt sense to guide your decisions, you are more likely to experience satisfaction with life and less likely to experience distress and existential anxiety.
In other words, by adopting a Focusing attitude throughout the day—that is, checking in with your bodily felt sense—you can find a sense of meaning that directly counteracts anxiety and dread. Given the challenges we are all facing, this information is as welcome as it is timely.
What is this “bodily felt sense?” And how, exactly, do you check in with it? I’ll offer specific suggestions and examples in a minute. First, though, I’ll address a key question:
Why is this study significant to HSPs?
If you are highly sensitive, you take in more than the average person and feel more intensely. You also digest all this in a very deep way, called deep processing. HSPs are built to seek meaning in life: we crave meaning, like a plant craves sunlight.
Dr. Vanhooren’s study is part of a larger effort to understand the ways a sense of (or lack of) meaning affects us. The study begins with the statement that “making sense of our existence is one of the most demanding aspects of being human. Studies have shown that meaning is robustly associated with well-being and mental health.”
We can put all this together and say that the meaning we HSPs crave is also essential to our mental health. For this reason, we need ways to find meaning in the formidable challenges we face.
Here is where Focusing comes in… because Focusing, as it turns out, is a powerful way to connect to meaning, moment by moment. This study tells us that maintaining a Focusing attitude throughout the day has a particularly powerful effect on our ability to find meaning in our lives.
How do you cultivate a Focusing attitude?
The International Focusing Institute website has a wonderful page explaining what Focusing is. I’ve italicized the key sentences:
With “Focusing,” we invite ourselves into a certain kind of awareness. In our everyday lives, most of us spend a great deal of our time with our attention on tasks or issues. Many of us ignore or even try to silence our inner, bodily-felt experiencing of all that is happening in our lives. In contrast, the “Focusing attitude” is an invitation we offer ourselves to be open and centered on the whole of what is happening in the present — most especially the usually-ignored body’s inner sensations. When doing Focusing, you silently ask, “How is the whole of me experiencing all of this?”
They add that “the felt sense is that fuzzy, unarticulated sense of the whole. Felt senses are full of our felt meaning of a situation.” In other words, a felt sense is bigger than, and fuzzier than, all that you already consciously know.
HSPs love to ponder things. Felt-sensing is different. It goes beyond the known, and therefore beyond the mind. Instead, we pay attention to whole selves in an open, curious way. In fact, our very openness and curiosity allows the felt sense to continue to form. You could say we aren’t excavating the felt sense: rather, we are co-creating it.
This may sounds awfully vague to you. It’s true that while felt-sensing is very simple, it is also subtle. It can take time to learn. But in my experience, felt-sensing to an HSP is like water to a sea otter. It feels like home. Chances are high you’ve already referenced a whole felt sense in yourself, without knowing that’s what you were doing.
To “learn” felt-sensing, you likely only need an opportunity to see Focusing in action. Then your formidable sensitivity to subtlety will kick in, and you will “get it.”
Examples of felt-sensing
If this powerful resource of felt-sensing isn’t yet familiar to you, or even if you are familiar but want to be inspired, you can find two wonderful examples on the The International Focusing Institute website:
1—A video excerpt from a workshop Dr. Gendlin conducted in 1998. Watch the first ten minutes for a beautiful demonstration of Dr. Gendlin guiding a participant to contact the whole felt sense of a problem. I particularly love the way Dr. Gendlin, with a kind of fiercely attentive gentleness, uses his words, his body language, and his energy to create a spacious container in which the process can unfold without pressure.
If you have time to watch all 33 minutes, the discussion that follows the short Focusing session will help you take in more deeply what happened.
2—A video of a solo focusing session with my Focusing teacher and mentor, Ann Weiser Cornell. Notice how Ann, too, facilitates her own process with spacious attentiveness.
Watching these examples, you’ll see that felt-sensing begins with slowing down and pausing. This pausing allows you to sense beyond what you already consciously know about a situation. You can try this kind of pausing and sensing right now, using the word something:
I’m recalling the whole situation about this trip coming up… there’s something about it…
If you’d like more practice, and would like to be guided through a process to cultivate a Focusing attitude, here’s a 10-minute Insight Timer meditation with Focusing trainer Lynn Preston. And this PDF from Leonie Stewart, a counselor and Focusing trainer in New South Wales, describes more elements of the Focusing attitude.
Bringing felt-sensing into your life, hour by hour
In his study report, Dr. Vanhooren wrote that:
We want to help people get to their core issues more quickly, and to help those suffering from death anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness…We are trying to find ways to help people focus more frequently, even in small ways, and also to become more aware of the impact it has in their daily lives.
If you tune in to yourself in a felt-sensing way throughout the day, you will experience a tangible deepening in your sense of self-connection. By allowing your decisions to emerge from your whole felt sense of situations in your life, you stay in integrity with your whole self. You will satisfy your sensitive need for meaning, while simultaneously fortifying yourself against anxiety.
Image © 2021 Duke Duchscherer—thank you Duke!
Well, the only aspect of this article that I understand is the comment ‘how is the whole of me experiencing all of this’? I will try to watch the solo focusing session to see if I understand it more. Can focusing help a person determine if they are empath as well as HSP? Like right now, my brain is in effervescent mode (anxiety I suspect), my body is physically fidgety, and my tongue is tingling. I have set a boundary for myself to not have any phone calls or texting after 630pm. My hsp self needs to start to unwind from other people’s emotions and concerns. Well, my brother called today and I had to interrupt his call to go swimming. With covid restrictions still in place, I had to book my swim time and I need my daily exercise. So, I returned his phone call rather late and only ended it at 830pm! so, in a sense I am 2 hours behind in my personal relaxation evening activities. Plus, I have his emotional energy to release from my body and my mind. Is this what ‘felt sense ‘ is?
I finally read a definition of ‘felt sense’ that makes sense to me! ‘vague bodily feelings that are thought to correspond to unresolved emotional conflicts’. Ahh, that makes sense now. Well, to me, my bodily feelings over the years have been nothing but vague. They present themselves quite strongly. Is this method of focusing and connecting with the ‘felt sense’ a way of working through ptsd or ptsd like symptoms? I have read that our bodies can contain emotions for years, deep trauma and subtle trauma. I have also read that our bodies provide a means of releasing trauma by moving them…ie exercise, and depending on the degree of trauma, sometimes gentle exercise like yoga will help, and other times more assertive exercise is needed. ( I have been known to flatten chicken breasts quite well with a meat tenderizer of sorts when I am trying to get out some anger !) And on a brighter note, I recently read how aromatherapy can help with trauma and healing of the amygdala…the body part that seems to be highly active in HSP people. Anyways, I think I understand what ‘felt sense’ is now.
HI S, the felt sense isn’t limited to emotional conflicts. For example, the Mona Lisa has a different whole felt sense than Van Gogh’s Starry Night. In attempting to describe the felt sense of each, you begin to sense the difference.
Inner Relationship Focusing can help with some kinds of trauma in that you can get to know the parts of you holding the trauma, and that relationship shifts things.