YOUR BODY’S capacity for knowing and being in-touch with feelings may be compared to an iceberg floating in the sea. Only a very small portion of the iceberg is actually visible above the waterline. The larger mass lies hidden beneath the surface.
The very top part of your body’s knowing is generally available to conscious awareness and may be compared to your everyday feelings, emotions, and physical sensations.
You know when you’re angry, lonely, or excited. You know when you feel chills up and down your spine, tears, rapid heart beats, or delighted laughter. These are in your awareness and, if you choose, you can think about or analyze them.
But there is another kind of knowing that all the while moves forward in your body beneath the surface of your mind’s thinking and your emotional experience.
This knowing is more vague and opaque. Here, your mind’s eye cannot easily penetrate to figure out, conceptualize, analyze, or organize. Your body expresses a meaning that you can “feel,” without yet being able to formulate anything in your mind or articulate it with words. Eugene Gendlin calls such felt meaning a “felt sense.” It’s all about how you’re connected in a bodily way in life.
Developing the habit of noticing and nurturing your important feelings is all about learning to go “into and through” your surface feelings in a way that allows you to find the felt sense which lies beneath them. It’s learning to access a meaning in your body that is not thought in your mind.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? Because most of us are always looking “outside” for answers to problems, rarely understanding that our bodies already have answers if we will only take a little time to look and listen “inside.” Dr. Gendlin notes that your mind seeks the “solution” to a problem while your body looks for a “resolution” in how it carries the problem.
We welcome “good” feelings and push away so-called “bad” feelings without ever pausing to realize that difficult feelings offer equally as important doorways to answers as do our good feelings. Too often we stop with the feeling and fail to connect with the felt sense that lies beneath it. The possibility for change and growth lies not in your emotional reactions, but in your body’s more connected sense for some personal felt meaning within a relationship or situation. Your difficult feelings have as much to tell you about yourself as do your more comfortable feelings.
LOTS OF PEOPLE are uncomfortable with difficult feelings. They don’t like them! Some even dislike them so much that as soon they feel the barest first hint of a troublesome or uncomfortable emotion, it’s like hearing the starter’s gun at the beginning of a race. Without even thinking they’re immediately off and running, trying to numb, to avoid, to escape from what they feel rising up inside themselves.
That’s what process-skipping is all about. It’s the way we bounce off, skip away from, and try to control uncomfortable feelings that are actually our very best doorway into our felt senses.
This troublesome experience is precisely where the potential for inner growth and change lie waiting to surprise us.
2. “Process-Skipping” around Difficult Feelings
PROCESS-SKIPPING IS A repetitious, psychological habit that’s always set on automatic pilot. You numb or distract yourself from a feeling you don’t like, thereby turning away from the very doorway into connecting with a felt sense and the possibility of some change in how your body must carry a difficult issue.
Most people don’t do this deliberately. We all fall into process-skipping, generally by imitating others–our parents, for example. How did your parents “deal with” difficult feelings? You’ll learn a lot about yourself simply by answering that one simple question.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself:
- “Can I identify some of my own
- “How, precisely, do I avoid, numb,
or run away from my difficult feelings?”
Allow a quiet moment to sense any inner response that might come to answer these questions.
Most people think difficult feelings are caused by some external situation that bothers them–a threatening person, an embarassing situation, an insoluble dilemma. But that’s only part of the picture.
The other part is that an important piece of the difficult feeling is all about you! It’s about how YOU are inside with carrying this outside, external threat or circumstance. Often, you can’t change external events. They are beyond your control. But you can learn to be in touch with the part of you that is forced to carry the effects of that external circumstance and the feelings generated by it.
THERE IS A STORY, a very personal meaning that waits to be uncovered and move forward inside your difficult feeling. For most people, however, a painful, repetitive emotion is so hard to bear that they turn the messenger into the enemy. They skip right past the feeling into some activity that draws their attention away from the difficult emotion in their body.
We each come right up to the door of entering through our unprocessed feeling into our felt sense, and then we suddenly whisk ourselves away into some distracting or numbing activity that soothes and seems to make the problem go away–at least for the moment. But your body has a tenacious memory! Whatever remains unfinished, still unprocessed inside, will continue to let you know you need to listen to it.
It’s an education to hear grade school children describe how they “deal with” their difficult feelings. The litany of process-skipping strategies is alarming and nearly endles. One wonders from whom they learned it all! “I go shopping.” “I listen to music.” “I run.” “I hang out with my friends at the mall.” “I talk on the phone.” “I play sports.” “I watch TV.” “I just get busy and DO SOMETHING!”
There is an inward path to grow beyond such process-skipping, but your must rely upon your body to teach you how to find it! You simply cannot THINK your way into solving your difficult feelings.
3. A Process-Skipping Story
Rather than trying to describe process-skipping in a technical fashion, let me share one of my own process-skipping experiences as an easier way to illustrate this addictive psychological behavior.
Many years ago it became clear that my mother needed to be moved from her apartment into some sort of care facility. I was, fortunately, able to find one that fit our budget and mother was certainly well cared for. However the personal inner struggle triggered by that experience led me on a journey through unowned aspects of my experience that, at the time, I scarcely knew existed.
After I moved her and walked out of the care facility, I felt uneasy. But this was nothing compared to the guilt that surfaced two or three weeks later. Finally, I couldn’t take it any more and drove the long distance back to visit her. The guilt ceased for a time. But soon would come a phone call or anniversary and the familiar pattern repeated itself. Guilt inevitably returned. Fairly soon a predictable sequence became evident, not to me, but to those who knew me. Something would trigger feelings of guilt about my mother being alone in the center and my response, in order to alleviate the guilt, would be to drive the 300 mile round-trip for a visit.
I never took time to sit with my guilt, to wonder about or listen to it. I simply “reacted.” GUILT– go visit mother. In fact, I soon became addicted to visiting mother as a way to “handle” my guilt. Some people use work, alcohol, or drugs to deaden such feelings. Others have such an overpowering “need to please” that they fall into all kinds of addictive behaviors as a way to ease inner pain, insecurity, and confusion.
It is clear that the direction toward a felt sense is always into and through the feeling, never away from it. Yet, for me, every time I felt guilt, I moved in the opposite direction, trying to “deal with it” by visiting my mother. I skipped right past the point of entry into my own process. I quite literally became addicted to visiting my mother as a way of controlling the feeling of guilt. I substituted this activity in place of entering through the emotion into the felt sense of it all and allowing my untold story to unfold.
Right at the threshold of guilt I took a direction that made some form of addiction inevitable. I substituted visiting my mother in place of being in touch with how my body carried the uncomfortable feelings that no one had ever taught me to be with when I was a child. Psychological addiction involves a “substitution” of one behavior, feeling, or attitude in place of another, rather than becoming congruent with and “processing” what is real, thereby allowing it to unfold and tell its story so the body-feel of it can be carried in a different way.
People make this same tragic choice every day of their lives in situations far more complex than the simple example I am sharing. But the psychological process remains the same. We seek to control the “bad feeling,” to make it go away, or substitute something better in its place. In the course of doing this, however, we fall prey to the very psychological mechanism of escape that we have stumbled into or perhaps deliberately chosen. It soon becomes our jailer, locking an addictive pattern in place. We become its slave.
We can now put a label on that pattern. It is “a Process-Skipping Structure.” The label, of course, can never help us to change. But the understanding it brings can alert us about where to look in experience for our own process-skipping structures.
Process-skipping structures are not just obvious things like drugs and alcohol, sex, work, or pleasing other people. Prayer, meditation, volunteer work, anything that can be substituted for a congruent owning of what is real inside me contains the negative potential for contributing to a process-skipping pattern of addiction.
Developing the habit of noticing and nurturing our important feelings teaches us a special way to be “in” our guilt, or whatever other feelings need to be heard, without trying to fix any of them. It allows time just to be quiet in how something actually feels in my body, right now– -how it is carried within the sensations, emotions and body felt sense that lie beneath every aspect of awareness.
If we remain with this non-verbal resonance in our bodies long enough, without trying to force the mind’s meaning upon it, sooner or later it will speak and symbolize itself– often in surprising ways. A word will come, an image, a memory will bubble to the surface, perhaps tears or a delighted giggle at some felt humor in the seriousness of it all. And when the connection is made, when the symbol fits, something inside says, “Yes,” and lets go in our body.
From that point forward, your felt carrying of that issue is never again the same. You may still need to take further steps. Other aspects of the issue may yet remain to be heard. But your body has been gifted with some kind of loosening. The ice has thawed and cracked a little. The floes break up and begin to float once more. Movement starts to happen, meaning begins to unfold.
What becomes so painful for each of us is when the feeling of being blocked always remains the same. That is where burnout and breakdown occur. But if there is some sense in your body that movement, any movement in the feeling of an issue has happened, then hope rises anew. It’s amazing how much “unfinished stuff” we can live with when we sense it is “on the way.”
I certainly know I felt this in my own guilt. When I finally took time to create a caring presence around this negative feeling and not just react in an addictive way, my incomplete story began to unfold. There was deep anger and resentment over unfinished issues in childhood– separation because of war and illness over which my parents had no control. But I still felt these absences and the pain of them. The resentments were deep inside, still carried in my body. My mind had arrived at its own adult explanation. But my body’s unlistened to story was still seven years old.
The process described in this website teaches how to be with your important feelings and felt senses in a way that allows them to grow, to change, and to unfold so your body may carry these experiences in a different way.
I was taught a vivid lesson about this one evening when I went for a quiet stroll and noticed a small, stuffed ball lying next to the road. Picking it up, I continued my walk, idly tossing and catching the ball. I was struck by how rarely I had taken time for this simple pleasure since boyhood.
Frequently, my toss was off and I’d need to run a bit to catch the ball. It was then that I became very aware of something– a consistent pattern. As I tossed the ball and it fell back toward me, I would follow until it was about a foot from my hand when, suddenly, my eyes would veer away in the last split second before the ball actually came into my grasp. “Keep your eye on the ball.” The words came back from grammar school baseball experiences– but this time I really heard them.
For the next several moments I was very conscious of disciplining myself to watch the ball all the way into my hand. I could sense a different body feel in the experience. When my eyes veered away, there was a feel of flinching– an avoidance. But when I followed the ball all the way into my hand, I noticed a kind of newness, something fresh, like I had never done this before.
Then I fell into one of those precious moments of reverie where things began falling together and my experience took on a meaning far more significant than what appeared in this idle pastime. Not only did it reveal a great deal about myself, it offered a fresh perspective on my life’s work.
Most people know they have feelings. What they don’t know is how to follow those feelings all the way into their body whenever they need to change. Like my eyes following the ball, most of us veer off at the last moment, rarely experiencing the newness of what it is like when such feelings can change and unfold from the inside.
Noticing and nurturing your important feelings is a simple, easily learned process that can help you follow a feeling all the way into your body. The difference this made for me was striking. When compulsively visiting the care center, I was invariably there to get the monkey of guilt off my back. I fulfilled a duty. But I was rarely present to my mother with that deeper communication and sharing wherein there is true companionship.
I’m sure mother felt this in some way. However, as I took time and began allowing guilt to unfold, I found that mother and I were becoming friends. We shared a great deal, had much in common, and were both blessed with a similar sense of humor. For me, it was a wonderful gift, finally, to discover my own parent as a friend, and I looked forward to visiting her from a more healthy place inside myself!
4. Five Questions to Help You Evaluate the Psychological Health of “Spiritual” and “Growth” Practices
- Does the practice support you in “owning” your feelings, or does it merely make you aware of emotions without helping them to be in process?
A couple during marriage counseling were advised to sit together and identify all the feelings that existed between them in their relationship. At the end of the exercise they found themselves staring at one another over a huge pile of mostly negative emotions and asking: “Now what do we do?” Just because you’re aware that you’re angry, doesn’t mean your anger will change. The direction toward change is always “into and through” the negative feelings, not away from them.
2.Does the practice keep you in touch with your own feelings in a way that allows them to unfold, or does it try to substitute other, more acceptable feelings in place of those that are troublesome?
Many angry people don’t like being that way and try to change by cultivating more positive feelings to replace their anger. For example, they aim to acquire the “ideal opposite” — being “compassionate.” But while action based on ideals appears satisfactory in anticipation, it is generally unsatisfactory in performance. The anger is never processed, merely cloaked with a thin veneer of respectability. L.L. Whyte put it this way: “Ideals which seek to deny their shadows eventually exhaust their own power, at which point the dissociated balance becomes unstable and the dark component seizes control!” One must notice and nurture the deeper felt sense lying beneath the negative feeling. That is where the resource for transformation lies.
3. Is the practice one that actually facilitates change in the feeling of some issue in your body, or does it merely provide you with information that affects your ideas and thinking about that issue?
Careful, exact analysis of a problem, and precise information about the direction toward change may satisfy the mind, but it is powerless to transform the structure of habit in your body! The neurotic may know he is neurotic, but in and of itself that knowledge is powerless to help him to change. Gene Gendlin puts it in a simple phrase: “Knowing is not the process of changing!” Information in the mind is never a process in the body. The direction toward further change is always into and through whatever feelings call out for your attention. If there is a structured “habit” of process-skipping in your body, it can only be addressed by returning once again to the “habit” of noticing and nurturing important feelings. Ideas are ineffectual distractions from the hard work of developing this habit.
4. Is the practice one that achieves its effect in you through self-engineering and control, or through self- surrender in openness to a gifting (“graced) process in your body– one that reveals direction and meaning hidden in your feelings?
An entire universe lies waiting just beyond our limited worlds of control. Tragically, many never find their way into this realm of gift and surprise. The bottom- line issue is being with your feelings and felt senses “without trying to fix them!” A kind of faith is involved here which can only grow when you stop trying to arm wrestle your feelings into submission. Building this new relationship to yourself lays the foundation for entering the world of gift/(grace)– as this is known and experienced in your body, not merely reflected upon in your mind. The habit of noticing and nurturing important feelings disposes you for the gift of seeing and experiencing in a new way. This becomes the basis for a whole new identity not based exclusively on control.
5. When using a practice to grow beyond stuck feelings, is the level of positive change that occurs in the way an issue feels in your body something that endures after the exercise, or must you keep repeating the practice in order to maintain the level of change that occurs?
Some spiritual and growth practices may seem to work temporarily, simply because they distract us from pain. But we must always remember that religion and growth work are themselves never exempt from process-skipping. They, too, easily can become additional ways of skipping around habit-protected places inside ourselves. However, the old Biblical saying also remains true: “By their fruits you shall know them.” If my practice leaves me with old, unprocessed feelings still firmly locked in place, if there is no sense of forward “movement” in stuck places, then I need to re- examine what I am doing, and how effective it really is in my life. We easily become addicted to whatever helps us process-skip around our pain!
ONLY WHEN YOU REACH a point in your “process-skipping” where you become tired of burdening your body with the never-ending attempt to “deal with” your difficult feelings, will you be ready to try an entirely different approach.
It’s learning how to be with your feelings in a more open, caring, and body-accepting way, just as you dissolved inside from being tight to relaxing while walking in the rain.
This then leads to walking an inward path of learning about a marvelous inner resource for being with your difficult feelings.
It is discovering your own personal “Affection Teacher.