Developing a Felt Sense of Self

by Steven Kessler

Often in therapy, we see clients who are unsure how they feel inside and what they want. They may be experts at knowing what others expect of them and who others want them to be, but they stumble when asked what they themselves want. Similarly, they may be fragile and unable to tolerate conflict or strong emotions in anyone around them. These clients are not stupid or weak. The problem is that they have not yet developed a felt sense of self, a felt sense of the core of their own body that gives them an internal experience of strength and support and that they can reference to discover the answers to questions like, "How do I feel about this?" and "What do I want?"

They have not yet developed one of the basic skills needed for healthy, adult functioning, the attentional/energetic skill known as "core." In order to help these clients, we therapists need to have mastered this skill ourselves, so that we can model it and teach it to them. This short article offers an introduction to the concept that your self is rooted in a felt sense of your core, along with some guidance in how to develop that felt sense. I will phrase the instructions here just as I would present them to a client, student, or friend.

Core is the skill of feeling and holding your attention on the center of your own body. It is what gives you a felt sense of self. It is required to reference yourself and perceive what you actually feel and want. It is the deepest and most real proof that you actually exist. To develop it, you need to develop a felt sense of the core of your physical body.

The core of your body is a column that runs vertically through the center of your torso, like the trunk of a tree. If you sit up straight and imagine a line from the crown of your head down to your perineum, this is where your core is located. Your core is the part of your body where you are the most you. When you want to feel your self, this is the place to look. When you want to know how you feel, this is the place to sense into. Your thoughts arise in your head, but your sensations and feelings arise in your body, and mostly in your core. If you want to build a stronger felt sense of self, putting your attention on your core is the place to start.

Your core is shaped like a column and includes your spine and the space just in front of it. You may experience it as having any width, from very narrow to wider than your body. The way you sense your core may be mostly kinesthetic, mostly visual, or even auditory. How you sense it is not so important, as long as you’re able to sense it somehow. I suggest that you make sensing your core a daily practice.

Physically sensing your own core is both a subtle and a profound experience. It is subtle in that the felt sense will never be as vivid as poking your palm with a pencil or grabbing your wrist with the other hand. It is profound in that it gives you a direct experience of actually existing here in the physical plane as a physical being. You no longer have to infer your existence from getting others to acknowledge you, listing your accomplishments, or seeing your face in a mirror. Instead, you have a direct, felt sense of existing, a direct feeling and knowing of yourself. For some, this is an entirely new experience.

At first, it will probably be hard to tell whether you’re actually feeling something or only imagining that you’re feeling something. Don’t let that discourage you. As you continue putting your attention on your core, the sensations will gradually become stronger. Remember that you’re also strengthening your attention by doing this practice. Just like a muscle, your attention becomes stronger the more you exercise it. As your attention becomes stronger, you’ll begin to feel your core more vividly. Remember to put your attention on the entire length of your core, from the crown of your head down to your perineum, not just on one point, like your heart or your belly.

Feeling yourself so vividly may trigger many different emotional reactions within you. You may simply feel present and calm, or you may feel elated to know that you actually exist. You may feel afraid that you’re doing something wrong, or you may feel empty, as if something is missing. You may feel spacious, which is similar to emptiness but without a sense of lack. All sorts of thoughts and feelings may arise. Don’t let those throw you. Note them, but bring your attention gently back to the practice of simply sensing your core. Each of those feelings contains information for you, and it may take some time for your body to process them and distill that information for you, but you can let that happen at its own pace and in its own time. No need to rush, and no need to worry that you’re doing it wrong. Just let the experience unfold within you bit by bit, over time.

Gradually, as your felt sense of your self/core gets stronger, you will feel yourself more vividly and know what you want and don't want with more certainty. You will begin to hear your own voice more strongly within you. You will want to speak it aloud and want others to hear it and respect it. You will begin to feel an internal strength and solidity, which will allow you to stay present in the face of big waves of emotion, whether they're flowing through you or through others.

Naturally, this will change how you relate to others, but more importantly, it will change how you relate to yourself. As you become more real to yourself, you will treat yourself with more care, love, and respect. As you feel yourself more vividly, a new sense of self-confidence will arise within you. Finally, you will know with certainty that you exist, you are here, and you matter.

For audio recordings on how to develop a felt sense of core, click here.

  • Thank you very much for this. And your book is great!
    I haven’t seen remarks about energy in any other sources of information. Yet it is extremely useful understanding as it corresponds to how it really feels.

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