Level three – Felt meaning
Beyond routine emotions and situational emotions, Gendlin sees a further, more complex, emotionally-relevant experience that human beings have developed. This is the capacity to broaden one’s attention to notice the felt qualities of a whole situation that contextualises a series of specific situational emotions or feelings of routine emotionality. Here, attention is widened to find a ‘felt’ quality to ‘what we are in’. Implicit to this is that a felt quality can form that tells us more about the relational/functional background that is ‘before’ and ‘larger than’ the delineation of specific situational emotions. This felt background can be directly sensed as a quality in itself, and then reflected upon, to differentiate a number of situational emotions. as well as routine emotions, that may interact and change from one to another. One is then not focused on a particular emotion, but focused on a broader, felt quality that encompasses a number of emotionally-relevant experiences and situations. Such a focus brings a more fluid experience. This dimension emphasises how our experiences are holistic and interrelated. Such interrelated and holistic dimensions can themselves have felt qualities larger and more complex than particular routine or situational emotions.
Gendlin uses the example of ‘being in’ a situation with a policeman. One may simply get ‘sucked into’ a routinized emotion such as fear or anger, or a specific situational emotion such as a sense of quiet caution. Being simply moved by the sense of quiet caution may result in a particular trajectory of behaviour, one possibility being, to act in an excessively unquestioning way. So, in such a situation, getting ‘sucked into’ the situational emotion may become a habitual pattern that reduces the likelihood of responding in other possible ways that require novelty. A felt meaning is a broader focus. In noticing and feeling the quality of the whole complex experience, it first comes as a feeling of “all that”. As human beings living with language, we are able to symbolise and describe “all that”. “All that” turns out to be much more than just one routine or situational emotion to which we may automatically react (either by repressing or expressing). In attending to felt meaning, the interrelationship of a number of emotion-implying meanings may emerge. To quote Gendlin(1973) , this level of felt meaning comes when “I put myself into this whole situation I am up against, rather that just this already thinly defined routine patter.” p389.
A number of different levels of personal meaning and context may become more explicit when this broader ‘having’ of ones situation is attended to. So, for example, “in” attending to a broad felt meaning that may first look like a ‘feeling of threatened constraint’, a number of different feelings, levels and meanings may emerge: the felt importance of where I was going, the feeling that I have allowed others to control me too often in the past, that it is important for me not to stereotype the policeman, that there is “all that” about my need to keep the peace ( a long story which seems to resonate with many other personal stories). “All this” and more is “in” the felt meaning and contains endlessly more facets than can possibly be separated out.
Yet one can have “all this” in the immediacy of a felt meaning as a whole, even though it may take time to articulate and symbolise what is “in” it. Such felt meaning comes in wholes rather than parts. Gendlin thus sees this level of attending to experience as a particularly human emergent capacity, one that announces an ability to ‘stand back’ and feel the quality of the “all that” that enters into the constitution of specific emotions. He would say that the felt meaning of an “all that” is different than, and more complex than, routine and situational emotions. The main differences are that it breaks the routine between feeling and action, and can find a more specific ‘next step’ that takes account of the personal complexity of the situation. This may allow the possibility of a form of emotional intelligence that does not rely on mere general logic and rationality, but which can be informed by the more holistic intelligence of one’s uniquely situated, emotional context, in relation to one’s personal identity and history.
So what relevance may Gendlin’s distinctions have for emotional processing?
Emotional processing: unpacking the fullness of emotions
Gendlin developed a form of therapeutic emotional processing which he calls ‘focusing’. It partially addresses his concern that our theory of emotions has substituted ‘thin schemes’ for the complexity of concretely lived experience. Thus, for example, he was critical of ‘energetic’ theories of emotion that encouraged ‘catharsis’:
“It is a silly notion that anger is some sort of hostility fluid that is simply in people and has to be got out by catharting” (Gendlin, 1973, p.385).
His method of focusing involves two essential components:
● broadening attention to the felt meaning level that is larger than specific routine and situational emotions, —– allowing the felt quality of ‘how things are’, to form
● neither repressing this experience nor reacting to it, but differentiating the ‘facets’ of it in language and checking the credibility of these ‘facets’ experientially in relation to the ‘felt sense’ to see whether they are distinctions that ‘fit’.
These two components move back and forth in which new descriptions change the felt meanings in the body and the changed felt meanings become further described. The benefits of this experiencing-symbolising process is that it goes in both an inner and outer direction. In broadening inner attention, one feels what may ‘be there’ beyond the routine, repetitious and general ways of labelling one’s experience and emotion. This increases felt credibility and a heightened sense of oneself as a unique person. In symbolising or languaging this inner attention, one moves outward to forms of possible interaction and responsiveness that are more nuanced and more novel than the action-sequences that have been patterned by more routine and situated emotions. Emotions can still carry great power and depth, but may ‘fit’ the uniqueness and novelty of ‘this’ particular moment more intelligently.
“One gets past routine pattern or anger when letting oneself feel the whole situation. Only here is uniqueness. The felt meaning is also patterned , but so multiply patterned as so richly related to so much else, that it can only be felt as a whole and not via given sequences, however many.” p389
“Without the felt meaning made to come home to me whole, I would simply be in the routine patterns.” p390
Gendlin does not want to control or repress routine or situational emotions. The level of focusing on felt meaning, however, gives them a more fluid context and a greater possible freedom for flexible expression. Each of the three levels of emotionally related experience are ultimately implicated and enfolded into one another, but the broader ones re-organise and re-direct the narrower.
In conclusion, it could be said that Gendlin recommends a form of emotional processing that attends to the ‘more’ of emotion, and sees a developmental emergence in our increasing capacity to experience, differentiate and act from these ‘mores’.