Body Focusing: Learning to Listen to Your Body’s Wisdom

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Having an eating disorder can be absolutely exhausting. I was asked by a member of my care team to list the rules I had going on, both explicitly food related and not. I managed seventy four in about twenty minutes, many of which directly contradicted one another.

Eating disorders are very much ‘rules based’ – even though those rules can shift, make no rational sense, and are of detriment to a good quality of life – and there is immense fear about giving them. Because to loosen the rules might mean to slacken off completely, to end up running out of control, and slipping away.

There can be a tendency with eating disorders to live very much in the mind, seeking external rules and thinking through life, neglecting or shunning the emotional aspects of life.

An inner feeling that something may or may not be right for you is secondary to a decree from outside, and even when we do feel something, that emotion is often greeted with judgement or condescension. Feeling sad, lonely, or annoyed is uncomfortable, and to stay in that place hurts – hence why eating disorders develop as a way to numb very painful feelings.

A course at City Lit in London titled Body Wisdom introduced me to this idea. It was part of the Psychology, Counselling and Personal Development faculty and facilitated by Christine Sheringham. The aim was to teach practical exercises through which participants could develop an ability to sense and listen to the body’s own knowing, cultivating a supportive partnership with ourselves and our internal insight. Informed by experiments by Eugene Gendlin into what made therapy successful, the weekend involved discussion and practice for cultivating the key concept of focusing – the felt sense, a body sensation that is meaningful.

The practice of body focusing is one of learning to be kind to one’s own experience, and developing a relationship with the whole body. 

Spending time with it, sometimes difficult and challenging time, can allow us to get to listen in and begin to trust the messages it is sending. Trust, in any situation, comes from building up a relationship, over time, and the same is true for our relationship with ourselves. By tuning into the subtle fluctuations and nuances of our bodies we become better readers of it.

There are a few steps in (body) focusing, each building on the previous.

  1.       What can I feel? What sensations are in my body? What do I notice?
  2.       What word, gesture or image symbolises that feeling?
  3.       Does that symbol fit? How does the body mediate it? Does it resonate with me?
  4.       What feeling is there? Has anything shifted?

There will be sensations we don’t like, parts that feel awkward, or feelings of pain. Body focusing teaches us to use those feelings as information, to listen to what they have to say, and move on. We can be curious without being judgemental. Things are there, and ignoring them does not make them go away. Building the capacity to be present with one’s own experience – a presence that involves qualities of sincerity, stillness, attention and interest is something that is a valuable skill to have in life. It’s a way to open ourselves up to something new and live, and create the space for possibility. And that’s what recovery is – possibility of a new life.

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