Why do therapists ask, "where do you feel that in your body?"
Updated: May 31
The rationale behind this involves the relationship between the way we experience our emotions, and the way we put that experience into words. Research into the neuroscience of emotions demonstrates that emotions are primarily body based. For instance, we may know we are angry by the tightness in our chest and arms, or joy through the lightness in our belly (among other sensations).
In the first several years of life, we engage in the task of gradually learning to associate words and meaning with these bodily sensations. It is the job of the “good-enough”* caregiver to attune to what the infant might be feeling, and correctly mediate and soothe the experience for them. Over time, it is the caregiver(s) and the broader familial/social milieu which links inner experience with linguistic representations. Thus, a crucial developmental task is accomplished by giving names to our experiences and it is this task that serves as a core method of emotion regulation and modulation. As infants, we don't understand that our discomfort is caused by hunger, rather we experience a tempest of “raw affect.” It is the role of the caregiver to understand (represent) this for us, and act accordingly. For example, as adult we are accustomed to understand the gurgling feeling in our stomach as the representation of hunger, which we can soothe through having a snack.
The same process is at play when we recognise ourselves as feeling sad, angry or afraid.
Unfortunately, this process can go wrong. Parents who cannot accurately reflect on their children's inner experiences and respond accordingly deprive their children of a core psychological structure needed for development; they disrupt the correspondence between inside reality and outside reality. For instance, a child who was consistently told that their feelings of sadness were in fact just fatigue and they need to have a nap, may develop inauthentic representations of various self states. If the child cannot accurately bridge the connection between outside and inside, its affect, its felt sense of self, will remain a mystery to it. On this, Fonagy and colleagues (2002) state -
"If the caregiver has presented affect displays to the infant that correspond poorly to the child's constitutional self-state, affect regulation will be based on second-order representations of affects that do not have strong connections with constitutional self-states. Inaccurate mirroring by the caregiver will lead to emotional experiences that cannot be experienced as true." (p.15)
Thus, by applying mindful attention in the presence of a caring other, we can strive to reestablish, explore and develop the links between inner and outer reality. Simply put, when a therapist asks “where do you feel that in your body?” it presents an opportunity to go beyond the historical representations we have acquired and get to the heart of our authentic experience of self in the moment.
*Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott found that meeting the child's needs just 30% of the time is sufficient to create happy, securely attached children.
Winnicott D. W. (1968). The Child, The Family & The Outside World. Penguin Books.
Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E. L., & Target, M. (2002). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, & The Development Of The Self. Karnak.
Weiss H. (2015). Hakomi Mindfulness-Centered Somatic Psychotherapy: A Comprehensive Guide to Theory & Practice. W.W. Norton & Company.
Ogden P. Minton K. & Pain C. (2006). Trauma & The Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. W.W. Norton & Company.