So what happened when I immersed myself in the attachment theory story?
First, I set it as my Hamming problem—my limiting reagent, the thing that, if solved, would solve a bunch of my other problems.
The Goal: To see if I could obtain an "earned secure" attachment style.
Then, I tried things, in service of this goal, mostly in the area of introspection and internal dialogue.
Focusing is one technique for this. It was developed by Eugene Gendlin, who did a bunch of research into what made therapy successful or unsuccessful. He distilled the results of his findings into this book, which describes the process.
The way I typically do Focusing is:
- I take a recent event in my life that caused a confusing or less-than-ideal emotional reaction.
- I get myself in a comfortable and relaxed position.
- I try to recall the emotion such that it inhabits my body (this often causes my body to respond with some kind of tension or pressure in my chest, neck, shoulders, or other body parts).
- I ask for its name to get some form of response and open up a conversation.
When an emotion inhabits my body, it evokes what is called a "felt sense." A felt sense is the combined somatic / bodily experiences and sensations occurring within me. Trying to access it is a little like doing mindfulness meditation—but rather than letting each thing pass through me, I want to hone in on the felt sense so that I can interact with it.
If you happen to be in a quiet, calm place and relatively undistracted, you can try to access a felt sense now:
- Recall a recent time when you were excited by something or frustrated by something, whichever happens to come to mind.
- Once you've recalled the event (perhaps playing the movie in your mind), notice what's going on in your body.
- Try to describe the specific sensations. There may be pressure, heat, a feeling of lightness or heaviness, colors, images, tingling, urges to move, or any number of responses from the body.
A more thorough explanation of felt senses can be found here.
Asking the Felt Sense Questions
Some part of me is embodying the particular emotion / felt sense I'm focused on. Behind the felt sense lies something that might provide more insight into why that part feels that way. The goal here is to try to converse with it.
I ask the part of me that is feeling the emotion / felt sense to try to name or briefly describe the emotion. Sometimes an answer comes up—sometimes in words and sometimes in images. Examples of phrases include "can't move", "afraid of disappointment", or "jealous."
I often get stuck on this part, and no words or images come up. Or I feel like I'm feeding it answers instead of letting it tell me. An alternative approach that might work better is to just ask it questions like "what would happen if..." or "how does it feel to be you" or "are you okay with talking right now." The trick is to let myself get curious and genuinely want to know the answers. If I can be open and accepting, my timid parts feel safer communicating.
What tends to follow is a sort of dialogue. It's important to recognize that the parts aren't necessarily good with words, not having direct access to speech centers. So sometimes they'll produce images or metaphors, or they might need some time to put things into words, or they'll use short / unsophisticated phrasings.
One time I was feeling something like helplessness or anxiety. When I focused on it, it produced an image of me facing a giant tower. It was so tall that I couldn't see the top, and it didn't have a staircase, but I knew I wanted to get to the top somehow. Unfortunately, from where I was, it seemed like the task would be utterly beyond me.
Here one could ask questions of the felt sense, like "What happens if you don't get to the top?" or "How does the whole problem about the tower feel?" or "What else is there about this tower?"
I didn't get to this though, as I soon realized that the tower image didn't quite match the felt sense. Something was wrong with it. I then noticed what it was: The means to "getting to the top" was obviously to climb it from the outside, perhaps using a rope, and it felt more like the problem I was facing did not have an obvious solution.
Another image surfaced then—that of a gated oasis. The gate was locked from the inside. There were no clear ways in. But I knew I desperately wanted to go inside. The desert around me was vast—an unpromising search space that I didn't want to venture into. Not when there was a nice oasis right in front of me!
I checked the oasis image by mentally holding it next to the felt sense and found that it matched this time.
Initially, I felt some kind of fear about not getting into the oasis, as though it were life or death ("How do you feel about this whole thing?"). But after further questioning ("What happens if you don't get into the oasis?"), the fear dissolved, and I felt more like it would just be a lot of work to go find another oasis or build my own. I preferred to enter this oasis, but it wasn't my only option. The desert was merely large, not completely void of life.
Then, I had another realization, which was that actively trying to get into the oasis was probably not the right approach anyway. Better to focus on other things—like becoming useful to others or attempting to create my own oasis. Pounding my fists at the gate would be a complete waste of energy!
That may have all been rather cryptic, but the oasis and the desert were metaphors for real things, real problems I was facing in my life. The image arose from the depths of my mind, without any conscious work on my part. All I had to do was ask that original feeling of helplessness about itself.
Seeing the image helped me come to some realizations about the problem I hadn't considered before. The oasis and the desert served as a useful metaphor for framing both the problem and some potential solutions.
(I also drew the oasis on some scratch paper and showed other people. This made me happy.)
Other times I've done this have been much less image-heavy and more like an actual dialogue with words going back and forth. This tends to look like one part of me (the curious, compassionate part) asking a bunch of questions like "what's the worst of it" and "why do you feel like x" and so forth. And the other part of me (the one embodying the feeling / felt sense) answering the questions, either in words or bodily sensations or emotional reactions.
For more information on this process, check the Wikipedia page on Focusing.
The use of metaphor specifically is described in its own entire framework called Symbolic Modeling. A thorough description, with examples and questions, exists here. Thanks to Brian for the find!
I also found a video that talks about Focusing with another version of the steps at the end. (Warning: It might be annoying to some of you, as she talks rather slowly.)