Resonant Listening and the Power of “Feeling Felt”

“Wonderful things happen when people feel felt, when they sense that their minds are held within another’s mind,” reflects Dan Siegel, a UCLA psychiatrist and prominent theorist in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, as he describes his concept of “mindsight”.

What does it mean to “feel felt” and how does this experience enhance healing in psychotherapy?

“Feeling felt” implies empathy paired with acceptance and presence. It engenders not only understanding, but also resonance. Two people sharing a sacred and respectful space. Being there together, without judgment, pressure, or agenda. Holding curiosity, welcoming what comes. Discovering together the experience or meaning that unfolds organically. In such moments, time slows; wonder grows; awe is possible. Perhaps this is what Siegel imagines when he describes our “minds [being] held within another’s mind.”

Many traditions teach us how to listen resonantly and to offer healing through the process of discovery that follows.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy teaches therapists to listen carefully to both the conscious and the unconscious mind. Clients learn to become introspective and to attend to the free associations of their thoughts and the emergence of their feelings and fantasies. Analytic skills decipher patterns, identify themes, and glean insights in the service of deepening understanding and bringing to awareness the longings, conflicts or emotions that are just beneath the surface.

Helping a client to feel known and valued even for disowned aspects of the self creates healing potential. Normalizing a client’s feelings offers affirmation. Validating a client’s desires contributes to greater emotional freedom. When we know ourselves better, we can choose more wisely. When we feel recognized and accepted by another, we can more easily accept ourselves. Jonathan Shedler’s review of the therapy efficacy research literature attests to the power of psychodynamic processes even when incorporated in primarily cognitive behavioral interventions.

Sensorimotor psychotherapy also cultivates resonant listening through its particular focus on the story told by the body as well as through the client’s verbal narrative, non-verbal communication and interactional patterns. Psychologist Pat Ogden, founder of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, encourages therapists to track the implicit memory and learning expressed in clients’ postures, gestures and movements. Our bodies hold not only the procedures by which we survived trauma but also the wisdom of how we negotiated attachment relationships in early development.

By noticing present moment experience together, Ogden’s strategy of “embedded relational mindfulness” can facilitate the path to Siegel’s concept of “feeling felt.” In “Sensorimotor Psychotherapy,” Ogden and her co-author, Janina Fisher, illustrate how mindfulness questions and directives invite clients to observe, without judgment, what is unfolding in the moment: beliefs, emotions, impulses, sensations, memories or images. The language in the book, as well as in Fisher’s webinars, beautifully demonstrates how curiosity and compassion foster the shared state of mindful exploration that, in turn, can support mindsight.

When psychotherapy traditions embrace resonant listening, therapist and client discover together the imprints of earlier traumas or attachment wounds. Together they also notice what is different or possible now given the client’s current resources, including the availability of the therapeutic relationship. What was once experienced alone, and perhaps in fear, can now be “held in mind” in the presence of a caring co-listener.

Psychodynamic and sensorimotor traditions teach us to discover that which is yearning to be healed. Once recognized, especially in the context of a relationship with a curious and compassionate other, wonderful things can indeed happen.