“How does that make you feel?”

Is there any bigger cliché in therapy than asking a client that question? A friend of mine said to me, “That question is so made fun of in our culture, how do you even ask it with a straight face?”

And yet I do. It is, day in and day out, in my therapeutic practice, one of the most useful questions that I ask. So let me explain why. 

First of all, asking someone how they feel is a mindfulness question. Put another way, I’m asking: can you bring your attention to how you are in the present moment and then report that back to me? I can’t think of a single human being where the ability to pause and be present with what is happening inside is not a vital skill that needs practicing. And it is important that I work with my clients to practice this.

Secondly, I’m interested in how you, as my client, will answer. Will you respond by saying, “I feel that…”? That’s important information, because I know you are going to a cognitive place, either not knowing how to check in with your physical sensations and emotional states in the present moment or wanting to avoid doing so. That gives me an idea of a direction to go in. Or maybe you answer, “I feel bad” or “I feel great about it.” Then I know that while you’re aware of your feelings, you’re making a judgment, which is again a cognitive function, and so I want to be curious about what puts you there (not knowing how to just be with your feelings without judging them, or not wanting to?). Or do you take the moment to check in and say, “Nothing”? Again, I’m curious- is this “nothing” as in “I don’t care”, nothing as in “I’m numb”, or nothing as in “I don’t know how to answer that question”? 

Lastly, I want to know the what of how you feel. Are you angry, scared, joyful, content? Is there a lump in your throat, do you have sweaty palms, is your heart beating faster? Once you can be in the present moment with your feelings and bodily sensations and can communicate those to me, I can reflect and join you. And then we have, if only for a few seconds, the connected, compassionate relationship that is the foundation, not only of a strong bond in therapy, but of what research has demonstrated is the foundation of all healthy human relationships.

And from that kind of beginning, where can we not go?

Research shows that it is the lack of a consistent, present-focused, and accepting connection in people’s lives that can cause or worsen many mental health conditions from which people suffer. If you feel a lack of presence in your life and are interested in learning the skills to cultivate and maintain connected relationships, contact a therapist who specializes in mindfulness, attachment, and communication.