During the 1960’s, the psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin asked a simple question: why do some people make progress in psychotherapy, while others don’t — and what is happening within those individuals who are benefiting from therapy?
After analyzing hundreds of taped therapy sessions, Gendlin and his team discovered that they could accurately predict after one or two sessions whether or not therapy would be successful. Surprisingly, positive outcomes were not linked to the orientation of the therapist, but rather to what these clients were doing within themselves.
The key finding was that successful clients were attending to their inner world in a particular kind of way. They were slowing down their speech and quietly searching for words or images that resonated with an inner “felt sense” of their life concerns. As feelings and “felt meanings” came into clearer focus, these clients experienced new openings, insights, or a “felt shift” in how they were holding life concerns.
As explained in Dancing with Fire:
Focusing is a path of self-inquiry that welcomes nuanced experiences that we often overlook. We gently bring awareness into our bodies, which is where feelings and sensations reside. We allow and befriend whatever we are experiencing in a way that permits the stuck places to loosen … moving us toward greater peace, freedom, and wisdom.
Attending to Our Body
The clients who were making progress were not in their heads trying to analyze their problems or figure out solutions. They were engaged in a deeper, bodily-felt inquiry into with what they were experiencing inside. They grappled with vague, unclear feelings and sensations until something emerged that made sense to them, which often led to a shift in how they were experiencing troubling issues.
Gendlin emphasizes that he did not invent Focusing, he merely observed it in people who had positive outcomes in therapy. He crafted teachable steps so that others could tap into this natural process. As with any creative process, other Focusing practitioners have revised these steps or taken the process in other directions.
Tom was annoyed because his partner wasn’t spending enough time with him. As I invited him to allow space for his anger, he noticed a tight sensation in his chest and jumpiness in his abdomen. As he gently attended to this unclear feeling without trying to fix anything, something more subtle emerged. He began to notice a sad, lonely feeling. The word “disconnected” came to him, which expressed the felt sense of how this situation was living inside him.
Tom was easily prone to anger, but he was not comfortable with his more vulnerable feelings. As our sessions progressed, he slowly became more accepting of his sense of sadness, loneliness, and disconnection. As he found the courage to contact and convey these more tender feelings to his partner, he experienced her softening and being receptive to him. As he befriended his more tender feelings, a field was created in which she felt safer to move toward him, which is what he was longing for.
Applications of Focusing
Focusing Oriented Therapy (FOT) is one application of Focusing. In addition, since Focusing taps into a core creative process, it is also being used in areas as diverse as healing, creative writing, spirituality, art therapy and movement. Focusing also has may parallels with the practice of mindfulness — attending to whatever we’re experiencing inside from moment to moment.
People who have learned Focusing sometimes pair up in Focusing partnerships, taking turns attending to themselves while the other person listens and reflects back the feelings being expressed.
Psychologist John Gottman’s research has discovered some key factors that lead to divorce. When criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness are common features of our partnerships (the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse), there is often a slippery slope toward disconnection and separation.
Focusing creates a space where we can gently befriend the feelings that underlie these 4 Horsemen. Rather than be critical or contemptuous, we can uncover more nuanced fears, hurts, and vulnerabilities, as Tom did in the above example. As he befriended his own deeper feelings, his partner felt more emotionally connected with him..
Gendlin never copyrighted the terms “Focusing” or “felt sense” because he generously wanted these to be freely available. Terms such as “felt sense” have found their way into other therapeutic approaches. For example, Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, invites people to attend to their felt sense as one important part of the process of healing from trauma. He cites Gendlin in his excellent book, Waking the Tiger. Gendlin has emphasized that Focusing works well in combination with other approaches.
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