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Experiential Focusing and Twelve Step Recovery

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by Steve Crawford, MA

After being in Sacramento for a year, my life had truly become unmanageable with the unhappy demise of yet another personal relationship. I sought out a 12 Step recovery meeting which I attended faithfully and shortly thereafter I joined a supportive church. I continued in these groups for several years benefiting greatly from both. One day I came to the surprising realization that I had not gone to either group in over six weeks and had not missed them. What had changed, I wondered, that I did not even notice my non–participation in these formerly strong supportive pillars of my recovery? I had learned Focusing experiential processing and was practicing it regularly. Focusing I discovered adds a depth of meaning to my recovery and it can bring an experience of connectedness to something more, something greater than myself.

Experiential Focusing can be quite useful for allowing the spiritual program of the Twelve Step Recovery process to be experienced and realized in a bodily way. Actual change in one’s life of recovery goes faster and is realized at a deeper level than without Focusing. This article examines how Focusing allows personal growth to occur and how the Experiential Focusing process parallels the 12 Step Recovery process. The integration of disconnected parts within is the equivalent of personal growth and ultimately can be the equivalent of spiritual development. I discuss what is and what is not spiritual from my understanding of both the 12 Step process and Experiential Focusing. I also consider how a refined sense of connectedness within leads to an appreciation of enhanced qualities of relationship in Focusing Oriented Recovery. Along the way I will examine each of the 12 Steps and consider its relevance to the process of growth or personal evolution and its relationship to spiritual development.

Focusing Oriented Recovery

Using Focusing with issues in recovery and personal growth helps resolve feelings of shame, fear, grief, and anger. Focusing also helps to let go of symptomatic behavior such as depression, denial, and even addictions themselves. Developing the capacity to be with the bodily sense of each in a Focusing way allows *them* to feel heard, understood, and accepted. Carl Rogers states that to be deeply understood and accepted is to feel loved. My experience is that when parts within feel loved, they de–escalate in intensity and move in the direction of resolution or simply relaxing. It is this shift into relaxation of previously impacted or denied parts that is a hallmark of personal integration or recovery. It is also a hallmark of a growing inner sense of connectedness and a sense of connectedness to life. This deep sense of inner and outer connectedness can be called our inherent spirituality. It feels good. Through use of a 12 Step Recovery program, the inherent spirituality discovered in Focusing can be nurtured and strengthened. The 12 Step process of recovery greatly supports the outward expression of inner integration. The tender shoots of new inner growth, of Focusing discoverer Eugene Gendlin’s metaphor, are protected by the strengthening ego boundaries and developing social sophistication learned in a 12 Step Recovery program. A focus of the Co–Dependents Anonymous 12 Step Recovery program, for example, is to develop the ability to create healthy relationships with self and others. Thus its goal is partially directed to increasing social sophistication, skills and abilities, outer directed activities. This contrasts with the Experiential Focusing process which concentrates almost exclusively on learning how one’s inner processes occur.

Focusing Oriented Recovery combines elements of both approaches. To the 12 Step Recovery process, Focusing adds a wealth of sophistication on how to process or integrate one’s experiences and feelings within one’s body and life right now. To the Focusing process, the 12 Steps teach one how to create an environment in which such inner sensitivity can be safe and flourish. One learns how to build a life that works, that feels good. Their combination is far greater than the sum of their parts, as an individual applying both approaches can gain equally sophisticated inner and outer understanding. Experience in 12 Step communities convinces me that many members would stand to benefit from learning precisely how their own inner processing works. These individuals will be able to more readily apply the 12 Step process in their own lives with rewarding outcomes. They will more rapidly realize an enjoyment of the Promises of their recovery program while learning to process their life experiences. Likewise some who practice Focusing may benefit from learning how to create and maintain successful human relationships individually and in community. This can be learned and experienced in specific 12 Step Recovery programs by applying the Steps in one’s life.

Focusing Oriented Recovery allows one to develop inner and outer sophistication. A person can learn the intricacies of her inner process through practicing Experiential Focusing. She can learn how to create relationships of encompassing intimacy through 12 Step Recovery. Both processes aim to promote learning to differentiate various qualities in relations: Focusing primarily within oneself and the 12 Step process also in relation to others and in community. In addition both processes share a spiritual basis when spirituality is defined as relating to the quality of relationship, as does Charles Whitfield, M.D. amongst others.

Integration as Personal and Spiritual Evolution

Focusing helps with the integration of previously disconnected parts which is so important in recovery work. This includes strengthening of self–identity, identifying the parent/critic and child sub–personalities within, and empowering the adult persona. By using the Experiential Focusing process one learns to identify the particular sensations in one’s body as these states are active and through the willingness to be with them *they* unfold. Rather than acting out these states and feelings unconsciously or simply ignoring them, one becomes aware of how they are manifesting bodily right now.

“Ah” you may find yourself saying, “there you are again, my poor hurting little boy” as you put a figurative arm around the hurting part while its fear and grief claim your soothing attention for a time. Or to a critical parent within: “I hear you, yes you do want the best for me, thank you very much for sharing”. These are familiar self–Focusing scenarios. A Focuser encountering such an inner drama who is familiar with the 12 Steps might remember at this point to “Let go and let God” (Step Three) and not displace the inner conflict into the outer world, but continue to stay with the inner parts which are present. This is key: staying with a part as it appears to tell its story until it feels heard, understood and accepted, then enjoying the shift into a sense of connectedness. A willingness to be with what appears is a prerequisite for that inner part to change.

As I will discuss later a bodily sense of meaningful connectedness feels good and is the equivalent of a “Higher Power” or God. Letting go and letting God in this context is the same as not resisting what appears inwardly, in other words, a willingness to be with what is currently being experienced. This willingness lets God or “Higher Power” manifest bodily. Since “Higher Power” is manifesting in the body core I prefer to call it our “Deepest Place” which is in here and not out there or up there somewhere else.

Likewise a 12 Step practitioner who knows Focusing and experiences an inner event such as fear, grief or anger relating to her hurting inner child or critical parent might inwardly recognize it as a key piece of her personal inventory. She would then have additional resources with which to process it (Step 4 through 7). “Ah” she may say, “there you are again my scared and sad inner little girl. Sit down right here next to me and tell me what is so scary”. And she may recall many things which relate to this particular sub–personality or feeling sense (Step Four) which she tells her Focusing partner (Step Five). Continuing Focusing in a Recovery vein she may experience a deep willingness to be with all of this as she experiences it in her body right now (Step Six). Finally she may assume the Focusing posture of “asking”: What else wants to come and be known? What does it need or want? What does it want for me? What does it not need or want? What does it believe? What does it believe about me? Her posture remains one of willingness to hear, fully understand and unconditionally accept what is now present for her (Step Seven). She is willing to love what comes. She has opened herself to the action of grace in her life. She has put herself in a posture to receive the manifesting gifts of her deepest power, a sense of meaningful connectedness to ‘more’, and perhaps to ‘all’, in her body core right now.

She has let go and let God (Step Three) through the combined action of Experiential Focusing and the 12 Step Recovery framework. For her this conscious participation in the manifesting of her deepest and most powerful place feels good and right, or certainly better. She begins to enjoy a growing confidence that she can experience personal evolutionary growth through enjoying a deep sense of meaningful connectedness to her life. Her inherent spirituality emerges from the deep background into the forefront of her present life and she begins enjoying the Promises of a 12 Step Recovery program. It feels good.

Twelve Steps of Focusing Oriented Recovery

Let’s take a look at each of the Twelve Steps of Co–Dependents Anonymous as they relate to Focusing. My understanding of the Steps that follow has been shaped by personal efforts in Focusing Oriented Recovery and by studying the works of Peter Campbell, Ph.D., Edwin McMahon, Ph.D., Eugene Gendlin, Ph.D., and Charles Whitfield, M.D.

*Step One:* “We admitted that we were powerless over others—that our lives had become unmanageable”.

In Focusing Oriented Recovery the compulsion to control the social environment is replaced with the capacity to be with and hear the parts and places within ourselves. As *they* feel understood and accepted, there is a growing understanding that our power is within and not in others. Paradoxically, we also gain the ability to be with, hear, and know others. By developing the quality of our inner relationships, our life relationships, life purpose and goals can clarify and qualitatively improve. But as the First Step suggests, we must initially recognize that our power to control others is inherently weak and that by exclusively attempting to meet our needs by controlling others our lives will be unmanageable. To effectively manage our lives we must look not to others but to developing an inner sophistication in our own selves through means such as the Experiential Focusing process.

Here in the very first step of a Recovery program we are given a broad framework to guide our experiential processing efforts: our inner psychological sophistication will net us far less satisfaction if we persist in the delusion that we can or should control others. This distorted belief merely leads to chaotic and painful relationships when put into practice, regardless of how refined are the qualities of our inner relations. A practitioner of Focusing will be disposed to understand that the First Step urges us to assume a similar posture in our life relationships as we adopt with what appears within: non–control, a willingness to be with what is.

For one familiar with a 12 Step Recovery program, the Experiential Focusing process offers the opportunity to explore precisely what it is within that wants to control or to have power over others. She can discover in intricate detail the roots of her compulsion to manipulate others, even for their own good, and the attendant unmanageability of her relationships. Through the practice of Focusing Oriented Recovery she can determine how the need to control feels right now in her body. A graceful gift of the Experiential Focusing process is that as these felt body sensations are attended to, heard, unconditionally accepted, and deeply understood, they change in the direction of resolving or relaxing. This feels good and eventually is accompanied by an extinguishing of the compulsive need to control the social environment. One gains an ability to refrain from a dance of misidentification as one’s inner parts are heard and integrated. Life relationships synergistically become manageable, indeed pleasurable.

*Step Two:* “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Focusing leads directly to a bodily experience of connectedness to such a powerful place. This can be experienced consistently and progressively and it feels good. Our belief in such a deep and powerful place is based on more than hope or even faith. It is based on a moment to moment experience of connectedness to such a place within ourselves. Our experience informs us bodily in this moment that something greater or deeper than our usual self is present. We feel deeply connected in our body core to a living sense of completion and contentment. We implicitly sense that nothing is lacking, that we are in touch with something more, even with all things. The shadow of sub–personalities, of false selves, fades before the radiant presence of such a deep and powerful place. Within our body being and throughout our life we feel, not separation, but sweet connectedness. In this moment there is no fear, anger, or grief. There is no insanity. In our body core we notice a stirring as though a flower is opening towards the light. We notice ourselves smiling in pleasurable communion with our deepest power. We are home and it feels good.

*Step Three:* “Made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God”.

This is not an invitation to *spiritual co–dependence* (Whitfield) but to becoming a co–creator in our lives with a deeper power than ourselves. Since it feels good and safe to connect with *more* and *all*, need we fear turning our will and lives over to this sense of connectedness? Not at all! It really can be safe to trust something besides our need for control. We gain trust in the desirability of experiencing ongoing connectedness with our deepest power as we notice the benign and positive effects of such contact. Our experience of life improves progressively as we continue to enjoy the transpersonal experience of our deepest place expressing in our bodies right now. What is there to fear? It feels good and emotionally safe, like talking to an old and trusted friend. There need be no sense of compulsion, rigidity, or emotional pain. This sense of relatedness is benign and calming, flowing from the deepest place within. Turning to face it is a deep pleasure, without shadow, as it flows up to meet us from deeper within the body core.

When experiencing this in our bodies while engaging the Experiential Focusing process alone or with a partner, we are connecting intimately with a place that feels familiar and nurturing. We are experiencing a place of openness and light within the core of our bodies. What shadows and fear may be in life have been acknowledged and embraced earlier in the Focusing session. They have relaxed, subsided, and perhaps resolved. We have opened ourselves within our body cores to an unconditional space of graceful connectedness. It is our present experience and it excludes nothing. It connects to everything in our lives. It feels like happiness. So why not trust this place? Why not yield my squirming and anxious need for rigid control which feels far more limited and much less happy? Why choose what is so much less? As adults we wish the best for ourselves and for those in our lives. It is so much easier to be friendly and happy. It is so much better and a whole lot more fun to rest as our deepest self. It’s an easy choice to make.

*Step Four:* “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

For those in recovery, this is the equivalent of the process of assessing “what is there that wants to come and be known”? Love what comes. What is within us, whether feelings, thoughts, or personas wants to be heard, deeply understood and unconditionally accepted. This does not mean that we must uncritically agree with every thought or feeling we may have, much less act on it. The experiential Focusing process teaches us how to be with what is appearing within our bodies in an accepting, non–judgmental way. We learn to embrace what is now present in a safe and caring manner. This creates a space for dis–identifying with what is in us so that we may know ourselves to be more than what has appeared. If the part, thought, feeling, or persona is a projection of someone else, we need not own it. Like a gift we refuse to accept, it may return to the giver.

Our fearless moral inventory requires us to own what we have created in a humble and honest manner. It requires us to be willing to face the truth about what is inside ourselves. In the early stages of this process many raw and painful emotions and feelings will likely present themselves to us for our understanding and acceptance. By loving them as they are, they will be able to heal and grow towards wholeness. In like manner, Focusing Oriented Recovery enables us to learn how to be with people, places and things in a way that works for us. We learn to critically assess what does and what does not work for ourselves. We discover who is safe and how much space is needed from those who may not be. We learn to cease being sincere with that which harms us. We find out who our friends are. Our emotional intelligence multiplies steadily as we uncover who we are and who we are not. Our lives and the quality of our relationships improve as we learn to tell the truth about what we can and cannot do. Finally the courageous inventory process will include all inner and outer realities that we may be aware of. Our lives will flow forward unimpeded, naturally. All things will conspire to reflect and support our grounding in our deepest and most powerful place.

*Step Five:* “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”.

Admitting the exact nature of our ‘wrongs’ (or of what is there) paradoxically allows for transformation towards something more, towards “all.” As an initial stage in working Step Five, admitting our wrongs to ourselves and to another human being is essential self–honesty. We will never gain the ability to be compassionately present with what is within ourselves if we cannot first face our own darkness and shadows. Before one can reach the deepest place within, much surface turbulence may need to be honestly faced. Once the fearless self–inventory of Step Four has been performed, it is important that we honestly tell it all to another trusted individual, if only to help us face our own shame or self–judgment. This process will help us understand where our deepest place lies. Is it in the one we fear may condemn us? Or is our own judgment of ourselves far more damning? If we can face our fear of what another may think of our actions, of us, then we can begin to face our own self–judgment. Once we realize that our own great power to condemn ourselves is far greater than what another can inflict on us, the process of self–forgiveness can begin.

We wield awesome power over ourselves to damn and to heal. Before we can enjoy the nurturing grace of our deepest power, there must be fearless self–honesty. It must become all right with ourselves that we are miserable sinners, that we are horribly flawed, and that, finally, our bodies will die. This is not to excuse hurtful actions or to worship death. It is, however, the ultimate wake–up call: life, even mine, is fragile and vulnerable and it will cease as we know it today.

Where does that leave us? The Experiential Focusing process, engaged as a part of a spiritual recovery program can paradoxically point the way to something more within ourselves, within our very bodies. In here, deep within, I can find a place of openness and light. A place which radiates nurturing energy unconditionally. It requires I tell the truth about who I am and about who I am not. It requires I tell the truth to myself and to others about what I can and about what I cannot do.

The Focusing process can greatly help those in recovery in performing Step Five with intricate precision and with no self–judgment. We can learn more than to confess our flaws. Through practicing Focusing we can recognize what is actually here, right now. At first perhaps what is here may be dark and full of shadows. We learn to remain present with what is appearing now in a kind, caring and safe manner regardless of its qualities. Gradually it changes over time from darkness to light as it is heard, understood, and unconditionally accepted. We also learn by this process where our deepest place lies.

*Step Six:* “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character”

The willingness to be with what appears within, as we engage the Experiential Focusing process, is a prerequisite for its transformation. We will not experience our deepest, most powerful place of such transformation if we are not entirely ready for it to occur. In practicing my willingness to be with what comes forward to be known, in a kind and caring way, I clear a path for those parts to be integrated into me by my deepest power. My sense is that those parts within which are not mine will also naturally find their rightful place, if I am willing to be with them. Perhaps they return to their rightful owners or the ones who created them. It appears to me that they relax and depart. The effect is the same as for those parts which are my creation and which are integrated: they become transparent or non–problematic to me. It is my willingness to be connected with what comes forward that Step Six addresses. Where there is no sense of separation, i.e. compassionate connectedness rather than judgment, “defects of character” gracefully unfold over time as I remain willing to be with and hear them.

*Step Seven:* “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings”.

If I am completely willing to be with what is appearing inside as I engage the Focusing process, my deepest power is completely able to create the conditions for their transformation. Perhaps the parts within have the ability to change themselves and know the direction toward wholeness. In my asking them what they need, want, or believe, I consider them to also have a deep power of self–transmutation, and they respond accordingly. As we learn in Focusing, they can move another step towards relaxing or unfolding. This movement or shift in the inner sense invariably feels good or at least better. There arises a sense of forward movement or future possibilities. A sense of spaciousness about the feeling or the situation it represents may appear. Limitations or conditions dissolve with my unconditional willingness to be with, hear, understand, and accept them.

Seen from the perspective of Focusing oriented recovery, one can also be willing to be with the outer conditions of life. As with the inner process of change, the willingness to be with what is presently appearing in life creates the possibility of forward movement or positive change. When there is such willingness in me, a request for transformative change may elicit a graceful response from my deepest power and indeed, things change naturally. The operative principles for both the inner and outer realms are non–resistance to, and non–identification with, what is appearing right now. Just as the inner shift familiar to Focusers feels positive, so do such life changes.

*Step Eight: * “Made a list of all people we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all”

As in the process of working Step Five, the act of deeply considering who we have harmed is a humbling one. I am forced to look beyond my pain and possible feelings of victimization by others. I am being asked to courageously evaluate who I may have harmed at any time in my life. In doing this Step I face the uncomfortable fact that I may not simply be a blameless dupe or a misunderstood prey of others. In the course of making my casualty list, many unpleasant thoughts and feelings about myself will arise. Feelings of shame, guilt, or thoughts of worthlessness and inferiority may dominate my early considerations. I may realize a prime victim of my actions has been myself.

In finding the willingness to make amends to others and possibly to myself, the Focusing process allows me to deeply explore my part in such wounding. The gentle and emotionally safe Focusing method allows me to approach and listen to the parts within which have struck out at others in fear or anger. They are able to tell their stories and be heard by me. I have been able through Focusing to eventually deeply understand, and finally unconditionally accept, many of those hurting places. A deep grief buried beneath anger or fear may emerge as a result of such self–acceptance. This grieving may need to run its course for quite some time. Finally a humble willingness to take responsibility for my hurtful actions may arise. I have found a willingness to forgive even me for what I have done to others and to myself. I have become willing to tell the truth, even to myself, about what I have done to them and to me.

This self–honesty elicits a curious pleasure deep within my body core: I have faced the ugly facts about my actions and I have become willing to take responsibility for all of it. I have remained willing to be with my feelings about those hurtful actions. My willingness to remain compassionately present with even the darkest parts of myself paradoxically opens the way for the deepest places to stir with life. Now there is nothing denied, displaced, or disowned, between the place of my deepest power and myself. It is free to move and I am free to receive. Freedom is a deep pleasure. As in Step Five, here again I discover where my deepest power lies, again by the action of telling the truth to myself.

*Step Nine:* “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible”.

Telling the truth to another I have harmed about my part in the events and expressing my regret is a natural outcome of self–honesty. Admitting my mistake, owning it, and telling the truth about my genuine feelings over the circumstance, paradoxically allows me to enjoy a deeper sense of connection with myself. This process also allows myself and the other to avoid the projective identification dynamic. I own my part and they are free to own theirs without defensiveness.

One consequently learns to extend the sense of inner connectedness mastered in Focusing to the creation of enjoyable human relationships. Here is the crux and a prime benefit of joining the spiritual aspects of 12 Step practice to Focusing: in Focusing oriented recovery, relationships improve as I take responsibility and wrap up unfinished business. If spirituality is related to the quality of relationship, of relatedness, one can confidently enjoy this growing awareness within oneself and in ones life.

*Step Ten:* “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it”.

I have found that ongoing processing of “what wants to come and be known” leads to increased honesty with self and others. By connecting with a deeper power my personal authenticity grows. I remain in or am able to return to a posture of humble, honest relatedness within and without. As distortions arise within myself or in relationship to another, by promptly admitting them to myself and another, I return to an understanding of where my deepest power lies. Thus personal honesty in the social realm reinforces an experiential understanding of “what is”. I am led to understand where such deep power is located by telling the truth about who I am, about what I can do, about what I have done.

*Step Eleven:* “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out”.

This is the equivalent of a conscious, experiential relationship to “more” and to “all” which is a great thing and still feels good. My deepest power is not somewhere else or in someone else. It can be enjoyed bodily right now through the practice of experiential Focusing, particularly Biospiritual Focusing, which teaches how to access the deepest place within. Through Biospiritual Focusing, one learns how it feels in here to connect with *all*. This entirely natural and pleasurable experience feels good. It feels good to enjoy unconditional connectedness to everything, to a place beyond shadows.

As previously mentioned, the bodily experience of transpersonal or transcendent connection is the equivalent of directly and personally experiencing a Higher Power or God. This process of enjoyable relatedness to *all* can be learned through the practice of experiential Focusing. Through such practice we can learn what is the larger purpose of our life and also gain the understanding and power needed to carry it out successfully and enjoyably.

*Step Twelve:* “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs”.

Others will notice if Step Eleven is in effect and they will benefit particularly if I am approaching life with a willingness to be with what is. Focusing has allowed me to enjoy a deep sense of connectedness to what Twelve Step language called a “Higher Power.” I call it the deepest power which is within myself and my body and connects to everything. It is in here, not up there or out there in someone else.

Focusing helps me connect to “more” and also to “all” in a bodily way. Connectedness expresses the process of relationship with “what is” and experiential Focusing facilitates an actual sense of radical connectedness to everything. A willingness to be with what wants to come and be known is a prerequisite for experiencing connectedness, the deepest power. Thus Focusing can bring the ability to experience the process of evolutionary growth towards “more” and “all” directly and personally right now.

Stephen Crawford, MA, hosts the Lost Coast Changes group. He may be reached at

This page was last modified on 17 June 2009