Note: This article has been written for adult clients. Marta Stapert brought this into the Children’s Focusing Corner because this can be used for adolescents too.
The Folio, Fall 1992
Putting experience into words in the presence of another person is an important part of therapy. Accurate expression by the client seems extremely valuable for clarifying and carrying forward experience (Leijssen. 1990). Neverthe1ess, it is sometimes useful when, in addition to a verbal form of expression, the therapist can offer the client a non- verbal means of expression. This article gives a concrete description of the possibility of offering the client a non-verbal mode of expression. A scheme of Focusing steps is followed, with the description of how the therapist can facilitate the interaction between the experience in the client and non-verbal expression. It refers to moments when it can be useful to offer non-verbal modes of expression in individual or group therapy. It also calls attention to specific precautions in using a non-verbal mode. Thus, the main part of the article will be a presentation of an adaptation of the Focusing instructions, describing a group session using drawings.
Indications for a Non- Verbal Form of Expression
Extremely verbal clients often overwhelm their felt sense of a problem with words. When their verbal outlet is blocked these clients are confronted with what is being formed underneath. By offering them a non-verbal form of expression, the therapist helps them dwell on something they would pass over otherwise. In addition. the therapist may prevent them from trying to grasp their unclear feeling prematurely in their usual verbal patterns. Thus, they are invited to let what is not yet clear come and find a new form of expression.
Offering a non-verbal mode of expression also seems facilitating to clients who are not verbally fluid. Their verbal means of expression may fail to reflect fully the complexity of their experience. Here a non-verbal way of expression offers a welcome alternative.
A non-verbal form of expression may be a valuable intermediate step to offer the client a chance to explore a "secret." For example, a client with an incest experience felt that "talking" would he the same as "betraying her father'" In this case, it was helpful for the client to explore that experience first by means of drawings. Thus, a whole change in her experience was brought about, while she did not have to take the difficult step of talking about it.
In group therapy the fear of exploring experiences in the presence of others may "block" some ofthe participants comp1etely. Then a non-verbal method may facilitate an intermediate step to a more successful group process. Finally, the non-verbal method is economical. All the participants can start their process simultaneously and carry it further. This can he very fruitful when several participants are overwhelmed by feelings and there is not enough time to deal with everything.
One may now wonder which specific non-verbal means of expression will suit a particular client best in particular circumstances. It is important to choose materials which are readily available, and which do not require much preparation or technical skill to handle. If a client is well trained in a specific non-verbal field (for example, an art teacher), then that particular modality is not used because of the danger that the client will repeat well known and rehearsed behavior patterns. It is not our intention to produce something beautiful. Non-verbal expressive modes are most useful to clients who are not trained and have no special talent or ability. It is important that the therapist acknowledge the client's lack of facility with the material at the beginning of the session, and deal with the client's concerns about obtaining aesthetically pleasing results.
As I mentioned before, the experiences of the client can easily remain private when non-verbal modes of expression are used. An agreement should be reached about this before a session begins. In an individual session, clients usually wish to share their expressions with the therapist. In a group, things are more complex. There it is essential for the therapist to make it clear that clients who wish to do so can keep their experiences secret. The possibility of sharing something with others, or carrying it further in the presence of others, is considered only after the fact. Indeed, an invitation to explore one' s inner stream of experiences non-verbally is unfamiliar to many clients. Often they come into contact with previously unknown material. Having to evaluate experiences in terms of what they can share with others disturbs the process of exploring the unknown. The therapist should respect privacy from the beginning, and guarantee the client's freedom to share or not share something with others.
Focusing in a Group Using Drawing
In the preliminary phase, all group members start with a large sheet of white drawing paper and a box of crayons. Each participant sits at same distance from the others. The therapist makes it clear that drawing ability is not important, and that the point is not making a beautiful drawing. The therapist also emphasizes that everybody is free to keep his/her experience private. No one is obliged to show the drawing to anyone. Silence is requested during the drawing phase. in deference to other people 's process. If needed, one can signal the therapist and briefly and quietly speak with the therapist Some time is given to ensuring physical comfort: sitting comfortably, undisturbed by anything or anybody, not too warm or cold, loosening light clothing, breathing freely and deeply.
Everyone quietly takes the time to examine whether he or she is sitting comfortably, on the chosen spot, and whether the body is free to Focus. By drawing attention to whether one is sitting uncomfortably or comfortably, the therapist helps the client to bring awareness into the body.
Making an Inventory and Clearing an Internal Space
The client is invited to draw an outline of her/his body and to mark the places of which s/he is especially aware. Next, the question is asked: "What is there in your life? Which concerns play an important role in your life at this moment?" Participants are invited to feel how each point which emerges is presently carried by one' s body. After a while, the following instruction is given: "Put everything you're aware of down on your sheet of paper. Mark each thing separately with a color and with a shape and put it close to that part of the sketch of your body where you feel it touches you most. Try to translate words that describe a situation into a color and a shape. Do not elaborate on anything yet; do not work out any drawing. lust indicate on your paper an element of each situation, each
problem, each experience which arises, and thus put the situation, the problem, the experience onto your paper. Distance yourself from them for a moment and entrust them to the sheet in front of you."
Clients are invited to examine repeatedly whether their inventory is complete enough, and whether they can get in touch with the internal space which has been marked down on paper. Clients are also asked to check whether they can, for a moment, feel what it is like "without all this." This can be brought about by various questions: "What occurs within your body when a1l these things, which are now on the paper in front of you, are set aside? Do you feel good, or has something been left out? Can you give color and shape to what bas been left, as well, and put it down on your paper, too ?"
Some people have a lot of difficulty letting a problem go. Specific instructions should he given referring to this: "If you have difficulty letting go of something, mark it on your paper as something you will not forget or deny, as something you can later attend to and devote time to, if needed, but which you just put down on your paper for the time being."
Sometimes a member may be left with an undefined feeling: "If you keep having a general, ill-defined feeling, then try to mark that on your paper, too, and express it with any color or form."
The goal of the inventory phase, and of making space, is the contact with the "me- without-burden." When working with several people at once, the therapist tries to regulate the pace so that it suits all members. This implies that some will reach the stage of "me-without-burden" fairly quickly and remain there a fair amount of time, whereas others continue working to reach that point. The therapist tries, as much as possible within a group, to help the members who need more time put down each situation on paper. Not only can the therapist help the participants have the "me-without-burden" experience, but the therapist can also help them express it and elaborate on it in terms of color and shape. With clients who have difficulty separating their selves from their problems, it makes sense to focus more deeply on the bodily felt experience of the self separate from problems.
Selecting a Problem
In the next phase the group is instructed: "Now inspect everything on your paper. Dwell briefly on each of the items, asking yourself whether you would like to go further with it. Let yourself be 'pulled' to go deeper into a particular problem. Pay attention to your bodily reaction to each item on your sheet before you decide whether or not to continue with it. Choose one situation or problem to continue with immediately. When your choice is made, turn over your sheet. "
If anyone has difficulty choosing, the therapist can give further instructions: "Which one do you certainly not want to work with? ... Which one is closest to you within your experience? ... Which problem do you feel most strongly confronted with? ... Which draws your attention first?”
Attending to the Felt Sense
When everybody has made his or her choice and is facing a blank paper again, Focusing on a specific situation can start. First, the bodily feeling about the problem is allowed to take shape. It makes sense to propose to the clients that they lean back, close their eyes, and direct their attention to their bodies. The experienced feeling is invited with questions like: "What is the total feeling about this problem, this situation, in your body? How do you regard the situation inside you? What happens inside your body when you dwell on that problem?” Some members grasp at a known physical reaction too quickly and thus prevent the experienced feeling from taking shape. A warming may be useful here: "Give the feeling time to take shape. Do not try to catch it too quickly. If it comes, remain quiet for a while and give it the time to be fully formed, including everything that comes with it." The therapist should now provide enough time and silence to allow the contact with the implicit to take shape.
Expressing and Checking
Instructions for expressing and checking the felt sense are: "Which color, which shape, which composition would express this feeling most accurately? ... Let the feeling choose its own colors and find its shapes." Some time later, the therapist asks: "Does this shape, color and composition express most accurately how the feeling lives inside you? ... Alternate between looking at your sheet and leaning back, closing your eyes, and contacting the feeling in your body... Does it want another color, another shape? ... Does it still search for a more specific expression? ... Is there still something within this feeling that did not get a mark on your sheet?.. Is this really all of it?”
In this phase, participants are busy drawing and coloring on their sheets. Focusing does not aim at having people lose themselves in the making of a drawing. Drawing should he stopped regularly in order to remain in touch with the implicitly felt, and to register its changes: "Continue to go forth and back... Observe if something is changing, if perhaps new facets emerge which demand expression as well, and which should be completed in your drawing..."
Next comes the deeper exploration of the problem. Various questions can be asked in this respect. In a group, it is impossible to have each question exactly tuned in to each person' s process. The therapist now offers a choice of questions, and the participants can choose from among them those that touch them most profoundly and which pertain best to the situation. For example: "What is the core of your problem? ... What is the most
Important thing in this situation? ... What is most awful in this whole experience? ... Mark that in your drawing." It is of crucial importance for the therapist to watch carefully and keep in touch with what happens with each participant. The rate at which the therapist gives new instructions, as well as the nature of the interventions depend on what happens in the group. One can guide people who are intensely busy, but not overcome with feelings, towards deeper experience and new points of view. Various questions might be asked here: What makes your problem the way it is?.. What does it need?.. In what direction does it want to go? ... What does it want?.. What does it lack? ..." This maintains an open and ongoing dialogue between the stream of experience and what is already expressed. One continuously allows the participants to go back and forth between the felt experience and the expression on paper.
With some clients the therapist will find it necessary to provide the instructions with
Safeguards and limits: "How far can you go without becoming anxious?.. Mark this limit on your sheet What do you need to feel safe with it? '" Give it a shape in your drawing."
With other clients a strong stimulus is required so that they can explore something and allow it to emerge: "How would your drawing evolve if you did not keep such a tight control over it? ... Can you put the borders a. bit further in your drawing? ... What happens inside you when you do that?" The kind of instructions are thus dependent on the contact with particular clients and are directed to specific problems.
To end the deeper. exploration phase, the following questions might be appropriate: "How could it look if it were exactly the opposite? ... How could you have a good feeling about it?.. Can you draw a possible solution to your problem?"
In the last phase, the drawing is completed. The therapist asks if the inner feeling wants something else, If it wants to move further, if there is something else that demands expression, if a participant can leave his or her drawing as it is. Thus it is emphasized that the bodily feeling has a leading position. If something is left somewhere. the client is allowed more time for it to take shape and express itself. It is made clear that not everything needs to be solved. One can always come: back to it later if one wants. Participants often add something essential to their drawing in this last phase. It is as if a profound experience, which one was able to deny during the whole process, pushes for expression before the drawing is finished. Hence, it is essential to devote a lot of attention to this termination phase and allow each participant the time to express what still needs expression. This care is reflected in instructions like: "Stay a little longer with the question of whether your drawing is now totally finished or not… If something still needs expression give it the time to take shape, and express it on your paper. Only when you feel that it is all right for you to leave the drawing as it is, roll up your drawing and put your drawing materials away.”
After the Non-Verbal Expression Phase
Before all members are seated again in a circle, they are allowed to focus on the question of whether they want to share anything of what they experienced: "If you think of the experience you have just had, and know that you will soon be seated in a circle with the others again, is there anything you would like to share with them? Does it feel all right to tell or to show them something of your drawing? ... You can also decide not to show your drawing to anybody and to tell nothing. Does this decision feel al1 right with you?"
When the group is seated in a circle again, the therapist has the task of creating a receptive, non-evaluative atmosphere, and to protect each person' s process from critical remarks. The therapist can propose only a listening stage at first. The participants can ask questions to elucidate the matter, or they can express their empathy. All other comments have to wait. Sharing one 's experience with others can be helpful in holding on to and deepening it. However, it is important that participants feel that their experience meets with a climate of acceptance. When confrontations and new facets are added too soon, the effect is often disturbing. Immediately after the drawing session, the group limits itself to welcoming and receiving. Afterwards, preferably after a break, the usual group process can be resumed.
Although offering non-verbal forms of expression isn't traditional within Client- centered or Experiential Therapy, the therapy method is certainly well suited to modes of expression other than verbal ones. With the presented non-verbal way of expression, clients gradually learn to trust their emerging process and give expression to the things that rise from their experience. Clients have the feeling that it is their own process since there are nearly no interventions in content by the therapist. The therapist remains in the background as a process-attendant. Clients can even choose to keep the therapist completely outside their experience. For some clients this is a necessary step for releasing their experience. Offering a non-verbal means of expression, the therapist can thus meet the more extreme need of safety felt by some clients. For those clients it is a good thing to feel welcomed and accepted by the therapist this way.
The drawing in front of the client functions as a very accurate reflection that has sometimes more power than a verbal reflection by the therapist! Moreover, drawings have the advantage of always being present. The client can connect, add new aspects and examine the whole by means of the already existing drawing. Thus, all the pieces may fit together. The gradually developing drawing works as a complex, integrating, deeply empathic response. With this "new" method, surprising "points of view" often occur. It is interesting that clients with a non-verbal method end up more often in the more primitive layers of their experience. Moreover, they can more quickly enter experiences which they would censor otherwise.
That a non-verbal method can be a fruitful and strong means of expression, able to unblock or complete the client's process, is also indicated by the fact that many clients do not need words to complete their process afterwards. They usually confine themselves to expressing surprise and gratitude.
Leijssen, M. (1990). "On Focusing and the Necessary Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change,"
in G. Lietaer, J. Rombauts, & R. Van Balen, Client-centered and Experiential Psychotherapy in the Nineties, pp. 225-250. Leuven: Leuven University Press.
Mia Leijssen is a staff member of the Centrum voor Client-centered Psychotherapie en Counseling, Blijde Inkomststraat 13,3000 Leuven, Belgium. She has a practice in individual and group psychotherapy and teaches client-centered therapy and Focusing to students of clinical psychology at the Catholic University of Leuven, on the graduate and post-graduate level.