Three Phases of Focusing:
An Example from a Ten-year-old Boy
James R. Iberg
ABSTRACT: Three phases of focusing commonly seen in an hour of psychotherapy are described and briefly discussed theoretically. The phases are named, according to a childbirth metaphor, as “pregnant,” “parturient,” and “nascent.” A ten-year-old boy’s focusing is described to illustrate the three phases. This concrete example of the focusing phases is also discussed regarding the different kinds of implicit functioning that are involved in each phase.
In psychotherapy in general (as opposed to exchanges in which focusing is explicitly taught, or guided), one observes the phenomenon of focusing in its naturally occurring, unguided form. In this form, I have distinguished three phases of focusing which commonly occur within one session (Iberg, 1979, 1981, 1990; Hess, 1994). The guiding metaphor for the three phases is one of pregnancy, labor, and childbirth.
Quite regularly people seem to spend some time in a therapy session first in a "story telling" phase in which they speak about situations and events which have had significant meaning and emotion for them. I chose the term pregnant for this phase to connote two things: 1) The person has been impregnated with meaning and affect, which is carried as an unusual burden that both is, and is not experienced as the “mother” herself, and 2) the fact that at this point in the the process, a clear and full understanding of the causes of the physical changes, and the form in which relief will eventually come, are hidden in the person’s bodily sensations like the baby is hidden in the pregnant mother’s body.
During this phase, emotion is often not present at all, or talked about rather than experienced directly, or sometimes felt to be like an unwanted intruder: it may be there, but it is not being sensed with friendly attention. The transition to the next phase involves finding a comfortable, or at least safe spot from which to be in contact with emotions with an attitude of friendly curiosity.
The second phase begins when a more direct and sure-footed experience of emotion occurs, involving both 1) attention to bodily sensations and manifestations of affect, and 2) a cognitive curiosity and receptivity toward this experiential development. For this phase I chose the term parturient, which means "in labor," to connote the way in which there is, once this phase begins, a process underway which will culminate with the delivery of new self-understanding and bodily relief. Also true to the analogy of the labor phase of childbirth is the fact that the parturient phase often involves surrendering to a temporary intensification of feelings, which were experienced less directly or resisted or simply had not yet formed in the pregnant phase. Typically, this phase occurs in much briefer bursts than the pregnant phase. A way in which the childbirth metaphor does not correspond to a focusing process is that the focusing process is not as much one-way as childbirth — in focusing, one may become parturient, and then return to pregnant for a time, rather than progressing directly to the third phase, which I've labeled "nascent."
The nascent phase occurs when new insight or perspective accompanies a change for the better in the bodily experience of emotion. The term "nascent" connotes both 1) the birth of the "baby" — now more distinct from the "mother" with corresponding relief, and 2) that the person's feelings and thoughts are in a greater than usual readiness to make new connections and associations as well as to seize interactional opportunities which could not be taken advantage of while in the pregnant phase.
The phases correspond to three conditions, or states, of the body-mind-environment relationship for a person. The designation of “phases” emphasizes the way that these conditions can change fairly quickly, as three parts of a process which has a start and a finish often occurring in an hour of psychotherapy or focusing and listening. These three distinct conditions are things the focuser can notice fairly easily. However, the differences between the phases involve complex differences in how the person’s implicit meanings function: much more than things the focuser normally notices. In this sense, much of what defines and what changes in the transition from one phase to the next is “unconscious,” and successful focusing changes the whole person — conscious and “unconscious.” Also, persons can be found in any of the three phases outside of therapy, rather than as part of a therapy process moving from one phase to the next. That is, one might live for some time in a “pregnant” condition, or spend some days much of the time in a “parturient” condition with some issue. In some fortunate times, one might be in a “nascent” condition for an extended period of time, at least with respect to some issue about which one was formerly pregnant or parturient.
When the differences in implicit functioning defining the phases are thought of in this way, to describe more lasting conditions, it seems to me more appropriate to call them “states” than phases.
The three phases (and states) involve not only three different subjective states of body and mind, but also three kinds of interaction with the environment, and three different blends of cognitive functioning. To put it another way, how implicit meaning functions (Gendlin, 1962) is distinct in the three states. Table 1 lists several characteristics of each state to show how they are distinct (however, the table does not exhaustively list the characteristics of the states).
An example of the three phases of the focusing process
James, a ten year old boy, was expressing some unhappiness about his relationship with his teacher, Ms. G. He reported that she had accused him of lying. He was uncomfortable about this because he had not been telling her things he knew were untrue. He had rejected offers by each of his parents (who are divorced) to speak to the teacher about it.
THREE STATES OF THE FUNCTIONING OF BODILY IMPLICIT MEANING
WAYS IN WHICH STATES DIFFER
anxious, vulnerable, angry or injured, time-conscious
|Tight, on-guard, emotionally closed or overwhelmed||Defensive, self-protective
|PARTURIENT:||Access to complicated emotions, sense of unknown
"more," loss of sense of time
|Vulnerable, delicate, emotionally open||Introverted, withdrawn, attentive to safety considerations||R-mode*|
|NASCENT:||Relief, new insight, spacious, renewed energy, less time-pressure||Relaxed, solid, emotionally open||Highly interactive, opportunities for need satisfaction are found, empathic||"Legato" between L- and R- modes|
* These designations of cognitive modes are as described in Betty Edwards, 1979.
Our discussion (with his mother present) of this situation started with James expressing confusion about why anyone would lie. It seemed to me that James was searching for for something that would make Ms. G.'s accusation reasonable in a general way even though it was unwarranted in his particular case. Perhaps it was expressive of his desire to maintain a positive perception of his teacher, which would be difficult if there were no reasonable explanation of her accusation. I suggested that a person might lie if they were very scared that something bad would happen if they told the truth. James immediately recognized this as plausible, and was reminded of a friend of his who had lied frequently last school year. James said “Peter was scared a lot last year”. Shortly James reframed his question to me, “but why would she think I was lying?” I said I didn’t know, but that he seemed convinced that she thought he had been. I asked him why he was so sure, what had happened, suggesting that perhaps if we thought about that we could figure out how he might have gotten that impression.
The Pregnant Phase
James described two separate incidents, which I report as he told them to me:
1. At the end of the book report discussion group, group members are asked who would like to read the book that has been reviewed, and the book is passed along to the interested person. After David’s report, no one raised a hand to indicate interest. The teacher sent David on an errand outside the classroom, which James said “wasn’t the real reason” she sent him away. While David was gone, the teacher spoke to the rest of the group about why no one wanted to take David’s book. James raised his hand and said “I don’t want it because it sounds like a pretty boring book.” The teacher said “why were you and Martin making fun of David?” When James protested that they weren’t making fun of David, the teacher cited as her evidence that she had seen James and Martin look at each other and snicker. James said “no, that’s not why we were laughing.” The teacher said “oh, come on,” and dropped the subject. James was left with the impression that she thought he was lying. The truth of the matter was that Martin had expelled some flatus, and “it bounced against the chair and made funny sound,” which tickled them. James told me he was confident that David had not thought they were laughing at him.
2. After a trip to the botanical gardens, the teacher had given each student a plant to take home. She gave everyone a bag to protect the plant from the cold outside air. She asked them to bring the bags back to school the next day. James decided that he didn’t need the bag, since his dad was picking him up from school in the car and the plant would only be outside “for less than ten seconds, so it wouldn’t get cold.” He put the bag on the shelf where they had been stacked. When he came to school the next day, Ms. G. asked him for his bag. He told her where he had put it. She looked there, and said “well, where could it have gone?” James surmised that a janitor might have taken it, and she said, “I get furious when people lie. Did you take the bag home?” James said “no,” and she walked away, saying “silly.”
After James described these situations, his mother again asked if he wouldn’t like her to come to talk to the teacher about this. He said no, and that if anyone should do that, he would prefer it to be his father, since they had discussed it each time something like this happened. His mother asked if he would ask his dad to do that, and he said “no, I’d rather you and dad don’t get involved.” I said that it sounded like he’d rather handle it himself, which he affirmed. His mother expressed a concern that he wouldn’t do anything about it on his own, and he affirmed that too. I asked him why he didn’t want either of his parents’ help on this. He said, “I don’t know why.”
The Parturient Phase
At this point, I said, “You don’t know why, but you can feel it that you don’t want them to come, right?” He said, “yes.” I said, “You can just keep your mind on that feeling, and it will probably tell you more about why.” He started doing this, sitting quietly, his eyes not focused on either of us or anything in the room. In a few minutes moments he got tearful. I said, “There’s some more of it coming. If you just stay with it a little bit longer, you will understand it better.”
Shortly, James said, “I think I’m scared!” and more tears flowed. I told him I was interested to know more what he was scared about, if he cared to tell me. He said he did want to tell me more about it, but later.
The Nascent Phase
After a minute or so of silence, James said, “I feel better. I feel happier.” After a few minutes of unrelated conversation, James remembered and reported some of the classroom activities that he enjoyed with Ms. G. and described them to us.
In our next meeting, James told me more about his scared feeling. He was scared that if his parents came to school, the teacher might claim she knew nothing of the events he was talking about, and that his parents might begin doubting whether he was telling the truth or lying. He said that would be terrible. He was unhappy that his teacher thought he was a liar, but he would really be upset if his parents developed such a negative impression of him.
A week later he told me that he had decided that it would be all right if his dad came to school to talk with the teacher. They had done so, and although the teacher expressed surprise and said she didn’t remember saying those things, the talk had been all right. Since that time, things have felt better between him and Ms. G., although other difficulties emerge periodically.
The foregoing descriptions are in language that is quite close to what happened in the actual dialogue between James and me and his mother. I will now proceed to make more analytical comments about the distinctions between the phases. In doing this, I will be making observations from a perspective broader than empathy to James’ experience as he experienced it. Hopefully these comments from a broader perspective, although they may exceed his subjective frame, would not be inconsistent with it.
This is an unusually clear example of the three phases I set out to illustrate, which conveniently occurred naturally in sequence, although the full development of the nascent phase did not occur in the first meeting. More often in psychotherapy we see a mix of the pregnant and parturient phases, or a moving back and forth between these two before the nascent phase comes at all.
The developmental level of a ten year old involves less thinking about abstract principles and reflexive traits than we would see in most educated adults. A person already at the conscientious level (Loevinger & Wessler, 1970) would probably spontaneously approach this kind of problem more abstractly and reflexively. But reflexiveness alone is not enough to insure a state change. If the reflexiveness is conceptual in nature, too thoroughly involved with reflexive traits (“This just happens because I am an introvert and have trouble asserting my experience.”), the person may remain stuck in a rut of “explanatory orbit” (Gendlin, 1964) without becoming truly parturient (thus delaying progress to the nascent phase). The less abstract and conceptual nature of this boy’s thinking minimizes the obfuscating effect that extensive verbalization sometimes has regarding the body sense of which the words and emotion are expressive.
The degree of malfunctioning due to the interaction of James’s implicit meanings and the classroom situation seems to have been minimal in the pregnant state. He was able to correctly assess the teacher’s real motive for sending David out of the room. There was little evidence that his thinking was shaped rigidly by the authority aspects of the teacher’s role. He could imagine a plausible explanation for the disappearance of his paper bag, which indicates good implicit functioning in the real-life situation. A person with a less fortunate history of such events (frequently in a pregnant state in relationships with authority figures) might be plunged into guilt, self-doubt and defensiveness instead of creative imagination. His immediate grasp of my explanation of why one might lie was another indication of effective functioning of his implicit meanings. An individual whose implicit meanings were more extensively in a pregnant state (Gendlin, 1964, called this “structure-bound”) might have been more caught up with his personal culpability. In that case, he might have insisted he was not scared, or that his teacher was mean, or a liar herself, which could more heavily tax the listener’s ability to remain empathetic and objective. This could initiate a vicious circle of self-protective interaction.
On the other hand, there is evidence of malfunctioning. The insight that came with the nascent phase suggests that there was some authority related bias in James’ thinking: he had felt implicitly that the teacher had the power to change his parents’ image of him in one exchange.
James’ assertion that David knew they weren’t laughing at him could well be wrong and self-serving rather than objectively correct. The fact that memories of a balancing affective quality came to mind only after he entered the nascent phase indicates that there was a degree of bias in his cognition to begin with. His perception of this teacher was biased toward the problematic aspects, and away from the “happier” aspects. Of course there is a certain desirability to such a bias: directing one’s cognition to the problem is necessary if logic is to contribute to its eventual solution. But if the unpleasant affect and tension associated with the problem is experienced as a representative sample of the quality of the whole relationship, then avoiding the problem or leaving the field may appear to be more personally advantageous than addressing the problem.
Indeed, the most striking evidence of the pregnant phase had just this character for James. He initially refused his parents help, even though he has a history of many experiences of benefiting from their thoughtful and loving help. Because of the body sense of the whole matter, he couldn’t take the path most “logical” even from his own experience.
But after James had a chance to tell his story fully, and it was received and understood by his listener (rather than argued with or re-interpreted), he rather naturally began moving toward the parturient phase. He seemed to feel little need to further review the facts. When I asked at this point why he didn’t want his parents to come to his aid, he said “I don’t know.” This quite directly signaled something felt, but not yet fully known. I then suggested the possibility of paying attention to this feeling even though he didn’t know what it meant. James sat quietly with his gaze disengaged from externals, and I waited for him to communicate something next. As more emotion appeared on his face, I encouraged James to continue paying attention to the body sense. In this case it didn’t take much time in the parturient phase to progress to the nascent phase. Once parturient, the human organism seems to be very efficient at finding its way to a more nascent state. When a problem involves a larger bundle of implicit meanings, it may require a longer time in the parturient phase, or several zig-zags between pregnant and parturient before substantial nascence occurs.
After James got more nascent, the problem wasn’t solved, nor did he just find a way to “live with it.” Rather, his initial unwillingness to permit his parents to help him address the problem with his teacher changed, and they took steps without which a mutual enhancement of the situation would have been less likely.
The shift to the nascent state had positive consequences for James: 1) he experienced improvement in his overall mood, 2) he gained insight -- he realized that he was scared, and later why, 3) he recovered a more balanced perception of his experiences with his teacher, and 4) a previously closed interactional pathway toward resolution opened up for him. Experiencing such changes as the result of attending to the bodily sensed feeling (in conjunction with therapist restraint in explaining that feeling) is an instance of the way vague feelings are an important personal resource. People at higher developmental levels have confidence in this resource. Repeated instances like this one are a good basis for developing such confidence.
One feature of the difference between the pregnant and the nascent states is especially worth pointing out. What had (while pregnant) appeared to be “resistance” to his parents’ offer of help, which might have been taken as evidence of “unmanageability” or some other negative characterization of James, was revealed when nascent to be the result of an implicit “positive life-maintaining avoidance” (Gendlin, 1968). Rather than indicating something against his parents, it was something for them--he wished to avoid a situation which might lead to a diminution of his standing in their eyes. Such an implicit concern is an important basis for the further development of socially desirable behavior patterns. To have mislabeled it as something undesirable would have been unfortunate indeed. How such implicit concerns are labeled probably shapes the collection of reflexive traits — the self-image — the person ends up with later in life: better we should help individuals explicate their experiencing to the point where underlying positive strivings emerge, so the person can be labeled in positive ways that are supportive of self-esteem.
The extensive aspects of organismic functioning which change as one moves through the three focusing phases (as outlined in Table 1) are evident in this example.
In the pregnant phase, James was troubled about his teacher’s perception of him and blocked from receiving his parents’ help (subjective aspects). His emotions were somewhat closed to him: he knew he didn’t want help, but he didn’t know why (bodily aspect). His interaction with his environment was constrained: accepting help from the usual source was in conflict with self-protection, and he gave little indication of empathic understanding of his teacher’s perceptions. His cognition in this phase was predominantly linear/analytic: he recounted the sequence of events, and worked to understand “why someone would lie,” seeking a logical explanation.
In the parturient phase, James was able to pay attention to a vague sense inside of his “not wanting” his parents to help, which quickly revealed “scared” to him, to his surprise. His tears indicated the tender vulnerability typical of the bodily quality in this phase, and the quiet, inward attending is a more withdrawn, introverted stance than the “telling the story” way of interacting in the pregnant phase. The cognitive activity of the parturient phase in this example is strikingly less verbal than in the pregnant phase, and there is little evidence of analytical thinking. Rather, there is a careful attempt to match the words with the feeling as is was: “I think I’m scared!”
The nascent phase arrived with relief before insight, as is often the case. James said he felt better and happier, and it was only in the next meeting that more insight about why he was scared was shared. That his bodily experience was more solid and emotionally open was evident almost immediately in that he recalled happy experiences with his teacher. A week later he further articulated the scared feeling, showing continued openness to bodily experiencing. The signs of changed interaction with his environment came another week later as he had reassessed the situation and then felt he could take advantage of his parents’ help, and had proceeded to do so. His cognition in the nascent phase seemed relaxed and effective, both analytical and also accurately expressive of his bodily experiencing — neither predominantly analytical, nor predominantly non-analytical, but some of both.
We also see the difference between the phases and the states in this example, in that the phases are evident in the interactive process with the therapist, but clearly there were corresponding state differences lasting for much longer time periods. Before talking to me about it, the problem had been there and bothering James, and his parents had been talking to him about it. It’s persistence as a problem over time, with the characteristics of the pregnant state were why I was consulted to help with focusing. Similarly, the nascent phase, although it came in the initial focusing meeting, did not fully develop until later, and the benefits of the nascent phase were clearly working and being taken advantage of for at least two weeks, demonstrating that people can function for some time in a nascent state as the result of progressing from the pregnant, to parturient, to nascent phases in a focusing session.
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