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A perspective on FOT: The theory and practice of how we integrate experience

by Serge Prengel
Published in TFI Newsletter In Focus September 2013

There are many definitions of what constitutes Focusing-Oriented Therapies, many approaches and practices. In fact, many of us like to refer to the field as “Focusing-Oriented Therapies”, as opposed to “Focusing-Oriented Therapy”. I value this richness and diversity, as I love the diversity of approaches in the focusing world in general. So, while I am going to outline a very specific point of view about Focusing and FOT, my intention is not to advocate that this is “the way” to see things. It is to share a perspective that I find stimulating.

I want to make two points:
- One is to describe what I see as the underlying theory of how we integrate experience.
- The other is about the importance of resonance, and its relational aspect.

1. A theory of how we integrate experience

The starting point for Focusing was Gene Gendlin’s curiosity about what made some people get more out of therapy. But the value of his work was not just to help us identify “good clients”, i.e. people who have a high potential to benefit from therapy. It was to draw our attention to the fact that receiving therapy is an active process: Clients who chew their food, so to speak, are going to be able to ingest it better than clients who don’t.

As Focusers, we have come to understand and practice this process as a way of assimilating experience. We don’t just swallow experience, we take a pause to feel it, we chew on it, and in this way we can digest it and integrate it.

I would say that the cornerstone of FOT is our theoretical and experiential focus on the process of assimilating experience.

I have an image in mind: A door that represents the person's way of regulating their relationship with experience:
- if the door is totally open, the person gets flooded,
- if the door is totally closed, the person gets no experience,
- if the door can be opened and closed appropriately, the person is regulating their relationship to experience in order to integrate it optimally.

Think of this "door" as a dam that regulates the flow of water, preventing floods, allowing optimal irrigation. This is consistent with our current understanding of the brain as an organ of regulation. I would say that our work is to help clients improve their process, using the presenting issues as an opportunity to practice the process of integration.

2. The role of resonance

Resonance is what happens when we let in, not too much, nor too little, but just the right amount of experience that we can handle. There’s something that feels right (or not) as we compare the felt experience to how we conceptualize it. Little by little, as we digest this new experience, it starts to make sense: That is, we integrate it into the vast narrative of all our other experiences, and the worldview that we derive from them.

This “feels right” is not a measure of how objectively correct a description we have of the event. It is a way to capture the subjective experience we have of this event. I like the way psychotherapist Candice Hershman expressed this idea in a recent essay for the publication "Pyschotherapy & The Arts":

"I think of Gendlin’s focusing as a momentary deep inhale, a holding of that breath of the outside that we take in, and a moment in time before the exhale where that alchemy occurs, so that we emit a transformation of air that includes something of ourselves into the world."

We are talking about is “a transformation of air that includes something of ourselves." The air that comes out is not the same as the air that came in, because it has been affected by its encounter with us. Conversely, it is not possible to be in the event without being affected by the event.

As therapists, we are affected by the interaction with our clients. So the resonance we have with them will reflect how affected we are. In my view, this is not a flaw, a limitation of the method, but a very good thing. I see therapy as a relational, intersubjective process.  The client is not in front of a mirror or a tape recorder, but of another human being who is affected by the interaction with the client. The process of therapy involves managing the phenomenology of interaction. As FOTs, we are helping our clients regulate this interaction. The regulation occurs through the rhythms of attunement and resonance.

What I am saying above may seem in contradiction with how strongly we impress on people, when we teach them the listener’s role in Focusing, how important it is to pay attention to the exact words the Focuser is using. I do believe it is very important to do so, it is a big part of attunement. But the therapist also needs to be in tune with themselves, and to regulate how much or how little of their subjective resonance it is appropriate to include in the interaction with the client.

3. Your resonance with this

What feels right for you in the above? What doesn’t, or what is missing that is important to you? Please share with us on the facebook group:

Serge Prengel, LMHC, is in private practice in New York City. He sees change as a creative process, driven by the depth and immediacy of felt-sense experience. He is certified in Focusing, Core Energetics and Somatic Experiencing, and was deeply influenced by Yvonne Agazarian's systems-oriented approach. Serge is a graduate of France's Sorbonne University and HEC business school. He started and operated an ad agency in New York City for many years. In the early 1990's, his focus shifted to exploring creativity as a tool for personal growth. He wrote Scissors: A Whimsical Fable About Empowerment and other books, and is the editor of Somatic Perspectives on Psychotherapy. He has also been leading experiential workshops in a variety of venues.

Related podcast - Conversations: September 2013: Glenn Fleisch and Serge Prengel talk about resonance