by Galia Porat and Liora Bar-Natan
Published in TFI Newsletter In Focus September 2013
The focusing approach was developed by the American psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin following research done in the 1960s at the University of Chicago. His research investigated the question of what were the causes that facilitated change and progress in psychotherapy. The research findings indicated that deep insight, the kind that could effect a change in unwanted patterns and develop new ways of perceiving situations, was insight directly influenced by the client's access to the inner sensory experience of the material that he discussed in therapy. The ability of a person to stay, in an experiential-sensory way, with the issues that arise in therapy has been defined as a high experiencing level, and this was discovered to be the main factor that effected the success of therapy (Hendricks, 1986).
Gendlin noticed that steps taken by the client towards change arrived from an edge that was not clear, a sensation that had an implicit meaning of which the client was not aware. Gendlin called this sensation a felt sense (Gendlin, 1984, p.1). The research showed that the clients who were naturally in conscious touch with this felt sense were the ones for whom the therapy process effected change.
According to Gendlin, “a felt sense is the way the body feels a specific problem or a situation. This is an inner-body-state sense” (Gendlin, 1978, p.22).
The felt sense is felt, but it is also vague. It will often be expressed with words like depression, confusion, heaviness, helplessness, excitement, and, because of this, the need to ”decipher" it arises. In the focusing process, the client is given an opportunity to stay with the felt sense and thereby receive information about it and about the context in which it occurred. The ability of a person to stay with the felt sense is what may enable a felt shift.
When a client feels that a word or an image, which emerged in the process of focusing, expresses the felt sense most precisely, a connection is created between the felt sense and its verbal expression, and what then becomes possible is an inner experience of moving forward. The client gets a new insight, a sense of relief is felt in the body and he breathes freely. Gendlin called the word or image, which resonated most precisely with the felt sense at a certain moment in the process, a handle or a key (Gendlin, 1984, p.9; Gendlin 1978, p.61).
The experience of a felt shift is what ultimately facilitates change in unhelpful automatic patterns. The change becomes possible due to the insight that emerges as a result of the process of focusing on the felt sense and the awareness of it. The inner change leads to an outer change. What this means is that an insight accompanied by a felt shift (inner change) increases the ability to function in everyday situations from a less patterned place (outer change).
With the aim of making such a change possible for a client with a low experiencing level, for a client who is not naturally in touch with the source of the felt sense, Gendlin defined six phases (or movements) that may occur a number of times in the course of the focusing process (Gendlin, 1978, p.163-164):
- Clearing an inner space to create a certain amount of room between the focuser and the issues.
- Describing the felt sense of the nature of the problem.
- Finding the key (the handle) of the felt sense.
- Resonating the key (going back and forth between handle and felt sense)
- Asking dialogue questions about the felt sense.
- Accepting everything that emerges during the process.
The focusing technique, a structured technique of open listening with empathy and respect, allows one “to reach a direct awareness of the border zone between the conscious and the unconscious. This feeling is always richer than what a person may express in words, and it is not possible to know everything about what it is or what brings it up. Such a direct sense of the source of the feeling allows the client to experience much more and understand more than just the glimpse of what emerged” (Gendlin, 1996, p.16).
At the end of the focusing process we mark the new place that has emerged. The new place is the new insight, which is accompanied by a physical sensation such as a shudder, a cramp, an expansion, a deep breath, a sob, a laugh, and so on. This step is, in effect, what concludes the sixth phase of the focusing model, the accepting phase, in which we welcome and accept all that has emerged in the process.
“Adopt an attitude of happiness that your body spoke to you, no matter what it said,” says Gendlin, and, “You do not have to believe the felt sense, agree with it, or do what it is saying right now. All you have to do is accept it. Not long after this, you will find that having accepted what emerged in the change, another change will appear. What your body says then may be completely different, so allow it to tell you now all it has to tell you first” (Gendlin, 1978, p.68).
The new place emerges after the focuser has experienced a felt sense of motion, of moving forward, which incorporates a new insight. When the new place arrives, there is a feeling of relief in the inner space of the focuser, which is expressed by a deep breath and sometimes accompanied by a feeling of excitement and gratitude. The invitation to the focuser is to be with the felt sense, that is, to devote time for paying attention to her body-sensing along with the insight that emerges, in order to mark the new place. The marking is done by means of speaking and drawing purposeful attention to what has emerged as significant and important for the process.
The new place is genuinely felt in the body, but it has a tendency to fade. Marking the new place therefore is felt needed at the conclusion of the focusing process. We will often hear the phrase, “I can’t remember the new place. It’s fading,” or, “I wish the new place that feels so clear, that facilitates and provides relief, could stay longer.”
The new place requires the attention of the client in order that he be present, in order to allow him to "anchor" the change. The new place is like a sprout that needs a lot of attention and nurturing until it gets rooted and turns into a big, strong, firm tree.
In our view, access to the source of the felt sense is necessary in the creation of change in the therapeutic process, and we therefore suggest a technique found to be effective in the internalization and anchoring of the process of change.
In the course of our work we noticed that an image, which emerges spontaneously and derives from the inner reality of the focuser, especially towards the end of the process, assists in marking the new place.
This image contains the felt sense as well as the insight that emerges through the process, and it is like a picture that embodies within it the change that has taken place.
In order to define this image, we coined the phrase uniting image, because it unites the felt sense and the insight. The uniting image embodies and unites within it the change that has transpired and the change applied from the current process to everyday reality.
We also suggest differentiating between a local image, which arises from time to time in the process and serves as a handle that assists in advancing the process and completing it, and the uniting image.
The handle is a word, a sentence or an image that emerges from the felt sense. In the focusing process there is a movement between the felt sense and the handle, that is, the word or the image, which precisely resonates the quality of the felt sense that has emerged. We coined the term local image in order to describe an image that serves as a handle which resonates the felt sense that emerged at a certain moment during the process. The image is local because it relates directly to the felt sense that emerged at a particular moment, and does not relate to the complete situation or to a broader insight of the complete process or issue that emerged.
On the other hand, the term uniting image describes a complete situation that stands independently and contains a felt sense and an insight that are comprehensive. The insight becomes possible when the focuser sees the big picture, pays attention to the felt senses without identifying with them, and understands the connections that have emerged and their meaning. When the uniting image emerges, there is no need to go back and recall the process that led to it in order to “hold on to” the felt sense and the insights that emerged in the process. At the same time, it also exists independently as a new place that represents moving forward. The uniting image retains in the present the felt sense that was experienced in the past and in the already concluded process.
Any image that emerges during the process may emerge as a local image or as a uniting image, and it is the task of the therapist to differentiate between them and to be precise, in order for the client to receive a tool that will facilitate a change in actual situations in everyday life.
The following story illustrates this:
A focuser arrived with an issue, a marriage crisis. When he stayed with the felt sense, the word “distress” emerged, a word he associated with the image of a mortar and pestle. The focuser described the feeling of distress as a man holding the pestle and pounding forcefully in the mortar. The process of crushing evoked a feeling of exertion, which gave rise to another image of a shovel followed by the recollection of an exhausting hike on foot.
At the beginning of the process the mortar and pestle served as local images. They resonated the felt sense and led to images and an additional recollection that became handles, which advanced the process. However, at a later stage of the process, the same image also served as a uniting image. The image, in addition to resonating the felt sense of distress, the feeling of exertion, and the images and the recollection that emerged, also resonated an insight related to the complete process—the focuser felt that the pounding of the pestle on the mortar resonated with the sense of distress he felt in the relationship, and the insight, which emerged, that this pounding, the motion of the pounding and the force exerted, were precisely resonating his feeling in situations of disagreement with his wife, with the force of her speech and the power she exerted. In this example the image united the felt sense and the insight about the entire state of the relationship.
In the example described, an image that emerged from the felt sense at the beginning of the process remained throughout the process, connected ultimately to the insight regarding the entire issue, and served as a uniting image.
The uniting image often appears spontaneously as a new image at the end of the focusing process and makes it possible to mark the new place of insight and sensory transition that emerged at the end of the process.
If the uniting image does not emerge spontaneously in the course of the process, the focusing therapist may assist the focuser by means of a dialogue question. Towards the end of the process, the focusing therapist may ask the focuser to choose an image that he associates with both the felt sense and the insight that has emerged, so that he can use it to mark the new place.
Dialogue questions such as the following may be asked:
- What is this like?
- What image emerges in connection with what has emerged?
- What is most important for you to remember, and what image can hold it?
- Is there an image that connects to what you are now feeling?
The next example shows how it is possible to apply the uniting image in everyday life after marking the new place:
A focuser, who needed physical contact in order to feel intimacy, discussed her intimate relations with men throughout the process and the resulting confusion between emotional intimacy and physical intimacy. As she was staying with the feeling of confusion, an image of her father emerged as well as a clear sense of emotional intimacy. Another image that emerged for her was a long gold thread that illuminated and connected her heart and her father’s heart. The image of the gold thread evoked a feeling of clarity in an emotional connection that comes from deep in the heart, and it clarified the feeling and the insight that the thread connecting the hearts, which makes emotional intimacy possible, is not linked to physical contact. Towards the end of the process, the focuser felt a sense of separation between the physical contact and the emotional contact, and this sense brought relief to her chest and allowed her to breathe deeply.
In view of the insight that emerged, the focuser utilized the uniting image of the gold thread,which she initiated, for actual situations in her life. When she did this, something within her relaxed and brought her back to the feeling that had emerged during the focusing. The focuser was assisted by this image again and again. She summoned the uniting image of the gold thread and recalled it every time she felt a need for emotional intimacy with men.
Images are an essential part of the language of the focusing process. Unlike guided imagery, however, they emerge and are discovered through inner experience, through a process that occurs in the twilight zone between the conscious and the unconscious. When working with guided imagery, an image is suggested from the outside in order to affect the inner experience with the aim of changing, helping or influencing. The focusing process, on the other hand, has us listening inward with complete presence, with curiosity and interest, and we gratefully accept whatever emerges. When an image emerges, we give it room and verbal expression with language.
The uniting image functions as a handle that holds the whole. The visual nature of the uniting image contains an experience that includes a physical feeling and a cognitive insight that can be marked and applied in life. The mark is a conscious and intentional reference for the uniting image. It is chosen by the focuser at the conclusion of the process, since this image anchors, for her the felt sense that accompanied the insight.
From our experience in working with this model, we have seen that by means of the uniting image one may provide an answer for the need of a client to mark and recall changes and insights at the conclusion of the therapeutic process, through the assistance of an image that also serves as a handle supporting forward movement in the everyday reality that lies beyond the current process.
The experience of focusing transpires in the region that Gendlin called the border zone, an area between the conscious and the unconscious (Gendlin, 1996, p.16). This area is elusive, and it is hard to “grasp” it. The visual nature of the image and the physically felt sensation that accompanies it derive from a different level of consciousness. The image facilitates a conscious “grasp,” so marking the uniting image is the mark implanted in our experiential memory. If we work with it in a conscious way, it will serve as an anchor that enables us to stay with a new place that was created at the conclusion of a process and to return to it when necessary.
Gendlin, Eugene T. (1978). Focusing (first edition). New York: Everest House.
- Hitmakdut. Tel Aviv: Mirkam.
Gendlin, E.T. (1981). Focusing (second edition. New revised instructions). New York: Bantam Books.
- Translated into Hebrew by M. Arbel (2001). Hitmakdut. Zfat: Mirkam.
Gendlin, Eugene T. (1996). Focusing-oriented psychotherapy. A manual of the experiential method. New York: Guilford.
Gendlin, Eugene T. (1984). The client's client: the edge of awareness. In R. L. Levant & J. M. Shlien (Eds.), Client-centered therapy and the person-centered approach. New directions in theory, research and practice, pp.76-107. New York:
Hendricks, Marion N. (1986). "Experiencing Level as a Therapeutic Variable," Person-centered Review, vol.1, #2, May 1986, pp.141-162.