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We Want to Accept Our Feelings, But How Do We Do It?

Focusing As a Gentle Way to Be with Ourselves

Deviant Aet image by Pyro285
Source: Deviant Aet image by Pyro285

During the 1960’s, the psychologist and philosopher Eugene Gendlin asked a simple question: why do some people make progress in psychotherapy, while others don’t — and what is happening inside those clients who are benefiting from therapy?

After analyzing hundreds of taped therapy sessions, Gendlin and his team discovered that they could accurately predict after one or two sessions whether or not therapy would be successful. Surprisingly, positive outcomes were not linked to the orientation of the therapist, but rather to what these clients were doing within themselves.

The key finding was that successful clients were attending to their inner world in a particular kind of way. They were slowing down their speech and quietly searching for words or images that resonated with an inner “felt sense” of their life concerns. In short, these naturally gifted clients were "Focusing." As feelings and “felt meanings” came into clearer focus, these clients experienced new openings, insights, or a “felt shift” in how they were holding life concerns.

As explained in Dancing with Fire:

"Focusing is a path of self-inquiry that welcomes nuanced experiences that we often overlook. We gently bring awareness into our bodies, which is where feelings and sensations reside. We allow and befriend whatever we are experiencing in a way that permits the stuck places to loosen … moving us toward greater peace, freedom, and wisdom."

Attending to Our Body

Those clients who were progressing were not in their heads analyzing their problems or seeking solutions. They were engaged in a deeper, bodily-felt inquiry into with what they were experiencing inside. They grappled with vague, unclear feelings and sensations until something emerged that made sense to them. This often led to a shift in how they were experiencing troubling issues, as well as forward movement in their lives.

Gendlin emphasizes that he did not invent Focusing, he merely observed it in people who had positive outcomes in therapy. He crafted teachable steps so that others could learn this natural way of being with oneself. As with any creative process, other Focusing practitioners have revised these steps or taken the process in other directions.

An Example

Tom was angry because his partner wasn’t spending enough time with him. As I invited him to allow space for his anger, he noticed a tight sensation in his chest and jumpiness in his abdomen. As he gently attended to this unclear feeling without trying to fix it, something subtle emerged. He began to notice a sad, lonely feeling. The word “disconnected” came to him, which conveyed the felt sense of how this situation was living inside him.

Tom was easily prone to anger, but he was uncomfortable with deeper, more vulnerable feelings. As our sessions progressed, he slowly became more accepting of his sadness and loneliness. As he courageously contacted and conveyed these tender feelings to his partner, he experienced her softening and being more receptive to him. Befriending his more tender feelings, a field was created in which she felt safer to move toward him, which is what he was wanting.

Applications of Focusing

Focusing Oriented Therapy (FOT) is one application of Focusing. In addition, since Focusing taps into a core creative process, it is also being used in areas as diverse as healing, creative writing, spirituality, art therapy and movement. Focusing also has may parallels with the practice of mindfulness — attending to whatever we’re experiencing inside from moment to moment.

Psychologist John Gottman’s research has discovered some key factors that lead to divorce. When criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness are common features of our partnerships (the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse), there is often a slippery slope toward disconnection and separation.

Focusing creates a space where we can gently befriend the feelings that underlie these 4 Horsemen. Rather than be critical or contemptuous, we can uncover more nuanced fears, hurts, and vulnerabilities, as Tom did in the above example. As he befriended his own deeper feelings, his partner felt more emotionally connected with him..

Gendlin never copyrighted the terms “Focusing” or “felt sense” because he generously wanted these to be freely available. Terms such as “felt sense” have found their way into other therapeutic approaches. For example, Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, invites people to attend to their felt sense as one important part of the process of healing from trauma. He cites Gendlin in his excellent book, Waking the Tiger. Gendlin has emphasized that Focusing works well in combination with other approaches.

There are many books available about Focusing. It is best learned through a therapist who uses Focusing or a workshop from a certified Focusing practitioner.

Please consider liking my Facebook page and click on “get notifications”(under "Likes") to receive future posts. If you like this article, you might enjoy my latest book, Dancing with Fire.

John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT, is author of the award-winning book about relationships as a spiritual path, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has conducted workshops internationally on relationships and couples therapy.

© John Amodeo

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