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Our Issues Live in Our Tissues

Focusing as a somatic approach to therapy.

Key points

  • Somatic approaches to personal growth have gained in popularity due to how effective they can be in connecting us to our felt experience.
  • Focusing is based on research into psychotherapy effectiveness—key factors that enable clients to grow.
  • Rather than just speaking intellectually, successful clients were connected to their bodily felt experience, according to Gendlin's research.
 Tanya Gupta/Pexels
Source: Tanya Gupta/Pexels

Most therapists have a variety of tools in their toolbox and consider themselves to be eclectic; they borrow from a variety of approaches. For example, cognitive approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be the ideal tool for helping clients identify core beliefs such as believing we don’t deserve love, which may contribute to anxiety and depression. Uncovering such dysfunctional beliefs, challenging them, and replacing them with more realistic, life-affirming beliefs can help us move forward.

Yet during my 40 years of practice as a psychotherapist, I’ve found that cognitive approaches alone can be limiting. They may neglect to bring a client’s attention into their body as a way to work with challenging issues. While honoring various approaches to therapy, I have a special affinity for somatic approaches that get people out of their heads and connect them with their lived, felt experience.

Somatic approaches to personal growth can be summed up by the expression, “Our issues live in our tissues.” An approach I’ve found especially helpful is the research-based approach of focusing, developed by Dr. Eugene Gendlin. He studied with Carl Rogers, and then they became colleagues. collaborating on the research that led to focusing.

Gendlin and his colleagues at the University of Chicago created a research project that found something surprising. Through various outcome measures, his team discovered that no matter what the orientation of the therapist, the clients who made the most progress were those who were connecting with—and speaking from—their bodily-felt experience. Gendlin was the first person to receive the “Distinguished Professional Psychologist of the Year Award" issued by the Clinical Division of the American Psychological Association (APA).

Rather than just speaking from their heads or sharing stories about their lives, these successful clients slowed down their speech, dropped their attention inside themselves, and groped for words or images that described what they were feeling inside. “I felt angry when she called me selfish… well, not exactly angry. I'm noticing a knot in my stomach… It reminds me of being criticized by my mother… It’s a familiar feeling that there’s something wrong with me—that I’m flawed and defective. Yeah, it’s the shame of being defective—that says it.”

Gendlin discovered that when a word, phrase, or image came that resonated with our inner sense as felt from the inside, then something changed, released, or opened up. He called this a “felt shift.” The issue may still be there, but the way it’s held inside the body changes in a tangible way. What makes the difference is pausing and patiently being with the bodily felt sense of an issue—listening to the hidden wisdom of our body rather than analyzing ourselves or searching for solutions in our head.

Gendlin is careful to note that he didn’t invent focusing. He merely observed something subtle that was happening inside clients who were making progress in therapy. He originally called it “experiential therapy,” then changed it to focusing—like in the old days when a photo being developed gradually comes into clearer focus. Gendlin fine-tuned the process into teachable steps so that others could learn what these gifted clients were doing naturally. He published a book about it called Focusing, which has been translated into 17 languages. The International Focusing Institute continues to further this work.

Gendlin died in 2017 at age 90. Growing up in Austria during a time when the Nazis were rising to power, he observed how his father made intuitive choices about who he could trust, which enabled their Jewish family to escape. He later asked his father. “How did you know who to trust?” Tapping his chest confidently, he replied, “I trust my feeling.” Gendlin often wondered what kind of feeling is it that we can listen to and trust, which led him to later coin the phrase “bodily felt sense.”

Gendlin has often said that focusing works best in combination with other approaches. Indeed, this approach has entered other somatic forms of psychotherapy, such as Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing. Levine borrowed the term "felt sense" from Gendlin and gives him credit for it in his landmark book, Waking the Tiger. Gendlin made the generous decision many years ago to offer Focusing, and the language connected to it, without copyrighting it. He just wanted people to benefit. I believe that such generosity is one reason that many people have come to appreciate the heartfelt offering of focusing as a gentle, yet powerful path to personal growth. You can learn more about it at focusing.org.

© John Amodeo.

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