Ann Weiser Cornell was getting her PhD in Linguistics at the University of Chicago when she met and studied with Eugene Gendlin, the originator of Focusing, starting in 1972. Learning Focusing with him has led to a lifelong process of discovery and personal development.
In 1980, Eugene Gendlin invited Ann to assist with his Focusing workshops. This started her on a path to become a Focusing teacher, and in 1990, Ann became the first person to support herself full-time as a Focusing teacher.
Today Ann is internationally recognized as one of the leading innovators and theoreticians of Focusing. She has taught Focusing in twenty countries, and her Focusing books and manuals have been translated into eleven other languages (Czech, Dari, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, and Spanish).
Ann is well-known in the Focusing world for her attention to the language that facilitates Focusing, her popular manuals, and her co-creation with Barbara McGavin of Untanging®, a body of work applying Focusing to difficult areas such as addiction, depression, action blocks, self-criticism, and unfulfilled desire. She is the author of five books on Focusing: her bestseller The Power of Focusing (1996), The Radical Acceptance of Everything (2005), Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change (2013), Presence: A Guide to Transforming Your Most Challenging Emotions (2015), and 21 Days to Healthier Boundaries (2020). Ann is authorized by the Focusing Institute in New York to offer the Institute’s certification as Focusing Trainer.
On a personal note: Ann lives in Berkeley,
California, with her life partner, Joseph McBride, noted film historian.
Can I tell you a personal story?
“I wish I had known how to listen to myself.”
I was 22 years old. I had a boyfriend I didn’t like… but I didn’t know that I didn’t like him. I was all, “I love him so much!” He was unkind, manipulative, self-absorbed… and we didn’t really have similar interests… but that was just not on my radar. It might sound strange if you haven’t been there, to think that a person could be having feelings of “this isn’t right” and not yet be aware of it. But that’s how it was.
And then one day the relationship ended, not through a thoughtful process of awareness, but by me impulsively going out with someone else. Within a week the old relationship was over, the new one never took off, and I was alone. And I had this much self-awareness: “This being on my own feels really good right now.”
“Something in me knows what I want and will get it one way or another.”
On my own, shocked enough by what had happened to try to figure it out, I realized that something in me had known I wasn’t happy with my boyfriend, and had found a way to get free. But I would have greatly preferred to have known about it in advance. It’s sort of like realizing that someone who works for you is doing things for you behind your back. That’s nice… but could I please be informed?
At that moment I made a resolution: that I would find out how to be in direct contact with the part of me that knows what it wants for me, and once I found it, I would be able to make choices with consciousness rather than being taken by surprise by my own actions.
Within a few months of making that resolution, I heard about a guy teaching something called “Focusing,” right in my college neighborhood. My friends told me that Focusing was a way to listen to yourself, and find out what you really want, by being more aware of something your body feels. I don’t know why that got my attention – maybe I had a sneaking feeling that the part of me that knows what it wants would be found somewhere south of my neck. Ordinarily as a head-oriented PhD student my body was the last place I would have thought of to look for information!
“Could I borrow the feelings and needs of the person next to me?”
Even though I knew I wanted to do it, learning Focusing was hard for me. I was so far away from awareness of my own body, I hardly knew I even had a body. As for my own feelings and needs – “Could I just borrow the feelings and needs of the person sitting next to me? Because I have no idea what mine are.” The sad truth was that I had grown up much better able to tune into other people’s feelings than my own.
What helped me to get Focusing was being in Focusing partnerships. I would meet every week with another person from the group and we would trade turns: for half an hour it was my turn to do Focusing, and for half an hour it was the other person’s turn. I was so hungry for self-awareness that I met with different friends three or four times a week during that first year.
When I finally learned Focusing it was life-changing and life-saving, like a miracle. I got myself back again – that’s how it felt. I wondered if there was a way that other people wouldn’t have such a hard time learning Focusing as I did. Little did I know at the time that that would become my life’s work!
“I can’t explain – but this doesn’t feel right.”
In those early days there were no Focusing teachers or guides, and no one was thinking of Focusing as a profession. My friends and I went on to get our degrees and follow our professional paths. Mine was to be a college teacher of Linguistics. I got a job at a Midwestern university and settled down to the career I had been trained for: teaching English students about the structure of language and going to committee meetings.
There was only one problem. I had learned Focusing, and because of that, I was in tune with how I felt and what my life really needed. And because of that, I knew quite early on that this nice new career wasn’t right for me. Which threw me into turmoil. On the one hand, I was in the job I had said I always wanted. It was the job my parents had wanted for me. I was making three times as much money as I had ever made. Everything external said “Stay.”
On the other hand, whenever I did Focusing, I got a persistent sense of wrongness. “This doesn’t feel right.” What would feel right? I wanted to feel more directly helpful to people… and more heart-connected. But I didn’t know what career that would be, or how to get there.
Making a decision from the inside
I didn’t make this decision impulsively. I gave my college teaching career a good chance. But when my inner sense of rightness kept nudging me for over a year, more and more strongly, I went in to the department chairman and handed in my resignation. “Why?” he asked. “I can’t explain,” I said, “but I need to do this.”
Six months later I was back in Chicago, sharing an apartment with a friend, still looking around for what my inner sense of rightness was pointing me toward. So I was in the right place when Gendlin’s book Focusing became a best-seller and people from around the world started asking him, “When are you giving a workshop?” In pulling together a series of workshops, he reached out to his old group to help him teach, and I was on the spot, ready for that opportunity.
In those next exciting years, Focusing teaching as a profession was born, and I was in at the start of it – in fact became one of the leaders and shapers of it – because I had followed my inner sense of rightness.
“I want to write, I so much want to write – why don’t I?”
I have one more story to tell you, and for that we flash forward about ten years. By this time I’m in Berkeley California (another story of following my inner sense of rightness), and I’m making my full-time living as a teacher and guide of Focusing.
But my dream is to write a book, a book that will really help people. And my problem is, I have writer’s block. I just can’t seem to get myself to write.
By this time (the early 90s) I’d been Focusing for over 20 years. Focusing had guided me through countless important decisions, and had also helped me feel a stronger sense of my own self. I’d had Focusing partners and traded Focusing sessions with them every week for more than 20 years. But Focusing didn’t seem to be helping with my writer’s block. I’d tried other things too – just about every self-help book or new age technique that I’d heard about from a friend or on TV. Nothing helped. I felt discouraged, self-critical, and tormented by an unfulfilled longing to give the world the book that I knew was inside me.
With a longing like that, I just couldn’t give up. So I decided to give Focusing with the writer’s block one more try. Only this time, who knows why, I took a different approach. Instead of just inviting the body feeling of the problem, I decided to invite The Part of Me that Didn’t Want to Write. I figured there had to be such a part.
“No wonder you’re stopping me if that’s what you think will happen.”
That Focusing session went differently than usual. The Part of Me that Didn’t Want to Write actually showed up – as a tense feeling in my chest, which turned into a feeling of ducking, which turned into a feeling of being on a firing range down by the targets. This part of me clearly felt that writing was an invitation to be shot at! But by whom? An image of my sarcastic father came into my mind. Oh… this Part that Doesn’t Want to Write actually doesn’t want me to be shot at by my father’s sarcasm. (Never mind that by this time in my life my actual father had been dead for about five years. This was the father of my childhood, still alive and attacking inside of me.)
I waited, staying with the feeling and the image, waiting for a sense of what would be right to do next. And what came was: Let it know I hear it. Let this part of me know I really hear it. No wonder! If that’s what it thinks will happen, no wonder it’s not letting me write.
The response inside me was immediate. The tension in my chest released, and I took a big breath of relief. It’s as if that part of me said back, “You heard me!” And because I heard it, it didn’t have to hang on any more.
The next day, writing was easier. In 1996, my first book The Power of Focusing was published. It became a best-seller, has been translated into six languages, and I love hearing from people who tell me that book changed their lives.
Inner Relationship Focusing
What I learned that day was the start of a whole new phase of my journey with Focusing. Together with my friend Barbara McGavin, I created an approach that combines the Focusing process with an awareness of “parts” and how to work with them from a place of compassion (“Self-in-Presence”). We call it “Inner Relationship Focusing,” and it’s so effective and transformational for all kinds of issues that I now feel deeply happy and fulfilled all day long, being able to really help people fulfill their own lives.
Today I’m the most well-known Focusing teacher in the world, having taught in 18 different countries in five continents and teaching over 60 phone seminars every year – and it all started when I realized that I didn’t like my boyfriend even though I “loved” him, and I’d better learn to listen to myself!
If you’d like some help in learning to listen to yourself and follow your inner sense of rightness, perhaps you’d like to read more about the Services and Programs that we have to offer…