By Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD
How to Tell If You’re Focusing
If Focusing is working well for you, don’t worry. This article is for those who are wondering: Is this Focusing I’m doing, and is it as effective as it could be?
Lately I’ve been pondering the essence of Focusing, what makes “Focusing” Focusing. Let’s start by agreeing that it isn’t any particular set of steps. A particular way of teaching Focusing doesn’t equal Focusing.
I was lucky. Because I learned Focusing in 1972, when there were not really steps to it, I never became too attached to the idea that the Six Steps of Focusing that Gene Gendlin published in 1978 (in his book Focusing) were the same as Focusing itself. When those steps started to get in the way, it wasn’t too hard to let them go.
Gene himself has always said that the “six steps” were not to be made holy. “They are a rope across the territory,” he said to a group in 1989. “When you know the territory, you don’t need the rope.” Recently I heard him make a stronger statement. “The six steps are terrible,” he said.
I asked him to say more, and he said, “My problem is with the simplification that the six steps present. They make it seem that finding your feelings is focusing. So many people get stuck in repetitive feelings and think that’s focusing.”
Clearly, getting stuck in repetitive feelings is not Focusing. Following any set of steps may or may not be Focusing. So let’s ask freshly: What is Focusing?
In an article published in 1990 (which deserves to be much better known), Gene Gendlin writes, “Focusing is this very deliberate thing where an ‘I’ is attending to an ‘it’.” And also: “The client and I, we are going to keep it, in there, company.” And: “What that edge needs to produce the steps, is only some kind of unintrusive contact or company. If you will go there with your awareness, and stay there, or return there, that is all it needs; it will do all the rest for you.” (“The Small Steps of the Therapy Process: How They Come, and How to Help Them Come,” in Lietaer, et al, Client-Centered and Experiential Therapy for the 90s)
These quotes capture something I absorbed from Gene as far back as 1972 when I first began learning Focusing: that Focusing is crucially about a kind of inner contact or company, an inner relationship. We are being with our felt senses rather than plunging into our emotions.
What is a felt sense? It’s something that forms freshly, a directly experienced sense of “all that” which may contain emotions but isn’t the same as emotion.
“A felt sense is the wholistic, implicit body sense of a complex situation. … A felt sense contains a maze of meanings, a whole textile of facets, a persian rug of patterning – more than could be said or thought. Despite its intricacy, the whole felt sense also has a focus, a single specific demand, direction, or point. … One single thing, one statement, or one next step can arise from the whole of it all.” (Eugene Gendlin, Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy, p. 58)
If we take this much as the touchstone, we have what I believe is the heart of Focusing. Focusing is a kind of interested, exploratory contact with a felt sense, allowing symbols to emerge and checking the symbols back with the felt sense.
Now let’s look at three processes which I’m doubting are really Focusing.
“I’ve set it out and now I feel better.”
Vera is sensing something in her throat, a feeling of “constricting.” As she acknowledges it and stays with it, she gets a sense of her upcoming presentation to a large group of people. “I’m afraid!” she exclaims.
“Can you be friendly to the fear?” her Focusing partner asks.
“Maybe I could,” says Vera, “if I could get some distance.”
With the help of her partner, Vera finds a place on an inner shelf that will hold this “fear.”
“That feels better,” she says. “Now I can feel my confidence. I know I will do well in the presentation.”
This feeling that starts out as “I’m afraid,” and then gets re-labeled as “the fear,” never gets company in this session. It never has a chance to be felt into, to reveal its implicit intricacy. Hearing a session like this, one can’t help but wonder what’s going on for this Focuser and her partner. Is it that they believe that the “afraid” can’t change? To me it seems that, without meaning to, they are treating a living aspect of self as if it were an object to be moved and then ignored. (Part of the problem is the use of the noun “fear” instead of staying with the adjective “afraid” – but that’s a matter for another article.)
If you just use “Focusing” to feel good by setting out your issues and then never coming back into contact with them, you are not Focusing. You are process-skipping. And I feel sad for the places that are getting skipped over and ignored… and regret for the lost opportunity for carrying forward of the whole person.
A few years ago there was a man who sent an article to the Focusing Institute for their newsletter. He was proud to say that he was teaching Focusing to boys in his marital arts class. Before a match he would have them “set out” all their feelings. They could choose to put them anywhere, “even on the moon.” Then they would fight. That’s all he was doing with them, and he was calling it “teaching Focusing.” I’m not saying it wasn’t helpful for the boys. We’re trying to be specific about what Focusing is.
“Maybe I want to make it lighter.”
Focusing involves contact with what is there, sensing into that, sensing into it as it is, sensing into it as a whole. It seems obvious to me that this means not changing what is there. If I change it, how can I sense into it as it is?
So imagine my surprise when I recently heard a highly respected Focusing teacher say this: “My felt sense today has a dark color. I’m thinking maybe I want to make it lighter.” My jaw dropped and I wondered if I had heard him correctly. But I had. Maybe I want to make it lighter. Focusing? How could it be? Making a change in what we feel is not Focusing, not sensing what is there, sensing into it, sensing for its intricacy. It is certainly not trusting that it has its own carrying forward.
Evaluating and changing what we find inside ourselves is the diametrical opposite of being with it which is the heart of Focusing. Making something lighter doesn’t seem like a big deal, perhaps, but it’s on the same side of the room as “I don’t like it so I’m getting rid of it” and “I shouldn’t feel so sad so I’m going to put a happy feeling in the place of the sadness.” The difference is only one of degree. A Focusing type of contact doesn’t attempt to make anything change. Remember our quote from Gendlin: “If you will go [to the edge] with your awareness, and stay there, or return there, that is all it needs; it will do all the rest for you.”
And who is this “I” who wants to make the felt sense lighter? Obviously not the same “I” that would be able to give “unintrusive contact or company.” If it were me, I would get interested in the “something in me” that wants to make it lighter, rather than acting on its impulse.
“It needs to be different.”
Another story: Linda is Focusing. She senses something inside her that feels like a dark house. She asks, “What does it need?” What came was: the house full of lights and people. She receives this, it feels good, her session is over.
Later, hearing me talk about Inner Relationship Focusing, Linda told me about her session and wondered what I thought of it. I told her that if the session satisfied her, I wouldn’t want to take that away. When she urged me to say more, I said this: “I’m just wondering what happened to the dark house. It came for some good reason. Did it have a chance to be sensed into, to be felt and heard?” And her answer was no, it really didn’t. (Linda later told me that she realized an impatient side of her had been using the “What does it need?” question to make things move more quickly.)
For a long time I’ve been concerned about this question, “What does it need?” Questions in general can be problematic because they aren’t very effective at inviting process; they tend to be answered from what is already there (what we often call “the head”). (See my article “Questioning Questions” for a detailed discussion of this.) In addition, there is an unhelpful vagueness about who is being asked… and who actually answers. Is it the “something” that responds with what it itself needs? Or does some other aspect of the Focuser jump in and answer this question?
Imagine a mother and daughter. Dominating mother, shy daughter. The grandmother arrives and asks the daughter, “Sweetie, what do you need?” Before the daughter can respond, her mother has the answer ready: “She needs to concentrate on her schoolwork, get good grades.” If given time and safety, we can be pretty sure the daughter would give a different answer! So it matters a lot who answers.
When asked “What does it need?” by a Focusing partner, does the Focuser know that this means to go inside and ask it what it needs? Perhaps not. Certainly it being in the form of a question doesn’t offer any help to remember this.
Bebe Simon, who was a fellow Focusing teacher in those early years assisting Gene, was beautifully consistent on this. She was careful to say, “Can you ask it what it needs,” long before the rest of us had an inkling of why this was important. If it isn’t the it that answers the question, we don’t really have a Focusing process at all.
Contact and Company
What would be Focusing? Two phases.
(1) Getting a felt sense: Pausing and inviting a fresh whole sense of that whole situation. This isn’t the same as the feelings you’ve been having all week, however much they may be bodily felt. A felt sense arises freshly. It may feel familiar, but it’s never exactly the same as what you’ve felt before.
(2) Attending to that. Sensing how it is more than the words that come at first. Gendlin again, from the “Small Steps” article: “What I call Focusing is paying attention inwardly to that unclear sense of something there.” And this paying attention of course is a respectful, non-judgmental attention, not trying to make it change, just sensing it as it is.
As we attend to a felt sense, keeping it company without trying to change it, sensing it as it is, symbols emerge. They may be words, images, scenes, sounds, gestures… and then we sense how the felt sense responds to those symbols, noticing whether they bring it a certain kind of change or shift. Checking if they feel satisfyingly right, if they bring a sense of “Ah!” And if not, we keep sensing. Maybe the symbols are partly right, but there’s more.
That’s Focusing. There are many ways of teaching Focusing, and they all have these two moves at their heart.
So what if it doesn’t bring a shift?
“The ‘I’ with No Content”
Gene Gendlin speaks of “the ‘I’ with no content.” This is who gives company to the “it,” the felt sense.
When we are not identified with “the ‘I’ with no content,” but with some other aspect of ourselves, Focusing can get stuck. We find ourselves saying “I need this to change,” or “I don’t like this,” or “I’m scared of how big this is.” From this position, Focusing becomes difficult, because there isn’t that “unintrusive contact or company.” Without this kind of space, it’s hard even for a felt sense to form.
In Focusing, Gendlin says, “Whatever gets in the way [of being friendly], you can focus on that…” (p. 95). This is what we do when we say “Something in me needs this to change,” or “Something in me doesn’t like this,” or “Something in me is scared of how big this is.” This is a turning toward the aspect of self we were identified with… not pushing it away, not trying to not feel it, but letting it itself be another “it” to give company to. Now Focusing starts to flow again.
In all the places where Focusing gets hard, where you find yourself stuck, ask yourself this: Am I able right now to give company to this with no agenda, no need for it to change? Or am I identified with something that wants this different somehow? And if you are identified with something, try saying hello to that.
There is more that can help, but this is perhaps the most important.
Yes, it’s worth it.
The Focusing process is particular. It can take time and care, and the support of a Focusing teacher or experienced Focusing partner, to find that particular Focusing place, the felt sense contacted from the “I with no content.” For most of us, Focusing is new, not something we’ve always done. We have our familiar habits to contend with as we learn something which can feel vague, elusive, uncertain, and not supported by the culture around us. Is it worth it? Absolutely. Focusing brings profound change, true change, the kind of change that Gendlin calls “carrying forward.” And that’s more than worth the care it takes to pause and get it right. ¶