How to Use Focusing to Release Blocks to Action

By Ann Weiser Cornell, Co-authored with Barbara McGavin

Summary

Focusing provides powerful tools for releasing blocks to action. A “block to action” is an experience which can be described as “I want to do it, but I don’t do it.” Some examples of blocks to action are: procrastination, writer’s block, inability to get organized.

In working with the action block with Focusing, we assume the existence of two parts: the part that wants to do the action and the part that doesn’t want to do the action. We guide the Focuser to listen compassionately to the part that doesn’t want to do the action. Three typical patterns may emerge, although a particular session may not follow any pattern. These are: the pattern of protection, the pattern of rebellion, and the pattern of wanting something else. There may also be an Inner Critic who needs to be heard with compassion.

Characteristics of Action Blocks

An action block is the felt experience of being unable to do an action. This can be phrased as “I want to do it, but I don’t do it.” The action may be a single action, such as a phone call to a publisher, but more often it is a general type of action or activity, such as “making phone calls,” or “getting organized,” or “writing.” If a person has the experience that all or many types of action are difficult to get started or to accomplish, this is called “procrastination” or “being stuck.”

In working with Focusers, it is useful to identify whether situations that they are facing are action blocks. A young man, for example, tells me that he feels frustrated and lonely for the lack of having any fulfilling relationships with women. As we discuss this, it becomes clear that he is aware of certain actions that he could be taking in order to meet more women, and to get better acquainted with the women he meets, but he isn’t taking those actions. So we can approach this issue as an action block. By contrast, another man says he has done everything he knows how to do, and nothing works. There is no action he feels blocked about in this regard. So for him we will need a different approach. [In Treasure Maps to the Soul, the second man would be working with the Mountain Top (Unfulfilled Desire) rather than Swamp (Action Blocks). Note added 2005.]

Once we characterize an issue as an action block, we can assume the existence of two parts (or “aspects of inner experience”): the part that wants to do the action, and the part that doesn’t want to. Typically, the Focuser is identified with the part that wants to, and dissociated from the part that doesn’t want to. Let us discuss these terms further.

Identification, Dissociation, and the Middle Way

We can describe three types of relationship with inner experience. The first, called “identification with a part,” is the experience of being one’s feelings. The person says, “I am sad,” “I am angry,” “I am afraid.” When a person says “I am…” then he is identified with the experience of which he is speaking. When a person says “I am sad,” then she experiences sadness as identical with herself.

The truth is, part of her is sad, and part of her is more than that. But she has become identified with the part that is sad. Instead of being aware of her wholeness, she is aware only of a part.

Identification with a part can feel like “taking sides” internally. This person has taken sides: “I need to get rid of this part of me that’s so angry.” A person is identified with a part if he finds himself unable to be compassionate with someone or something, especially with another part of himself. “I am impatient with my fear” needs to become “Part of me is afraid and part of me is impatient with that.”

The second type of relationship with inner experience is called “dissociation from a part.” If “identification” is “me,” “dissociation” is “not-me.” “I am not sad.” “I am not angry.”

One might, of course, truly not be sad. Then “I am not sad” is simply true. But if one is sad, somewhere – if something in there is sad – and one does not know it, then one has dissociated from one’s sadness.

A dissociated part is something which belongs to you, which is yours, yet you do not recognize it. You are not aware of it. You do not feel it. Or, if you feel it a little, you may be feeling much more strongly that you reject, deny, judge, or despise it.

Identification and dissociation often go together. If you feel both fear and excitement, and you become identified with the fear (“I am afraid”) then you are almost certainly going to be dissociated from the excitement. Only after you disidentify from the fear (“Part of me is afraid”) do you have the inner space to feel the excitement (“And another part of me is excited”). Or you may be identified with the Critic, taking sides to judge and criticize some other part of you which has been dissociated.

The middle position, neither “me” nor “not-me,” is technically called disidentification and association, but we can call it, more simply, “being with.” In the middle position, I am with something that I feel. A part of me feels this way, and I can acknowledge that. There is room for other parts of me to feel other ways.

This middle position is extremely powerful. From here, you can stand anything. You are not overwhelmed; you are not denying. You are present to the truth of how you are right now. You are aware of your inner experiences, you are acknowledging them, they are part of you and you are more.

At this level it is easiest to access the larger part of you, that which can be with what is. If you are identified with anything, it is with the largest accessible self, that Self who is able to be compassionate with whatever needs compassion.

The pattern of identification/dissociation in action blocks

In action blocks, the person is typically identified with the part that wants to do the action, and dissociated from the part that doesn’t want to. When I had writer’s block, I would say, “I want to write! I really want to write! I don’t know why I don’t write!” Notice the identification: “I want…” I was only aware of wanting to write, unaware of any part of me which didn’t want to. As is typical with dissociation from a part, I felt the effects of the part that didn’t want to – this is the part (in Gestalt therapy, the “Underdog”) which is so powerful from its position of dissociation. Some people call it “the saboteur” or “the resistance.” It has no voice, yet it has complete power to stop the show. This is the action block dynamic: identified with the part that wants to do the action, dissociated from the part that doesn’t want to do the action, and stuck. No action.

Beginning with the part that doesn’t want to

The first step of using Focusing with action blocks is to invite the Focuser to get a felt sense of the part that doesn’t want to do the action. We begin with this part because it is the dissociated part. When there is a pattern of identification/dissociation, both parts can be brought into middle awareness by bringing the dissociated part into awareness. The dissociated part “crowds out” the identified part, which can no longer be experienced as the whole universe and so becomes another part. For this reason, the exile gets the first turn.

Working with someone at this beginning stage might sound like this: “You’ve been telling me that you have a block about looking for a new job. Let’s assume that there’s a part of you that doesn’t want to look for a new job. Would that make sense?”

The Focuser will usually say something like, “Yes, but I’m not in touch with that part,” or start to give a “head” explanation: “That part is probably just depressed about going on the job search again.”

My response is, “OK, so what I’m going to suggest is that I will guide you to get a feel for that part in your body, and then to have a gentle conversation with it in which you get to know it better and listen to what it has to say. Shall we do that?”

The Focuser agrees, and then I begin the “guiding in” instructions which I use at the beginning of every Focusing session (unless the Focuser already has an immediately present felt sense):

“Take your time to begin letting awareness come into your body. … Maybe first being aware of the outer area of your body – your arms, and your hands. … Noticing what your hands are touching, and how they feel. … Being aware also of your legs, and your feet. … Noticing what your feet are touching, and how they feel. … Noticing the contact of your body on the chair [couch] and how that feels. … Then letting your awareness come inward, into the whole inner area of your body, into the whole area that includes your throat, your chest, your stomach and abdomen. … And just be there. … Let your awareness rest gently in that whole middle area. … Any other part of your body is OK to notice, but maybe start in this middle area, throat and chest, stomach and abdomen.”

So far these are the instructions I always give. But here is where I begin to do something different for the action block process:

“And give yourself a gentle invitation in there, inviting that part of you that doesn’t want to [e.g., look for a new job] to come into your awareness now, into your body. As if you’re saying to it, ‘I’d like to get to know you better, please come and be known.’ And then wait.” (longer pause) “And when you’re aware of something, you might let me know.”

In most cases, the Focuser will report something in the body, like a tightness in the chest or the throat, a band across the abdomen, fear in the chest, etc.

If the Focuser reports nothing coming in response to this inner invitation, I will say something like this: “So you might imagine yourself doing that action, going out to look for a job. Imagine yourself beginning that. And notice what comes in your body to say ‘no.’” This evocative suggestion will often bring up the felt sense.

Another possibility is that the Focuser will report a body sensation, but say, “I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with the job issue.” Then I will say, “So imagine yourself doing that action, and notice whether this feeling responds to that somehow.” Usually the body sense tightens, or loosens, and this is an indication that it is connected with the issue. If the Focuser still doesn’t know whether this is a felt sense of that issue, but no other sense comes, I will suggest that we go with this and see what happens.

Sometimes this part is hard to feel because it has been so dissociated, so “exiled” from awareness. There is a special type of guiding instruction that I have developed for this. I say: “Maybe it feels like something is there, but it’s hiding behind a curtain, or behind a door. Almost like a child, hiding. If you were in a room with a child hiding behind a curtain, you would still be able to sense its feeling, its mood. Maybe you can sense if there might be something like that, something behind a curtain in there.”

Once there is some meaningful body sense (felt sense) evoked by one of these means, I then guide the Focuser through the rest of a Focusing process with this part. For me, this includes:

  1. Acknowledging. “You might say hello to that place, let it know you know it’s there.”
  2. Describing. “And notice how you would describe it” or “Offer it that word ‘tightness’ and see if that really fits it the best, or if another word fits even better.”
  3. Being with. “Notice if it’s OK to just be with this.”
  4. Inner empathy. “Take some time to sense how it feels from its point of view.”

The “being with” and the “inner empathy” are really the key, and the earlier steps of “acknowledging” and “describing” will help the Focuser come into direct and present contact with the sense, and allow it (the part) to feel safe enough to begin to communicate.

After “it” begins to communicate, the guide has the important job of making sure that the Focuser remains in an empathic relationship with the part, neither arguing nor agreeing but listening. This is done by saying, “Let it know you hear that,” whenever there is a communication from the sense. For example:

Focuser: “It says it’s been protecting me from rejection.”
Guide: “You might let it know you hear that, that it’s been protecting you from rejection.”

The Pattern of Protection

Since working with so many action blocks, in myself and others, I have begun to see some typical patterns emerge. Almost all action blocks eventually follow one of three patterns. The first pattern is the pattern of protection.

Often the blocking part feels that it is protecting the person from some undesirable (scary) outcome. This often connects to past experiences in which these outcomes did happen. For example, in a key Focusing session on my writer’s block, I learned that the blocking part was protecting me from attack. It felt that if I wrote and published, I would be attacked. This connected to memories of my childhood and my father’s sarcasm, which he used to “deflate” me when I seemed to be getting “too big.” My blocking part was protecting me from my father’s sarcasm.

In a Focusing session in a workshop, John had a sense of “creativity” bubbling in his stomach area, wanting to come out. But it was stopped by a block in his chest which felt cold and hard, like concrete. John sat with the concrete block in his chest, with interested curiosity. He brought compassion to it, and sensed its point of view, with empathy. Soon he began to sense that it was trying to protect him. It told him it was protecting him from exposing his creativity to the criticism of others.

This type of block typically shifts when it is heard and acknowledged. The guide’s job (a very important one) is to guide the Focuser to hear and acknowledge the feelings and point of view of the blocking part. The guide’s language includes: “Let it know you hear it,” and “Check with it whether it feels really understood now, or whether that’s part of it but there’s more.” When the part feels fully heard, it changes.

There is no need for negotiation. Evidently there are some methods for releasing blocks which ask the person to negotiate with the part, explain to it that things are different now, ask it to find another way to protect, etc. I have noticed that people tend to expect some kind of negotiation with the part to be the next step of the process. I need to explain to them that negotiation is not needed, and, in fact, in my experience negotiation slows down the change process because it interferes with the part feeling fully heard.

In her first Focusing session Mary told me that she had a “frog” in her throat – a persistent, physically felt block which could actually be heard in her voice when she spoke or sang. She said she knew that a part of her was afraid of self-expression, but she had already done a lot of work on this and she was ready for it to change. In the “describing” part of the session, she said it felt like a “lump.” Then we had the following dialogue:

Guide: “You might just sit with that lump, to get to know it better.”
Focuser: “It feels very determined.”
Guide: “Ah, you’re sensing that it feels very determined. And you might just ask it gently, what it feels determined about.”
Focuser: “It’s telling me that it has saved me many times, by not letting me say something that would have gotten me in trouble. And I’m telling it that I really appreciate that, but now it’s time for me to take back the power to protect myself, and give it a different job.”
Guide: “And you might notice how it feels when you say that.”
Focuser: “It’s still the same.”
Guide: “Well, you know, I really appreciate that you were able to tell it your feelings. But I’m thinking that if I were that lump, I wouldn’t be feeling very heard right now. See if you’d be willing to try something a little different, just as an experiment.”
Focuser: “Sure!”
Guide: “See if you’d be willing to just tell it that you hear what it’s saying, and then stop. No ‘but.’ Tell it that you hear it, and invite it to say more.”

Mary followed this suggestion enthusiastically, and reported over the next ten minutes that the part kept telling her more. She was amazed at how much it had to tell her, including showing her scenes of specific times that it had helped her in the past. She just said, “I hear you,” and kept listening. Then:

Focuser: “It’s melting! I’m feeling this lump melting down the sides of my throat! There’s a clear channel there now. My throat hasn’t felt this good in years! This is amazing!”
Guide: “So really take time to feel and let in the good way it feels now.”

The Pattern of Rebellion

The second typical pattern with action blocks is the pattern of rebellion. The blocking part is a rebel, a refuser, an inner “no.” The Focuser may describe this part as “the resistance,” but I like to translate the word “resistance” into “the part that doesn’t want to.” This inner rebel is a part that may be feeling passed over or pushed around, and it doesn’t like that. It has a stubborn quality, a determination not to be forced. The part that says “no” is often paired with another part that says, “You have to.”

In my Focusing with my own writer’s block, I found a part like this, just before the block released. It felt very stubborn and rebellious. I even described it as an “inner teenager.” This part of me was saying, “I don’t want to do anything that I have to do.” Unlike the part that was protecting me from my father’s sarcasm, this part didn’t have any objection to writing per se. Its objection was to being forced to do anything. This part changed after it felt heard and respected for its wishes. In fact, after this part felt that I really respected its point of view, it turned around and became part of the positive energy that helps me to write.

Another example: Teresa was taking an action block workshop, and wanted to try working with something “small.” She picked the part of herself that hates to write thank-you notes. She does write thank-you notes when she has to, but she is aware that part of her hates to write them, and another part of her is forcing her to do it, riding over that other part.

The group was guided through a Focusing exercise for action blocks, and afterwards Teresa reported: “The part that writes the thank-you notes, and knows that it should write the thank-you notes, it had a lot to say, and it had a lot of reasons, and the other part, I couldn’t get it, I couldn’t get it to come out. When you said the part about the little child behind the curtain, it felt like it fit. It felt like that part was really young, and very shy. It finally came out but there was sort of a vagueness about it. It wouldn’t let me hug it, didn’t want to be touched, was kind of rejecting toward me, didn’t want to be forced. It really resented being forced into doing anything, kind of dragging its heels. It needed more time. It just needed more time for me to communicate with it.”

In this case something that felt so small, “only” about thank-you notes, turned out to be a shy child who resented being forced into doing anything. Surely this was connected with many more parts of Teresa’s life. Although I didn’t see the later Focusing on this issue, I believe that the good relationship which Teresa began to establish with this part will bear fruit. The more she is able to listen to this part, and to give it the time that it needs, the more it will transform into a willing ally.

Rebellious and stubborn parts need respect and understanding for their points of view. When there is a rebel part, the Focuser has been locked into a pattern of identification/dissociation. This might be identification with the part that says “You have to!” and dissociation from the part that says “I won’t do anything I have to do!” Teresa’s story sounds like this, when she reports that the part that writes the thank-you notes is easy to find and has a lot to say, but the part that doesn’t want to is vague, appearing at first only behind a curtain. Or the Focuser might be identified with the rebellious part and dissociated from the part that says “you should.” A third possibility is that the Focuser is flipping back and forth between identification with one and dissociation from the other, becoming the Rebel and the Critic alternately. All three of these patterns of identification/dissociation are stuck patterns; there is not forward movement.

Releasing the stuck pattern requires disidentification from either part. It means finding a position from which to listen with compassion to both parts, usually starting with the dissociated one. The guide’s role is fundamentally the same as in the pattern of protection: “Let it know you hear that.” “Let it know you hear that it really doesn’t want to!” But there is also a difference. The existence of a rebellious part points to a breach of trust in the inner relationship, a long-time history of dishonoring and discounting that needs to be healed. Whereas the protecting part is stopping a particular action in order to protect me from the perceived consequences of that action, the rebellious part is stopping an action because it doesn’t like the way it’s being asked to do it. Healing this inner relationship can take longer; to re-build trust takes time. Yet the time that it takes is rewarded because this pattern is very likely not just about one action, but is about the relationship of the Focuser to his or her will and action in all parts of his or her life.

So the guide’s role may include inviting patience and gentleness toward the rebellious part, and permission for the part to take the time it need to feel safe and trusting.

Focuser: “It doesn’t want to be touched.”
Guide: “OK. See if you’d like to appreciate it for telling you that, that it doesn’t want to be touched. And maybe just find a way that feels right to sit with it, without touching it, but still letting it know that you’re there.”
Focuser: “It says it feels a little better but it might need me to sit this way for a long time.”
Guide: “So you might let it know you hear that…”

Gene Gendlin writes beautifully about this kind of healing inner relationship when he says (The Small Steps, 1990): “The client and I, we are going to keep it, in there, company. As you would keep a scared child company. You would not push on it, or argue with it, or pick it up, because it is too sore, too scared or tense. You would just sit there, quietly… 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 Pattern of Wanting Something Else

The third typical pattern with action blocks is the pattern of wanting something else. In this pattern, the blocking part is carrying a piece of the person’s life energy, and it is stopping the action because it feels that the action is taking the person in the wrong direction, away from the positive direction it desires.

Tom wanted to use Focusing to release a block to completing school projects. “I know what I need to do; I just don’t do it.” But as he spoke about his situation, it emerged that he didn’t like his school program and he didn’t look forward to the life that he was preparing for. He had been a creative writer, and had set that aside in order to take a degree in technical writing because he believed that technical writing would be a more secure profession. The projects which he had a block to completing were technical writing projects which would carry him closer to a career as a technical writer. Is it any surprise that these were blocked?

During his Focusing, Tom felt and listened to many parts, including the part of him that wanted him to have a financially secure future, and the part of him that felt disgust at the life of a technical writer. When the session (his first time Focusing) was over, he said that what had meant the most to him was getting in touch with his sadness over setting aside the creative writing. He had spent time just feeling and listening to the part of him that was sad about that. The next steps of this process remain to be seen, but my guess is that Tom will find some way to keep both important “wants” alive: the desire to be financially secure and the desire to express his creativity.
In working with this pattern, the guide needs to remember not to take sides, so that the Focuser also will not take sides. It can be tempting to side with the part that is carrying so much positive life energy, that has been set aside. But both parts really hold important aspects of the Focuser’s wholeness. For example, a full life needs security and creativity, both. As in the other patterns, the guide helps the Focuser stay in a disidentified position in relation to all parts, to make sure all are fully heard.

One special consideration that often arises with this pattern is the importance of not making a decision prematurely. The guide may need to remind the Focuser not to make a decision about action until the listening process is complete.

Focuser: “This part of me is just so sad that it can’t be creative any more.”
Guide: “You might let that part know you hear it, that it’s just so sad.”
Focuser: “But I don’t feel I can leave the program. My parents would be so disappointed.”
Guide: “Some part of you is saying that this means you should leave the program, and another part is saying you don’t feel you can. But would it be OK, for now, to just let go of what all this means about what you should do. Just wait on that. For now, just listen to each part. Do you still feel that sadness?”

Having described these three patterns, it is also important to say that the Focusing work is done with an openness to whatever comes, that any particular session or person may not follow any pattern, and even if the guide recognizes what may be a pattern, the guide remains open to what the Focuser is bringing, realizing that it may be different from what is expected, this time.

Working with the Inner Critic

Working with the Inner Critic is a key part of working with action blocks, because most people use self-criticism to deal with perceived action blocks. They call themselves harsh names in a fruitless attempt to get themselves past the block. Psychological sophistication doesn’t really improve matters, it just changes the language from “I’m lazy” to “I have a sabotaging inner child.”

The lash of the Inner Critic does not release the block; it makes it worse. Every human has a part that resists tyranny and force, whether the tyrant is outside or inside the self. As the Critic gets stronger, so does the Rebel. A stuck system can be in deadlock for years, with an implacable Critic, an immovable Rebel, and the life energy that wants to flow sitting frustrated, unable to get past this impasse.

To release this stuck system, the last thing we should do is make the Critic into the bad guy. The way out is through acceptance, compassion, and listening—starting with the Critic.

The Critic has been described as “the superego,” as a voice from “the head,” as a force that sits on the good energy that wants to come. All this may be so. But, as my colleague Barbara McGavin and I have found, the Critic is also a part that has feelings, that wants to contribute, and that appreciates being heard. Or, as I sometimes say in workshops: “It’s trying to help. It just has very bad communication skills!”

What we have found helpful is a three-part process. First, when the Critic shows up, have the Focuser acknowledge it, say hello to it. I do not use the word “Critic” unless they do. Instead, I prefer to describe the part by its behavior.

Focuser: “Now I’m hearing a voice from somewhere that says this is stupid.”
Guide: “Ah. So you might say hello to the voice that says this is stupid.”
In some sessions, this simple acknowledgement is enough to make that part subside or disappear. But when the Critic is persistent, we go on.
Focuser: “Yes, it’s telling me I’m wasting my time.”
Guide: “See if it would be OK to just sit down with that part, the one that’s telling you you’re wasting your time.”

Now we come to the second part of the process, having the Focuser ask that part what it is afraid of. This is an invitation to the Inner Critic to get vulnerable. The theory here is that any attempt to control comes out of fear, fundamentally. The Critic is certainly attempting to control – so it must be afraid! But this is not about winning over it by proving that it is afraid. This is about creating a safe enough inner climate that the Critic begins to be able to feel its fears and tell about them. When this can begin to happen, the transformation has already begun.
If the Focuser has a particularly tough Critic, it may not be willing to tell the Focuser what it’s afraid of for quite some time. But at least the Focuser can intuit that it must be afraid of something. I might say, “Let’s say there’s a particularly difficult person who’s always jabbing at people. You may not be able to get that person to admit they’re scared. But if you can empathize or intuit that that person must be afraid, in order to be jabbing at people that way, then at least your attitude toward them will change. See if you can just sense that this part of you is afraid of something.” This kind of empathy will eventually allow the critical part to feel safe enough to admit its fear.

Once the critical part is able to admit its fear, the guide invites the Focuser to ask it what it doesn’t want. Fear easily opens into “I don’t want…” For example: “I don’t want to be criticized, I don’t want to be rejected, I don’t want to starve…” The guide invites the Focuser to keep listening. “Let it know you hear that it doesn’t want to be rejected. (pause) And see if it feels like it’s told you all that it doesn’t want, or if there’s more.” Only when this stage feels complete will it be possible to go on to the third stage.

The third stage is for the Focuser to ask the part, “And what do you want for me?” What we’re really asking it is: “What positive feeling or state are you wanting to help me experience?” Other ways to say this are: “How are you wanting to contribute to me?”, or even: “What is your gift?”

If this part (which we don’t even want to call “Critic” any more) has been thoroughly heard in the second stage, it will be able to answer this new, positive question, and the results can be quite moving and surprising. If it is not able to answer the positive question, then this means more time is needed in stage two.

This is a transmutation process. By the time it can answer the question, “What do you want for me?” it has been transformed, and it is not a Critic any more.

Conclusion

The process described here for using Focusing with action blocks is based on a fundamental philosophy that every part or aspect of the self has a “good reason” for being the way it is, and that when it feels heard and acknowledged for its feelings and intentions, it is freed to change.

I owe more than I can possibly say to the inspiration of Eugene Gendlin, who writes: “What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. … If there is in you something bad, sick, or unsound, let it inwardly be and breathe. That’s the only way it can evolve and change into the form it needs” (Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams, p. 178).

This article appears in The Radical Acceptance of Everything, by Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD and featuring Barbara McGavin (Calluna Press; 2005). Learn more about this book.

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