Relationship = Distance + Connection: A Comparison of Inner Relationship Techniques to Finding Distance Techniques in Focusing

by Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD


Clearing a Space and other Finding Distance techniques are often used to help a client find a comfortable relationship with overwhelming feelings. However, I have found that Finding Distance techniques are actually not the best way to accomplish this purpose. In this article we will explore Inner Relationship techniques, which include all the advantages of Finding Distance techniques and none of the disadvantages. The reason for this is that “relationship” includes “distance” and adds “connection.”

Aspects of this presentation include: the four main disadvantages of Finding Distance techniques; the Inner Relationship techniques; implications for clients in Close Process (overwhelmed) and Distant Process (out of touch); implications for working with survivors of abuse, trauma, etc.; implications for the relationship between the therapist and the client.

1. The four main disadvantages of Finding Distance techniques

Finding Distance is a Focusing move in which the client finds experiential “distance” from his issue or emotion by moving it away from him, or by stepping back from it. Clearing a Space is a special kind of Finding Distance technique in which the client finds distance from a number of issues/emotions before (or without) going into any of them. (But see below, where I describe a type of Clearing a Space which does not involve finding distance.)

Many therapists and guides use Finding Distance techniques with clients who are feeling overwhelmed (in “Too Close” process). Here is an example of a situation which would traditionally call for a Finding Distance technique:

Client: “There’s a well of grief in my stomach. It’s very intense.”

Therapist: “There’s an intense well of grief in your stomach.”

Client: “It’s scary. I don’t like being near it.”

Therapist: [Finding Distance technique] “Maybe you could see if you could move it away from you.”

In using the Finding Distance technique, the therapist is responding to what may be seen as a request for help from the client. It is as if the client is saying, “This is too much for me. Please help me.” The therapist then intervenes by helping the client move the “threatening” feeling to a farther distance. Later I will comment further on the interactional implications of this situation.

Here I will list four disadvantages of Finding Distance techniques as a Focusing intervention when the client is feeling overwhelmed. In the next section, I will propose an alternative method, the use of Inner Relationship techniques, which does not share these disadvantages.

The first disadvantage is that, when this type of technique is used, the client tends to move into an increased victim relationship with the sense, with implicit agreement from the therapist. What I mean by a “victim relationship” is exemplified in the dialogue above when the client says, “It’s scary. I don’t like being near it.” The client becomes a victim of her experience when she feels that she is at its mercy, that it is out of control and doing something to her. Other examples: “It’s cutting off my breathing.” “It’s pushing in on me.” “The sadness is drowning me.” By bringing in a Finding Distance technique, it is as if the therapist is saying, implicitly, “I agree that this sense is too much for you.” There may even be an implication that the therapist is a little scared of it, too.

The second disadvantage is that the client may be unable to follow the suggestion to move the sense, or may be able to follow it only with difficulty. In the early 1980s in Chicago, when we were working with Clearing a Space quite a lot, using it at the start of every session, we developed elaborate techniques for helping with all the difficulties that people had in moving the sense. The complexity of these techniques is evidence for the frequency with which Focusers could not easily move the sense. They often felt frustrated, and the Clearing a Space portion of the session became quite long. Barbara McGavin reports, “The belief that I had to do Clearing a Space every time meant that I stopped Focusing for two years, because it was too frustrating. Clearing a Space often took forty-five minutes, and left no time for Focusing.”

The third disadvantage is that the felt sense itself may experience abandonment by being asked to move away, perhaps recapitulating earlier abandonment in the client’s life. Focusing is an inner relationship, and the qualities of that inner relationship contribute essentially to the healing process. Even if the client does the “setting out” gently, the felt sense itself may feel it is being pushed away!

The fourth disadvantage is that the client may lose touch with the felt sense during the process of Finding Distance.

2. The Inner Relationship techniques

The reason that Inner Relationship techniques do not share the disadvantages of the Finding Distance techniques is that (as in the title of this presentation) relationship contains distance, with connection. If I am in a relationship with you, I am not you. That is the distance: experiencing “you” and “I” as separate beings. Yet we are connected.

So if the Focuser experiences his relationship with the felt sense, that is, his separateness from it and his connection with it at the same time, this accomplishes what the Finding Distance techniques were intended to accomplish, yet without the disadvantages.

Let’s see how the example given above would go differently with Inner Relationship techniques:

Client: “There’s a well of grief in my stomach. It’s very intense.”

Therapist: “You’re aware of an intense well of grief in your stomach.”

Client: “It’s scary.”

Therapist: “See if it would be OK to acknowledge the part of you that’s scared, and just be with that scared feeling.”

Now the client can move into relationship with the scared feeling, which automatically brings a kind of distance from the original sense, but without directly moving it away.

I have found myself coming more and more to trust that the felt sense comes in the way, in the place, and at the intensity that it most needs to be. If I can help the client come into relationship with the felt sense in the way that it is, without needing to change it, this is a very powerful act of acceptance.

Acknowledging. Acknowledging is the quintessential Inner Relationship technique. Often the easiest way to acknowledge is to say “Hello.” The therapist would say, “Maybe you could say ‘Hello’ to the part of you that is so scared.” Another way to say this is “I know you’re there,” as in, “You might say to that heavy feeling, “Yes, I know you’re there.”

Over and over again I have seen this: the Focuser reports a scary or overwhelming feeling of increasing intensity; I invite her to say “Hello” to it; and then she reports with a look of surprise, “It lessened! It’s almost as if it liked being acknowledged!” I would say that it did like being acknowledged. In fact, looking at Focusing as a process of inner relationship, we can say that it was as intense as it was as a way of getting attention; when it was acknowledged, it could relax, at least somewhat. It no longer needed to jump up and down and shout, because it knew it would be heard.

Whenever possible I like to try to see things from the felt sense’s point of view. Why would it feel the need to be so overwhelming? I ask myself. It makes sense that in most cases it is overwhelming because it has been trying for a long time to get the Focuser’s attention, and it feels it must resort to strong tactics in order to be heard. (See section 4 below for another reason “it” might need to be overwhelming.)

Clearing a Space by Acknowledging. Earlier I quoted Barbara McGavin’s frustration with Clearing a Space, that it often took forty-five minutes out of every Focusing session. Now that Barbara uses Inner Relationship techniques, she still does a version of Clearing a Space whenever she starts Focusing and finds that there is more than one thing wanting her attention. This could be called “Clearing a Space by Acknowledging,” and does not involve Finding Distance. Instead, she says “Hello” to each thing that is there, and begins to form a relationship with it. This typically takes about five minutes altogether, even when there are many issues present.

Resonating. Resonating is checking whether a word, or other symbol, or a larger unit of meaning, fits how the felt sense feels. Resonating can itself be an Inner Relationship technique, because in order to do it, the Focuser must be in direct contact with the felt sense, with a neutral observer (i.e. non-victim) perspective.

Client: “It feels tight.”

Therapist: “And maybe take that word ‘tight’ and see if that feels like just the right word to describe that feeling.”

Later in the session, it can be helpful to phrase the resonating suggestion from the point of view of whether “it” feels more understood now.

Client: “There’s depression there and a little anger.”

Therapist: “Maybe check that with the place and see if it feels more understood now, depression and anger.”

Disidentification. Disidentification is the process by which the client disidentifies from felt experience (“A part of me feels sad.”) rather than being identified with felt experience (“I am sad.”). Disidentification is often the first step toward establishing the Inner Relationship.

The essence of disidentification is to help the client move from “I am [this feeling]” to “I have [this feeling].” In most cases, disidentification can be facilitated simply with empathic listening or reflection, in which the therapist adds phrases like “a part of you” or “a place in you” or “something in you.”

Disidentification often comes just before acknowledging, or is combined with it. It is difficult, even impossible, to acknowledge without disidentification.

Client: “I hate that fear.”

Therapist: “So there’s a part of you that hates that fear.”

Client: “Yes.”

Therapist: “You might see if you’d like to say ‘Hello’ to the part that hates the fear.”


Client: “I hate that fear.”

Therapist: “You might see if you’d like to say ‘Hello’ to the part of you that hates that fear.”

“There must be some good reason…” When the client experiences the felt sense as oppressive or adversive, I have found it very helpful to propose that it may have a good reason for being that way, at least from its point of view. Sometimes I add that this “good” reason may be an old reason; sometimes I say, “It may think it has a positive purpose for you.” This is based on my philosophy, borne out my experience, that there are no enemies within the self. Margaret Warner in her work with Multiple Personality Disorder (reported in a presentation given in San Francisco, December 1990) has pointed out that even aspects of the self that seem to be cruel and self-destructive, as in cases of self-mutilation, have been found to believe that they are serving a protective function.

Client: “It’s cutting off my breathing.”

Therapist: “And let’s assume, just for a little while, that it may think it has a positive purpose for doing that.”

Client: “It doesn’t want me to feel so much.” etc.

Sensing from its point of view. In addition to its “good reason” for being the way it is, other aspects of the felt sense may be sensed from its point of view. It is a powerful and empowering move, when the client is able to shift from her point of view (which may be “overwhelmed” or “victim”) to the felt sense’s point of view. This brings in the possibility of empathy and compassion. The aspect of self which has the capacity for empathy and compassion is not a victim.

Client: “I’m afraid.”

Therapist: “You might see if you’d like to ask the fear place what it’s so scared of, from its point of view.”

Having the Focuser become the felt sense’s listener. When the felt sense begins to reveal its message, the Focuser can be guided to say to it, “I hear you,” thus not becoming embroiled in any kind of argument with the felt sense, and encouraging it instead to say more.

Client: “It seems to be saying that it wants me to stay with it some more.”

Therapist: “So let it know you hear that, that it wants you to stay with it some more.”

See how the therapist follows the instruction to “let it know you hear that” with a quoted listening response, so that the client will find it as easy as possible to do the instruction. However, it doesn’t have to be done that way:

Client: “That place is letting me know how hard it has been working.”

Therapist: “So really let it know you hear that.”

Including the Focuser in the listening response. In this technique, the listener includes in the reflection what the client is doing or experiencing right now, in saying those words. First say “you” to refer to the client, and then add a verb to describe his current experience. Typically this is something like “sensing,” “realizing,” “noticing,” “are aware of,” “feeling,” etc.

Client: “There’s a sadness in my heart area.”

Therapist: “You’re aware of a sadness in your heart area.”

Client: “It’s dark and heavy.”

Therapist: “You’re noticing that it’s dark and heavy.”

This kind of listening response is very powerful for helping the Client stay separate from and in relationship with her experience, instead of identifying with the experience.

Client: “There’s a darkness that wants to pull me down.”

Therapist: “You’re sensing a darkness that wants to pull you down.”

Now the Client is aware, not only of the darkness, but of his own awareness of the darkness. This gives him a place to stand, to be with the darkness.

Including the focuser/client is an extremely powerful and helpful technique for several reasons. It helps the client feel more fully heard — because all her experience is being heard, not just her words but also her relationship to her words.

3. Implications for clients in Close Process (overwhelmed) and Distant Process (out of touch)

Based on work by Elfie Hinterkopf and Les Brunswick (Hinterkopf, E. “Experiential Focusing: A three-stage training program.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 23, 1983), we can describe a continuum of client process from Close Process (overwhelmed) to Distant Process (out of touch), with Middle Process, the ideal Focusing distance, in between. (“Close Process” describes the client’s experience of being overwhelmed. It is not the same as cathartic process, as Kathy McGuire points out in her article, “Cathartic Unfoldings are Not Too Close,” in The Focusing Connection, VIII, 6, November 1991.)

Finding Distance techniques have quite different impacts on clients in Close Process and clients in Distant Process. For many years I recommended Finding Distance techniques for clients in Close Process. The model itself implies that if something is “too close,” what is needed is distance. Finding Distance techniques are contraindicated for clients in Distant Process. We (I myself have characteristically Distant Process) find it frustratingly easy to lose the felt sense if it is set out, and why did we want to set it out at all?

But the Inner Relationship techniques are valuable for both types (and in fact all types) of process. When a client in Distant Process says “Hello” to a vague, elusive felt sense, it tends to become more distinct, more definitely there. When a client in Close Process says “Hello” to an overwhelming, intense felt sense, it tends to relax slightly, while remaining in awareness. What we can say about both cases is that when the felt sense is met, as it is, within a context of inner relationship, it responds by accommodating to the requirements of the communicational situation, by becoming either more definite or more relaxed, whichever is needed.

4. Implications for working with survivors of abuse, trauma, etc.

I have observed some cases in which having the client say “Hello” to an overwhelming felt sense (or using any of the other Inner Relationship techniques already described) has not resulted in an easing of the sense to the point where the client is able to be comfortable with it. Invariably these are people with a history of abuse or trauma, from childhood. These clients are working with painful issues that change slowly, in which any moment of relief or fresh air should be celebrated.

These are not situations in which Finding Distance techniques work any better, usually, although from person to person there may be someone who gets a little inner breathing room from them, and it is good to have plenty of possibilities to try.

However, I would first try a slightly different version of the Inner Relationship techniques, which I will now describe. We are still trying to see things from the felt sense’s point of view, and if “it” doesn’t settle down to have a conversation after a “Hello,” then it must have been overwhelming for some other reason than just to get the Focuser’s attention. In survivors of abuse, my guess is usually that the felt sense has come in order to tell them about a situation of being overwhelmed in the past. It needs to be overwhelming because that is part of its message. Quite often, then, it will relax when this part of the message has also been heard.

Client: “This very intense feeling is coming toward me like an ocean wave. It just feels like it’s too much.”

Therapist: “Maybe you could say to it that you really see how much it is. Say to it, ‘Yes, you’re so big.’”

Client: “That’s a little better, but it’s still hard to stand.”

Therapist: “Maybe what it has come to tell you about is a time when something was hard to stand, for you. You might just check with it, and see if that would fit, that it’s about something that once felt ‘too much’, like this.”

5. Implications for the relationship between the therapist and the client

In section 1 I quoted an interaction between therapist and client in which the therapist brought in a Finding Distance technique:

Client: “It’s scary. I don’t like being near it.”

Therapist: [Finding Distance technique] “Maybe you could see if you could move it away from you.”

I said that in using a Finding Distance technique, it is as if the therapist is responding to a request for help from the client. At some level the client is saying, “This is too much for me. Please help me.” When the therapist then intervenes by helping the client move the “threatening” feeling to a farther distance, it is almost as if the therapist is saying, implicitly, “I agree that this sense is too much for you.”

Of course there is a rightness to this. If the client really needs help, then it is right for the therapist to help, and to bring in the tools she knows for doing this. Ideally the client will learn from this modeling to use these tools for himself.

However, we have to ask whether the help was really necessary. If the help was not really necessary, if there was a possibility that the client might have found his way through the session without the need for an intervention in which the therapist played the role of the savior, then surely this would be preferable.

I apologize for the ways in which this analysis oversimplifies the matter, but essentially it is as if the therapist using the Finding Distance technique says, “This emotional experience is too much for you to handle. You need help and I can help you,” and the therapist using the Inner Relationship technique says, “You are capable of giving nurturing attention to yourself, just as you are.”

The paradox is that although we sit with our clients in order to help them, we can often help them most by seeing and connecting with the parts of them that need no help. This is not to deny the parts in need of help, but simply to say, “and there is more.”

My work has become more and more centered on Inner Relationship because it embodies a deep trust in the body’s process. This deep trust is something that we who do Focusing have every reason to hold. As we enable our clients and students to access the part of themselves that is able to be in a nurturing inner relationship, we are making a space which calls forth the already healed self, the one who is always there, all along.

This paper was presented as a workshop at the First Conference on Focusing Therapy, Lindau-Bodensee, Germany, August 1995. It also appeared in The Focusing Folio, Summer, 1995. For back issues or subscriptions to The Focusing Folio, contact The Focusing Institute.

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.