What is the Difference Between Focusing & Therapy?

by Ann Weiser Cornell

This article originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of The Focusing Connection.

I am often asked the question, “What is the difference between Focusing and therapy?”, and it always startles me a little, as if someone were asking the difference between breathing and making mudpies. Because of course Focusing is something that we hope is happening in therapy, especially in the client but ideally in the therapist, too.

So I ask, and it usually turns out that what the questioner is really wanting to know is: “What is the difference between doing therapy as a therapist using Focusing, and guiding a person through Focusing as a non-therapist?” This is a question which interests me greatly, and to which I have given a great deal of thought over the years, since it is clear to me that I am not a therapist even though I do one-to-one Focusing sessions with people, and charge for them.

If you exchange Focusing sessions with someone, and don’t charge, then that is a Focusing partnership, and it’s fairly easy to see that the exchange of roles makes this a relationship that is different from therapy. So if Focusing guiding sessions (paid, one-way) are different from therapy sessions, it must also be that something about the relationship is different. I would say, yes, very much so.

In general, what distinguishes Focusing Guide from Focusing Therapist is the quality and the character of the relationship. The Focusing Therapist is concerned with the “interpersonal space,” as Gendlin calls it, and attends to the quality of that space as a key part of the therapeutic process.

(As an aside, I need to mention that there is some controversy over what to call a therapist who uses Focusing as a primary modality. “Focusing Therapist,” “Focusing-Oriented Therapist,” and “Experiential Therapist,” are three possibilities. I apologize for using the shortest for convenience in this paper.)

In his paper, “Focusing Therapy: Some Basic Statements,” Johannes Wiltschko writes: “I now have to mention the importance of the specific relationship between client and therapist. This is, besides working on the felt sense, the main aspect of Focusing Therapy. … The relational space between client and therapist is the living space in which the client’s developmental process can occur” (The Focusing Folio, 14, 3, available from The Focusing Institute).

Of course there are many different ways of doing Focusing Therapy, so any one of my generalizations about Focusing Therapists may not apply to a particular Focusing Therapist. But I hope that these distinctions make a cluster which, as a whole, distinguishes Focusing Therapist from Focusing Guide.

A. The Focusing Guide Primarily Facilitates the Inner Relationship
The Focusing Guide has the job of helping the client to focus. This is primary. Focusing is an inner relationship, so in the office of the Focusing Guide, the inner relationship, the relationship of the client to the felt sense, is primary.

The Focusing Therapist has a larger job: being present for this whole person’s (emotional, spiritual) growth at this time in their life.

For a Focusing Guide, process is not only more important than content – as I’m sure it is for many therapists – process is supreme. It would be rare for a therapist to say to a client, as Focusing Guides often do, “You don’t need to tell me what just came. Just be sure you really receive it for yourself.” The therapist would usually consider it therapeutic, and a valuable part of the relationship, for the client to share what came. The Focusing Guide considers the communication between client and guide to be relatively unimportant next to the communication between client and client.

B. Therapists Need to Pay Attention to Relationship Issues
Therapists need to be alert for transference and countertransference, and use the awareness of these issues therapeutically in the work with the client. As a Focusing Guide, if I encounter transference and countertransference, it’s no more strongly than in any teacher-student relationship. If I did encounter them – if a client got very upset or very closed down at the prospect of my taking a planned vacation, for example – it would suggest to me that we needed to discuss a referral to a therapist.

The therapy relationship makes a place where relational issues can come up, as part of the process of healing. A few years ago I entered psychotherapy as a client for the first time, after twenty-two years of Focusing in partnership relationships. I noticed that I had reactions to my therapist that I never had to my Focusing partners. For the first few months, I didn’t want her to have any other clients but me. I knew she did, but I didn’t want to know about them. I felt terribly jealous if I saw any other clients in her waiting room. I didn’t want to tell anyone her name for fear that they would go see her. The strength and irrationality of these feelings was embarrassing to me, and yet at the same time it was comforting to know that this relationship was a place where it was OK to feel like a child jealous of my brothers and sisters, and to explore those feelings of “there’s never enough for me.”

C. The Focusing Guide Does Not Bring Up Topics
A Focusing Guide does not choose the topic that the client will work on. A Focusing Guide does not look for gaps in what the focuser is bringing up, and ask about them. The focuser is totally in charge of the content of what she works on.

When I was a therapist and did couple therapy with a co-therapist, at some times with some couples we might bring up the question of their sex life. “How is it going?” we’d ask. “Can you talk about it to each other?” For a couple in couple therapy to not be talking about the sexual side of their relationship was a significant omission, and it was a legitimate part of a therapist’s role to bring it up. But with my Focusing clients I would not do that. I help them pursue whatever they bring up.

I worked with one woman for a year in what was paradigmatically a Focusing guiding relationship. She chose the issues that she worked on. Primarily, she worked on the question of what she wanted to do with her life. After about a year, she told me she was in great pain because she was breaking up with her lover. At that time, and not before, I discovered the gender of the lover.

I believe, and I’ve checked this with several people, that a therapist would have been justified in feeling that something was missing, in working with someone for so long and never hearing about their love/sex/relationship life. A therapist might have been right to ask, “Is that part of your life really perfectly OK, or is there some other reason why you’re not telling me about it?”

But as a Focusing Guide, I considered that to be outside my scope. It was understood that my client was completely in charge of the topic of the session. I was willing to go with her along whatever path she (and her felt senses) indicated.

D. A Therapy Client Would Usually Have Only One Therapist at a Time
Because of the special qualities of the therapy relationship already described, it would be usually be considered confusing and unhelpful if a client were to have more than one therapist at a time.

On the other hand, a person could have many Focusing relationships. When I first learned Focusing, it was part of a peer community (Changes) in Chicago. I was so enthusiastic about the process that I did it at every opportunity. During my first year, I rarely had fewer than two sessions a week with different people – and sometimes as many as five. When I sat down to work with someone, I didn’t need to explain what had come in the four other sessions that week. Nor did they feel the need to know. I just began at my own edge. I was the guardian of my own process.

As a Focusing Guide, I don’t need to know what other growthful work the focuser has done in the past week. I remember one man who did tell me that he had worked with another guide a few days before, and we were fascinated to discover that the sessions were totally different, in both theme and tone. In my opinion, the choice to do this is totally up to the focuser. In this sense, I feel that Focusing guiding is more like bodywork than like therapy. I feel free to schedule sessions with different bodyworkers, and even several in a week, without needing to inform them about each other.

E. A Focusing Guide Can Work with a Friend
There is no difficulty in being a Focusing Guide to a person who is also a friend. On the other hand, it would be difficult and inappropriate to form or maintain a friendship with a client currently in therapy, or to become a therapist for a friend. I would feel, as either the client or the therapist, that the two relationships competed with each other. If I felt that this was a person who could become my friend, I wouldn’t pursue the friendship, since I can have many friends, and I would want to set the friendship aside in preference for the therapy relationship for as long as the therapy continued.

F. A Therapist Makes a Long-Term Commitment
Although this too can vary in special cases, most therapists make a commitment to the client that goes something like this, “I will be here for your growth, for as long as you need me.”

When I was a therapist, and I decided to move from Illinois to California, I informed my clients as soon as I began considering the move, about six months in advance. Their reactions to my potential move became one of the issues which they explored in therapy. I felt I owed them the chance to “get used to” the idea of my going, and to report and explore the feelings that this raised in them. The same was true of going on vacation. I informed my clients of my vacations well in advance, and welcomed their exploration of feelings and reactions they might have to my absence.

As a Focusing Guide, I plan my travels at times when I don’t have classes scheduled, but other than that, I don’t need to take my Focusing students into consideration. If someone calls for an appointment at a time when I am away, they can either wait until I get back, or call another Guide or Focusing partner. There is little likelihood they they will have feelings of upset or betrayal about my absence.

G. A Therapist Uses Everything that Works
Having made a commitment to this person for their whole growth, it would of course be nonsensical for the therapist not to use any method that they know about that might help the client. My therapist uses techniques from Focusing, Gestalt, EMDR, and a dash of Buddhist/Hindu spiritual guidance. Mostly she uses her own personal presence-she is there.

As a Focusing Guide, I assume that the person has chosen to come to me because they want to be guided through Focusing. If they want something else, they’ll go somewhere else. Of course I too try to give the focuser my full presence. That part is not different.

H. A Focusing Guide Does Not Diagnose or Analyze
Of course, neither do many therapists! But even therapists who hate to diagnose may have to, at least to fulfill requirements for third-party (insurance) payments. And some therapists do find themselves living up to their training in “Advanced Labeling” (as my friend Marshall Rosenberg calls his psychology degree) by naming some clients “borderline,” “dissociative,” “alexithymic,” etc. Focusing Guides don’t.

What Both Have in Common
It might be good to mention some of the factors that both Focusing Therapy and Focusing Guiding have in common. I have already mentioned presence-being there as a whole person. There are also ethical considerations in common.

Confidentiality of all information learned from the client or student is an important ethical consideration. I believe that neither a Focusing Guide nor a Focusing Therapist should reveal information about a client or student to any other party without the client or student’s permission. A Focusing Guide is unlikely to have to face the special exceptions to this, involving danger to another person or to the client’s own life, that some therapists have to face.

Romantic or sexual activity with clients or students would be another area requiring great care. Romantic and/or sexual feelings have such great power and force, and can be so interwoven with personal needs and unhealed wounds, that they can “drown out” (like loud music) any other relationship which is present. Some ethicists forbid such relationships entirely. I would at least recommend great care and much Focusing before such feelings might be acted upon.

There is a distinction to be made between clients/students with whom one was in another kind of relationship before the Focusing relationship started, and clients/students who were met first through Focusing. One can be a Focusing Guide for one’s spouse, for example, or a dear friend. However, a Focusing partnership or trade would probably be more appropriate to the reciprocity of the relationship.

What Does Not Distinguish Focusing Guide from Focusing Therapist
A. Length of Time

It has been suggested that if a Focusing Guide works with a client beyond a limited number of sessions, say four or five, then the work is no longer Focusing teaching and is, to call it by its right name, therapy.

I don’t agree that the number of sessions defines whether a relationship is or is not therapy. A relationship can be definitely therapy-like in the very first session. I can remember having a first session with someone, and feeling the red flag go up – This person is experiencing transference with me!

I can understand that defining a relationship as limited in time might be a way that some people maintain the boundaries between Focusing Therapy and Focusing Guiding. But a certain number of sessions doesn’t make a relationship into a therapy relationship, any more than keeping below a certain number makes it not one.

B. Focusing ‘Teaching’ Doesn’t Have to Happen
It has also been suggested that after a certain number of sessions you are no longer teaching Focusing, because the person has learned Focusing, so you must be doing therapy. I agree with the first half of this statement but not the second. My experience has been that there is a kind of relationship which is not teaching Focusing in an explicit way, and is also not therapy. In this relationship I am a companion to the person’s process, using my expertise as listener and guide. No new teaching may be happening; in fact, this may be a person who already ‘knows’ Focusing, having taken a number of workshops. Perhaps they called me up for a session because an issue felt especially difficult, or they had a feeling that a session with me would help. I’m happy to get a call from someone after months have passed, and then not know, at the end of a session, when or if they will ever call me again. Not a very therapy-like attitude!

One more positive aspect: as a Focusing guide, I am not burdened by society’s expectations of the therapy relationship. People don’t come to me expecting to be told whether they’re good or sane. I’m not given the power to wave a magic wand and analyze someone’s problems. I don’t face the educational process that client- and person-centered therapists face, of explaining that that magic wand won’t be forthcoming!

I feel that Focusing Therapist and Focusing Guide are two honorable professions, which can support each other in harmony and mutual respect. I’m happy that Focusing Therapists exist, and I’m happy to refer to them anyone who is looking for therapy that includes Focusing. For myself, my own profession suits me perfectly!

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.