By Dr. Leslie Ellis
Back in 2011, Eugene Gendlin, the founder of focusing-oriented therapy, received his third major award from the American Psychological Association, this one for his distinguished theoretical and philosophical contributions to psychology. In 2016, the year before he died at the age of 90, Gendlin received lifetime achievement awards from both the World Association for Person Centered and Experiential Psychotherapy and the US Association for Body Psychotherapy. His work has made a significant impact on how somatic and experiential therapies are practiced around the world. However, many of Gendlin’s ideas were ahead of his time, and some of the potential impact from his ‘philosophy of the implicit’ has not yet made its way into mainstream thinking about the practice of psychotherapy. This article brings some of Gendlin’s radical ideas to light, summarizing his three most important papers on the theory of psychotherapy.
There are three articles that focusing teachers from around the world agree are Gendlin’s most important contributions to psychotherapy theory, and although they are decades old, the ideas expressed in them continue to have a ‘radical impact’ (Ikemi, 2017) on psychotherapy theory. Many of Gendlin’s ideas have filtered into the common parlance of psychotherapy in various ways: proponents of immediacy and mindfulness in therapy, and those who encourage clients to follow their ‘felt sense’ or embodied understanding of an issue are taking their lead from Gendlin’s theories. It has been incorporated into methods like Emotion-Focusing Therapy and Somatic Experiencing. However, there are some concepts which underlie the process of psychotherapy that have not shifted appreciably since the days of Freud. One such concept, repression, is challenged and advanced by Gendlin’s philosophy.
A theory of personality change (1964)
In this ground-breaking article, Gendlin (1964) makes note of how the therapy endeavour is often a conversation between the client and therapist about what has gone wrong in their past (their experiences, development, family of origin, etc.) that has made them feel or act the way they now do. Therapy brings new awareness to the client about their past situation, and a realization that they must have felt all of this all along but kept it out of awareness because it was unacceptable or overwhelming. The concept of repression originated with Freud and has not changed much in the past 100 years.
Part of the problem with this conceptualization, said Gendlin, is that it can only explain the personality as it is, and does not in theory allow for the possibility of change. It also operates on a ‘content paradigm,’ a sense that in their unconscious, people are holding a vast storehouse of fully-formed but forgotten experiences that must be unearthed so the client can understand how they came to be the way they are. There is the inherent assumption that this insight will bring change. What has been repeatedly observed, however, is that “knowing is not the process of changing.” Gendlin (1964) and many others have observed that in fact, personality change happens in the context of an emotional process, and in relationship.
Gendlin (1964) developed a theory for this change process that updates the concept of repression with something that seems more plausible. He would say that the past experiences that still plague our clients were not experienced and then forgotten, but rather avoided or stopped before they happened. These pieces of unfinished process are tangible in the body as a felt sense that carries rich, complex and implicit meaning. When we pay direct attention in the present moment to the sense we still hold in our bodies about these unfinished aspects of our stories, it will unfold and be fully felt. Often, attending to a process that has been stopped leads to painful realizations, likely the reason the process was stopped in the first place. But even when a person comes to realize just how hard this experience is to fully feel, the process of turning toward it and allowing it to unfold most often brings a sense of relief, an easing of the anxiety surrounding it. This is surprising. Gendlin wrote, “One would have expected the opposite.”
Another surprising thing happens as a result of attending directly to the felt sense of even the most intractable issue: “Even when the solution seems further away than ever, still the physiological tension reduction occurs, and a genuine change takes place. I believe that change is really more basic than the resolution of specific problems,” (Gendlin, 1964). What changes in this process is not the external situation, but the entire way the person holds the problem. What often follows such a shift is a flood of realizations, memories and new ways of making sense of old patterns. Gendlin said this dawning of insight is often mistakenly seen as the source of change when it is actually the by-product.
How is it that such a transformative process is facilitated by the presence of another person? Gendlin said that it changes our manner of experiencing immediately when we are with someone else rather than alone. Of course, the nature of the person we are with makes a difference. With a self-oriented, impatient listener, we are apt to close off to our experience more than we normally would. However, with a listener that allows us to “feel more intensely and freely whatever we feel, we think of more things, we have the patience and the ability to go more deeply into the details, we bear better our own inward strain… If we have showered disgust and annoyance on ourselves to the point of becoming silent and deadened inside, then with this person we ‘come alive’ again.” This quality of presence that Gendlin describes is one that we as therapists endeavour to maintain. It is this quality of listening can move our clients forward in the places where their process has stopped, and the movement forward in these frozen places is what brings genuine change.
The client’s client: The edge of awareness (1984)
In this article, Gendlin (1984) differentiates feeling from the ‘felt sense’ and explains why following the felt sense, which is not as clear or intense as a feeling, is what leads to change. “People often have the same feelings over and over, quite intensely, without change-steps coming,” Gendlin wrote. Feeling things repeatedly does not discharge them as was previously thought, but actually reinforces them. On the other hand, the vague, murky felt sense leads to feelings and ideas that have not ever been consciously expressed, and this novelty is what leads to change.
Gendlin stressed that it is the immediacy of the felt sense unfolding now that gives it the power to transform, not a reworking of the past, which is so often the paradigm for therapy. “Therapeutic steps are not a re-emergence of denied experience. What matters most for change-steps is precisely the new implicit complexity of the bodily living.” The past is always contained in the present experience, but the important difference in focusing is that it asks a person to attend freshly to what the felt sense brings now, rather than speaking from a hackneyed, familiar script about one’s life experience.
Client-centered therapy encourages the therapist to follow the client’s lead, to come with no agenda and preconceived notions, but to allow the other’s process to unfold. And for a focusing client, Gendlin’s advice is to treat their felt sense the way the client-centered therapist ideally treats them. The felt sense is the ‘client’s client,’ (hence the article’s name). So as a therapist in this context, our job is the support our client to be gentle, open-minded, curious and respectful to the inner felt sense that is unfolding, to offer gentle reminders whenever they assume they already know what it’s about. (The same holds true in working with the dreams; people often make assumptions about their dream’s meaning.)
This way of approaching therapy changes the manner of the conversation in some striking ways. Clients will typically begin their session by describing all they know about their problems, while a focusing approach is more concerned with what they don’t know. As a focusing therapist, our job is to continually bring the client back to the inwardly-sensed ‘unclear edge,’ a place they may be reluctant to stay with. To encourage focusing, the therapist can inquire into the felt sense in such a way that the client has to stop and check inside.
Gendlin said, “There is a great difference between talking about and pointing.” An example he offers of pointing: when a client says something like, “I must not want to do this (get a job, meet new people, write an assignment) since when the time comes, I don’t do it.” The phrase ‘must not want to’ is speculation, an indication that the not-wanting is not directly sensed. Rather than simply reflect the not-wanting, the therapist can invite the client to stop and sense the not-wanting directly, to set aside what they think about it and see what is really there. This kind of redirection to the current sense of something can be done whenever you notice such speculation in a session. The result of pointing to something that can be directly sensed is often surprising, and moves a previously stuck process forward.
From this kind of activity, Gendlin observed that “process-steps have an intricacy and power to change us,” and that, “we have to rethink our basic concepts about the body, feeling, action, language and cognition” to explain this. In the remainder of the article, Gendlin offers ten theoretical propositions in support of this major revision in thought.
In the first few theoretical propositions, Gendlin writes about the process of finding words to convey the complexity of ‘feelings-and-situations’ in which we human beings find ourselves. The words come first in our bodies, and point to implicit in feelings-and-situations. Like feelings, “must come or we don’t have them. We can remember them and believe they ought to be there. But to have them they must come. And this is always a bodily coming.”
Gendlin views feelings, thinking, actions and words all primarily as lived experience in the body, and each bodily event as implying what comes next. He calls this ‘carrying forward’ and said, “In therapy we change not into something else, but into more truly ourselves. Therapeutic change is into what that person really ‘was’ all along… it is a second past, read retroactively from now. It is a new ‘was’ made from now.”
From this new was, steps come that change one’s conception of the past entirely. For example, in my therapy practice, I often work with early-childhood trauma, and uncover felt-senses of traumatic situations that the person, as a child, could not assimilate. Their story of childhood, when they first enter therapy, is often that it was fine and normal, but there is a lack of depth and detail which tells me they are not truly in touch with their inwardly-sensed experience. When, as an adult and with a supportive other, they do attend to the felt sense they carry of this early time, it can open up what has been termed ‘repressed memory.’
Gendlin’s formulation feels more accurate, as those with a history of repeated trauma often dissociate from their experience. The trauma is not recorded, then forgotten, but rather, not fully experienced in the first place. When, through focusing, the client’s sense of what really happened comes into their body, there is a sense of knowing, a dawning of understanding why they were so withdrawn, anxious or angry as a child. This new ‘was’ makes sense of both how they experienced their childhood and of many of their puzzling reactions in the present. It is a carrying-forward that leads to a radical re-conceptualization of their life situation, and it often precipitates a flood of feeling, insight and re-evaluation.
Gendlin carefully differentiates feeling from a felt sense. Feelings are often less complex, more recognizable and can be repetitive if nothing surrounding the feeling changes. A felt sense contains the emotion and the whole implicit complexity of a situation. It is “a much larger whole. The implicit situation as a felt sense is a single mesh from which endless detail can be differentiated: what happened to us, what someone did, why that troubled us or made us glad, what was just the also going on… and on.” If a situation feels familiar, repetitive and stuck, Gendlin said “the stuckness is a finely organized sense of why usual ways won’t do, and of what would.” So even our internally-sensed knowledge that something is wrong and feels like it can’t be fixed contains within it an implicit sense of what would carry the situation forward. When something entirely new is called for, the felt sense can lead to highly creative next steps.
There are many situations that call for novel responses to carry them forward, and the felt sense of this can be quite specific. “An odd situation’s implying is more organized than the usual routines and contains them. The novel implicit is not unrelated to familiar concepts, phrases, and actions. It includes these and exactly why they will not suffice” (Gendlin, 1984). We can’t speculate but must allow the process to unfold, “like an unfinished poem that very finely and exactly requires its next line.”
The experiential response (1968)
This article provides clear guidance for therapists in how to help our clients find the equivalent of that precise next line of their unfinished poem. We need to learn to listen in an unobtrusive way that allows them to carry their own experience forward. This process is not a simple reflection of feelings expressed by the client, but rather a reflection of the intricate felt sense; it involves not just about picking up on emotional valence, but more gathering a sense of the whole of what the client is ‘up against’ (Gendlin, 1968), including the history of the issue, thoughts about it, all its complexity. If you, as the therapist, want to support the client in focusing, you need to respond not only to the words as expressed, but to the larger felt sense that underlies the words, and in a way that allows the client to inquire further into what they are sensing. You may try many responses that appear to lead nowhere. What is more important than being right about what might lead to an experiential response is to simply keep responding to how the client reacts next. Saying something like, “That didn’t seem quite right for you… can you sense into what would feel more right?” can help move the process forward as effectively as saying something exactly right, which we can never do all of the time. Saying the wrong thing can even make the felt sense more clear to the client, because they get a clear reaction from their body that says, ‘No, it’s definitely not like that,’ which then brings a sense of what is right.
The goal in this process is not deeper understanding or a clearer definition of the issue, but a sense of the experience moving forward toward an internal release that changes how the uncomfortable sense is held in the body. When this happens, Gendlin (1968) said there is “a very distinct and unmistakeable feel of ‘give,’ easing, enlivening, releasing.” He called this referent movement but the more current term is felt shift. This is the only reliable sign of progress, and it always feels good, even when what is discovered in the process is not so good.
After a felt shift, it may be easy to go back and make sense of the progress, but before the felt shift, this would not have been possible. The experiential process itself cannot be predicted and moves forward on non-logical steps. In fact, it is not usual for someone who is focusing to contradict something they said earlier in the process and feel both were right at the time. Focusing can transform the felt sense of a situation so completely what was initially seen as a problem no longer seems to be one.
Gendlin believed that the most powerful engine for experiencing is interaction, which is why focusing works so much better with another person (although it is possible to have an interaction between oneself and one’s felt sense). Our job as the therapist is to offer our authentic reactions to the client, not our theories or even our wisdom:
What matters is that the therapist is another human person who responds, and every therapist can be confident that he can always be that. To be that, however, the therapist must be a person whose actual reactions are visible so that the client’s experiencing can be carried further by them…. Only a responsive and real human can provide that. No mere verbal wisdom can.
This does not mean the therapist’s reactions become the centre of attention; it is only the reactions to what the client is feeling, perceiving and implying that are expressed. At times, when a client has trouble sensing inside or articulating their felt sense, the therapist’s reaction can be the key element in moving the process forward. These responses to our clients don’t always feel clear or good. Gendlin (1968) said, “The therapist cannot expect always to be comfortably in the know. He must be willing to bear being confused and pained, to feel thrown off his stride, to be put in a spot and not find a good, wise, or competent way out.”
Gendlin felt that the therapist must be more open in their interaction than the focuser would typically experience, and give voice to anything that helps the client “see more clearly what he is up against.” For example, if a client’s responses typically result in rejection by many of those she encounters, the therapist must find a way for the client to succeed where she usually does not. For this to happen, Gendlin believed reassurance or “whitewashing” would not help. “What is bad must be expressed as just as bad as it then is or seems.” However, this honesty must be paired with a response by the therapist to the inherent ‘positive tendency’ Gendlin believed underlies every action.
Gendlin offered the example of how one might respond to being pressured by a client: “I am feeling pressured by you, and that makes me feel like pushing you away, but that isn’t how I usually feel or want to feel with you. So, we’ll do something to clarify it, resolve it, since that isn’t really how you and I are.” The point is not only to be honest about a challenging reaction, but also to then be willing to carry the interaction further “to a positive, life-maintaining experiential completion which was only implicit and had been stopped and troubled until then.”
Taken together, these three articles articulate some essential ways that therapists can engender an experiential response in their clients that helps them move forward in areas of their lives that were stuck or causing trouble. In addition, they go beyond mere articulation of method to explain the key aspects of the underlying philosophy that is Gendlin’s major contribution to the theory of psychotherapy.
Dr. Leslie Ellis is an author, speaker and teacher of focusing for use in therapy, with a special focusing on dreams and trauma. She is vice president and coordinator of The International Focusing Institute. She welcomes feedback and discussion and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Three articles that the world’s top focusing teachers agree are essential:
Gendlin, E.T. (1984). The client's client: The edge of awareness. In R.L. Levant & J.M. Shlien (Eds.), Client-centered therapy and the person-centered approach. New directions in theory, research and practice, pp. 76-107. New York: Praeger.
Gendlin, E.T. (1968). The experiential response. In E. Hammer (Ed.), Use of interpretation in treatment, pp. 208-227. New York: Grune & Stratton.
Gendlin, E.T. (1964). A theory of personality change. In P. Worchel & D. Byrne (eds.), Personality change, pp. 100-148. New York: John Wiley & Sons.