“Often this transferred knowledge seems to be part of a tough problem, and it might be expected that this would make you feel worse. After all, you now know something bad that you didn’t know before. Logically, you should feel worse. Yet you don’t. You feel better.”
Focusing, page 29
Why does psychotherapy work for some people but not for others? Starting in the 50s, Eugene Gendlin, author of Focusing, set out to answer this question. He and other researchers discovered that there is a very simple answer: the patient’s approach. It was apparent from simply listening to a recording of the session which patients were going to succeed and which would not. They also discovered that the successful approach can be taught, and that it has powerful uses beyond therapy and trauma. Focusing is the skill of approaching yourself in that way.
Focusing: The subtle skill needed for psychotherapy
“If what happens does not feel good, ‘like fresh air,’ then it isn’t really therapy that is happening.” (Click to Tweet!)
Focusing, page 198
The Golden Egg of this book is the practice itself. The book is fairly short and spends most of the time explaining the process and how to do it. This summary will most likely not be long enough to fully describe focusing in enough detail that you can use it, but I will give you a sense of it. The important thing to know is basically described in the quotation: if you’re trying to do therapy and it’s not working, go buy this book and learn the technique. Numerous published research papers support this point.
The focusing process consists of six steps, but these steps often end up blurring together for experienced focusers.
1. Clear a space. In order to think about the problems that are vexing you, you need to clear some mental space. This is like how when cleaning or unpacking a room one first needs space to move and to think.
2. Find a felt sense. The felt sense is the deep feeling you have of a problem or situation. The felt sense is in the body/unconscious, so give yourself a minute or two to find it—don’t just try to answer the question by thinking about it.
3. Get a handle. Find a word, short phrase, or image that really captures the felt sense.
4. Resonate. Go back and forth between the felt sense and the handle to make sure it feels right. Often the felt sense will shift at this point. That’s a good thing!
5. Ask. Ask questions like “What about this situation makes me feel so _______?” This prompts your body and mind to come to deeper mutual understanding.
6. Receive. Welcome what came. Even though the process is probably not finished, be grateful for the progress you’ve made.
As I said, these steps might not be enough, but if they seem interesting then I highly recommend getting a copy of Focusing. I would also recommend it to anyone doing therapy with a therapist or on their own.
Finally, while the book doesn’t emphasize this, there is a brief discussion at the end about how the same focusing technique can be used to make intellectual and creative breakthroughs by allowing you to get a better sense of the problem and develop it beyond your current declarative understanding of it. I can’t speak to this yet myself, but it strikes me as a huge potential source of value for creative professionals and knowledge workers.
Methods of Charitable Interpretation
“If you find it hard to accept someone with unlovely qualities, think of the person as being up against these qualities inside. It is usually easy to accept the person inside who is struggling against these very qualities. As you listen, you will then discover that person.”
Focusing, page 140
This quotation speaks for itself. It might not be easy to do, but it is straightforward. There is a section of the book called The Listening Manual, which outlines a variety of techniques and approaches for improving your ability to listen to others, both individually and in a group context.
Another related quotation from this section is:
“In arguments both people endlessly repeat their positions, over and over. It saves a lot of time if you restate the other’s position.”
What both of these quotes have in common is that they are specific techniques to improve your understanding of and empathy for the other person. By seeing them as a person inside grappling with flaws, and by seeking to understand and articulate their point of view, you validate the parts of them that want to be accepted and understood. This is essentially specific advice for how to maximally act on the Principle of Charity.
“What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.” (Click to Tweet!)
Focusing, page 162
This single paragraph above was what prompted me to read the book in the first place. I had seen it quoted online and was curious to discover its origin.
The context in which this quotation appears is in fact also in The Listening Manual, in a part about expressing your own feelings when listening. The point being presented is that other people want to hear your honest feelings, not just the feelings you wish you had or the ones you think are appropriate. Gendlin also points out that, “other people don’t care how good or wise or beautiful you are. Only you care all that much. It is not harmful to the other person if you look stupid or imperfect.”
While originally written for this relational context, these words can be applied much more broadly, as a recitation to encourage yourself to be brave in situations where you find yourself potentially facing an uncomfortable truth. In doing so, many people find that opening up to reality as it is (rather than as you want it to be) provides a release in tension, much like the one described in the opening quote.
I realize this can be a tough question, but I’m going to ask it anyway: what’s an area of your life that you suspect you might be holding back from the truth? What might you gain by allowing yourself to go there? Remember: you can stand what is true, for you are already living it.
Whatever you come up with, I would love to hear about it in the comments.