Home > Focusing and ... > Psychotherapy > Articles > The Client's Client: The Edge of Awareness
In the last decade we have learned much about the client's side of therapeutic process. We developed a very specific knowledge and practice, called focusing. In the last years there have been many new developments.
Theory and experiential specificity can seem far apart. Not so! The most basic theory and the most specific experiential detail thrive on each other.
The client's side of the change process has usually been discussed in relation to the question: Exactly to what, in the client, should the therapist respond? The usual answer was "the feeling," but that term can be confusing.
No, it is not exactly "the feeling", although responding to that is in the right direction. We want to respond to that in the client from which change steps come. Let me therefore ask instead: What is that, in the client, from which change-steps come? That is not exactly "feeling", certainly not the familiar and identifiable feelings. Changesteps come rather from an unclear "edge," a "sense" of more than one says and knows.
We now call such an unclear edge a "felt sense." Since it is felt, we need to be precise about how does it differs from the usual, clear and recognizable feelings.
For example, a client may feel angry and say why. In an effective therapy process that would "open up" and further steps would arise. But suppose the client says: "I'm angry, I told you why, and that's all. Nothing further comes." Let us say the therapist has responded to the anger and its reasons. What exactly is not happening?
When therapy works, certain steps of process would come here. Do they come from the feeling of anger, exactly? Many therapists think so. They lead their patients to feel such an anger more and more intensely. They assume that process-steps come from feelings, so the anger must not have been felt sufficiently. But people often have the same feelings over and over, quite intensely, without change-steps coming.
For example, the change steps might be:
C: (silence)... (breath)... ,feels sort of heavy.... like it wants to stay angry...
T: something there wants to stay angry.
C: Mhm... (silence)... Oh (breath)... yah... if I stop being angry I won't do anything about it... yes... I'd love to just say it's OK and not have to cope with the situation. I've done that so often.
These steps did not come exactly from the feeling of anger. Rather, the "heavy" quality is what opens into these steps. That heavy quality is the felt sense. More intensity of anger would not bring it up. The heavy quality is not as strong as the anger.
The felt sense is less intense than the ordinary feelings. Without quiet concentration one may lose hold of it. From a felt sense very intense feelings can come, but the felt sense itself is less intense.
People change through feelings they have not consciously felt and expressed before. More intensity of familiar feelings does not bring change. People often feel and strongly express repetitious feelings, yet process-steps do not come.
The steps of change and process do not come directly from the recognizable feelings as such.
They come, rather, from an unclear, fuzzy, murky "something there", an odd sort of direct datum of awareness. But most often there is no such datum at first, when people turn their attention inward. Typically one finds the familiar feelings and no indefinable sense.
One person describes it this way: "For a long time I could not find that unclear 'sense.' I would pay attention to emotions but they seemed to be just what they were, clear and obvious, and felt in my body. The breakthrough about this came when I began to notice that the emotions had more to them. An analogy: If the emotion were a triangle with smooth edges and fixed angles, the felt sense appears when I look more closely and find that a cloudy shape sticks out from behind the triangle."
Once they have it, people say the unclear sense "was" there, all along, but not noticed. Before, however, it simply was not there. Its first coming is a striking event in its own right.
While people think of a problem, or have troublesome feelings, they are usually uncomfortable in their bodies. But, although the feelings may be physically experienced, they are not this bodily discomfort as such.
If during a strong feeling someone is asked to attend to the stomach and chest, to "see if you are comfortable there," the unease which comes there is quite different from the feeling.
This bodily unease turns out to be less intense and not as rough on the person as the strong feeling.
There is typically also an odd sort of gratitude which comes from this bodily discomfort, as if "it" were thankful for one's attention.
About half or a third of people have difficulty attending directly to the comfort/discomfort in the middle of their bodies. They do not sense the middle of the body from inside. That seems strange to those who have always done it. People have to discover this simple human capacity before they can find the felt sense. We have developed specific little steps for this difficulty, for example: "Put your attention in your right toe...now in your knee...can you find your knee without moving it?...now your groin...come up into your stomach, how is it in there? Warm and fuzzy, or how?"
Once people can sense the stomach and chest from inside, there is a further distinction, the really important one:
Ordinary bodily sensations are, for example, a belt that is too tight, or a pain, a stomach ache, sexual arousal, the heart pounding. These sensations are only bodily. The uneasy sense of a situation or problem is also there, in the middle of the body. (It may be positive: the opening-out sensation in the chest is the sense of some freeing event.)
The difference is that the ordinary bodily sensation does not contain an "of." The sense of your belt being too tight does not contain in itself the complexities and reasons why you tightened it. It is just the belt's pressure. However, a very similar bodily sensation of tightness may come in your stomach as your sense of a whole situation .That equally physical "tightness" is the felt sense of that situation. Implicit in it are more of the complexities of the situation, than you know or could think.
Most current body-work methods miss the felt sense because they work just with physical sensations, usually the peripheral muscles.
Emotions make bodily sensations, one's heart pounds and one coughs, spits, pants, yet the physical sense of the implicit complexity is not in those bodily sensations, nor in the emotion. The felt sense differs from both.
Another exact specification: in Gestalt therapy spontaneous images and emotions come from bodily attention without a felt sense. The person does not have a sense of the source, from which they come. That source does not itself come, as a datum. For example, imagery and words pop in while attending to tense shoulders. But there is no felt sense in the shoulders. Either before or after such spontaneous material comes, the person could, (but in Gestalt therapy usually does not) attend to the middle of the body, where a felt sense of the shoulder-tension and of the imagery could come.
The felt sense comes in the middle of the body: throat, chest, stomach, or abdomen.
The body-sense of a situation (the felt sense) is always new, fresh, the way the body now has the problem. Some content from the past may come also, but the felt sense is always more, the new whole of the now.
This is very often misunderstood. Some therapists want the content to be about the present, the so-called "here-and-now". But past experience is always implicit in any present. Other therapists think nothing can come in a person except a re-living of some repressed past. But experience is always present. Reliving a past event is the present experiencing of it, fresh, now, and has the quality of the present interaction.
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. Of course the past is in it. But the felt sense of now is much more than the contents from the past, which may stand out.
Change steps can arise from the felt sense of reliving the past. They may not, if the past content alone is emphasized and the quality of the whole does not form as a datum.
Change-steps have amazing wisdom and creative novelty. They are nothing like mere emergences of the past. It may have seemed so, because past events are often dramatically part of a present therapy process. Also, in traditional theory all experience had to come from the outside. For example, imagination could only be some (perhaps scrambled) version of what was once seen or heard externally. Today we recognize the vast creativity of imagination, far beyond what could be made from external experiences. And the change-steps involve much more than imagination alone.
The change-steps on which therapy depends take account of more simultaneous requirements than one could ever think, let alone think simultaneously. The felt sense is that new whole from which such steps come.
Therefore we must emphasize the difference between denied past experiences, and the whole bodily sense of now. But that is often not there to be sensed. A person may have to be quiet and deliberately let that holistic sense come as a datum.
Whether one attends to a whole situation or to some tiny aspect of it, the bodily felt sense of that will be a whole. This sounds contradictory, I know. But the bodily sensing of the smallest aspect of anything is an implicitly complex whole, not really smaller than the sensing of some large topic. It is always the whole bodily living of ...
This wholeness is a characteristic of the felt sense.
The usual feelings and emotions are only parts of a situation. With those feelings we feel inside a problem, surrounded by it, part of it. But if we become distant and "objective," we don't feel the problem at all. In ordinary experience there is no way to feel a problem as a whole we confront.
It may be only the left side of a nose, the when the body's living of that becomes a datum, it is sensed as "that whole thing."
Process steps are changes of that whole. The whole map changes. The step can not be located on the previous map.
Hypnosis and very deep relaxation have been found and discarded by Freud and many others since then. We must work with more than "consciousness" but not by narrowing or circumventing the conscious client.
The felt sense, which I also call "the edge of awareness" is the center of the personality. It comes between the usual conscious person and the deep, universal reaches of human nature, where we are no longer ourselves. It is open to what comes from those universals, but it feels like "really me." The felt sense and each small step comes already "integrated" and not as so-called "unconscious material."
The felt sense is always a freshly made unique living. Its inward coming is sensed as more truly "me" than the familiar feelings.
The reader may now check how well I have communicated up to now. Can you follow this specification?:
The most common sort of unhelpful inward activity today is not mere intellectualization or rationalization, nor even the same feelings over and over. Today the most common ineffective attempt to help oneself inside is what we now call "vivisection." One is very active "upstairs" in one's mind, drawing maps and attempting to understand one's trouble, thinking this, and thinking that, but instead of merely intellectualizing, one feels in one's gut every move one makes upstairs! Just about all these moves hurt.
In the days when people were largely out of contact with their feelings, the map-making upstairs was mere intellectualizing. Now it is worse! That is your gut you are now cutting up, this way or that, as directed from your head.
The inward process we are specifying involves keeping quiet, and sensing the unease in the body, directly, whole as it comes, without putting ones maps, cuts, and distinctions on that. If you let your attention go directly to the bodily unease, you feel a little bit better.
Then let that make the map, let that sort itself into whatever parts or pieces it falls into on its own. But begin always with "that whole business" and not with anything you cut out of your living inside.
However well you think you have defined a problem, consider it as also undefined. Use what you have been calling it merely as a pointer, and call it "all that", whatever it may be and whatever may go with it, without first cutting it up and feeling the effects of this cutting.
We began "teaching" the client how to find such a felt sense, many years ago when repeated research studies had shown that those who did not approach therapy in this way became failure cases. Today what we call focusing can be shown to anyone.
Then and now we teach listening (the therapist role) as well as focusing to the public. I am going to use some examples from the beginnings of such teaching, in order to pursue our question: What is that, from which change- steps come?
For example a client, (or a person to whom we were listening) is asked to check an empathic response. "Please don't just agree out of politeness. Is what was said back to you quite right?" But the person in the client role might check only the words: "Yes, that's what I said."
What exactly is wrong with that, as a reaction to a listening response? When therapy is effective, the client does something more with a listening response than just checking the words. What more?
What do we assume the client will do with a listening response?
We hope and assume that clients will check the response, not with what they said or thought, but with some more inner being, place, datum... "the felt sense," we have no ordinary word for that.
An effect might then be felt, a bit of inward loosening, a resonance . What seemed to be there was expressed and heard. It need not be said again. For some moments there is an easing, inside. (In theoretical terms the interpersonal response has carried that forward.) Soon something further comes. What "was" there turns out to have more to it.
We hope the clients will "check" not only what we say, but also what they say with that inward one. Thereby a distinction comes to be within the person: the usual self is checked with the felt sense.
Those research clients who are later successful, differ from failure cases in exactly this respect. It can be heard on the tape. After saying something, they often stop to check. For example: "I feel helpless... uhm... is that right?..." After a silence they might then say: "No... that's not right. Uhm... I can sense it, right there, but I don't know what it is. (Silence)...Oh, (breath)... whew, yes, it's... " as a large shift occurs. Or they might say: "...oh ... one thing about it is... " as some new facet came.
It turns out that the deliberately speaking client to whom we relate is not. The one to whom our responses are chiefly addressed! Rather we hope the speaking one will take our responses down to consult that other one, the felt sense. We hope the client will let that one speak, will wait for what comes from that one, will work to find words that "resonate" with, rather than interrupting, lecturing, or interpreting that one.
Here we discover a fascinating analogy:
In specifying the client's side of therapy process we discover a distinction within the person. This distinction is a strong corroboration of client-centered therapy.
The felt sense is the client inside us. Our usual conscious self is the therapist, often a crudely directive one who gets in the way of our inward client all the time. That therapist frequently attacks in a hostile way, or at least wants to use all the old information, claims to be smarter than the client, talks all the time, interrupts, takes up time with distant inferences and interpretations, and hardly notices that "the client" is prevented from speaking. That "directive therapist" hardly knows the client is there. That "therapist" starts without the client, as the old joke had it, and goes on indefinitely without the client.
Research shows that those clients succeed, who are client-centered with their felt sense.
Of course this is not a person within a person, but a certain kind of self-response process.
But it would be imprecise to call it being client-centered "with oneself." Rather, one needs the distinction within the person between the usual self, and the felt sense. The latter is exactly that part to which client-centered responses are directed.
From Plato to Freud people have distinguished different parts of the psyche. Here now arises a distinction which is best delineated in client- centered terms.
The client's attitudes and responses toward the felt sense need to be those of a client-centered therapist! And that is focusing. I can therefore specify focusing further, if you will consider some client-centered principles in this new way.
Here are some client-centered maxims which acquire a new meaning when applied internally, within one person.
Usually the felt sense does not even form and come, unless the inner "therapist" first gives attention and silent waiting time. The client's inner "therapist" (his conscious self) must shelve a lot of knowledge and surmise, must refrain from many interesting interpretations, and prefer instead to wait, silently, while for some time nothing much comes.
We find it hard to put aside all we know about ourselves and about the specific problem, so that we might hear what comes from the felt sense.
At first, our "directive therapist" often interrupts. Interpretations and inferences continue in our heads. We must "shelve" these again and again, so that we can listen to the felt sense.
What comes from a felt sense may at first seem less sophisticated than what we can think. If we receive and resonate that, soon what comes is more intricate and more correct than what we could think.
We learn that what comes from the felt sense has its own logic and its own good reasons, even if these are not immediately apparent.
We do not impose our values to give direction to the ensuing steps. On the contrary, we often learn through experiencing with the client, that some ways of living and feeling can be good, although our values seemed opposed. Now they don't conflict, and yet we didn't discard our values. The initial values play a role and are also altered in such steps.
We try to receive whatever comes from a felt sense. We let it be, at least for a while. We try not to edit it, change it, or immediately push it further.
Neither do we agree with what first comes from a felt sense. We know there will be further steps. We develop an attitude of welcoming whatever comes, even if it seems negative or unrealistic. We know that further steps can change it. Such steps can come only if we first receive and welcome what is now here.
Sometimes we have an idea, but we don't decide if it is right. We keep it tentative and consult the felt sense. If there is an easing, a resonance in response to what we propose, we attend to that till more comes from that.
Here I do not want to repeat the focusing instructions and the trouble-shooting specifics which were presented in a very detailed way in Focusing (Gendlin 1981). I would like to present the most recent work. Therefore what I can say here is not sufficient to enable people to find focusing for themselves.
We divided the focusing instructions into six "movements". We now find it essential to teach these parts separately, giving time and individual attention to each person with each part.
I will summarize these six and offer one or two new specifics on each.
The scheme of these six is very helpful, but we do not rigidify it. Humans are vastly more complex and surprising than any scheme, let alone a simple one of six parts.
We give "split-level" instructions: "Try to apply our instructions as exactly as you can, but the moment they seem to do some violence in you, stop, don't run away, instead: see directly, what you have there." On one level, "please follow", and on another level, "please don't follow" the instructions.
After all, we are specifying and teaching the individual's own inwardly arising process. The split-level instruction is to find your process with our diagram, or where the diagram fails.
Very early in learning focusing most people come to a point where they laugh and say: "Oh, that was the trouble I was trying to 'do it right' and that got in my way." After this laugh, they know.
For example, a felt shift comes on our diagram at the fifth movement. In fact it can come any time. Of course you would receive what came.
Many therapists have found it very effective to teach focusing directly to their clients. Such didactics need to be clearly marked off from the regular therapy interaction.
All these instructions can be used during psychotherapy, but in a certain way. This brings me to a wider principle.
There are many theories and many other useful avenues of therapy. All of them can be used on a client-centered baseline. By this I mean:
Whatever I say or do in therapy is instantly checked against the client's inward response. It means I rarely say or do two things consecutively without a client expression between. Then I respond in a listening way to whatever the client expresses, and again to what further comes. I always give priority to the client's own step. Whatever else I can do must wait.
That transforms the character of interpretations, instructions, and any other useful avenue of therapy.
I must swiftly discard whatever I tried if it did not help, so that it does not get in the way of the client's own process.
At first clients think they must explain why what I said was wrong. I often interrupt: "Oh, I can see I was wrong. Sense again how it is for you." Clients who work with me soon recognize that what I say is no statement about them but an invitation to them to sense inwardly. I often verbalize this at first: "But is that right...or how should that be said?"
Once people know that this is my intent, what I say wrongly is much less disturbing and swiftly discarded.
Even when helpful, other things must not replace listening too often. (That certainly includes focusing instructions.) Too many helpful interruptions block the client's own inwardly arising process, or worse, it will never arise. There need to be long periods when I purely listen and reflect.
Most people live in their talking as they talk. Especially in client-centered therapy clients are accustomed to "lay out" their problems and concerns. The attention is on what is being said. Focusing changes this. Whatever the client wants to do is still welcomed, including this kind of talking. But now the expectation is not that the laying out of the issue will do the job. Rather, the change-steps will come through inwardly sensing the edge. When that opens, the process moves.
This requires that client-centered responses point more precisely. Not enough is gained if the response is more or less right. A good response points and makes contact with that, from which the client spoke, rather than restating what was said.
When the client did not express an unclear edge, we can point to that. To do so leads to a number of specific response modes:
C: "I'm just so angry."
T: "your anger is right there."
C: "Oh, it's always there. I'm sick of that anger."
T: "Let's try something. Take that whole situation, all of it, more than you know, everything that goes with it, and kind of step back from it as if you were going to look at all of it, like a big picture that takes up a whole wall in a large building... What comes in your body when you do that?"
In this way the therapist can insert all the focusing instructions and specifics occasionally at points where a client who knows focusing probably would let an unclear felt sense come.
But whereas the pointing reflections can be made frequently, instructions, must remain occasional, if they are not to disrupt the client's ownership and inner impetus of the process. The therapist must not constantly make good things happen with instructions. There must be stuck and empty space and time for the client's inwardly impelled process to arise.
If the interaction becomes troubled, or if the client has feelings in relation to being instructed, this must instantly take precedence. Focusing- teaching can be tried again later.
T: Can you get that painful sense now, if you put your attention in your body and, very gently, just stay next to it?
C: I don't like it when you tell me what to do inside myself.
T: You don't like me directing inside you, and you want me out of there. Of course. I'll stop doing it.
C: But... uhm... I do want what you know about.
T: Oh, sure, I'll show you that method some time soon... You want me out of your space, but you don't want me to go away,... right?"