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Experiencing Level
as a Therapeutic Variable

Marion N. Hendricks, Ph.D.

Article reprinted from:
PERSON-CENTERED REVIEW, Vol. I No. 2, May 1986 141-162 
Copyright 1986 Sage Publications, Inc.

 

Specific transcript material is presented to help therapists recognize clients' immediately sensed, but implicit experience. The observational markers of High Experiencing (EXP) process defined in the research instrument, the EXP Scale, arc shown to specify clinical interventions and training procedures for therapists. One kind of therapist response that points toward the implicit is explained and the difference such a response makes to the client's subsequent responses is illustrated. The therapist's capacity to respond toward the implicit is a kind of empathy, different from either an accurate grasp of content or emotion.

Marion N. Hendricks graduated from and received her client-centered training at the University of Chicago. She was one of the founders of CHANGES, a community therapy network where she trained clients, students, and therapists in listening and focusing, and participated in developing training materials. She interned at the Post-Graduate Center for Mental Health in New York City, and then worked as a psychologist-trainer in the New York State Hospital system. There, she trained the clinical staff to pinpoint the crux of therapeutic processes. She was a core faculty member at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology in Chicago, for ten years. She is currently the director of The Focusing Institute in New York.

Introduction and Overview

Research on Experiencing

The Experiencing Process

Clinical Examples of Low, Middle and High Experiencing Levels

Excerpts:

Discussion:

Implications of EXP Variable for Clinical Practice

Friendly Attitude

Conclusion

Notes

References

 

Introduction and Overview

In this article, I will present brief therapy excerpts and show exactly what part of a client's statement, if responded to, is likely to lead to therapeutic movement. Client-centered therapists respond to "feelings," but what this means when one looks at a client's statement is not always clear. The theory and research on Experiencing are useful for specifying what can be responded to that is not yet obvious.

The concept of Experiencing (EXP; Gendlin, 1962, 1981, 1984) refers to a client's immediately sensed, but implicit, experience. One feels "something" but one does not yet know what. In a High EXP process, a client attends directly to this implicit sense and thereby allows its verbal expression. This is a step of therapeutic change. In a Lower EXP level process, a client may fail to discriminate this initially vague sense and get stuck in an intellectual or repetitively emotive process.

Research on Experiencing

An EXP Scale (Klein, Mathieu, Gendlin, & Kiesler, 1970) that operationalizes this variable has been found to be correlated with successful therapy outcome in a number of studies. (More than 100 research studies are summarized in Research Basis of Focusing-Oriented/Experiential Psychology, an expanded version of a chapter in Research Bases of Humanistic Psychotherapy, Cain, David and Seeman, Jules (Eds.), American Psychological Association, 2000.)

The Experiencing Process

Until recently (Mathieu-Coughlan & Klein, 1984), what successful therapist and client behavior look like in a transcript has been known only by the research raters. The observational cues of the scale constitute not only research specificity but enable an equally specific training and practice. The EXP Scale defines clients' implicit beginning and leads. These are points when the client is momentarily sensing something that, as yet, has no words or images. There is the sense of a whole thing present, which is not explicit. The therapist wishes to pick up and respond to such openings. Therapists and clients frequently understand content and emotions correctly, but miss or close off these implicit leads. In the transcripts I will make these leads visible, and distinguish implicit experiencing from explicit content and emotions.

It is often assumed that what is not explicitly expressed by the client can only be inferred. If that were so, interpretation would be necessary. But the client's implicit meaning is directly sensed-not inferred. It is expressed, but through the particular uses of language and silence that will be detailed in this article.

LOW EXPERIENCING LEVEL

The EXP concept refers not to the content but to the manner in which a person relates to his or her experience. The client may speak of memories, fantasies, or the relationship with the therapist, but any of these contents may be processed in a High or Low manner of experiencing. On a Low EXP level, the client narrates events (inner or outer) with no explicit references to their currently felt meaning. We are all familiar with clients who only report what happened since the last session. They don't attempt to sense or explore the events' implicit personal significances. The process feels flat and static. Similarly, people in a psychotic process function at a Low EXP level, but narrate the inner events, images, and contents of delusions or hallucinations. Similarly, "acting out" is a Low EXP process-the person acts the meaning behaviorally rather than experiencing its felt significance.

MIDDLE EXPERIENCING LEVEL

At Middle EXP levels, the client can at least identify some emotions and may also think about events in terms of personal connections, but there is no "focusing" on a felt sense.

HIGH EXPERIENCING LEVEL

At High EXP levels, the client refers to the implicit meaning of an event. This is not a speculative attempt to "figure out" or deductively reconstruct probable significance. Nor is it a matter of recognizable emotions, however intense. The implicit significance is spoken of as a concrete, bodily "sense" of a whole situation. Gendlin calls this a felt sense. It is preverbal, a bodily felt whole that is not at first clear. When a client says, struggling, "It is so hard to put in words," a felt sense is experienced. The client has an "it" that is sensed bodily. But "it" does not yet have words or images. The meanings of it are not yet explicit.

At the High EXP client "focuses" on this felt sense, exact words "move it," "shift it" so that the client says, "Oh yes, that's what it is!" This "felt" shift is accompanied by bodily relief-a deep breath, tears, a sigh.

Such an experienced opening of what was sensed but not known is a bit of therapeutic change. High EXP clients have these small steps of change during the hours. We think of them as "good" clients. The EXP Level specifications allow us to pinpoint exactly why they are.

These three levels will be illustrated below. Their characteristics will be exactly defined so that therapists can recognize this variable minute by minute, and respond to maximize it.

Clinical Examples of Low, Middle and High Experiencing Levels

The following three excerpts illustrate Low, Middle, and High EXP level.1

LOW EXP LEVEL

One day he [the doctor] called me and said, "1'm afraid she won't last long. She's spreading like wildfire." They couldn't get all of it. It was too late. And so that's about the extent of it, you know. She went into a coma, she lasted for about three or four months. All together from the time she became ill, the entire time was about two years. After he performed the operation he said, "I'm surprised she lasted that long." We didn't know it had gone all the way back. There was no sign of it, nothing. But it was there all the time. Can you imagine that.

MIDDLE EXP LEVEL

A____ and I . . . spent about two hours talking over the luncheon about his problem. And I've never known him, until that time to be so low and despondent about his future in science. He said, "You won't believe this Dad, until I tell you, that it has been over six months since I had a test-tube in my hand"... and after listening I was very much disturbed by what he said because this was a very serious conversation, and it dealt with what I felt had to do with a decision he had to make regarding his work and his marriage, and they were both at stake .... I said, "But A____, don't you think if J____ were made to realize how desperate the situation is that she would elect to allow you to do more of your science..." And there was silence for a moment or two and he shook his head, and said, "She will never change." Now when he said that I felt he had already made a decision . . . to divorce rather than to continue . . . I felt absolutely consternated by that because I knew they really loved each other, I knew they could have a harmonious relationship for many years to come if only she could understand.

HIGH EXP LEVEL

It's almost like . . . it kind of feels like . . . sitting here looking through a photo album. And, like each picture of me in there is one of my achievements. And, I think [inaud] because I wasn't achieving for me. I was always achieving for . . . someone else so they'd think I was good enough. It's like it feels right to me to say . . . that . . . I don't know quite how to say it . . . It's like the feeling is there, but l can't quite put words on it. It feels right somehow to say it's like I've chosen this man as my challenge . . . knowing that I'd be defeated. That this person wouldn't respond to me in the same way. So that I could kind of buy right back into the photo album being flipped through. I didn't have what it took (T: Uhhum) to get what I wanted. Which is kind of...

Reading these excerpts side by side one can see the differences.

LOW EXPERIENCING LEVEL

Let's characterize the first segment exactly, in terms of our variable. The therapist is being told about a series of events: the course of his wife's illness, her death, what the doctor said. Many details about the events are told. A characteristic of Low EXP process is that it is externalized. The therapist learns a lot about behaviorally observable situations. Anyone familiar with the situation could give the same information. One does not hear about any inner process. There are few, if any, self-referent statements. In spite of the highly painful content, the client does not name his feelings about the events or the inner meanings of the events for him. One can guess that he feels angry at the doctors and bereaved, sad, and lonely about the loss of his wife. But he does not tell any of this. The closest he comes is his statement, "Imagine that." One can hear a suppressed shock, outrage, anguish in this comment. Again one can guess what he would be feeling if he could "open up" this statement. "How could something so awful happen with no warning, no signs"; "It's terrible to feel so helpless to save someone you love"; "I'm furious that they didn't diagnose her properly." But he is not exploring any of this kind of inner detail.

The therapist cannot know what his wife's death actually means to him. One gets a sense of the client's discomfort with his feelings when he tells about the doctor informing him of the terminal nature of the illness. In the midst of telling this surely grief-laden material, he says, "So that's about the extent of it, you know." It's as though at the point where feeling might- break through, he flattens or distances from the feelings, as though he were saying, "There is nothing more here; I've told you the whole thing and that's it." He's closing down, moving away from any larger, implicit, textured sense of that whole situation. He doesn't seem to want to cry or feel angry or let himself begin to have an actual bodily sense of the whole situation.

Events are described as flat and self-evident. If emotions are acknowledged, they too are seen as obvious, self-evident, just what they are. There is not a sense that, by attending to one's whole bodily sense of some situation, new and specific meanings will emerge and thereby change one's sense of the situation. One has a sense that this man's experience will remain blocked, silent, and pained for many years until time blurs its sharpness.

In a Low EXP manner, the client primarily uses past tense: What happened is reported without immediate processing of his current direct experience of those events.

To summarize, Low EXP Level has the following characteristics:

  1. Use of past tense.
  2. Reporting of external events.
  3. Events or emotions are described as flat and self-evident.

MIDDLE EXPERIENCING LEVEL

In segment two, an event is being reported to the therapist-this man's conversation with his son. Some of what he tells could be gotten from a tape recording of their interaction. He describes the setting, their behavior, and their exchange: "He said . . . and then I said . . ." However, there is a difference from segment one. This man refers to his feeling about the conversation and his son's situation: "I was very much disturbed by what he said . . ." "I felt absolutely consternated by that . . ." At this Middle EXP Level the narration of events is interspersed, parenthetically, with the client's impressions, feelings, and inner personal sense of the situation. We get some account of how he is affected by the events he describes.

However, references to personal meanings remain parenthetical to the event-story. Peculiarly, each of these statements has the structure, "I felt X because . . ." and what follows is more about the son than the father. "I felt. disturbed because they (son's marriage and career) were both at stake." "I felt consternated because they loved each other, they could have a harmonious relationship." One doesn't hear what it is that is disturbed in him in response to his son's situation. What is it about the potential divorce that so disturbs him? The therapist does not and cannot know unless she can get him to differentiate inwardly his whole sense of that situation, the sense that he is calling "disturbed." What is it exactly that feels so disturbing? Again we can guess: It hurts him to see his child in pain. He's scared his son's career will be jeopardized because he needs his son to succeed so he can feel like he is someone through his son. If his son claims what he needs, and divorces, perhaps it raises issues about the father's own marriage and how he stayed at too great a price to his self-hood. These are, of course, pure speculations. We cannot know what's actually in the "disturbedness" this father felt as he listened to his son's struggle. Quite possibly, the client himself couldn't tell us what his "disturbed" feeling was even if we asked him, or at least not at first. He would probably give us some obvious answer at first. "Well, any parent would feel upset about his child's marriage breaking up. We want the best for our children," or some such "commonsense," "self-evident" conventional answer. (And, of course, that would be true in a way.) A person at this Middle EXP Level is not used to turning and attending to the body sense of a situation and letting it articulate itself.

As in segment one, the past tense is used. Even when feeling is referred to, it is a present report about what was felt then. There is not now an ongoing sensing of the problematic situation.

Middle Level EXP has the following characteristics:

  1. Mainly a descriptive narrative of events. 
  2. Personally felt meanings are referred to, but briefly, without internal elaboration.

HIGH EXPERIENCING LEVEL

Segment three illustrates a High EXP level process. There is almost no narration of events. It isn't even clear what the client is talking about in terms of time, place, event. There is only a brief, vague reference to "a person" who "won't respond" to her. This is the exact reverse of segment two. The events are parenthetical to the inner exploration, which is the main focus. If one had to summarize what each segment is about one could say: Segment one, "wife's death"; Segment two, "upset about son's divorce." But what shall we say of the third? The first two are about someone else. This is about the client herself, her own sensing of inner meanings. The entire process is self-referent.

In the other two segments one could make guesses about what the implied meanings might be, but here one can't even guess. She is working at a level where the process is unique, specific to the individual. What comes next can only arise out of her wholistic sensing of whatever she's working on.

Second, much of the segment is in the momentary present tense, for example, "if I could . . ." "it sort of feels like . . ." "The feeling is there." When the past tense is used it is to articulate a felt sense she experiences currently.

Third, she isn't afraid to let something come-an image, a phrase for a whole sense of something. "What comes... what comes to me..." She is able to let new content emerge freshly from her immediate sensing. We see this again when she says, "I don't know quite how to say it . . . it's like the feeling is there but I can't quite put words on it . . . it feels right somehow to say. . ." She has an immediately present tangible sense, but she does not yet "know" cognitively what it is. She lets words (or images) come from it directly. (Some capacity to "let" something come is common to basic therapeutic change processes across models, for example, free associations, active imagination, gestalt.) When they come, she learns something about herself that she didn't articulate previously. Her process is also characterized by pauses as she attends to the bodily felt but preconceptual sense and waits for symbols to come from it (instead of trying to fill in or deduce what it must be). She has to grope for words that will "fit" the sense just right. This body sensing is individually specific. Clichés and ordinary uses of language have little power. She creates metaphors to get at the exact specific quality of the experience. Metaphors are a use of language marked by "it's like. . ." (Your eyes are like stars). She is using language this way when she says, "it kind of feels like . . . (pause as she gropes for words and lets them come) sitting here looking through a picture album."

To summarize, in a High EXP process, the client has specific, observable characteristics:

  1. An inner exploration of personally felt meanings is the main focus. Events are referred to only as a base from which to sense inwardly into one's whole body sense of a situation.
  2. Present tense is being used.
  3. There are pauses as one waits to let words or images come from the felt sense.
  4. One uses language metaphorically: "The feeling is like. . . "
  5. One uses language to point to the implicit: "it," "that," "something," what is sensed but not yet known.

Implications of EXP Variable for Clinical Practice

The therapist who is familiar with this variable can move toward the implicit at each moment. This includes several modes of therapist response.

First, the client can be helped to stay with the felt sense if the therapist recognizes when the client is indeed speaking from such an implicit sense of the situation. The client will be groping, pausing, struggling to find words to describe something that can be sensed but that does not yet have words. The therapist waits while the client tries to explicate (find symbols for) the preverbal, preconceptual sense of the situation, or speaks of it as that sense that cannot yet be defined. The unaware therapist may consider this hesitant manner, the silences, the initial vagueness as resistance, confusion, or unproductive process. Instead of helping the client to stay with the felt sense, the therapist may try to clarify the process and end up with only an intellectual understanding. 

The therapist can also help the Low EXP client find this level of processing by direct instruction or by integrating focusing instructions into the ongoing therapy process (see Gendlin, 1984).

The following excerpts illustrate differences between therapists who do not know this variable and those who do.

THERAPIST FAILURE TO RECOGNIZE CLIENT'S HIGH EXP LEVEL PROCESS

In the following excerpt the student-therapist is not aware of the EXP variable.

Client: Yuh . . . it's really gone . . . And yet, like I feel . . . there's . . . there's something underneath it all but I don't know what . . . and if I kind of knew what it was . . . I might feel differently, I don't know. But it's vague right now.

Therapist: Okay . . . if things could be a little more definite. If you were really able to identify the cause . . . you really think that you'd be able to cope with it then. But right now you can't seem to put your finger on what the real problem is.

Client: Yuh . . . and . . . that . . . like when you say that . . . that makes me mad because I feel . . . you know like I'm . . . intelligent. I can, figure things out. And yet . . . right now I don't know what the hell's going on with me.

The client here is in a High' EXP level process. In her first statement she literally describes focusing on a felt sense, "Something (there) . . . but I don't know what." She is concretely sensing, the presence of some whole thing, but it is implicit. She does not yet know what is in this sense. Such an implicit sense is often felt as "vague" initially. It doesn't yet have a sharp, definite, explicit form. The possibility of something new, some change, arises only when working in direct contact with what is not yet known. The client can sense that if this sensed "something" would become explicit, it might shift her whole context or bring some release. Notice the High EXP characteristics: pauses, not being able to find words immediately, the use of "something" to point to what is there without prematurely labeling or imposing definition on it.

The therapist reflects the feeling level of the manifest communications. His response is not inaccurate. We can see what he responds to, with each of his phrases. "More definite" and "identify the cause" refer to client's "if I kind of knew what it was." His "be able to cope" refers to "vague." However, every major word the therapist has chosen ("definite," "identify causes,,""cope," "the real 
Problem") is closed, explicit, "definite." His message seems to be, "Stop being so tentative and vague . . . let's uncover and label the cause and solve the problem." The therapist seems to need a tighter, more explicit problem-solving process.

He moves away from the implicit in this response.

The therapist is often defined by the client as having power and expertise. When there is trouble in the interaction, as there is here, clients may define it as something wrong with them. Most clients would feel vaguely put down without knowing why, give up the attempt to articulate the felt sense of the issue, and shift to a more cognitive, problem-solving, speculative manner of process, or feel badly about their ineptitude. Fortunately, this client is somewhat able to hold onto her experiential response, after her initial verbal agreement with the therapist. But he doesn't recognize the problem as a therapist error. She defends herself against the implied message that she is cognitively inadequate. "I'm intelligent," "I can figure things out." Notice she has shifted to the therapist's cognitive framework, "figure out," and away from her original felt sense, "I feel . . . I might feel differently."

Another typical pitfall is to try to "help" a client by filling in, guessing at what the sensed "something" might be. At other times one might appropriately offer an interpretation or a hypothesis, but not when the client is directly sensing and differentiating his or her own experience. That is a time for the therapist to contain his or her own anxieties about silence, control, and performance. No other person can supply a word (or image or action) that exactly "gets" or carries forward the client's complex, preverbal sense of the situation. So much that is idiosyncratic functions in a felt-sense. It is all the unique meanings the situation has for this individual at this point.

How would the therapist respond in our excerpt if he had recognized the client's High EXP process? He might have said, "You can feel something right there. . ." Or, "You can feel it right there underneath . . ." Therapists can use open pronouns that function as pointers toward the implicit without labeling or defining it. The therapist would acknowledge and reflect that the client has a direct referent, a "something" concretely felt. He might say that neither the client nor he as yet knows what it is. In this way they both turn their attention toward it, to let words come from it.

A few minutes later in the same session there is a repetition of the above interaction. But the therapist's response is better and thus we can make some further distinctions about therapeutic responses.

Client: Like the, uh . . . like I feel almost like I'm trapped in my own self or something that. . . It's hard to describe the feeling . . . Like that . . . that it's not going to get better... And I guess like . . . like you said . . . that there doesn't seem to be a light at the end for me and I can't see right now . . . or at least I can't see the light.
[8 sec.]

Therapist: There's an element of . . . of . . . hopelessness. Perhaps that's too strong a word, but an element at least that you don't immediately see any hope of resolving your... present feelings and frustrations.
[20 sec.]

Client: Well . . .It looks pretty hopeless to me right now .... But then, when you said that what came to me was . . . I sort of had an angry place that .... Hopeless maybe, but I'm not helpless . . . like that bugs me if someone thinks I'm helpless because . . . even though it does look hopeless right now . . . Like I've always been able to fight and work things out before . . . for myself. . . . But if . . . I don't know-somewhere inside me there's . . . there's something that's' real . . . hurtful . . . [ 12 sec. silence] . . . And like my reaction to that is that I just don't care . . . [sobbing].

Again, her first statement shows High EXP characteristics: She pauses, she uses words metaphorically, "almost like I'm trapped." She has to grope for words that will articulate what she senses: "It's hard to describe."

The therapist does respond to the felt level with his word; "hopeless," but still seems to have a cognitive bias ("element,"' "resolving," "frustrations'. Why exactly does the client react so negatively to the word "hopeless"?

First, the therapist has offered his own word instead of staying closer to the client's words. At a High EXP level clients choose words very carefully. One tries to let each word or phrase come from the felt sense. One then carefully checks it against the felt sense to see whether it exactly gets it (moves it, opens it). The client is struggling to get just the right words to capture the quality, "trapped in my own self," "not get better," "can't see." A better response would be to repeat these key words, pointing with her toward that "hard to describe" felt quality.

Second, the therapist's word simplifies too much. He tries to sum up in one commonly used emotion word what the client experiences in a much more finely differentiated way.

Third, if one does want to offer a word or phrase, it must be as a question, or be offered tentatively: "Sort of like this?" The therapist's words must also be used metaphorically to point toward the implicit. He might have said something like, "Closed in by yourself?" Client and therapist need to use words as pointers. If given words don't evoke some response from the felt sense (such a response is experienced as a change in the body), they are dismissed by both therapist and client.

Fourth, any time one is trying to articulate a sensed experience, one is in process. High EXP process has an inherent positive change directionality. It is a kind of change. Even though the client expresses hopelessness, her very willingness to turn toward that sense, to try to get at what it is, to let it open up is living in a hopeful manner. The therapist responds to the hopelessness in the content and misses the process events going on in the moment.

"That bugs me if someone thinks I'm helpless" is most likely a reference to the therapist, as well as to others in her life. Her comment, "Somewhere inside me there's something that's real hurtful," is probably both an attempt to return to her interrupted process and the hurt from this interaction. One might speculate that this client has conflicts around dependence, boundaries, asking for help, self-sufficiency. But to pursue these hypotheses now would stop the client's process in favor of a therapist-created problem. It is the therapist's poor responding that has produced this issue now. He is, of course, unaware of his contribution to the difficulty.

These examples demonstrate some of the problems arising from a therapist's insensitivity to the EXP level variable. Even very intuitive therapists are helped by discriminating and labeling the process consciously.

THERAPIST FACILITATION OF CLIENT HIGH EXP PROCESS

In my next excerpt, both client and therapist are functioning at a High EXP level. This continues from the High EXP sample presented earlier. (See High EXP Level sections.) It illustrates the change process made possible when a therapist is familiar with the EXP variable.

Client: Yeah. I think so. I think so because . . . this person feels inaccessible. Yet, not so inaccessible that it's a total impossibility: So it's like I keep trying out my worth . . . on him . . . and keep coming up against, "Yeah, I like you, but. . ."

Therapist: O.K. So, how about, "Yeah, I like you, but..." Does that fit? Is that exactly right to that whole feeling?

Client: Yeah, it really is. Really is.

Therapist: "I like you, but . . ."

Client: That's how I feel when my mother "liked me." That we related. I like you but.... But, there was always something missing. Some big flaw that was so awful, she just couldn't quite love me because of it.

Therapist: Couldn't quite love. It's always qualified somehow.

Client: Yeah.... It feels like such a hurt spot [Client begins to cry] And, I always had to . . . I always had to . . . be a star or she wouldn't love me.

Through several steps at a High EXP level, an inner shift and release occurs. She gets to the core of what she sensed and, this "felt shift" is bodily. It is experienced as a release of tears, but it might have begun as a sigh or a burst of laughter-some involuntary, whole-body release.

The therapist takes the client's key phrase, "I like you but" and asks her to check and see if that really gets at her whole implicit sense of this relationship. I call this a "focusing reflection" in the initial response. The therapist is directing the response toward the implicit. "Do these words get at that whole thing?" The client checks back with her felt sense and affirms, "Yes," that phrase really does get the felt quality of the relationship with this man. She feels a differential response in her body as she says the phrase silently to herself. The therapist helps her to stay in direct contact with the felt sense. This phrase connects her to it, is a "handle" for it. The felt sense "stirs" when she says it. This leads to new material, a memory. The therapist again points by repeating client's key words. Then "hurt" emerges.

The present tense tells us she is experiencing directly an aspect of her past. It is characteristic of High EXP process that past material emerges freshly. The connections are directly sensed now, not deductively "reconstructed". That she repeats an old pattern from her relationship with her mother with the current man in her life is felt. She now senses the underlying similarity. Sensing it in this manner begins to let it change.

The client does not merely "discharge" or "relive" a hurtful memory. She goes on to let that whole sense of "hurt" begin to articulate itself: "I always had to be a star." The discharge, crying, is always within a context. The point is not the emotion itself. The client doesn't "get into," "act out," or feel contained-within the emotion. She lets the sense of the whole thing she's tracking unfold further. What emerges in this kind of process is usually new to both client and therapist.

The client's feeling of "always having to be a star" for her mother may be a derivative reference to the current therapist-client interaction. The client is performing, on tape, to meet the therapist's needs to do this assignment well. This structure is hurtful and repeats her early interaction with her mother. Even in this difficult context, the therapist's ability to respond to the client's implicit, direct experience allows this hurt to emerge into awareness. As it is articulated it would be probable that the client could then become aware that this is also how she feels now in this interaction, if that is the case.

The following excerpt from a therapy session again illustrates a therapist facilitating High EXP Level process in her client.2 The client has become aware of a feeling of fear about an upcoming meeting with her ex-husband.

C1: . . . But, why in the hell do I get so scared? I mean, I'm just sick to think I have to meet him. I get this feeling like some pressure's gonna come on me. Like . . . like when I was talking to him on the phone today, he goes, "I've really missed you. I've really been lonesome for you." Wouldn't you think that would make me feel good?

T1: It feels like pressure, you say. Can you sense what is the quality of that pressure?

C2: I don't know. I mean . . . I . . . I just feel like . . . like he could make me do something that I didn't want to, or something. Now what could he make me do that I don't wanta do? I don't know.

T2: Why don't we just slow down and see if you can sense that. It feels like pressure, like you could do something you don't wanta do. What is that all about?

C3: Gee, I'm not sure . . . [deep breath] . . . [long pause] . . . This is kinds dumb; you know, I was thinking that . . . [tears] . . . I mean, what if I even liked him more or something? Or something. I don't know what it is [tears].

T3: That you might like him more than you wanta like him.

In C1, the client is posing a potential focusing question to herself. She has noticed an "afraid" feeling and is puzzled by it: She does not yet know what is in this feeling. She has a whole, specific, felt experience about the upcoming visit without it yet being differentiated into explicit (symbolized) aspects. The phrase, "like some pressure's gonna come on me," is descriptive of the quality of this still vague, but present feeling texture. But the client immediately notices that this mass of feeling doesn't make logical or conventional sense. Clients who are unfamiliar with, focusing often stop here and disavow the felt sense: "That's not important," "That's stupid," "That's silly." It is dismissed because it "doesn't make sense." Then they continue to talk about the situation.

In TI, the therapist does not get caught by this. She refers to the unclear feeling by going back to the phrase, "pressure's gonna come on me." She asks the client to stay in relation to that whole sense of pressure. This is a facilitative response. First, the therapist has recognized which of the client's words actually resonate with the client's felt texture ("resonate" means that, when the word is said, the client feels something stir in her). The therapist does not get sidetracked. By repeating her words, the client is helped to regain her access to the whole sense. The therapist then directly points the client to the opening, asking her to invite more to come from it. This is not an invitation to a cognitive speculation but a movement of attention toward a concrete, implicit, bodily sense of something.

In C2, the client does allow further words to emerge. Notice the pauses, the groping quality, the exploration of something unclear that is currently felt. The words, "or something," indicate the client's awareness that the phrase, "He could make me do something," does get the feeling, but not altogether. The client than moves too quickly and seems to shift to a cognitive mode. Again, she implies that this doesn't make sense. Or she may just feel blank or stuck for the moment.

In T2, the therapist slows her down and, by repeating the words that were closest to the feeling, invites the client to focus again on the whole feeling. Again, the therapist is pointing toward the implicit.

In C3, the client focuses deeply. Notice the body release as she lets herself down into her body sense (deep breath) and waits. She tolerates waiting. She is willing to stay with what she does not yet know, but senses. This is focusing. Something new does emerge. The client again struggles past the critical, blocking tendency "kinda dumb" and in saying what has come ("what if I liked him more"), experiences a beginning release and knowing of her feeling about the meeting. This is a small felt shift, marked by the body release of tears, as she becomes able to "know" what she feels. The phrase "Or something. I don't know... "again implies that more is to come. The explication is not complete.

As the client continued to focus in this session, she found what was involved in "what if I like him more." She felt fear that their old pattern would repeat. Her husband would seem emotionally available and invite her to trust him. When she would rely on that and feel close to him, liking him, he would pull away and feel she was too demanding. She would feel hurt again just when she had become open. As this is articulated, she is able to sort out what she needs in the meeting. She does not need the more global closeness she desired in the past, but does need to tell him how hard it feels to deal with the children alone. She would like him just to hear that with some concern for her. She can now approach the meeting with more inner clarity and less fear. She will probably behave differently.

VAGUE IS NEVERTHELESS THERE

In C1 the client has noticed this sense of fear, of "pressure's gonna come on me." She does not know what this pressure might be, or what is involved in her anxiety. Looking back, it is clear, that her inability to know what she felt did not mean she had nothing present. Her whole implicit sense was vividly present. Many clients believe that only what can already be spoken or known exists. Then, their unclear but present texture is skipped as not being anything important (too vague, "meaningless," "too hard to express") or is not discriminated at all. To focus, one must allow a felt sense to form without immediately knowing what it is.

The content that emerges is not determined by our conscious, directed thought. What emerges may surprise us. The process is not our familiar way of thinking; it is bodily anchored. Many clients (and therapists) are not used to trusting the orderedness of this level. There is a very exact sequencing in the experiencing process. The person is living forward what is organismically implied. In the last segment, there is an exact four-step sequence:

  1. scared
  2. pressure
  3. make me do something
  4. like him more

If the client had not stayed with "scared", she would not have gotten "pressure". The therapist brought her back to "pressure".

She had already gone on, not trusting that anything could come from something that did not fit her expectations. When she returned to pay attention to the "pressure," "make me do something" came. She then questioned "what can he make me do?" The therapist did not reflect this question. She invited the client slowly to go back into her sense of apprehension. And so, a step came with crying and a deeper movement.

RECOGNIZING INTERNAL ATTACKS ON THE PROCESS

As pointed out, in just this short excerpt the client verges on attacking what she finds in her own emergent process. ("Why in the hell," "wouldn't you think," "this is kinda dumb.") These imply that what is forming does not make sense. This occurs almost universally. What is being noted is her unfamiliarity with a process that is experientially rather than logically ordered. Clients can be helped to recognize this rather than dropping their process. Or, as in this segment, the therapist can help the client move past that problem by responding directly to the felt sense rather than to the attack.

Friendly Attitude

When clients have not yet found this level of process in themselves, they may not know to value the actions involved in it. An inwardly gentle, receptive, welcoming attitude is necessary to focus. One must want to hear from oneself and be able to welcome what comes, no matter what the content is.

Focusing cannot be inwardly coerced and whatever comes needs to be received and treated with respect. That is the reality of what is there now. By letting it be, further steps become possible. The client needs to be helped to respond to internal processes in a nurturing, respectful manner, very much as the therapist is responding to the client in their interaction.

Conclusion

In our concern to protect the client's autonomy, we can get caught in a superficial interaction. There may seem to be no movement. If the client does not find or connect internally to a process of his or her own, therapy does not deepen. An acceptance of this state in the client is very valuable, but not enough. Only acceptance may leave the client floundering. Many clients do not have any experience with what an internally connected process is or feels like. They may be "locked out" of their experience or enmeshed in bad feelings that are experienced repetitively. To "refeel" them endlessly, even in a caring interaction, is not enough. Most clients do not know how to focus on their experiences. They do not know that they can attend to their more vague, implicit sense of something and that such attending leads to steps of change. Once a client discriminates this level, there is an internal directionality and momentum. It is important to understand that many clients really have no idea of this. The therapist who is aware of this fact can help the client learn this process.

Notes

  1. Thanks to Melanie Bryan, Paula Kirshner and Cindy Keene and their practice "clients" for permission to use these excerpts.
  2. My thanks to the therapist, Barbara Harro, and her client for permission to use this material.

References

Bommert. H., & Dahloff, H. D. (1978). Das Selbsterlehen (Experiencing) in der Psychotherapy. Urban end Schwarzenbnery, Munchen.

Gendlin, E. T. (1962). Experiencing and the creation of meaning. New York: Macmillan. 

Gendlin, E. T. (1981). Focusing. New York: Bantam.

Gendlin, E. T. (1984). The client's client. In R. Levant & J. M. Shlien (Eds.), Client centered therapy and the person-centered approach. New York: Praeger.

Klein, M. H., Mathieu, P. L., Gendlin, E. T., & Kiesler, D. J. (1970). The Experiencing Scale: A research and (raining manual. Madison: University of Wisconsin Extension Bureau of Audiovisual Instruction.


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