The Focusing Institute Presents The Gendlin Online Gendlin Online Library Banner

Gendlin, E.T. (1974). The role of knowledge in practice. In G.F. Farwell, N.R. Gamsky & F.M. Mathieu-Coughlan (Eds.), The counselor's handbook (pp. 269-294). New York: Intext. From

[Page 269]

The Role of Knowledge in Practice

Eugene T. Gendlin

University of Chicago

Certain uses of knowledge are detrimental to practice and some are helpful. I will try to specify these uses exactly. We need knowledge. The spirit of research, and of commitment to theoretical universals, may seem the opposite of what is needed in being deeply sensitive to a given human being or group with whom one is uniquely interacting. Nevertheless, I plead for both. It is a problem in our field today, that good, subtle, intuitive practitioners are often both unaccustomed and hostile to careful formal thinking. Conversely, much research and theory in the field comes from persons who lack the direct experience for which they devise concepts. Naturally, such research and theory cannot be very successful. Practitioners reject such research and theory, the kind that is distant from the powerful and rich experiential complexity of practice. Unfortunately, they think of that as the only kind. In rightly rejecting poor and useless theory, they believe they must reject theory altogether.

So long as our practice lacks good concepts, the lifelong learnings of the relatively few who can practice successfully must always be lost again with them, when they die. Worse, even while they are here, practicing, they cannot train others. What they say is understood only by those who already sense and know it. Their experiential knowledge remains locked within them. They must be personally invited to come and give workshops; those with whom they personally interact are lucky ("He was analyzed by—himself"). This means that while a few can practice effectively, the field as a whole remains ignorant.

But is a science of practice even possible? Again, do not take the word science to mean what now passes for science. Rather, the question is: What sort of quite different-looking science would be a science of practice? Is such a very different science possible? Or is there something about practice that would make knowledge of any form impossible? (For science, after all, is only derived from scientia, the Latin word for knowledge.)

In the following, what I say about how concepts do and do not apply to people refers equally to one's own struggle with oneself in regard to working [Page 270] with others. I am concerned with how concepts are used in regard to people—myself as much as anyone else. The crucial factor is the relationship between concepts and direct experience.


Should one, for example, have diagnostic test results about a person one is going to work with? Does it help? My answer is that it can help only if one uses such knowledge in a very special way, otherwise not. I want first to show the kinds of uses that obstruct rather than help.

There is, in our field, a silly tendency to want to turn the persons we work with into knowledge—I mean that we make our main task to know what is wrong with them. We think that if we can only say what is wrong, we will have done our work. But the objective is not to know what is wrong, or to know anything; the objective is to aid the person to change and resolve what is wrong. The diagnostic work-up points us in this false direction of trying to know what is wrong. The diagnostic work-up makes us believe that we may have gotten it—this and this must be what is wrong. We only need some sessions with the person to confirm and specify the diagnostic impression. And then—when we can triumphantly confront our client with the correct explanations and definitions—what do we have? Usually a stuck case, because now that we know what is wrong, there are no procedures for fixing it.

There is a false assumption that, if you know the cause of psychological, emotional, or behavioral trouble, all you have to do is tell it to the person and he or she will change. But it is not so; all of us know much about ourselves, which we understand very well and in its origins, and still it does not change. What changes people are certain processes of experiencing and interacting, not mere knowings.

There is in our field much foolish practice consisting entirely of the professional person telling the person seeking help certain abstractions, which do a minimum of good. ("My counselor told me I was very hurt when I was two years old, when my sister was born and took up all my mother's attention." I ask, "Do you remember how that felt?" "No, I don't remember it, but I think my counselor is right, she convinced me." It is clear that this case will take quite a long time to get very far, if that sort of thing is all that is happening!)

To turn the client into some theoretical concepts, and then deal with the concepts rather than the client, that is the key way of misusing knowledge in practice. In such a use of knowledge, the knowledge makes the practitioner less sensitive than would be if there had been no knowledge or concepts of this kind. If he had none, he would have to deal with the person directly, listening and interacting with the person's feelings and not clearly formulated experi- [Page 271]ences. The practitioner would have to take in everything possible. The practitioner would have to consult his own global and not yet clear sense of what is happening in the person and between them. The practitioner would have to respond honestly, not from sharp and sure concepts, but rather from that shaky personal sense that is as likely to be wrong as right at any given time. Few know it, but to give this of oneself is to give oneself as a person, and that is very much more than to give a few abstractions, however correct they may be.

In such an interaction, not guided by concepts, the practitioner is not only giving to the interaction the person he or she is—which is unutterably more than a few concepts—but also the client's actual, confused, but concrete experience is enabled to interact with the practitioner in small steps, as both travel not yet charted terrain. Nothing but the real terrain guides them, and the real terrain is the client's concretely sensed, albeit confused, feel of what he is up against in himself. Diagnostic tests may give us some answers faster, but they cannot give us the actual process of working through. Even if we knew everything, the process would still have to be done. It would still require the very personal and open presence, sensitivity, and response of the practitioner at many, many tiny steps into concretely felt, unclear, experiential material. Not through the knowing, but through these experiential steps, is anything resolved.

Would the experiential interaction be aided, or hampered, if one also had knowledge? Suppose we pass by the number-one pitfall of knowledge: to attend to and be guided by concepts and to skip the essential experiential process. Let us say we know this, and we will at all costs get our client to engage in such a process with us. Cannot knowledge help us in this process?

Yes, for if we stay anchored, every moment, to some directly felt sense of some person, then all that we know—diagnostic knowledge and life experience—can make us more sensitive to recognize what we are directly encountering. By this I do not mean that we will swiftly find some category into which to put what we are hearing. We must let what we are hearing emerge and articulate itself. We must let our guide be the person's felt experience, the struggles to point specifically to it and articulate it. If we make someone's feeling and its articulation our constant reference point, then all the patterns and concepts we ever learned can help us help people. But this assumes that we go many small steps with people into what they feel, which is not at first clear. We will discard with ease the various successive conceptualizations the person and we try out, and sensitively use as our criterion whether the person feels a slight movement, a direct signal from the knot in the stomach that something we said is pertinent. Without such very sensitive steps, bit by bit, into what is directly felt, any use of concepts and patterns we have learned must stop the person's progress. People must let go of what they feel in order [Page 272] to think our concepts with us. Then they must still tell us why our concepts do not apply. All this takes a lot of time, during which people lose hold of the directly felt edge on which they should be working.

I will say more below about the positive use, in which all knowledge makes us more sensitive. Now I want to return to discuss a second detrimental effect of knowledge.

Suppose we are committed not to substitute knowledge for the concrete experiential process, and suppose we go with the person, step by step, into his or her concretely felt sense of what is wrong. The knowledge of the diagnostic tests may still hamper us in a second way: the biasing effect. Whether we choose so or not, what we "know" will dispose us to hear and construe the person's unclear feelings in certain ways. We will hear something that sounds a great deal like one of the abstractions in the diagnostic, and get a knowing feeling that includes whatever we associate with it. Even trying not to have it so, our minds will be occupied with that way of looking at it. Thus, even if we do engage in an experiential process with the person, we will hear and respond in a biased way.

We can overcome the biasing effect by listening much harder and more specifically to the exact, finely differentiated spot the client is now speaking from. We can refer directly to that felt but not yet clear "something," and what the client now says exactly. Even so, it takes extra effort to hear beyond what we "know." If we always listen beyond what we know, we will see, in a step or two, both how different and how more detailed is the matter the client is struggling with. We will feel the "knowledge" dropping away again, in favor of a grasp of just what, exactly, the client has there. Thus, although we will experience our biases, we can hold out until they are overcome by the further steps of detailed process.

It must be emphasized that what persons struggle within themselves, and interact from, is experience, not concepts. They struggle with concretely felt and not yet clear senses of living in various ways. If troubled persons do not do this, but talk and ramble without letting their attention go down into their felt sense of what they are talking about, they should be stopped. What they say must be taken in, accepted, and responded to as exactly as possible, but then they should be asked to let themselves stay quiet for a little time, and let their attention down into how the whole thing feels now, and what feels like the crux of it. And they should be told that this "crux" need not be clear, it will be a feeling sense of what is really wrong. This will always reveal detail beyond our biases.

We must therefore know that diagnostic and conceptual structures are always false, because they are thin stick-figure patterns. If used as thin patterns, they can be highly useful! They are like words—they can aid us to articulate what we feel, and to live forward on the plane of speaking and [Page 273] thinking what cannot be lived in life as yet. As aids to dealing directly with what we feel, concepts help. But if we take them as telling us what the person is, then we necessarily distort the person, however correct a given application of a pattern or concept may be. No diagnosis is correct. All concepts may help if viewed as articulating aids for the much richer and moving flow that constitutes a person.

There is always the danger, if the pattern fits at one moment in some way, that we will let it bias us the rest of the way, so that we hear subsequent moments through its perspective. It would be better, therefore, if we assumed from the beginning that all possible diagnostic concepts may apply to the same person at different times and in different ways, than that we keep viewing him or her through one particular set.

It is the same with other types of knowledge about the person. If you are practicing in a hospital or agency, and the person you are working with has a record folder—should you read it? Will it not dispose you to view the person in certain ways? And what ways? In reading the record you would view the person through the eyes of others in his life. But the patient is here for help. Obviously those other persons were not able to help him. Why put yourself into their set? It is bound to be an unhelpful one. The patient's record is the record of those who did not understand him!

What if there is one main thing to worry about with this person—suicide or a psychotic break, for instance? Shouldn't you know it? Again, a focus on a specific symptom is most likely to have been in the way of others trying to help and hear the person. You want to overcome such a tendency to hear everything a person is saying through a single focus. It is hard to overcome. But don't we need to know such factors so that we can be careful? What does "careful" mean? How, knowing this, can we be careful in ways we shouldn't always be careful anyway? There is no specific way to be careful, only a generalized way of being tense and somewhat worried with the person, something that is not likely to be much help. Let the person be with you in a new way free of the old rut and roles. Let the old bad fact come up in this new context so it will change.

Suppose the person tells us about some events in his life, and we doubt if they really happened. Need we know? Does it matter that they did not happen exactly as now reported? Again, we must keep it clear to ourselves that we are trying to aid change and resolution, we are not detectives trying to unearth a static truth. What matters is not what happened as such, but what it did to this person, who is still troubled by it and stuck in. So we need more knowledge of how the events make the person feel. What people do to themselves because of what happened is more important than what happened. The more personal account of the events is as useful as a factual one.

Even if the client is speaking quite psychotically, saying, for example, "The [Page 274] Austrian army stole all my possessions," we can understand that as meaning, "Someone did me dirt and took everything away from me." "The FBI is after me," or "The Cubans will get me," means, "I am afraid," or "Some people want to hurt me." Such feelings can be responded to also in the normal distortions most people make when they tell their side of a conflict. We know that the spouse will tell the other side of the story, which will of course sound different. If the relationship is to be saved, the spouse must come to the interview as well. But right now this person is here, and so we must go into his feelings. We move away from the events into the part of this person's experience that hurt him, and into what exactly about it still hurts.

In this process of experiential work, knowing the facts would, if anything, dispose us to an external, biased view of our person. To be sure, objectively the person may have acted badly—but there are always enough people around to point that out. The labels and categorizations we apply in ordinary life, like those of diagnostics, are external. By "external" I mean that if someone calls you passive-agressive or whiny, you cannot from this go in any very useful direction. You have been given a signal that your behavior is wrong, which you may already know from the bad results you obtain. But the label does not tell you how to get into what is wrong in you. Someone will have to go with you into the felt but not yet clear detail—somewhere in how you feel is a good life-force getting lost in some bad pattern; we will have to inquire what it feels like to you when others call you whiny. This is best done not by viewing your feelings as already condemned and defined, as that is likely to lead even you yourself to misinterpret and shut off your feelings. You should not feel this way, so you try not to. Instead, you ought to welcome the feeling, so that it can unravel, and you may then see that you have both a right push to take up for yourself, and some fear about doing just that, which makes you try to come on softly when you are angry. You may find, when you feel this way, that you are afraid you will cry. Your hurts and despair at being unable to be effective may become open for you to explore. None of this can happen if your counselor—and you—take the perspective of "whiny" or "self-pity" or "passive- aggressive," or any such externally descriptive label. Therefore it is best to hold off using such concepts, and to let the working-through process move beyond the biases our concepts give us.

Now I may seem to have contradicted myself. Did I not say that concepts could make us more sensitive to what we hear and sense in the person's working-through? Did I not then say that concepts may bias us to hear what fits them? Isn't this the same thing, said once with the laudatory word sensitive and the second time with the condemning word bias? Am I not saying that if your concepts dispose you to hear in a certain way, which turns out to be right and helpful, you are "sensitive," but if it turns out to be a wrong direction, then the concepts "biased" you?

[Page 275]

The answer lies in the relationship you maintain between the concepts and the actual felt experiential process and its articulating steps. What the concept disposes you to hear may turn out to be right or wrong—either way it makes you "sensitive" if you receive whatever is articulated experientially, and use it correct what you thought. On the other hand, even if you are right, you are what I call "biased" if you do not continue further to correct and alter your right conception by the subsequent steps of experiential articulation. This brings me to the third pitfall I want to discuss.

This is the pitfall of using concepts logically (rather than, as I will call what I advocate, psychologically). I mean by "logically" the assumption that if some concepts fit a person, then whatever else is true of him should be logically consistent with these concepts. If the given category holds, other diagnostic categories and all they imply should be excluded. The details and further steps should be those that would be predicted from the concepts. All this is not so, and to expect it is a pitfall.

For example, suppose you have given an interpretation that actually aided a person to get into direct touch with the lived, felt version to which your interpretation pointed. Now you might consider your interpretation correct (and in some respects, of course, it was). But the person's very next step in articulating his directly sensed feelings may reveal further details, which are rather different from what would have been logically consistent with the interpretation that was just so helpful.

Our concepts may fit at one point and not at other points; they may fit at one level of generality but not in the details; they may fit in certain respects, and quite other categories may fit in other respects. To avoid the pitfall, it is not enough to know this; one must allow and encourage the person to pursue his concretely felt and articulated details just as he actually finds them. The attitude I recommend is: "Now that our interpretation has aided you in getting in touch with the actual feeling, let's see just what really is in that feeling, and just how it is there. It is bound to be somewhat different than we think." If this is the method, our concepts can often aid us in suggesting tentative possibilities, which may be close enough to aid the person to tap directly into what he actually does have there. Then we and the person must both be open to it, however it shapes up.

A fourth pitfall is the differential use of our diagnostic concepts to infer from them different ways of treating people.

The diagnostic concepts we have today do not have differential procedures attached to them. The diagnosis does not tell us anything to do with "schizophrenics" that we do not also do with "manic-depressives," and the same is even more true with various neurotic types. Some people claim to have invented such differential ways of acting with differently categorized people, but these are artificial, unfounded ways of acting. For example, at one hospital I [Page 276] know, schizophrenics are said to have difficulty "distinguishing between themselves and others," wherefore the staff is instructed to "set limits" for patients categorized as schizophrenic. The idea is that a person can experience the separateness of another person through that other person's defining her or his own limits. But the result of this staff policy is not the intimate personal relations in which an honest, helpful person is encountered as a separate person. That would be desirable with any patient. Indeed, it may be more necessary with schizophrenics than with others, but it is not a differential procedure—everyone is most aided by another person who will do that! The result in the hospital, however, is that staff-members rather artificially become very hard and incommunicative about shutting the T.V. off at 8:30, or they deny the patient a drink of water. The policy makes all members of the staff treat the patient in a peculiar way, and the patient cannot know why.

There is no tightness between diagnostic category and a supposedly indicated treatment. If the latter is imagined to exist, it makes the counselor act artificially in a way that is unrelated to the patient's behavior or feelings.

The differential procedures are anybody's guess, and are in no way established. We have not even crude reports of such ways having been tried out, with the results observed. Therefore, I say that our diagnostic concepts have no differential procedures attached to them, and if some people use concepts that way, so much the worse. They will act in some nonhuman, artificial, unresponsive way towards a person because of the category into which the person has been placed.

It is best to behave as openly, responsively, and humanly as possible toward anyone, so long as nothing clear is established about differential treatments.

A fifth pitfall of knowledge is that the psychological concepts we now have, both diagnostic and common-sense, are static concepts. I mean by this that they are concepts of what is wrong, of what happened, of what personality structure or character structure the person has. But we want that to change! Therefore we do not want concepts that will help stabilize it in its present condition! What matters is not how he now is and has been, or why. What matters is how he can change. We need concepts for the change forces in the picture! We need concepts for what is trying to happen, and can't. We need to think about what positive life-process is being frustrated, but is trying to happen in this bad structure. We do not want concepts only to clarify and harden-in that bad structure.

Anyone caught in self-defeating patterns, malfunctioning character structures, pathological repetitions, and so forth, feels these as painful. Such pain is not a mere extra, a bad result—rather it is the very living of the organism not able to proceed. Right in the midst of how pathological patterns are experienced (but not in our concepts of them) are the felt life-forces tending toward resolution. But I am not saying that people should focus on the posi- [Page 277]tive. I am saying that in the experiencing of what is wrong, positive forces are involved, whether noted or not; whereas in the concepts of what is wrong, no change-avenues are given. From our concepts of pathology, nothing follows but discouragement. If that is how a person is, what can change it? We don't know. The type of concepts we have do not tell us. But in experiencing oneself in these structures, there is always the sense of pain and incompleteness, frustration and desperation, and not only in the abstractly general terms I have used here, but in very, very specific senses of what is wrong and why it feels wrong. These very specific senses, when found, lead to steps. When a person is trying to sense exactly what is wrong, he is sensing with his organism, and an organism is an organized adaptive system. From conceptual knowing of what is wrong, nothing follows. But a directly felt sense of a felt trouble, when the person has just gotten hold of it and does not know what it is—at that moment organismic body life has moved a step. When one gets hold of the feeling that is the crux of a trouble, tension reduces. If one loses this precarious direct hold on the trouble spot, tension rises again. If one can keep a hold on it for a minute or so, a next step will emerge, one that no one could have predicted in advance. Another "thing" will arise, another edge will come into view, everything will feel just a little different.

We talk about "integration," but that is just another abstraction. People cannot lay all their pieces out on a table, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and then integrate them into one picture. People are not made of pieces. The body as one living system "integrates," and we do not see the "pieces." To live with one's body, while attending specifically to the felt sense of a trouble, is the integrative process, because the body is one process. A living body moves with an adaptive tendency. Just as hunger is not a thing or a state, but a tending toward eating, so also psychological contents are not really "contents," but tendencies toward living processes that are stuck or have not happened yet. To "find" a trouble-spot is not like finding a thing or an object, but like finding a hunger, a process that should be happening or continuing, and is not. To attend or find or focus attention is itself a special way of living that process forward; hence, after a minute of that kind of attention, a new step emerges that could not emerge previously. And these steps, stemming from the person's directly felt experiencing, constitute therapeutic change.

I have discussed five misuses of knowledge: (1) concepts as substitutes for the experiential process of the person; (2) concepts as biasing us to construe what we experience along the lines of the concepts, instead of in its own different specificity; (3) logical uses of concepts; (4) differential uses of concepts; and (5) the tendency of current concepts to keep things static, as is, when the inherent nature of bodily experience is really a pushing toward something further—the change we should be working for.

[Page 278]


Now, in contrast, how should we use knowledge to aid practice?

If one anchors oneself always to a directly felt experiential sense, either one's own or another person's, then and only then can knowledge be used helpfully. One can then use every kind of knowledge and concept, however correct or wild, for one is not putting the concept into the experience to distort it, or, worse, to replace and lose the experience in favor of the concept. There is therefore no risk in using any concept—one does it to see if the concretely felt experience will respond in some new way. The felt experience itself may become sharper as a result of saying that concept (it may become sharper, not only because something about the concept is right, but also sometimes because something about the concept is importantly wrong!). We are glad we used the concept, when the experience is now felt in some way more clearly, or some new aspect arises from it, or some other directly felt effect is had. A concept or interpretation is helpful when it produces some directly felt effect in the very specific felt sense one was working with and anchored in.

A second key rule of using concepts helpfully is that once a felt effect occurs, it is that effect which must be followed and allowed to articulate itself. We will have lost all the good the concept did us, if we lose hold of that directly experienced effect, and instead say, "Since it aroused that effect, the interpretation must be right."

Recently, a very competent and sensitive psychoanalyst presented excerpts from three of his cases. In each instance the excerpt ended when he had shown that his interpretation of the case was correct. Since the patient assented to his interpretations with a great flow of feeling, I asked, "Didn't you pursue this into what got released for the patient, and see, into the details, what new experiential steps could now emerge?" I don't think the psychoanalyst knew what I was talking about. This is again the pitfall of letting knowledge substitute for the experiential process so that it does not occur at all. This pitfall threatens us every time we use a concept effectively, because we then come to be impressed with the concept. Instead, we must follow the experiential difference it has made, the new or slightly altered felt aspects now directly there for the person. If we do this, the process will move into concrete steps, and a new, specific, but not yet understood, felt sense will be gotten at.

When another felt sense also opens up, what we then say in concepts may well contradict what we said so successfully earlier. Even if we contradict it later, however, we will be glad we said it because, had we not, we would not have gotten to the later step.

I have added a second and third characteristic to our discussion of how to use concepts and knowledge helpfully in practice: We had (1) always be [Page 279] anchored to some specifically felt experiential sense; and (2) pursue the effects of the concept. We now add: (3) allow concepts to be contradicted by a later step of feeling, however effective and right the concept may have been earlier.

That these characteristics are essential can be understood from the fact that we are engaged in a problem-resolution process—that is to say, in a change process! Naturally, then, we are not desirous of having our concepts remain consistent! We do not want our efforts to end in a consistent, stable, noncontradictory system; that would mean the person was not changing! Instead, we want to use concepts as links in a change process. If at some time the concept fits so perfectly as to release the client into newly felt aspects of himself, this very effect of the concept would lead to changes such that the concept would soon no longer apply.

We want to use our concepts always to point to some directly felt experiential sense, or to seek such a direct sense if the person does not have one. This means that we always have more than concepts—always have at least the pointing to some experiential sense, however vague and difficult-to-get-hold-of it might be. This means that we must always use concept and experience, never just concepts. We must never let experience go in favor of concepts, but must always keep both.

We need something like the attitude of a chemist testing some unknown white powder to find out what it is. Suppose that if the addition of given acid produces a smoke reaction, the white powder is identified as one thing, and if not, that it must be something else. If the chemist pours the acid all over the white powder, and there is no smoke reaction, what can he use for his next test? The powder will have the acid in it. So he uses only a tiny bit of the white powder for his test, and has most of it left to take other bits for other tests.

Never let go of the experiential sense you have, and also show the client how to hold on to it while trying to see if a given interpretation does anything. Many people all too willingly let go of what they sense, or never even begin to look at it. Instead, they take your interpretation (or their own), and go from it in the many directions one might think from it. This makes for a long rambling thinking process quite unrelated to personal change and growth. The person must attend directly to the felt sense of what is wrong, and must take the concept or interpretation to that felt spot, and see if it has any directly felt effect there. If not, it is useless right now, however correct it may be. But we may try other concepts and interpretations at that same spot—as well as always letting that spot speak from itself, of course.

With this method of always referring concepts to the felt sense to see the effect they have, if any, one can use all manner of concepts. One can use not just one theory, but many—as many as one can learn. One need not either forgo another theory, or lose one's own favorite theory. Many ways to sense relations and structures, forms, and connections are more likely to help us find some [Page 280] form that will have a felt effect. The experiential method (Gendlin, 1968a) enables one to use well all theories, however inconsistent they are as pure theories.

In this way we can use all knowledge helpfully in practice, and the more the better. Personal learnings function in the same way as theories. If I impose on my client the idea that she is like my Aunt Linda, surely that will be poor. But if, from knowing Aunt Linda, I have experienced some pattern of human feeling, it may make me more sensitive to what this client's very specific and different felt sense now is. The key to a safe and helpful use of any and every kind of knowledge lies in the reference to, and criterion role of, the directly felt sense and its steps. Of course it is foolish to identify this unique person with either Aunt Linda, or with one of Freud's cases, or with one of his abstractions. But it is not foolish to say that all the knowledge and observation I have ever garnered makes me both more sensitive to, and more able to articulate, this very different, finely complex "funny feeling" my client is now pointing at and attempting to make a step into.

Among Dostoevski's characters there is a gushy lady who identifies the living people around her with characters in novels and plays. "You are Tchatsky, and she is Sofiya, in the last scene of . . ." But do not think that the formal practitioner telling the client, "You are Hilda in Freud's case . . ." is any more helpful, nor is it helpful to follow the "You are . . ." with an abstraction from these cases.

I propose that we constantly seek an experiential felt sense, that we try to find something to say that touches upon a felt sense, or will make it move, shift, or open up. If this is constantly our criterion, so that we cheerfully throw away concepts that have made no difference, and try further concepts, then indeed, instead of having too many conflicting theories and possible interpretations, we have too few. But if one is mired in the notion that the person must be translated into concepts, one seeks only one set. Then to use a concept is a great risk, and there are too many conflicting interpretations. But if we seek concepts, sophisticated or commonplace, which will resonate with a felt sense, and will have a felt effect, then we always know too few. Most of what we try out fails at this exacting test. We do not mind a concept failing in such trying out. The ease with which we can let a concept fail is crucial here. When there is no effect, we cheerfully throw the concept away, rather than get stuck with our good reasons for saying it, the endless implications. Then there is room a second later for another sounding, into the felt sense. There is room and time for other concepts to be tried out as well. At no cost, one can try out many different things. The absence of cost, however, depends on keeping the directly felt rather than the thought-about. We keep the concrete sense of the spot a person has felt into, just as the chemist keeps his powder.

Interpretations and concepts must be checked against the person's experien- [Page 281]tially direct feel of what is talked about. It is not enough to find some concepts reasonable, or even to be able to prove them as logically what must be so. When person says of himself that something "must be" a certain way, that shows he has no direct touch with it. He is inferring, perhaps correctly, but has not directly encountered the feeling. In our use of knowledge in practice, this direct encounter is like the empirical findings for the researcher. No amount of reasonable deduction can replace an empirical test. No amount of "it must be so" can take the place of instituting a direct empirical study that actually finds it so. Similarly, when I say something and the client agrees, I always say, "Well, you haven't looked yet. See if that's right." I mean that even though we both agree it must be so, he must stop thinking and begin to sense how it is in him in a directly felt way. If he finds it there, then we were right, and also, he will have fresh detail emerging. Nothing we figure out about ourselves is ever right in its details.

Quite often the good results of good use of knowledge in practice come not from the rightness of what we thought, but from its wrongness. In response to some concepts, the sensing into the as yet vague feeling can often be a quite definite no, which is an advance. "I don't know why, but that isn't right," he may then say. The person has a hold now on a directly felt facet, which was not there before, and consists in that much clarity: this, what we said, is wrong in this specifically felt way. Now we must pursue this quite specific but as yet unknown sense, and soon the felt sense opens up into more clarity.

It is essential always to ask the other person (or oneself, if you are working on yourself) to sense directly what, in whatever was just said or thought, is right.

Knowledge is like a map—it is not equivalent to the terrain. If you are driving to New York, and the road before you veers to the left, you go with it, even if there is a straight line on your map. You know the real terrain will have many turns, and the map is a simplification. In a misuse of knowledge, you would drive on straight ahead into the cornfield because the line on your map is straight.

Similarly, when you use a map, if you see something on the map that ought to appear pretty soon, you look for it. If it never appears, you will not get too confused with the fact that it is marked on the map. You do not say, "Well, it's here, we don't need to see it, it's on the map." At most you say, "It must be somewhere around here," and you know quite clearly that you have not found it yet.

However, in using knowledge in practice, many practitioners confuse the differences between what "must be," according to their cognitive map, and what is actually encountered in direct experience. This is our first pitfall again—that of forgetting even to engage in an experiential process of looking for it directly, and letting a concept of it replace the experience. But now we are [Page 282] talking not of letting go of the experience and substituting concepts for it. We are talking about the more important case where one has not yet had the experience. Then it is most important, when thinking something, to check it, to seek into experience and see if one finds there what one surmised.

In direct experiential checking, one will never merely find what one expected, but always much more, usually something somewhat different, and certainly something much more detailed.

A counselor talking to a client, therefore, must always invite the client to check into himself to determine whether anything either person says is so. The counselor must think of the client's experiential terrain as concretely real and capable of being attended to, and as a place in which to look for anything that we surmise might be there. It is like being on the telephone with someone, and looking for something in his room. From our end we cannot see it, we can only surmise it. We ask him to look under the radiator, but we cannot fix it from here that the thing be there. Either it is found directly, or it is not found. (We can still maintain, for future reference, that we think something like it might be found sometime, but that is another matter.)

In this process of aiding the person to get further into his felt sense and to sense what it is, everything we have ever experienced helps us. We can recognize a person's feeling much faster if we have known many people who had—not quite this—but similar feelings. The more of the range of human feeling we have experienced, heard about, and read about, and the more unique variants of it we have encountered, the more quickly we can sense this next unique one now being shared with us. If you have never heard that people who fear some harm happening to a person close to them often find they themselves have hostile feelings for that person, it will take you much longer to aid such a person to find his anger in the middle of his overconcern. If you have never heard of projections, it will be a longer struggle for you, and the person you are aiding, to sense that some way the person feels belongs to different times and people than those present now. It is often very helpful to ask a person, "Does this way you feel belong somewhere in your past—was there a time when you felt this way and it fit the situation?"

Such knowledge is really valuable, and no one would want to be without it! Not that any particular bit of it will necessarily be right or helpful, but rather that the totality of your experiences and what you are capable of thinking and understanding is vastly enhanced by this body of knowledge. Not to have it would be like choosing not to have traveled widely, or not to have known or heard about many different kinds of people. Of course, the more you have seen and heard, the more sensitively and swiftly you can receive the next person's unique ways of being.

I am not saying that conceptual knowledge is as good as personally having accompanied someone into his actual feelings and experiences. But it can help one do the latter. Of course, from statements alone one cannot understand [Page 283] what is involved, what it is like to be that way. For example, I may know that overconcern can be defended-against hostility, but I will not know whether and how such an opposite effect occurs unless someone who has it, shares it with me, in the small steps necessary to grasp it, or unless I myself have discovered and worked through something like it in myself. However, to have heard of it even in the simplest, most mechanical way, as I phrased it here, can aid one in first hearing or finding it. Then, after the actual experiencing has been worked through, I will know not only that category or concept, but also what it is really like in at least one version of unique living detail.

Therefore, however poor our knowledge may be, we want it, such as it is, very much indeed.

However, unless one is able to use it in the ways I am trying to delineate, it is better not to have such knowledge. The basic characteristics of using knowledge helpfully in practice are:

  • 1. To keep every bit of use of it anchored to a specific way a person directly feels, and to let the criterion of the knowledge be whether there is a response of the felt sense to that concept. If there is no response, then the concept must be discarded, and swiftly, before we become mired in some lengthy abstract discussion of why the concept is or is not correct.
  • 2. If there is a response, again the concept must be dropped in favor of pursuing directly whatever felt sense or edge the concept helped one find.
  • 3. This may change that very concept.

With many people, this experiential level is not easily had, since they pay little or no attention to it. They must first be shown this mode of experiencing. In order to be able to show it, we ourselves must have it very clearly. I will therefore say more about it, and how it differs from, and relates to, thought, observation, and emotions.

The essential characteristic of directly felt experience is that it is always multiple, always very many facets all in one felt sense. This makes a directly felt sense conceptually vague (we do not know all that is involved in it), while yet it can be felt quite clearly. An example of this is one's sense of what I call the "spot": something is wrong; one does not know just what, but can feel it quite distinctly. Another example: When people have bad situations, they often wake in the morning feeling fine, and then the "whole thing" comes back to them as they recall it. In such an experience they have the feel of the "whole thing" rather than thinking this or that facet.

Thought, on the other hand, is specific, about just this or that facet. Thought can be viewed as a special sort of experiencing; it too involves some feel of what one is thinking, but it is specific and objectified, so to speak, in verbal or other symbols.

Thought can be unrelated to directly felt experiencing, as when we try to [Page 284] think objectively or logically about something other than what we feel. We often need objective and logical thinking. However, thought may also be closely related to directly felt experiencing, as when we seek to articulate the crux of what we feel in a specific thought sequence. I call it "articulating" when thought has this close relation to directly felt experiencing. Articulation always proceeds in steps. As I have already said, a step of thinking articulation may lead to a change in feeling, which in turn may lead to a second and different step of thinking, which in turn may somewhat alter the feeling, and so on.

External observation is not really as different from directly felt experiencing as one might at first suppose. If we did not accept how external observations are already cut up into common-sense units and into social roles and recognizable events, if we took the whole of what we observe, our observation would be a directly felt sense of a complex whole, which would be conceptually vague, though definitely sensed. However, most of the time we observe windows and tables, or teachers and students, and so forth. Only when a situation is unclear, when something not yet known is wrong, or when there is a problem, do we have a "sense of" the situation without clear, conceptually defined units.

A directly felt experiential "sense" is nothing subjective, it is one's bodily felt sense of living in a given situation. There is no internal/external split; we feel internally our living in the external situation.

However, since external events are so often already defined, people often report, "He did this, and she said that . . . ," and they must be invited to sense into what the whole thing feels like, to them, rather than only the defined events.

Thus, both thought and observation, in usually being already cut up into specific units, differ from directly felt experiencing. However, both thought and observation can be closely related to directly felt experiencing: thought can articulate what one directly feels. What one directly feels is always the living in some situation or situations which are or were observable.

Directly felt experiencing is also always differentiated from emotion by its characteristic of multiplicity.

An emotion like anger, depression, or joy is a tonality, a certain uniform quality. However much one focuses one's attention on an emotion, it remains the same quality and may increase in strength. To focus on anger makes one angrier, to focus on how depressed one feels makes one more and more depressed. Focusing on an emotion like anger is often not helpful. Focusing on a felt sense, on the other hand, includes all the implicit complexity of what has made one angry. One can say much about this. These and those people have done this and that wrong. Suppose I am angry at myself because I did this and that wrong. We might speculate as to what traits of mine made me particularly vulnerable to getting mad about what happened. But instead of all this event-reporting and speculating, instead of the emotion of anger, I want [Page 285] to sense directly the feel of all that, which has made me angry. There and only there is movement and resolution possible. Let me sense what all that, together, feels like. Now I am focusing not on the emotion of anger, but on my feeling of that whole maze of felt complexity, which makes for my anger. Where does all that get to me? Now I am focusing not on the emotion, which is one, and will not change but only increase, but rather on a felt sense of very many things together. I am sensing into that feel of it all, to sense where I am stuck in it; thereby I may soon refer directly to some specific sense, which is still unresolved for me. This (I may not know yet what is in it) is my sense of what is wrong. As I feel into "this," I may soon find myself with newly clear aspects. I will find out which aspect of the situation, or of me, is most involved—and what is difficult about it. "Oh," I may then say, "it isn't so much what they did, it leaves me not knowing what to do back. That's what it is. And so I am collaborating with them if I don't get mad. It's that I am always likely to go along and talk myself out of any conflict and even help them, that's what I'm fighting against doing again." And later I might go further in: "Something seems so impossible about taking care of myself in the first place, so I never say what I need until everything is done and it's too late. It's that feeling that I can't say what I need. Now what is that?"

So it must be emphasized that the felt sense I am talking about is not emotion, but that feeling of the complexity of circumstances and personal aspects that may make for a given emotion at a given juncture.

Many people seem to know only about thinking, observation, and emotions. They seem never to let their attention into a sensing of a whole complexity, although this is available to any person.

People must often be asked to stay quiet, not only not to speak to us, but also not to make words at themselves. In such a quietness they must be asked to let themselves feel "that whole thing" about which they were just then talking. This might have been a broad problem, or a specific aspect. They should be asked to sense "whatever the crux of it is," or "whatever is still wrong," or "where you are still hung up in it," or some question that asks for a felt response in them. They must be instructed not to answer this question in words, although of course they could. Everyone knows a great deal, and could answer in words. "Don't answer it yourself, let the answer come from how it feels. Wait."

Very often, an immediate deepening of the counseling process occurs when one asks a client to perform these very simple instructions. I call the process "experiential focusing (Gendlin, 1969)."

The key characteristic of the directly felt experiential sense, with which concepts must interact in practice, is that such a sense is multiple although felt as one feeling. Even if what was being talked about is very specific, the feel of it will be multiple. It is a feel of "that whole thing," or "whatever is still [Page 286] wrong." It is always a feel of a whole, however specific. Conceptually, very many facets could now be said from it, even though it seemed simple and specific before. This differentiates it from emotions, which are simple, and do not contain many facets under them.

Body (and bodily felt sensing) is not only a whole, but also a moving living process. Therefore, when a person senses such a whole, a further step will form. Such a step, if not imposed but allowed to form, to "come," is made by the whole, and is a specific further movement. Whereas concepts are static, implying only what is logically consistent, the movement from felt wholistic sensing is, as it were, biologically moving. Whatever specific sense one thereby gets, words or other symbols can then articulate it. This makes the characteristics "steps" of movement in articulating. Both directly felt sensing and concepts change.

The five characteristics we have so far for using knowledge helpfully in practice are:

  • 1. Always refer to some person's specifically felt experiential sense of what is being talked about and consider what is said as pointed there. The person must be invited to check directly and see if he can feel what the interpretation refers to, and whether it is right. This means never using concepts as universals, with the individual merely falling into the classification the concepts define. It means always checking the concepts against direct feeling and its differentiation, and considering the concepts as possible pointers and perhaps openers of what is felt.
  • 2. If the concepts make no felt difference, they can be dropped easily and smoothly, without getting involved in why and how they should have been right. Others can be tried immediately. Or, if they have made a felt difference, that difference must now be pursued, not the concepts. The direct working with what they have roused or sharpened will lead to problem-resolution, not the concepts as such.
  • 3. Understand from the start that the concepts now effective in making an experiential difference will very likely be contradicted by subsequent concepts that will later make such a difference, since the person is hopefully changing.
  • 4. A directly felt experiential sense is always multiple, though felt as one.
  • 5. Sensing into one's directly felt feeling makes for a movement of steps.

Let me now generalize about this use of knowledge. It means that we radically change what we have usually thought concepts to be. Instead of viewing some statement as a sharp rendition of a structure in experience, we view it as possibly effective in dealing with really-lived experience that is never only one single structure. For example, let us say that the client finds himself [Page 287] with some jealous feeling, and we refer to it and try to get its worst edge. He feels a certain way he cannot name. We arrive, after a while, at the formulation that it makes him feel small and left out. My own knowledge of the Oedipal theory has aided me in aiding him; not that I imposed the theory on him, that would take too long for the little likelihood that it would fit now. The theory aided me in being sensitive to such edges of feeling as "small" and "left out"; the client is the child, and the other two are adults making adult love. Thus he has hold of the feeling now, and the Oedipal theory had only sensitized me so I was better able to hear the "small and left out." We pursue, not my theory, but this felt sense, which he has directly.

The Oedipal theory may help me further. In my own mind, without interrupting the client's process, I ask myself: "If the Oedipal theory fits, what would follow?" That the client would also feel that he could not as easily go out and find other adults, that he has, as it were, to stay in his room. I ask him, "Does it also seem you can't step out very easily?" Again, whether this is helpful or not depends entirely on whether some further directly felt aspect can be got hold of by the client, not whether he says yes or no to this. If so, the aspect might lead to steps that would change this.

Now even if right again, still I will not assume that there exists somewhere in the client a structure—made of hard bones, as it were—which might be called the Oedipal structure. Even if the client likes and uses psychoanalytic language and himself calls it his Oedipal structure, I would not assume such a structure. Instead, what I assume is that his rich and complexly textured experience is such that his child and family complexity is aroused by the events, and that this more global experiential mass is what we are really dealing with, rather than any given way of patterning it. Thus, even when the sharpest theoretical patterning works at its best, I will still consider the experiential reality to be not the pattern but the experiencing. I will consider that this pattern helped get certain facets, and in a minute other patterns and theories may help us get other facets.

Because of this translation I make from sharp conceptual structure to more broad experiential process, I can also use theories as above, without telling them. I can ask myself what it would feel like, if a given theoretical connection obtained, and then ask the client directly if he finds a feeling like that. It saves the time of talking the theory at him, which is very complicated, and instead asks a question that is very simple. If he finds nothing, we lost little time and did not get embroiled in intellectual complexity.

I may thus add characteristics 6 and 7:

  • 6. Let every theory and conceptualization be a thin cognitive pattern, which might be part of, but never equivalent to, the globally felt texture of living. In this way you do not reify concepts and identify the person [Page 288] with them, but allow the same experience already having one set of concepts fitting to it, to still be there for other concepts as well.
  • 7. In using theories in practice, translate them into what one might feelingly find directly. Permit yourself any amount of complex reasoning privately, but make the intervention be a simple question, whether the person feels something like—some way of feeling you can imagine he might find. (Again, what he actually finds may be different and more specific, and we pursue that, not my inferences.)

This way of using concepts and theories changes them drastically. No longer would human nature or personality be conceived as made up of the kinds of patterns the different theories seem to hold. Neither Oedipal structure, nor Anima, nor anxiety bonds, nor any of the varying conflicting renditions of personality, is to be taken literally. (All give us terms and patterns with which sensitively and helpfully to search into ourselves, and we may use all, not just one of them. Often, as the client is trying to sense into a given felt sense, a number of theories may go through my mind, from Freud to Jung to my Aunt Linda. Any edge I can ask about can help, and if not, will not make us lose hold of where we are. But I must ask for a feeling edge, do you feel "something like this . . . ?" If I tell my reasonings, he must let go of his directly felt sense, in order to follow me, and we will be lost.)

This means conceiving of human nature as fundamentally experiential and preconceptual—as not this or that structure, but a texture and a flow. At a given point some pattern or order is effective for an experiential step, but soon a quite different pattern or order may aid us. Human personality is neither this nor that patterning, but the life process—more than conceptual patterns, but responsive to them. It is beyond the scope of this essay to explain this responsiveness, except to say that our conceptual patterns do, of course, come from experience, and themselves constitute a way of continuing experience where it is blocked. Of course, conceptualizing is to continue living on another plane, but one can often continue it there (symbolically) when one cannot yet do so in life.

To say what some experience is, is itself a living process. One seems to be merely saying about, but much is changed in the very moments when one says something with reference to experiential felt sense, and if effective there is a sense of relief of the "knot" in the stomach, a release and the freeing feeling of at last knowing what that is, which one focally felt. One thinks one merely knows what that was, but in fact it has also just changed. Thus, rather than view concepts as of static objects the concepts represent, we view concepts as patterns capable of bringing about that kind of continuation of experiencing where it was stopped.

The continuation of experiencing on the symbolic level, via the conceptual pattern, is good only if it is actually felt as an experiential effect. Only then [Page 289] is it effective. Of course, such continuation of concrete living in a symbolic field is not always enough. Quite often a bit of action or interaction is needed for certain changes to take place. For example, one attendance at an encounter group can be worth many therapeutic sessions, if it enables the client safely to act his next step, rather than talk it. Similarly, the therapist must be available for concrete personal interaction, and not just experiential differentiation. One actual fight with the therapist may be worth many sessions of feeling into the client's difficulties around conflict confrontations. But during or immediately after such interaction, it will again be important to aid the client to feel directly what the interaction has stirred or changed.

If we take the position I have outlined, then we can be strongly in favor of knowledge of any sort, and the more the better. But there is very little knowledge in our field. You can appreciate that fact especially when you experience a deep resolution of some difficulty. Then you notice that there are no concepts to formulate it! Our science or knowledge lacks concepts very badly.

We cannot expect a much better therapy without better concepts than we now have. These must come from articulating what we at first know experientially, as in the example above, when you have had a resolution experience. Now you no longer need concepts, but as a field we need them badly! Had we had them before you resolved your problem, they might have aided you.


Now that we have discussed three pitfalls, or misuses of knowledge, and seven criteria for a helpful use of knowledge, let me raise a somewhat different question. I want to discuss our field's pretense of possessing a knowledge that does not exist. This is the pretense to scientific, established knowledge on which authoritative judgments can be based.

The public does not know how little we know. They should be told. Whenever you notice people relying on your supposed expert knowledge, you should tell them that, as a field, we know very little. We are experts in the process of resolution, but not in any of the content! I "know" that if you focus on the feeling of all this, and get to where it is now still unresolved, then we will resolve it. But I know little else. Psychiatry and clinical psychology are not like medicine, and the public should be protected from the false analogy. A psychiatrist is a doctor of medicine, and if he still recalls what he learned but never used, his medical judgments are based on knowledge. His psychiatric judgments simply are not. It takes many people a long time to face this flatly, because they wish there were some knowing authority somewhere. The psychiatrist is the duly authorized representative of society insofar as taking responsibility is concerned. But insofar as knowledge is concerned, that person knows the most who best knows this individual with whom we are working. [Page 290] Everyone knows himself best. After that, the counselor who has spent the most time with him will know best. To go by a psychiatrist's judgment, if he is not the counselor who has spent the most time with the client, is to rely on a social ritual in a false way. The social ritual concerns responsibility, not knowledge. There is no knowledge in our field, as there is in medicine, such that a consultant can be brought in and the facts laid before him.

Similarly, supervisors are foolish if they tell the therapist-in-training about the patient. I am often impressed by the spectacle of a therapist playing five minutes of tape to a supervisor, or even just telling about the case, after which the supervisor asserts a good many abstractions supposedly about the client, whom he has never even met. The therapist, having spent 20 or 40 hours with the client, listens respectfully, and may even comply and act in certain artificial ways suggested by the supervisor. What use of "knowledge" is involved here?

It is again a social ritual. The person socially placed in the more responsible position is confused with a person knowing more. Actually, it is obvious that this person knows less—about this patient. He may also know less about people in general. Most of what we learn about people in general comes from our own experience, our own struggles, our own being in therapy. A very few but precious bits of knowledge may come from books. The supervisor may have much less from all these sources than the beginning therapist, and all of them may have less than the patient. Why then is he the supervisor? It is because of age, seniority, years of schooling in medicine, statistics, and animal psychology, agency structure, theology, and so forth. The supervisor may be more skilled as a therapist and may know more than the starting therapist. I am only saying that it is just as likely not so.

How then is such a supervisor able to say so much that sounds quite likely about a patient who is not here? It is again because of misuse of knowledge, which substitutes it for experience, rather than placing it in interaction with experience at every step.

It is obviously easier to read a map when one is sitting at home than when using the map on some real terrain. If we have a little bit of information about someone, we can say a lot, and the less concrete information we have, the more we can say. We can invent typical syndromes and draw logical inferences in a vast number of directions, as long as there is no concrete person there to react to it with confusion, tightness, and a stopped process. Were the person there, most of these thinkings would soon be found useless in the present concrete juncture. Then still to think of something helpful would be hard.

Of course, if the supervisor can listen sensitively, and if there is a tape recording, the supervisor can help the counselor hear better what the client is saying. Supervisors ought to concentrate on aiding the person who is present in front of them. Everyone working with troubled people runs into trouble. One's own weak points are called out; one runs into one's own typical difficulties. The therapist being supervised is the experiencing person on whom super- [Page 291]vision should focus. Where does the case give him trouble, and what are the personal meanings and feelings this rouses? This may seem exactly like therapy for the therapist, but it takes its rise from the difficulties made by the case in question.

We must also face the simple truth that we have no knowledge concerning the goals and proper end-points of psychotherapy. "My therapist thinks I should keep coming," is a statement of a poor therapy, in which the client has no direct feeling of help happening, but believes (on the false medical analogy) that his "doctor" is continuing a medicine he still needs. No knowledge exists to base such a judgment on. Similarly, if the therapist says, "With this person our goal is support, rather than exploration," something foolish is happening. If the counselor avoids what the client feels, the client is left alone with the most threatening aspects of his experience. Those who distinguish between "supportive" and "explorative" therapy, probably do the exploring so badly that it requires a very healthy patient to bear up under it. Therefore they consider some patients too ill or weak for it, and of course it is just as well to spare anyone that kind of exploration. What is usually meant is that the therapist throws the wildest and most insulting abstractions at the patient, and they then see what happens. "Supportive" therapy, in contrast, means the counselor avoids what the client brings up. Neither should ever be done.

Anchoring very specifically in the person's own felt sense of what he is up against, never does anything except help. The more upset, borderline psychotic, or disturbed someone is, the more one should respond gently and exactly, without shying away from anything that is being expressed. Anything so bad that a person is thought not able to take it, so that we avoid it when we are with him, is there anyway for him to deal with all alone when we are not there. If we avoid referring to his feeling of panic or despair, of suicidalness, or whatever, our not speaking to it when we hear it does not make it safer. It does not make it not be there. Better keep it company and bring it into interactive space.

Thus the misuse of knowledge—its use in practice without constant anchoring and checking—is also an unsafe procedure, whereas constant sensitive asking as to how it really is, and very carefully taking experiential facets as they come, is safe with anyone. There is no sound basis for claiming that therapy should have different goals for different types of patients.

It is essential to let go of pretended but nonexistent knowledge, both with regard to our own judgments and also in regard to those we wish others could give us. To let go of the pretense will generate the very spirit with which what we say must be taken. Knowing that we do not know whether what we say is right, the client cannot help but look into himself to see if it is, and this will make for constant connection between concept and experience. The same is true for the practitioner. Once freed of the illusion that only you are unsure—that you ought to be able to come up with some sure interpretation—you [Page 292] can then sense into yourself, into your own felt impression of all you have experienced, and you can share tentatively from this much more personal level.

To give up the pretense of possessing knowledge in our field that does not yet actually exist, is to be able to laugh and say freely: "I don't know that, because no one does. Dr. X may have called you 'schizophrenic,' but no one is agreed on what that word means, and it gets used a lot of ways. Everyone has some schizophrenic aspects, yet some people are in the hospital and we don't know why. You might be crazy, but Dr. X wouldn't know. I guess you're scared of some of the ways you feel? Do you want to say what they are?"

To give up such pretended knowledge means knowing not to send a person to a hospital or psychiatric service because you think someone there will know more than you. The supposed knowledge of the people in such places is not a reason for hospitalizing someone. There is no such knowledge there.

Of course, if we give up pretended knowledge, then we must use any knowledge we do have in a helpful way. It will help to tell people that you have heard of what they are describing, that you have seen it before, or whatever is true. It will help to say what you know, together with where you know it from and the doubt and confusions surrounding it. You might well say: "Oh yes, I have heard of that happening. People know about a thing like that. But they don't understand it very well. It's supposed to have something to do with such and such, but I'm not sure that's right. Does it go anywhere for you to look for such and such?" Here you are sharing, not some supposedly sharp and reliable knowledge, but exactly what you do and do not know.

Also implied in giving up pretended knowledge is the recognition that the ability to help others is independent of status and nonrelevant education. If others work under you who can help better than you can, enable them to work. Your status is a social power and responsibility. Use it as well as you are able to give the go-ahead to those who can work best. Your judgment is wanted, society has put you in the position of judging. Do not think, therefore, that because certain people work under you, you must be able to work better than they. Again, it is only in terms of responsibility that you are placed above them, to decide who should function, and in what ways.

Our field needs theory and practice, both together in interrelation. If you yourself do not do counseling well, but have much abstract knowledge, learn the process. The best way is to find someone who can counsel you, and in such a way that you can feel more than words happening in you. Then you will also know what your knowledge refers to, and you will be able to make it pay off. You need not remain in the anxiety-producing position of using only abstract knowledge to cover for you. We have only one life each—therefore, why accept an end of its expansion?

Most of counseling and psychotherapy is learned by being a client or patient in a counseling that works—one that is more than words. Most of the rest of [Page 293] the learning occurs, and can occur, only in practice—with the chance of talking intimately about it as one practices. Only a very small percentage of what one must know comes from books and theory. Yet that small amount is very precious, and we must make it grow.

If you yourself are a sensitive practitioner, develop your knowledge and thinking side. Obtain for yourself such little knowledge as we do have. Stop thinking of it as a separate, essentially unreal, matter of academic publishing. Instead, help make new concepts of the kind that emerge from practice. Articulate your experience, at first merely describing what you do and experience. Of their own accord, such articulations form into clearer and clearer assertions of your experience. Concepts are, and inherently come from, experience—to articulate experience is concept-formation. Of course, for a time such work may seem very private, and you may get little understanding from others; certainly such work seems unrelated to the academic and publishable. But so little of that is genuine knowledge, why make it a standard? Rather, let new concept-formation develop over some years' time. Do it just for yourself; eventually just this will have the most significance for others. The more unique and close to your own experience your thinking is, the more universal significance it has for others when it becomes articulated.

Our field needs a thinking top. We cannot make advances, cannot even teach what is now achieved by some, if we cannot devise concepts for our practice. However, this can be done only from practice.

We must overcome the seeming split between research and theory on the one hand, and practice on the other. Only both together can advance the field.

But to move toward the kind of knowledge and use of knowledge we need, we must give up the harmful uses of knowledge and the pretensions to knowledge we do not have.


I have discussed the following pitfalls, or misuses of knowledge:

  • 1. Substitution of concepts for experience, thus skipping the necessary experiential process.
  • 2. Predisposing to a way of hearing experiential expressions, rather than staying open to their inevitable detailed difference from what we could predict.
  • 3. The tendency of concepts to be about a static pattern and thus keep the person static. Concepts do this by drawing in, in heavy lines, so to speak, the way the person is rather than the way he would be changing if he could.
[Page 294]

The helpful use of knowledge in practice, as I have sketched it, consists in:

  • 1. Keeping all verbalizations in constant reference to some directly felt aspect of some person (it might be ourselves if we are exploring ourselves).
  • 2. Pursuing the felt difference concepts make, rather than the concepts' implications, and discarding concepts if they make no felt difference that can be worked with directly.
  • 3. Letting our conceptualization of a person or a problem change, so that what we said, which was so helpful and led to real experiential movement at an earlier step, might be contradicted by what we say at a later step, which has a felt effect there. After all, change is what we want.
  • 4. Remaining aware that a directly felt sense is always multiple, and although felt as one it is a rich whole.
  • 5. Remaining aware that this, in due course, will result in a step of movement.
  • 6. Letting all real persons and experiencings be forever different from conceptualizations and structures and patterns of theory, so that even when the pattern fits most strikingly we will still know that the experience and person is a rich texture and flow, not the pattern.
  • 7. Permitting oneself any theory and line of reasoning, knowing that at most it may be a lead to some feeling the person might actually find, directly, in himself. (Similarly, if we are exploring ourselves, we may think anything, but even so, do not forget to become quiet and feel into your direct sense of the trouble to see if something like you thought is directly there to be found.)


Gendlin, E. T. A theory of personality change. In P. Worchel and D. Byrne (Eds.), Personality change. New York: John Wiley, 1964.

Gendlin, E. T. Experiential explication and the problem of truth. Journal of Existentialism, 6, (22), 1966.

Gendlin, E. T. The experiential response. In E. F. Hammer (Ed.), Use of interpretation in treatment: Technique and art. New York: Grune & Stratton, 1968. (a)

Gendlin, E. T. Focusing ability in psychotherapy, personality, and creativity. In J. M. Shlien (Ed.), Research in psychotherapy. Vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1968. (b)

Gendlin, E. T. Focusing. Psychotherapy: Theory, research and practice. 1969, 6, 4-15.

Gendlin, E. T. Experiencing and the creation of meaning. New York: Free Press, Macmillan, 1962 (reprinted 1970).

Gendlin, E. T. Experiential psychotheraphy. In Current psychotherapies, R. Corsini (Ed.) Itasca, Ill.: Peacock Publishers, 1973.

Note to Readers:
  • How Do I Refer To This Document? An example reference is at the top of this page. Please include the Internet address in the reference, even if you cite the document in a printed article, so that others can find the Gendlin Online Library.
  • Can I Link Directly To This Document? Yes. We encourage you to link directly to it from your own online documents. We have built "hooks" into this web page to make it very easy to connect to individual pages and headings in the text. For examples, see: How to Link to The Gendlin Online Library.
  • Biographic Note: Eugene T. Gendlin is a seminal American philosopher and psychologist. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and taught there from 1963 to 1995. His philosophical work is concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. Philosophy books include Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy edited by David Michael Levin, (fourteen commentaries and Gendlin’s replies), and A Process Model. There is a world wide network of applications and practices ( stemming from this philosophy. Gendlin has been honored three times by the American Psychological Association for his development of Experiential Psychotherapy. He was a founder and editor for many years of the Association’s Clinical Division Journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. His book Focusing has sold over half a million copies and has appeared in seventeen languages. His psychology-related books are Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy.
  • If you see any faults in this document please send us an email.
  • Add a comment to the Gendlin Online Blog for this article.
  • See the reference for this document in the Gendlin primary bibliography.
  • More on Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy from the Focusing Institute website.
  • The Gendlin Online Library is presented by the Focusing Institute, a not-for-profit organization. If you find the library useful, you can contribute to its maintenance and growth, at
Document #2030 version 070501 build 071008