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Gendlin, E.T. (1958). The function of experiencing II. Two issues: Interpretation in therapy; Focus on the present. Counseling Center Discussion Papers, 4(3). Chicago: University of Chicago Library (15 pp.). From

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TWO ISSUES: Interpretation in Therapy; Focus on the Present

by Gene Gendlin

The previous paper defined "experiencing" and a few other terms that refer to experiencing. In this paper these terms will be applied to two currently discussed issues in the theory of psychotherapy: the issue concerning interpretation in therapy, (pages 7 - 16) and the issue concerning focus on the present (pages 17 - 20). First, however, what is meant by "experiencing" will again be described:

Description of experiencing in therapy

Let us describe a client discussing a problem: First, there is the discussion of the problem, i.e. the client's words, concepts, views, events described. Then, secondly, there is the client's inner phenomenal field, which includes not only what he is saying, but also anything to which—at that moment—he could give his inward attention.

I have distinguished two very roughly outlined elements: the content, and the phenomenally given. By "content" I mean anything a person explicitly says or thinks. Such contents might be "I think I am angry" or "My relations to person A are like my relations to my mother" or anything of the sort. These are cognitive contents or conceptual contents. They are explicit. By ''phenomenally given" I mean anything to which the person can give his inward attention. Anything which he can inwardly point to and call "this." My term for this phenomenally given is "experiencing." I shall describe it more fully:

In one sense, "experiencing" could include everything to which a person may give his attention. In a slightly more restricted sense, I apply the term to [Page 2] everything given to the inward attention of the person—other than explicit contents (as described in one above).

"Experiencing" includes what is loosely termed "emotion," i.e. feelings of love, hatred, anger, fear, anxiety, etc. However, it also includes feelings which are not emotions. For example, it includes "I feel I had something to say a moment ago, but I forgot that. Let me concentrate on that feeling I have of what it was, so I can remember it. " "Experiencing" also includes "feelings" as exemplified by the following familiar example: "This situation with my boss FEELS like that incident with my father," or the converse example: "I can intellectually see how my relationship with my boss is just like my relationship with my father, but I don't feel it, I just know it from figuring it out."

In a previous paper I have tried to show that this "experiencing" is not what is ordinarily termed "experience." The construct "experience" includes all kinds of content which is not now capable of receiving the individual's direct inner attention. "Experiencing" is a datum of direct inner attention, but it includes much, which is implicit. By "implicit" I mean that such a "feeling" can later be conceptualized. At the moment at which it is felt and referred to, however, it is not conceptualized. It is a felt datum. We know it has implicit meaning because when it is given direct reference and attention, it often "opens up" into a great many meanings. (Sometimes it turns out to be an emotion. "I'm scared, that's it, just scared!" Other times it turns out to be a complex meaning: "Oh that's what it was, I was scared of the meeting tonight, because so & so is going to attack me and I won't know what to do because I'll want to attack him back and I won't feel able to do it, because I'm too angry, and all my anger will pour out and then I'll be ashamed...." etc. etc.). We see from such common examples, that a momentary "this," given as a feeling in one's experiencing, can implicitly be a whole wealth of meanings, finely differ- [Page 3]entiated, gradually opening up to conceptualization.

"Experiencing" is basically defined as the datum of "direct reference" of the individual, his direct attention to his flow of feeling at a given moment. [1]

It is the contention of these papers, that experiencing plays a vital role in therapy. In earlier papers [2] I have cited many examples of common occurrences in therapy, in which it is quite clear that the client is referring directly to something inwardly given to him which is not an explicit concept or content, nor necessarily an emotion, but rather a feeling or a felt "this."

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When a client discusses a problem, therefore, the counselor does not simply respond to the concepts. He responds to the present experiencing in the client from which these concepts just now take rise. It is necessary to give the client time, room and silence, so that we may confront and refer to the inwardly given "feel" of what he is saying. Usually we help him to do so by "reflecting his feeling," i.e. by focusing on some FELT aspect of what he is saying. My contention here is that such a reflection of feeling is helpful, not only because he may have some EMOTION which he isn't making explicit, but because his concepts are only one particular spoken aspect of his felt present experiencing. If he can be helped to give his inward attention to this experiencing—to the present feel of the thing he discusses,—he will soon come up with better, deeper, more trenchant concepts . . . as his implicit feelings "open up" into deeper meanings.

Our description has attempted to show what is meant by "experiencing" and that it has a vital function in therapeutic change.

The phrase "function of experiencing in therapeutic change" refers to a broad area of data which need to be studied. A great many aspects of this role of experiencing must be differentiated and made experimentally measurable. Right now we have only very few terms which refer to experiencing, such as the global term "experiencing" itself, and a few other terms ("direct reference," "intense," "implicitly meaningful," "felt"). Since experiencing plays a vital role in therapeutic change, many theoretical issues really concern experiencing. Current discussions of these issues are obscure because reference to experiencing is sometimes assumed and sometimes not. Such reference to experiencing is hidden, assumed, not stated. Theoretical terms are needed which explicitly refer to experiencing and its role in therapy. By applying the term "experiencing" to two such issues, the present [Page 5] paper hopes to explicate the assumed imprecise reference to "experiencing" and thereby to clarify these issues.

We now turn to the first of these two issues, "interpretation" in therapy.

"Interpretation" in therapy

Client-centered therapists are responsible for the misunderstanding of their therapy according to which they "add nothing" to what the client says. Such a method rightly seems to many people to be trivial as well as impossible. Since, however, this is the impression created by client-centered therapy itself, communication on this issue is at a minimum.

Actually both "interpretive" and "client-centered" therapists help the client conceptualize more than he originally conceptualized. Both types of therapist aim at maximal "depth." Their notion of "depth," however, is different. They also differ about what and how they aid the client to conceptualize.

Two senses of "depth"

A person very often shows more of his experience than he is aware of. "Depth," in therapy, refers to the counselor's responding to what the client is showing but is not aware of. Such "showing" may be divided into two sorts, although the line is sometimes difficult to draw. One kind of "showing" consists of symptomatic signs which are clear to a psychologically sophisticated observer, but are totally outside of the present awareness of the person. These might be called signs of the repressed. This sense of "depth" might be termed "depth of repression." Another kind of "showing" consists of what the person now feels and expresses, but is not fully aware of having expressed. Note that the two phrasings are still so similar that confusion is possible. People's felt experiencing in each moment is much broader than their explicit conceptualized awareness. Present [Page 6] experiencing is largely neither repressed, nor explicitly aware. It is present and felt, but implicit. In social situations there often are no explicit responses to much of present experiencing, and no opportunity as well as no symbols to aid the individual's awareness of it. Hence it passes by with a minimum of explicit awareness. Yet such felt experiencing is present. Much of it can be made explicit because it is here now. However, it occurs as unconceptualized and implicit, merely felt.

With the use of the term "present experiencing" we are able to clarify the issue between "interpretive" and "client centered" responses. In both methods the therapist aids the client to conceptualize. Client-centered therapy aids the client to conceptualize his present experiencing. The therapist endeavors to help the client refer to, and conceptualize as "deeply" as possible, his present experiencing. The word "depth" in this method means depth of present experiencing in this moment. Let us call it "implicitly present depth." This sense of "depth" refers to what is now most deeply felt, perhaps also most removed from the superficial verbal level. It refers to what is now most personal and self-referent, rather than situations and other people whom the client is discussing. For example, if the client is discussing Mrs. A's peculiarities and nasty behavior, the response "the way A acts really makes you feel helpless" (provided it accurately conceptualizes the client's implicit expression of present experiencing) is a deeper response, than "A does so and so, and if you do this, she does so and so." The client-centered therapist aims at conceptualization of the "implicitly present depth" of present experiencing. The two definitions of "depth," then, are: 1) Depth is repression, includes what is not present in felt implicit experiencing, but is true of the person in general and is part of his experience. (The term [Page 7] "experience" [3] refers to all that can be theoretically posited to occur in him.) Something which is deeply repressed may have observable signs or symptoms and these may be present at a given moment.

2) Implicitly present depth, refers to what is now felt although it may be implicit and unconceptualized. It may be referred to as "this" even before its meaning is explicit. It is implicitly present, and implicitly expressed.

Therapeutic change occurs in terms of experiencing, not concepts

The feeling which a client refers to and expresses is not itself a conceptual content, such as "I think I am angry," but a present experiencing. A concept, such as "I am angry," conceptualizes an aspect of this present datum. This latter implicitly contains much more than is conceptualized by any given conceptualization. Any one conceptual content is only one of a great many implicitly present unconceptualized contents. The client-centered therapist endeavors to help the client refer to, conceptualize, and feel his present experiencing as deeply and as awarely as possible. Necessarily much of its implicit meanings will remain implicit. Both client and therapist endeavor to refer (as "deeply" as possible and as constantly as possible) to the client's ongoing changing present implicitly meaningful experiencing. Therapeutic change occurs primarily in the experiencing, not in the small part of it which is conceptualized.

To the client-centered therapist, the use in the therapeutic hour, of diagnostic concepts and deductions of the client's repressed dynamics is interruptive of the client's attention to present experiencing. Rather than aiding the client to conceptualize "deeply" his pre- [Page 8]sent experiencing, such "interpretations" tend to move the client's attention away from his present experiencing and instead, move his attention toward a conceptual, general level. Of course, such intellectualized interpretations can be said to have varying "depth," but it is depth in the sense of "depth of repression." For example: in the "repression" sense of "depth," oedipal conflicts would be said to lie "deeper" than difficulties one encounters with some person A. Hence, the client talking about Mrs. A's nasty behavior would be considered to be on a more superficial level than a client talking about his oedipal conflicts. If, on the other hand, we consider "depth" in the sense of "implicitly present depth" of experiencing, we can state that a client might be discussing either subject with equal "depth" or equal superficiality. He might have (and refer to) very little present experiencing, while talking with great psychological sophistication about Mrs. A or about his own oedipal conflicts. Conversely, a client may be experiencing (and be aided to experience and conceptualize) his present experiencing regarding Mrs. A, and he might be helped to refer to it and to conceptualize it very "deeply." Quite possibly his recent experiencing regarding Mrs. A is relevant to his oedipal conflicts. Thus his oedipal conflicts might change therapeutically when he deeply feels, refers to, and conceptualizes his present experiencing regarding person A.

This example illustrates the client-centered assumption that therapeutic change occurs in terms of felt present experiencing, not necessarily in terms of concepts.

Client-centered theory needs terms with which to view therapeutic change in experiencing. The client centered method of therapy–in practice–maximally aids the client to feel, refer to, and conceptualize present experiencing. The whole method is geared to give maximal room, attention, reception, and focus to what is deeply implicit in present experiencing.

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Many "interpretive" therapeutic theories also hold that therapeutic change occurs through experiencing, rather than concepts. Such theories need to answer the question: how does therapeutic change (rather than mere conceptual understanding) come about? For example, let us agree that a given interpretation is correct. How does one make it useful to the patient? What process in him uses the interpretation for therapeutic change, and how does the therapist aid this process? The mere concepts of the interpretation, nearly everyone agrees, do not in themselves overcome the defenses. If there are no defenses against the interpretation, then it is unnecessary in the first place, and if there are defenses, how are these overcome? Surely they are overcome bit by bit, in terms of the patient's experiencing (even if he grasps the concept right away). How is he helped in this gradual experiencing?

These then are some of the questions which this discussion raises.

Client-centered assumptions concerning experience

This discussion has attempted to show that counselor responses may aim at "depth" either in the sense of depth of theoretically posited repressed experience, or in the sense of implicitly present depth of felt experiencing. The difference between them lies in whether or not the counselor's response refers to the client's present experiencing. We need theoretical terms about this reference to present experiencing. With the aid of such terms we can more precisely state the issue between interpretation and client-centered response. We can make explicit the following, currently implicit, assumptions of the client-centered view:

  • (a) experiencing is vital to therapeutic change;
  • (b) the more deeply a client feels, refers to, and conceptualizes his present experiencing, the more therapeutic change is occurring;
  • (c) what the client ought to deal with is probably implicit in his present experiencing, or it will soon appear in his present experiencing, if he deeply feels and refers to what is is now implicitly present, and if he is deeply responded to; [Page 10]
  • (d) what is felt and present, but is only implicit, can be conceptualized;
  • (e) anything which brings the client's attention closer to his felt present experiencing, aids therapy, while anything which moves him away from present experiencing to a more conceptual, intellectualized level is obstructive to therapy;
  • (f) interpretations of anything which is not now implicit in the client's present experiencing are therefore obstructive to therapy.

It would clarify the issue greatly if it could be investigated in this explicit fashion. I am uncertain whether "interpretive" therapists would disagree with any or all of points a-f. Perhaps they also implicitly assume them, but have their own method of using interpretations without thereby obstructing the patient's present experiencing.

Is a good interpretation different from a good client-centered response?

Fenichel has described the analytic interpretation as follows: "Since interpretation means helping something unconscious by naming it at the moment it is striving to break through, effective interpretations can be given only at one specific point, namely, where the patient's immediate interest is momentarily centered." [4]

A "good interpretation" is said to be one for which the patient is "ready." What can be meant by "ready"? As Fenichel shows, what must be meant is that the patient is nearly able to have the experiencing to which the interpretation refers. The therapist must be able to determine when this is the case. How could he determine it other than by listening to the patient and noting when what is to be interpreted is nearly implicit in what the patient is already aware of? If this is how it is done, then good "interpretation" would differ from a client-centered

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response only in two rather unimportant ways: 1) Rather than responding to what is now implicit, as the client-centered therapist would do, the "interpretive"' therapist lets the implicit go by, making a mental note that the patient is nearly ready for an interpretation. Later, the therapist makes the interpretation.[5] 2) Rather than attributing the therapeutic change to the client's reference, conceptualization and grappling with his experiencing, the "interpretive" therapist attributes this change to the interpretation. However, he is likely to help the patient emotionally absorb the interpretation. This must mean that he spends some time responding to and conceptualizing the patient's present experiencing around the interpretation, just as the client-centered therapist does when he responds to the client's implicitly expressed experiencing.

If the above is a fair description of good interpretation, then it would be fair to say that interpretation is "good" when it most closely approximates an optimal client-centered response.


This discussion has tried to show that the issue concerning "interpretation" in therapy involves the problem of whether and how present experiencing (as opposed to concepts) functions in therapeutic change. If therapeutic change is viewed mainly as a conceptual process, then "depth" of response consists of concepts about deeply repressed dynamics, and interpretation is said to help conceptualize them. On the other hand, if therapeutic change is viewed as a process of experiencing, then "depth" of response means direct reference, feeling and conceptualization of present experiencing (of the feelings and meanings implicit in it). In that view interpretations are seen as failing to refer [Page 12] to, and conceptualize present experiencing.

We have added to the current discussion of "interpretation" in therapy a new theoretical term: "experiencing." By referring to experiencing, we have attempted to state explicitly what the client-centered response is. We have tried to show how such a response aids the client to "deep" therapeutic change. At the same time we have raised some explicit questions about "interpretations" (page 7). How do interpretations differ from mere failures to help the patient work with, "deeply" refer to, and conceptualize what is now implicit in his present experiencing?

We have stated the vital role of experiencing in therapeutic change. In terms of this role of experiencing we have shown how the client-centered response attempts to refer to and conceptualize what is implicitly felt in present experiencing. We have also asked how interpretations can possibly be helpful in doing so, unless they also are attempts to refer to and conceptualize present experiencing.

The following deals with a second issue, current discussion of which is obscured by the lack of a theoretical term that refers to experiencing. By introducing terms which refer to experiencing, a clarification of the issue will be attempted.

The focus on the present

Rogers and others [6] assert that therapeutic change [Page 13] takes place to the greatest degree when the client experiences what he deals with in the present.

Without a term referring to experiencing as something distinguishable from conceptualization, what does Rogers' emphasis on experience in the present mean? Because of the lack of precise terms, Rogers' emphasis on present experience has been widely misinterpreted [7] to mean that a client need not deal with his past experience. In such a reading of his view, Rogers' reference to the present is taken to refer to conceptual content. Rogers is misunderstood to mean that a client need deal only with the content of his present life, not with his early experience. However, Rogers means that whatever the client deals with (past or present conceptual content), it is optimally dealt with only through present experiencing. This issue is obscured as long as theory has no terms which directly refer to experiencing. Once such a term is introduced, his view can be stated clearly: Both present and past conceptual contents can be dealt with in therapy by a client with intense present experiencing, or they can be merely discussed in a conceptual manner.

Now in common sense language both clients and therapists talk of experiencing as distinct from conceptualization. Hence research was possible on this question. In a recent research, [8] counselors were asked to rate the amount of clients' "immediate experiencing" on a nine point scale, the extremes of which were respectively: "express feelings of the moment" [Page 14] and "talk about feeling past or present." Examples of client statements were given to further define the question which at this stage of theory could not be precisely stated, namely: "Regardless of what the conceptual content may be, how much expression of present experiencing do you observe? In order to further distinguish this scale from the question of past or present conceptual content, another scale was employed to measure "to what extent do the (client's) problems focus in the past? (childhood or earlier years)." As predicted, the scale measuring expression of immediate experiencing correlated highly with several success measures, while the scale of past or present content did not. Here are the two scales:

3. To what extent do the problems focus in the past? (childhood or earlier years)



7. To what extent does the client express his feelings, and to what extent does he rather talk about them? (This scale differentiates direct expression from report about one's feelings, regardless of whether the feeling is past or present.)

graph2 [Page 15]

This type of research shows the possibility of measuring (the counselor's observation of) client's experiencing as something different from conceptualizations.

We have shown that it was possible to distinguish conceptual content dealing with an individual's present life from present experiencing (regardless of past or present conceptual content). In this way we attempted to clarify the issue regarding the Rogerian therapeutic focus on the present.

It is clear that the Rogerian focus on the present means a focus on present experiencing in therapy, not on present or past conceptual content. Again we note that client-centered theory implicitly assumes that therapeutic change occurs in terms of present experiencing. This can be can be stated simply, if theoretical terms refer to present experiencing as well as to conceptualizations: Whether the conceptual content is past or present, experiencing occurs in the present in the therapy situation. Present experiencing has a vital function in therapeutic change.

The two issues we have discussed (interpretation, and focus on the present) illustrate the many issues which center around the function of experiencing in therapy. The discussions attempted to show both the vital role of experiencing in therapeutic change, and the need in theory for terms which refer to experiencing.


[1] In the previous paper (Counseling Center Discussion Paper Vol. III, #29, p. 15) "experiencing" was defined basically in terms of "direct reference."

[2] In the previous paper a great many observations of the therapeutic function of experiencing were cited. Some of these observations were from the observer's and counselor's frame of reference, others were from the client's. Among the former, we cited the difference between the patient's grasp of concepts of his conflicts (this can sometimes be achieved in a few hours) and therapeutic change (this sometimes requires years of experiencing). We also cited many examples of client's expression, (such as references to "this feeling, which I don't yet know,") which refer to experiencing. We cited occurrences in therapy, where it is important to refer directly to experiencing, even though an adequate conceptualization is already available (such as "I always knew I was afraid of being rejected, but now I really feel it all new.")

Also cited were the many metaphoric expressions in use among counselors to describe the importance of experiencing for therapeutic change. For example, counselors describe clients as "feeling something through," "facing" or "dealing" with" something, "really coming to grips with it emotionally," "feeling it out," "sinking down into the feeling." Also, counselors and clients usually distinguish between what is intellectually known and what is directly felt. We cited many examples of these two aspects occurring one without the other.

All these instances are observations of the function of experiencing in therapeutic change.

[3] The difference between the two senses of "depth" is the same as the difference between the construct "experience" and the term"experiencing." An "interpretation" aims at depth in in the client's "experience," a theoretically posited total of all that he is and is not aware of. "Experiencing" on the other hand includes much which is not explicit, but refers to what is aware although chiefly felt and implicit.

[4] Fenichel, O. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. New York: Norton, 1945, page 25.

[5] Even on this difference Fenichel aims at a more "client-centered interpretation," i.e. one which comes at the "point where the patient's immediate interest is momentarily centered."

[6] Fenichel and others similarly speak of a defensive kind of acceptance by the patient of therapist interpretations. This means the patient conceptually accepts the interpretation in order to be done with the problem and thus to avoid dealing with it in himself, i.e.. in order to avoid the experiencing of it. "Thus a certain form of resistance consists in the patient always being reasonable and refusing to have any understanding for the logic of emotions"; "He may make progress in understanding the forces working within him, sense connections, and dig up new childhood recollections–and yet there is no change in his neurosis." "Or the patient may have understood what his associations and the analyst's interpretations showed him, and yet the knowledge remains entirely separated from his real life." "Or a patient may accept everything the analyst tells him merely as a matter of courtesy; but it is just this courteous attitude which protects him from reliving to the full his instinctual conflicts...." (pp. 28f)

Both Rogers' and Fenichel's observations can be stated only by terms that refer directly to experiencing as such. Without such a term, how could one state the difference between a defensively intellectual acceptance of an interpretation and a genuine one?

[7] This refers to the interpretation of Rogers which makes his view out to be that "the past is a bucket of ashes," i.e., that the the past need not be dealt with.

[8] This project, by Gendlin, Jenney, and Shlien was part of the short term research project directed by Dr. John Shlien, at the University of Chicago Counseling Center. The project was supported by the Wieboldt Foundation. A paper concerning the rating scales, of which two scales are reproduced here, was read at the American Psychological Association convention in 1956.

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  • 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.
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