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Gendlin, E.T. & L. Olsen (1970). The use of imagery in experiential focusing. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 7(4), 221-223. From

[Page 221]


EUGENE T. GENDLIN and LINDA OLSEN, University of Chicago

A specific procedure for using imagery has developed as an innovation in experiential focusing. The focusing procedure as previously reported (Gendlin,1969) seems to us now to have ignored a special power of images.

In our new procedure, individuals who obtain images easily, are instructed to let an image form from the globally felt body sense of the problem, hang-up, or troubled way they feel. Then, when the image has formed, they are instructed as to how the image makes them feel, to the image's own peculiar felt significance. The rest of the focusing procedure is then employed as usual.

The image is thus an intervening step between the usual first and second steps of focusing.

The usual first step, as above, is for the person to let himself down into the directly felt sense of "all that", the wholistically felt sense of his problem, trouble, or how he feels now. This fresh, global sense, is easily had, it is like the "thud" with which a whole confused trouble can come home to oneself, as one first recalls it. To let oneself down into feeling it all freshly requires that one must stop talking, both out loud and to oneself, and attend to the way it all feels.

The second step of imageless focusing is to "let a specific feeling peak up from this global feel of all that." The individual is instructed to ask himself "what's the crux of it?" or "where am I really still hung?", but not to answer himself in words, rather to wait for a specific feeling to form, which is this crux. Often this occurs instantly [mdash] the global feel lasting only for a few seconds and then becoming a specific feeling. But sometimes it can be difficult to get a specific feeling to form.

At the third step, he attends to this specific feeling, waits silently for it to move, to open up, release, sharpen, an "experiential shift." He makes no words, if words come anyway he lets them go by unless they have an experiential, directly felt effect. An experiential shift occurs, sometimes without words, sometimes just as effective words arise. He deliberately holds the focus on the specific feeling, and deliberately holds the set of asking just what that feeling is. But within this focus and set, he waits to "let" the feeling move or open, or to let words come which will not be "just words," but will have a directly felt effect.

Now it is in the second of the above three steps, that we have added the image. This second step, the movement from a global to a specific crux feeling, can be difficult. One waits for a specific crux feeling to form, and one can only wait, holding the set and focus. People must sometimes bring themselves back over the first and second step, when they find that they have wandered off. "What was I doing, oh yeah, feeling 'all that' . . . and what was I waiting for, oh yeah, trying to get a specific sense of the crux of 'all that.'"

In focusing with images, the first step is the same, one must first get in touch with oneself (as it is sometimes phrased), to let it come home how one feels, or how it all (the problem, the trouble) feels. At this point letting an image form from this global diffuse feeling appears to be a powerful aid to get a specific feeling. The individual is then instructed to sense how the image makes him feel, and to focus on that specific feeling to get in touch with what it is (or to let words come from it, to say what it is) as in the usual third step of focusing.

The image, typically, becomes quite stable as the feel of it is focused on, and even refuses to change until one comes to know what the feeling it gives one is. Then, one feels not only the characteristic release, but the image then changes. Thus, the image also aids at the third step of focusing, since both the feeling and the image, refuse to change or shift until its felt meaning has opened up.

The opening up of the specific feeling usu- [Page 222] ally occurs when words arise from it, to say what it is. (Words without effect must be allowed to go by.) At times the specific feeling will open or release even before words arise, at which time there is a direct sense of "oh . . ." and release. The direct attention process itself appears at times to obtain this release. However, most usually it occurs as words arise "from the feeling."

The earlier theory (Gendlin, 1962) held that words, images, and direct attention were modes of "symbolizing," and that feeling could be symbolized in all three ways with about equal results. Thus a feeling could release and be lived on, or "carried further" either by words, or images, or by direct referring (a kind of "pointing," or calling the feeling "this").

It now appears, rather, that images and words have different powers peculiar to each. Images seem powerful in the formation of a specific feeling, but alone do not give an experiential shift. Words seem powerful in obtaining the release or experiential shift from a specific feeling.

The use of images to form a specific feeling, and then words to release it, appears to combine both powers in one procedure.

As before, it needs to be emphasized that both image, and words, must be allowed to come of themselves. One must "let" them form, rather than making them deliberately. The deliberate part of the procedure is to maintain the set and focus. But within that deliberately held set and focus, one must "let" the image, "let" the words, and "let the opening up" come.

Focusing has also been called "getting in touch with oneself," or "letting it speak to me, rather than me to it," or "listening," or "sensing into it." It is characteristic of the early stage of our field that we use such a variety of poetic terms. The crucial characteristic of focusing is after all quite simple, and simply definable: it is to keep quiet, stop making words, let words go by, and wait, with one's attention on the specific concrete feel of the trouble. But we find such waiting difficult to maintain. There is a strong tendency in most people to make words, or to be fascinated with images, and they find it hard to attend directly to a bodily felt sense.

Looking at other imaging procedures, we find that they may lack the step of experiential shift, movement, or release. Although Weitzman (1967) found that desensitization subjects report shifts and movements similar to those of focusing subjects, the official conception in desensitization is still "extinction" rather than therapeutic movement. The objective is to wear the specific feeling out, rather than engender the release, opening up and living further, which focusing brings. (But if the subjects have the same experience in either method, perhaps the difference is only terminological, and "extinction" or "desensitization" really names the same process as "living on," or "carrying further." It may be that we call it this because the theory of experiencing defines a psychological trouble as a "hang-up" or stoppage, and resolution as a living on past the stoppage, whereas desensitization theory defines a trouble as an anxiety, and a resolution as the extinction of the anxiety.)

More striking is the difference between our procedure and those methods in which imagery, so to speak, marches on, without sharp felt releases. Images fascinate, and they do involve important bodily processes, but if these processes are not worked with directly, as felt, the effect seems poor. In our procedure the image refuses to budge until the feel of it opens. Whereas, before focusing on the feeling, the images moved on and on, once a concrete feeling given by an image is focused on, image and feeling both stubbornly remain until a moment of experiential shift occurs to move them both. The procedure seems much deeper and more bodily concrete, and there is no doubt at least as far as the individual is concerned, that when such a shift has occurred, something basic has happened.

We have not yet used this procedure with individuals who do not elect imagery as their own preferred way. The focusing procedure can be employed in the context of any method. We have here added imaging to the focusing procedure, as an intervening step where one wishes to move from the feeling of the whole problem to a specific feeling of the crux. But therapists of other methods, and especially those which use imagery, can add the focusing steps into their method, where deepening is desired. There are many ways to ob- [Page 223] tain an image, but focusing on the feel it gives seems the best way to move from images.

The remainder of this paper will cite more specific steps and examples. Different individuals give different detailed descriptions.

"I must first be in touch with what I'm feeling . . . then shapes, forms, begin to emerge . . . at first foggy, diffuse . . . can't quite make it out . . . then gradually it begins to form." (Here the person thinks of imagery as always being there, flowing on, but not sharply visible. To get sharply visible forms, he must first be in touch with himself, to let himself feel how it all feels, what's wrong now, "to let himself down into it." Then the images become visible.)

"When I first started this. . . . I would make a quick guess on the basis of what it looked like, then check that out with my feelings and find that it neither felt right, nor did it make the image change." (Instead of such guessing, focusing lets the feelings speak more or less directly.)

There is also another need to be able to stop images, by focusing on the feel one image gives. Images sometimes run on in a frightening way: "Sometimes the images get strong enough to compete with outside perception. This really scares me. I am not sure I can attend to the images while still attending to things in objective reality." (Stopping an image, stabilizing it by focusing on the experience and the feeling it gives, helps with this problem also.)

People can often get images quickly if they imagine themselves in a familiar room where they often spend time, letting an image of themselves in that room form. The posture, motions, and condition in which they see themselves is often so striking that they move immediately into the significant feeling the image gives them. Sometimes the image seems as if it is the feeling, so that it could be called a "feeling-picture." Right away it is clear that it is an objectified feeling process which pushes for explication; that is, the "feeling-picture" is telling him something about what he is up against. At other times, there is no feeling obviously associated with the image, and one has to go down into the body sense that is there just then.

The therapist may also help stay with the image's "feeling message," so that it isn't missed. "I unzipped the monster's front and found that it was only a stuffed dummy. I was convulsed with laughter that it was only a stuffed dummy, but I felt like crying too. By myself I would have missed the feeling message of the image, which was something like being duped by having to fight this dummy, and also feeling abandoned because it was only a dummy. 'F' knew I was into parent things, and so we tried to relate that to my mother, and a lot of things about my mother came out which ran very deep, and later when I got a letter from my mother I felt a whole new way of responding to her . . . "

The therapist can also aid in another way. "Imaging helps you avoid issues. . . . Sometimes it feels like I'm thrown into my own head because what I'm dealing with right now is too hard. I've been tempted to do imagery to find out what's going on in me, but it later comes out that I was avoiding some kind of confrontation with the person with me. But this can lead to getting the interpersonal issue clear if the therapist can pick it up."

"Letting an image come, then focusing on what I'm feeling . . . snowballs, I'm right away impelled to get into my feelings, why that thing is hard for me, what my issues are in that, and it helps therapy. If things then get stuck again anywhere, then I could return to the image world to get a new clue."

In a theoretical way we could formulate the power of an image as the power to form a specific felt referent, a specific feeling which can then be focused on. In the theory of experiencing (Gendlin, 1964) a difficulty means that living is held up in some respect. To feel that respect clearly would already be a step of moving on, therefore difficulties are not felt in clear feelings. Focusing is therapeutic because concrete living formation of "a feeling" of the hang-up is a living on, where before there was only diffuse tension. Letting an image form appears to be, at least for some people, a helpful step in the formation of a distinct feeling. The image realm appears to permit the formation of a next bit of living or structuring, in the image field, when as yet no other step forward is possible. The image is then used to form a specific feeling, which could not be formed before the process of imaging occurred.

To use this power therapeutically, however, it is essential that the individual move his attention from the image to the way it makes him feel, to the felt meaning or bodily lived significance of it, and that the individual spend the silent seconds needed to let that now specific feeling move, be lived further, so that an experiential shift may occur (with or without effective words).


Gendlin, E.T.Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, New York: Free Press: 1962.

Gendlin, E.T. "A Theory of Personality Change," In Personality Change, Worchel, P. and Byrne, D. (Eds.), New York: John Wiley: 1964.

Gendlin, E.T. "Focusing," Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, VI, #1, 1969.

Weitzman, B. "Behavior Therapy and Psychotherapy," Psych. Review, 1967.

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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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