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Gendlin, E.T. (1957). A process concept of relationship. Counseling Center Discussion Papers, 3(2). Chicago: University of Chicago Library. From

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A Process Concept of Relationship

Gene Gendlin [*]


Most present concepts about human behavior, self, awareness, etc. refer to the individual. "Relationship" is therefore something mysterious. Either it is a vague third, floating between two individuals, or it can't be considered except as perceptions by individuals of each other.

Most present concepts about human behavior are built on models of things. They view the self as a "structure," feelings as items of information that are "seen" or "hidden."

In the present paper "self" and "feeling" will be viewed with concepts on a process model. The paper will attempt to show that questions about "relationship" can be answered with more adequacy to the experienced or observed facts, if such a process model is used to conceptualize "self" and "feeling."

The conceptual model:

As the conceptual model, let us take a flow. The specific characteristic of a flow—which we will apply below to human behavior—is as follows: all along its line a flow depends on whether or not the further end of it allows the flow. If the flow may not pass at its further end, then there is no flow at all, not anywhere all the way up the line.

The concept of an electric current illustrates what we have said. If at any point in an electric line the current is blocked, it flows nowhere in that whole line.

A pipe line is another example of such a "flow" concept. If Syrians near the ocean block the oil pipe line from Iraq, then it does not flow even in Iraq.

It follows that a "flow" concept encourages an analysis of the conditions of flow in the whole system, not only in one part. For example, it is quite clear that studies of an electric lamp as such will not reveal when it lights and when not.

[*] (as usual these ideas are as much Fred Zimring's, as mine.)

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The self as process:

If we can conceptualize the self as process, we may then ask: what are the conditions all along the line of this process, which make movement of the process possible in the self? Relationship will then be seen as part of this "line" along which the process moves.

The self can be considered to be process for several reasons and in several ways:

A person includes a body and physiological processes. So-called mental and emotional processes are in some way a part of a living organism. "Living," here, denotes changing, acting, processing. An organism, furthermore, lives in an environment, in inter-action with it. Hence the physiological, emotional and mental processes are in inter-action with, or toward, the environment. Feelings can be considered as tendencies, or precursors, or prediction of action. Also, they are themselves some kind of processes of both physiological and experienced dimensions. They are experiencing, ongoing changing.

In short, we may consider the person (including the self and feelings) as a process in inter-action with an environment.

What will this concept help explain?

Changing, due to deep feeling of what is: (an application of process concept of self).

The self as process is always particular. It is always this process going on in inter-action with this environment, these feelings tending to these actions, etc.

In therapy we deal with the self-in-process. That is one reason why we are not concerned with diagnostic concepts during the hour. Such concepts are about the person in general. Instead, we ask: "What is he feeling now, here, with me?" To try to grasp and respond to what is now happening, ongoing, processing, i.e. changing.

A thing or structure is either here or there in space, but it continues to be the same through time.

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A process, on the other hand, is not the same at different points in time. It is a changing and—if considered at different time points—it has already changed. Only as a changing can it be considered through time. However, it does occur at once at many points in space (like an electric current).

It follows logically from the definition of a process that it is a changing and that, at different time points differences will be found in it. It follows logically, for instance, that if the self is a process, then it is a changing. This conclusion does not, however, follow ONLY logically:

We can OBSERVE that the change in self structure is a result of experiencing or feeling or exploring or relating. The self structure (considered as a thing that is the same through time, e.g., "self after therapy") is observed to have changed in a process of experiencing or feeling.

We observe that feeling something "through" (or "deeply" or "really") makes the self different thereafter. Yet what was felt in such a moment is usually something old and unchanged. It was not felt to be different. It was felt as it is and has been for years. Why does such deep feeling change the self, even while no change in the content of what is felt is noticeable?

If the self is considered only as a structure, it is mysterious why it changes through experiencing something old and unchanged, but we do observe it to do so.

If the self is considered also as a feeling process (or an experiencing process), it follows logically that it is a changing. The changing that we observe as a result of experiencing can be logically conceptualized by thinking of the self as a process of feeling, experiencing, inter-acting. An experiencing is a changing, and a feeling and an interacting are also changings.

We have shown, then, that the concept of the self as an experiencing and feeling process logically conceptualizes the fact that change occurs with deep feeling...even while the content of the feeling appears old and unchanged.

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How do therapeutic conditions bring denied feeling to awareness?
(another application of the process concept of self):

Due to Freudian concepts of unconscious and repression, it has become customary to consider feelings as something in people. They are in people whether or not the people act on them or even know of them.

This way of thinking encourages one to consider feelings as entities, or things. When these feelings come to awareness, they are considered to be the same as they were when they were denied, except now the person knows about them.

Let us consider feeling as a process. If we do that, then denied feelings are not objects lying either in the shadow of repression or in the light of consciousness. Instead, we would consider them as being "in-process" or as being stopped, dammed up, not being feeling at all but merely inhibited tendency to feel.

If the self is conceived of as a structure, then a denied feeling (thing lying in the dark) comes to awareness and then becomes "integrated into the self structure."

If the self is conceived of as a process, a feeling is of this process or it is not in process at all. If the feeling isn't in-process then it isn't feeling. It might be a pressure, a tension, a static potential, analogous to an electric potential in a broken circuit.

Now, if there is a self at all, some process or changing is always going on. Let us call such feelings as are of this process "in-process feelings." Feelings which are not of it, let us call "potential feelings," analogous to potential energy. Such potential feelings don't change. We have them in the same way for years, just like a battery keeps its static electricity.

Now, our question: what conditions make "in-process feelings" possible, and what conditions hold feelings potential?

One answer, which our concept logically implies, is: in-process feelings will be possible, if the further end of the process allows the flow to move. [Page 26] What is the "further end" of a feeling process?

Feelings are action tendencies. They are some of the organism's inter-action with environment. Hence they are precursors, startings, endeavors at action. So considered, action is the "further end" of a feeling process. If action is completely blocked, feelings will become merely potential. If it becomes possible, feelings will become in-process.

Actions, however, are of many sorts: they include speech, gestures, and other symbolic acts, as well as ordinary action.

It logically follows that whenever any of these sorts of action is possible, feelings tending toward it will become "in-process." The flow at the upper end of the line can move when the "further end" of it allows movement.

We are conceptualizing a denied feeling as merely a potential pressure. On the other hand, a feeling in-process is part of the aware self. Are there then any observations which would make this a useful way of conceptualizing the coming to awareness of denied feeling?

We do observe that the opportunity for expressive action brings about the emergence of feelings into awareness, or, as we would say, allows feelings to be "in-process." We also speak of therapy as allowing a client to feel his feelings through. We observe at such times that, while he has felt anxiety, tension, fear, self-depreciation, he has not felt "through." We mean he hasn't felt that feeling "through," which is for him represented by all these feelings about it. Once he does feel it through, it is never quite the same again.

These observations follow logically from our process concept of feeling. It follows logically from that concept that—as also observed—the opportunity for expressive action allows feelings to be in flow and in change, and aware. ("in process").

More observations can be cited to show that feelings emerge to awareness in the act of symbolization and expression. Clients find that describing exactly what they feel helps them move on to more hidden feelings. Also, it enlivens the [Page 27] feeling. Saying it just right and hearing it reflected just right often makes the feeling more immediate and stronger. Such increased intensity of it often makes the feeling "open up" so that more of it can be symbolized just right and become more intense and further "open up."

Clients find that the therapy hour rarely goes as planned. Even the first thing he planned to say is often already surprisingly different in the very first act of saying it.

Contrarily, an inaccurate symbolization stops the feeling. Reasons that make it impossible to express to the therapist often stop feelings.

These observations can be conceptualized most easily, if feeling and expressive action are seen to be ONE process. Although expressive action appears to be "outside" and feelings "inside," yet feeling can not really move without expressive action. This puzzle is quite resolved if our concept represents a flow which occurs in both places, or not at all.

Expressive action is movement at one space point of the process and permits simultaneous movement at the other space points of the process.

Expression is therefore so vital to the client. By expressing he can not only "see" his feelings—he can actively feel them. His feelings can move. Instead of being "potential" and unaware, they can become "in-process."

What may be considered to be "expressive action"?

Action is always expressive in a sense. It may always be considered as the "further end" of an organismic process toward something with which the organism is inter-acting. Symbolic actions make it unnecessary for the object to be physically present. Hence even mere thinking is to some extent such an organic inter-action. Feelings are always organic inter-actions with, or toward, some perceived reality. When we symbolize feelings, we note that we symbolize the kind of "tending toward," that it is. For example, if we say "I am angry..." (at something or somebody), we neither say just which muscles feel tense, nor what we are angry at, nor just what [Page 28] the feel quality is. We concentrate on the feel, rather, in order to symbolize just what kind of "tending toward" it is. When we grasp that, it defines both the feeling and the object. Being angry is such a "tending toward."

Let us now try, on the basis of what has been said, to define "expressive action." It is an inter-action with, or toward, some perceived reality. A feeling is expressed when some action occurs, toward which that feeling tended. The action occurs in or toward the reality. Symbolizing alone, then, is not yet expressive action. The object is symbolically present but such difference as can be made in it is quite a pale shadow. To be "expressive action" some difference in reality must be noticeable due to the action. Feelings can become "in-process" only toward a reality and are expressed only as action makes a perceived difference in that reality.

"Expressive action," then, can be defined as a feeling in-process, i.e., a feeling moving into the action, thus making a difference in the perceived reality with which the organism is now inter-acting.

Let us apply all that has been said to the question of relationship:

Why is the relationship so crucial, even when not focused on by the client?

What difference does it make to the self (an experiencing process), if another person is present? One answer is that an immense amount of feelings find a reality, toward which they may be in a process of organic inter-action. This reality is the other person.

Very many feelings are such, that they may be felt only "toward" someone. Love, hate, etc. always imply a toward someone. The other person provides a toward—a "further end" to a feeling process. Feeling processes can come into motion because differences made in the other person can express them. Even symbolic expression, when making a difference in reality (the other person) becomes real expressive action. This symbolic—but real—expressive action is crucial to everyone's therapy. Feelings directed at the therapist as such, are more rare.

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All this follows logically from the concept of ONE process of feeling, expressive action, perceived difference.

Observations of this are equally easy to cite: One may express oneself in a diminished sense even to oneself. However, depth of feeling and "feeling through" (rather than anxiety and fear and tension about...) seem to occur only when one is expressing oneself toward someone real. (Compare, for example, how much more some people can express to God, than they can simply by thinking about feelings alone.) Expression TO someone seems quite easily distinguishable from being alone with feeling. Even when the therapist is not there, the client who knows that he sees a therapist, or will soon see one, finds that already his feelings are more vivid and go further, only because he is thinking of expressing himself to the therapist.

The efficacy of a relationship should therefore not be a separate and mysterious question. If we conceive of the self and feeling as process, it becomes immediately evident that such process depends on movement also in the "toward," to which it moves and with which it inter-acts.

Many clients don't mention the relationship frequently. In fact, there is a slightly negative correlation between success in therapy and verbal focus on the relationship. Only a small percentage of clients "work out" their problems by seeing them as applying to the therapist. On the other hand we are all convinced that the relationship is vital to therapy. This contradiction is completely resolved, if one conceives of the relationship as providing the reality in which expression—and therefore feelings in-process—can make a difference, and flow toward. The client need never consider the relationship itself, and still become fundamentally changing in it.

Therapy, then, goes on "in the client," but what occurs in the client moves "toward" the person to whom the client expresses.

Compare this analysis with the concept of a separate individual. Conceiving the individual as separate leads one to consider what happens "in him" quite apart from the "toward which" it happens. Such a view ignores the significance of human [Page 30] experience. It conceives of feelings and experience as if they were about nothing, and toward nothing—as if one could feel anything anytime, regardless of world, objects, people, now present. But this isn't so. Real feelings are organic and in inter-actions toward something real. The client who doesn't see "what good simply describing his feelings will do," is quite right. It won't do much good; not nearly as much good as expressing toward someone will do—and that happens when he senses that his expression is action making differences in reality.

By "relationship," then, is meant the difference it makes in each person right now, in the moment, to have this other person present. I suggest that at least part of this difference is, for the client, that there is someone toward whom feeling and expressive action may flow. It is expressive action because it makes a difference in the counselor.

The process we described would seem to be the way in which a condition of therapy (in this case genuineness of the relationship) acts on the client's feeling and experiencing and changing. It provides the one process which is feeling, expressing, and sensing real difference made by expressive action with the last mentioned movement, thus making movement possible for the whole process.

What kind of response is expressive for the other person?

In asking this question, we have an opportunity to look at another condition of therapy in terms of our process model. Not any and all responses—not any and all differences made, are expressive and let feelings be "in-process." Most of the differences we make in the world are not those that would allow our feeling processes to move. Firstly, actual ordinary actions expressing most "potential" feelings are inappropriate or dangerous in the present. That leaves symbolic acts. Even with these we do not usually, in social situations, make the difference that the feeling tends toward. Hence we feel anxiety, pressure, tension, fear—a lot of feelings that are organically appropriate and "in-process," rather than those feelings which we endeavored to express. People don't usually allow us a response for those. [Page 31] If we are angry, they get angry at us, or change the subject, or try to console us. They rob us of the difference our feeling would make and give us instead a difference which some other feeling would make, or their feeling. Every difference we perceive that we made, implies us in a certain way... as tending toward reality a certain way. Their responses usually imply us as tending quite differently from how we did tend. And so our tending remains a tending, a potential feeling but no more. Instead, we are compelled to inter-act organically in the moment in other ways with other feelings.

The therapeutic response makes feelings and expressive endeavors into feelings-in-process and into expression, because a therapeutic response is empathetic, i.e. it is the difference our feeling makes in reality. It is the completion in action and the result of the action of our feeling, thus become in-process.

In summary:

There is one process of which different aspects are: self, feeling, symbolizing, expressive action, difference in perceived reality. The process is in motion through all these aspects of it, or in none of them. Although the process appears to move from left to right or from "inner" to "outer," it moves simultaneously or not at all. There is no "expressive action" without a perceived difference, which implies it. There is no feeling in-process without expressive action. There would be no self if there were, at any given moment, no feelings in-process at all.

The dependency of motion (in the whole process) on difference in perceived reality (as its "further end" toward which it tends), explains the crucial therapeutic role of relationship. It is undetermined whether the process comes into motion, until the perceived difference ... the response, occurs, and implies the expressive act and the feeling tending toward it.

An expression that did not end in a perceived difference in reality, such that it implies the expression—that isn't an expressive action at all, it is an expressive endeavor only.

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A feeling that does not move into expressive action is not a feeling at all: it is a potential feeling, experienced as tension, anxiety, pressure, self-depreciation, fear, but not experienced in itself.

A self which, as an experiencing process, does not include a given feeling, (the feeling is "potential" then), does not include that feeling in the "self," even as generalized structure.

Although the process appears as a chain from the inside out, there is motion of the process at any stage only if there is motion in all the stages, simultaneously.

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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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