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Gendlin, E.T. (1977). Pretend... What feeling comes and says 'no'? In T. Brouillette & E. Kenney (Eds.), Interchanges: A newsletter of the Changes network. From http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/docs/gol_2120.html

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Pretend. . . What Feeling Comes and Says "NO"?

Gene Gendlin

One interesting entry into focusing goes like this:

The person, for example, says:

"Ever since my relationship with D. broke up I've put myself into this dark space and I'm not moving into anything."

Trying to help focusing happen, I say:

"Well . . . pretend now that you're going to go ahead, fresh and new, to lots of new things. What comes there, to say NO to that?"

Or, the person says:

"I can't get my breath down all the way so I can stay there, peacefully, a little, at the bottom, like I used to."

I say:

"What do you feel down there?"

"Nothing. Just no feelings except this physical pain comes."

"OK . . ." I say, "Pretend like you're going to rest down there. It'll be nice. And then just, real slowly, see if you can catch what pushes you out of there."

". . . There's a tension there . . ." she says after a while.

Or,

"I can't go to these coffee hours and talk to someone, so I go and then I just sit there as long as I can stand and nothing happens. I don't know why it must be that I want someone to come to me."

"Well . . ." I say, "Imagine you're there and there's someone. Imagine you're going to get up and walk over there. What heavy feeling do you get, there, that would stop you?"

". . . (silences) . . . Oh . . . they'll say, 'Come home with me.' And I will, but then it won't work."

These examples are easy because the person each time says [Page 28] what ought to be the case. Therefore one can ask: "Pretend it is that way, what feeling comes to prevent it?"

This seems to me to be a regular method one can use, with others, and with oneself.

But, there are many times when it isn't at all clear what ought to be the case. Or, the person hasn't even asked that.

"Ever since I'm not living with S. I feel better, and I like being my own person. But I'll have to make up my mind pretty soon about going back to him, or being with R. And I don't feel interested in anybody else."

I said:

"Is it all right to ask what's in the way of exploring new people?"

"That's not a part of the picture at all."

"Well, pretend you're going to check out new men, what's there that says NO?"

"I can't get up any interest in that at all."

"Sure . . . but pretend. Just for an experiment, see, if you pretended, what would come."

"I'd get into trouble . . . I couldn't say 'no' without hurting somebody's feelings. I'd have to go to bed with everybody and with some people that would get me into a really dangerous situation."

This example seems important because we don't know at all whether it would be right, or not, for her to explore new relationships. Without knowing that at all, it still seems right, in a general way, for that freedom to be there, and it isn't. So it seems worth while to see what's in the way of that possibility.

I am trying to say that this method, "pretend . . . then see what says NO," is a method which doesn't really assume that we know what ought to be, what's right, what's healthy, etc. In a [Page 29] general way it seems to, but actually it all depends on what comes or doesn't come, in answer to that kind of question.

In the example she runs right into an old and important issue that matters to her personal growth, quite regardless of whether she decides that she wants to try new people or not. So it turned out to be valuable to ask that question.

But the question came from my own sense, in general, of what's right or good or free or healthy. I can have values like that in play without at all deciding that they are right for this person and in this regard. Still, those general values help me use the method, just only because the general value produces a question one can then ask in that way: "Pretend. . . What comes up then, to say NO?"

In all of the examples, focusing then proceeded. The person focused on what came up as a feeling, directly, in answer to the "pretend."

I am assuming that the reader knows about focusing, once a feeling is there. This short memo is addressed to the question of how one can get focusing started. The "pretend" method is one more way to get into focusing, when other ways haven't worked, or didn't feel natural to use.

Now a theoretical question. It seems to me that when I focus I always have some sense with me, perhaps vague, that things ought to be all OK, and why aren't they?

If I say, "This bothers me . . ." and I focus to see why, what's in the "bother" feeling, I have with me some assumption that it could be all all right, that it ought to be all right, and why isn't it? What's in the way?

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Of course, I don't know exactly whether the trouble is that it bothers me and it shouldn't, or perhaps it really ought to bother me and the trouble is that I haven't found some action that's needed, or perhaps rather the trouble is that two or three steps into it, I'll see something completely different.

So my sense of "It ought to be such and so way, why isn't it, what's in the way of its being OK?" . . . my sense of this isn't at all definite. Even when I think I know how it ought to be, I'm ready to discover that something is quite different than I thought.

And yet, something about this general set works for me most of the time.

I don't really ask a bad feeling what it is, just neutrally like that. I ask it what's wrong in the spirit of "It could be OK, why isn't it?" But by "It could be OK" I mean something general, open-ended. I don't mean just this and this shouldn't bother me, it should be OK with me. I don't know that. I only know that some way or other, in some as yet indefinite way, it should all work out. What's in the way of that?

Many people don't seem to have a set like that, and I am not sure how to communicate it. It's a role of values or health or rightness or growth, but without a specific commitment to a specific way it ought to be, or even to just one set of general values.

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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 (http://www.focusing.org) 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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