In the 1950s, at Carl Rogers’ counseling center at the University of Chicago, researchers were trying to figure out why some people did very well in therapy, and others less well. They listened to thousands of hours of recorded counseling sessions trying to find the factors that might be making a difference. They tested and discarded many, many hypotheses in their search.
Gene Gendlin and others began to notice that certain clients were readily able to make contact with their inward, bodily-felt experience, while others were not. Those clients who, during therapy, would slow down, grow quiet, perhaps close their eyes, and really try to hone in on how their experience feels to them — and then stay with that experience — tended to do much better. These were clients who could and did gradually unfold and make explicit their emotionally-tinged, meaning-laden, physically felt experience in relation to whatever it was they were talking about.
Gendlin eventually named this activity “focusing,” and he called the thing being focused on the “felt-sense.” Gendlin made clear that he did not “invent” the felt sense or focusing, but simply gave names to observed human experience and activity.
The felt sense is often ignored or missed because it’s usually unclear or “murky” when we first become aware of it. Gendlin observed that by paying attention to the felt sense in a welcoming, gentle, respectful and sustained way (i.e., with the “focusing attitude”), we can experience a “felt shift”: a sense of relief, and often a sense of direction. In this way, we “carry forward” our experience, rather than staying stuck.
Given the therapeutic advantage of knowing how to focus, it seemed to the research team that it would be useful to be able to teach non-focusers to engage with themselves in this way. Formal Focusing, as developed by Gendlin, is a six-step, structured procedure for assisting people to locate and make use of their felt sense.
Once you learn focusing, it’s something you can do alone or with a partner, as part of therapy or totally separate from therapy. Many people experience it as a great “discovery” that is terrifically life-enhancing.
Along the way, Gendlin also created an approach to therapy he called “Focusing-Oriented Therapy.” This makes use of what we know about focusing, but does not involve the formal teaching of the six steps. While the client will learn focusing in bits and pieces during the course of a therapy, the therapist makes use of his or her own felt-sense during all sessions.
If you’re interested to learn more about focusing, there’s no better resource than Focusing.org, the website of the The Focusing Institute.