Experiential Theory: Psychotherapy’s Well-Kept Secret

Silhouette of woman sitting at sunset“This is a healing. I haven’t allowed myself to heal. I didn’t understand it. I mean I heard what people said when they said this, but I didn’t understand it – until now.”
– Independent filmmaker

At significant moments in sessions, we pay attention to the nuances of our client’s experiential process as it is conveyed through their verbal and nonverbal communication; and we rely on our own experiential process for our vital clinical intuition. We listen through these levels to grasp what our client is experiencing. It is inconceivable to consider the practice of psychotherapy without paying careful attention to experiential process.

But what is meant by experiential process? Are there different levels of experiential process? What does it mean when we say that someone is “too much in their head” or, for that matter, too much in their feelings? What makes one type of psychotherapy really experiential and another less so? Does experiential process have its own natural properties? If such properties exist, how can we know them? These are philosophical and theoretical questions of great value to clinicians.

This article is the first of a series introducing you to Eugene Gendlin’s philosophy of experiencing, its theoretical principles, and its clinical applications. As a philosopher and phenomenologist, Gendlin makes a rare contribution to our work because he addresses ontological questions about the nature of experiencing itself. While a growing number of clinicians, from different schools of psychotherapy, know the clinical value of his experiential focusing method, the philosophy itself is less well known. Ahead of its time, it can now be seen as providing an intellectual holding environment for some of the latest developments in intersubjectivity theory, self-psychology, trauma work, and what is now called the philosophy of the implicit.

My plan in this introduction is to give a brief background to Gendlin’s thought and then to show you how his conceptualization of the natural “laws” of experiential process have direct application to our work with clients.

Gendlin is a philosopher who collaborated with Carl Rogers when they met in 1952 at the University of Chicago. Gendlin’s first major work, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (1962), introduced the experiential dimension, and he went on to say that, based on his research (see below, re: The Experiencing Scale), client-centered therapy was not enough. Rogers acknowledged this, citing Gendlin’s contributions to his own article called “On a process conception of psychotherapy” (Rogers, 1958, p. 142). Gendlin went beyond the person-centered approach to describe his view of experiencing in what now is called the implicit dimension of meaning and “implicit knowing.”

Gendlin and his collaborators discovered that clients who showed no progress in therapy didn’t seem to have a capacity to “refer inward” in a particular way. Gendlin designed a way to capture and teach this natural process to anyone interested in working with their inner experiencing.  In order to test the validity of the focusing method, Gendlin and Hendricks developed The Experiencing Scale, a statistically reliable method of measuring levels of experiencing. In the last 20 years, experiential focusing has been cited as an excellent example of a microunit of naturally occurring human change process (Patterns of Change), that can be worked with across most approaches to psychotherapy.

Consider this: You have within you—“beneath” your everyday practical use of language—another dimension, an inner language, that is an imagistic dialogue between you and your immediate experiencing. It is you speaking to yourself (and listening to yourself) in your own code. Gendlin calls it the “zigzag” between the everyday use of language and the way we may actually hold our experiencing in a “bodily felt” way.

We start the process when some situation in our lives—something we “find ourselves in”—feels stuck or painful. The problem beckons to us in a bodily way. We want to move into the place where meanings can reconstellate. To touch into this realm, we sit quietly, eyes lowered, with attention inside. We let form how exactly the situation touches us, how it is meaningful to us, but in an implicit way, not in words. You might say that It finds a way to let itself develop explicitly.

By staying still yet alert, our inner sensing seems to order itself; bodily felt senses (to be defined in the next article) carry within them a palpable sense of significance. As we let them come to us (we cannot in fact go after them!) they prioritize themselves. In a way, they tell us what we need to be attending to. As we hold them in our awareness, we let our words speak directly from our immediate sense of them. And, as this happens, something starts to happen, however subtle. Something starts to dawn on us. Our usual way of holding a situation starts to open—but it’s not only the situation. It is the way we “hold” the situation. We notice a palpable change. This was a good moment in a good therapy session.

If the above description seems familiar to you, that is probably because you have access to your own creative process; you refer to it without needing to know how it might work. The process has its own palpable efficacy. If you are taken by the process, Gendlin’s philosophy in action, you might over time find yourself “living the practice.”

Gendlin’s worldview has helped me to sit with the pauses, stuck places, and moments of uncertainty that are intrinsic to life, including to my life’s work as a psychotherapist. His view of the human universe lends a beauty to the process of meaning making, helping our clients and ourselves stay alive to the creative process that makes good therapy.

This first attempt to describe the microprocess of experiencing will be refined in further articles. In my next article, I will use clinical examples to demonstrate Gendlin’s principles so that you can see them in action.

1. Depestle, F. (2007). The Primary bibliography of Eugene T. Gendlin.  Retrieved March 3, 2012, from http://www.focusing.org/gendlin/gol_primary_bibliography.htm
2. Gendlin, E. T. (1962).  Experiencing and the creation of meaning:  A philosophical and psychological approach to the subjective. New York: Free Press of Glencoe. Second Edition, Evanston IL: Northwestern University, 1997.
3. Rice, L. N., & Greenberg, L. S. (1984). Patterns of change, intensive analysis of psychotherapy process. New York: Guilford Press, 213-248.
4. Rogers, C. R. (1958). A process conception of psychotherapy. The American Psychologist, 13, 142-149. Also in: Rogers, C. R. (1961). On  Becoming a person: A psychotherapist’s view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 125-159.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joan Lavender, Psy. D., Clinical Psychologist, Focusing Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Pouria Montazeri

    March 13th, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    Ahh…. Thank you so much for this. Beautiful article. I’m actually reading “Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy: A Manual of the Experiential Method” right now.

    Love this:

    “Consider this: You have within you—“beneath” your everyday practical use of language—another dimension, an inner language, that is an imagistic dialogue between you and your immediate experiencing. It is you speaking to yourself (and listening to yourself) in your own code. Gendlin calls it the “zigzag” between the everyday use of language and the way we may actually hold our experiencing in a “bodily felt” way.”

    Thank you again!

  • lily

    March 13th, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    huh i didn’t get that at all

  • Holly

    March 13th, 2012 at 5:32 PM

    This could be such an integral part of any therapy program; however do you ever have this fear that too few people are too closed off to really get in touch with the things that they are feeling on a deeper level? There is this fear that holds them back from truly being to know themselves and all that is.

  • earl

    March 14th, 2012 at 10:14 AM

    while knowing yourself so deeply and being aware of things at such levels is a good thing,some people do not or maybe they just cannot do that.I cannot do that tbh.its more like what I see is what I feel,maybe I need to develop a betterconnection with myself?

  • LEN

    March 14th, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    When we allow ouselves to experience things, to listen to that coded conversation we have going on with ourselves and then determine our true inner feelings about that, it is at that moment when you can take a giant spiritual and personal step forward.

  • Joan Lavender

    May 3rd, 2012 at 12:26 PM

    Please accept my apology for responding so late:

    Len: I agree with you, this work appeals to many people who have a deep interest in the spiritual realm and feel that you can acknowledge emotional pain without falling into it. There is a transcendant quality to Experiential Focusing.

    Earl: This work is a very good way of gently becoming more in touch with your “inner process”. This in turn will help you to make a better connection to others, and to hear if they are in touch or out of touch with themselves. People look and sound a very particular way (often look beautiful) when they are speaking from felt sensing.

    Holly: Yes, most of us are afraid to listen to ourselves at this deeper level. However, this is actually a very gentle process that will not take you deeper than you are ready to go. That’s part of the reason I love it.

    Pouria: Your have received my deeper point! You might want to take a workshop after you do your reading about Focusing. It is a life’s study.

    Lily: Thanks for telling the truth here! Writing about focusing is very challenging because it is hard to put it into words. If you could tell me where you got confused, I could help clarify. Please don’t give up, this is precious work and you should get the help you need to have it make sense for you.

  • joan lavender

    July 8th, 2013 at 8:36 AM

    dear bloggers, I cannot thank you enough for such thoughtful comments. I will continue to write about Gendlins Philosphy! If you learn focusing as a method, you will start living its philosophy yet I want to at least try to explain it to the widest audience possible. I am rereading Les Todres Embodied Inquiry and creating a dvd with Lynn Preston, who works closely with Gene Gendlin and is the founder of the NYC based Experiential Psychotherapy Project – a focusing oriented relational approach. We teach, write, supervise and present our integration of Gendlin and cutting edge relational psychoanalysis. I am trying to find a way to explain why/how Gendlins view is SO crucial for all psychotherapy. Perhaps you can tell us more about what it means to you, send your questions, discoveries too. Does my 5th piece come through at all for you? It should appear on the Goodtherapy website very soon. Fondly, Joan Lavender

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