Focusing, an approach to therapeutic treatment in which the therapist works to help the individual in treatment gain awareness into their bodily felt sense, is meant to help people seeking treatment learn to direct their attention toward things they experience that are difficult to describe in a concrete way.
Felt sense, the sensations in a person's body that provides information about situations, thoughts, and feelings, is a key aspect of focusing therapy, as the goal of the approach is for individuals to learn to "stay" with this felt sense and listen to its messages.
Eugene Gendlin, who spent time working with Carl Rogers, developed focusing out of what began as a study into why some individuals did not benefit from therapy. Gendlin and some of his students came to be able to predict whether or not an individual would succeed in therapy. He eventually realized the individuals who were able to "succeed" in therapy were those who paused and revisited unclear, vague, or difficult aspects of their experiences and history. When people in treatment spent time in therapy focusing on these things they could not at first put into words, they often eventually were able to achieve clarity on the issue and make changes as a result.
Gendlin took the skills he had observed people in therapy demonstrating and deconstructed these skills into a step-based process, which is outlined thoroughly in his 1981 book, Focusing.
In 1986, The Focusing Institute opened in New York. Today, the Institute, which has a large network of professionals certified in the approach and members from all over the world, offers conferences, a newsletter, and access to an online library with research and articles.
Grounded in the person-centered approach to treatment, focusing therapy holds that individuals possess within themselves the answers they are seeking and is founded on the concept that individuals know themselves better than a therapist could ever hope to. This "knowing" refers to the knowledge of the body (the body's awareness), however, not the knowledge of the thinking brain. In focusing therapy, therapist and person in treatment work to reaffirm the bodily knowledge a person has and allow the body to steer a person within future situations.
Also influencing the approach is the concept that change is more than a verbal process. Often, the concepts and ideas addressed in therapy are emotions and feelings, things that often cannot be easily put into words. Though a person might be easily aware of these emotions, thoughts, and behaviors on a surface level of awareness, and may even experience some level of insight into them, focusing therapy aims to help them target the deeper "felt" sense. Practitioners of the approach believe that those who are able to access and target this felt sense may be better able to achieve results in therapy, work through the issues concerning them, and produce physical change in the body through the release of chronic tension.
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Focusing therapy is described by approach leaders as a living event—it varies in complexity, from person to person and from session to session. Thus, therapists do not typically follow a specific or formal structure when offering focusing therapy, and a session may have no agenda other than where the person in therapy leads. Focusing therapy can be offered in a step-by-step, structured format, however, and this may be the case
Regardless of the direction or format of a session, therapists are likely to use the following techniques to facilitate the session.
- Dis-identification separates the person from unknown feelings within the body. When, for example, a person in therapy says something like, “I just don’t know anymore,” the therapist attempts help the person separate the “I” from what they do not know. Attention is then drawn to the reaction the body has when the unknown feeling is experienced.
- What is called a joker question may be employed when a therapist concludes, "I do not know how to help this person." A joker question, such as “What would feel right at this moment?” is meant to return the person back to the body and give them the lead.
- Bodywork is a technique meant to draw attention to the person’s gestures or positioning. A therapist might ask what those gestures feel like and then, using the language of the person, facilitate further discussion about the bodily feelings that arise during each session.
This approach to treatment, which is often combined with other approaches, is considered to be effective for a range of concerns. Focusing may be applied not only to therapy and bodywork, but also to medicine, education, or professional development.
A person’s thoughts and actions are often tied to society and culture, and at times the knowledge a person's body has can be lost to the person or otherwise confused. Focusing can help people become reacquainted with internal awareness of their emotions, helping them become better able to more readily address them. Many of those who pursue focusing therapy or incorporate it into other treatment approaches find they can better describe what they feel and/or desire, cultivate independence from belief systems they no longer subscribe to, and experience greater success in therapy. People also report greater attentiveness in their lives, decreased tension and chronic pain, and increased decision-making and problem-solving abilities. Relationships and life experiences or situations may also be positively impacted.
As with other approaches to therapy that emphasize bodywork, focusing is often difficult to utilize in populations of those living with severe mental symptoms, such as those often occurring with psychosis and schizophrenia, and/or personality-based challenges. A high level of insight is generally considered to be necessary in order for people to be able to focus attention on the body and inner experiences, and focusing therapy may not be indicated for those who experience difficulty developing this level of insight.
Other critiques have been raised about the lack of standardized training available or required for implementation of the approach. Further, many focusing therapists explain that focusing will be different with each person, so there can be no established plan; however, this leaves many therapists unsure of what a focusing therapy session should look like. Sessions may lead a person to become very in-tune with inner bodily experiences. If a person has experienced trauma in the past, this focus could potentially trigger certain levels of panic in a person with past trauma. While re-experiencing trauma in a safe environment can be therapeutic, when that is the intention of both therapist and individual, doing so can also be dangerous if the therapist is not properly trained in how to handle the occurrence and when the person in therapy is not ready for the experience.
- Gendlin, E. T. (2012). Focusing-oriented psychotherapy: A manual of the experiential method. New York: Guilford Press.
- Learn focusing - Focusing fact sheet for newcomers. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.focusing.org/newcomers.htm
- Lee, R. (n.d.). What is focusing? Retrieved from http://focusingnow.com/#tab-id-1
- Parker, R. (2014). Theory and practice of focusing-oriented psychotherapy: Beyond the talking cure. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Rappaport, L. (2008). Focusing-oriented art therapy: Accessing the body's wisdom and creative intelligence. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Strohl, J. E. (n.d.). What is focusing and focusing-oriented psychotherapy? Retrieved from http://www.focusingtherapy.org/PDFs/General-Introductions/JestrohlFOT.pdf