Focusing: A Technique for Emotional Troubleshooting
I recently read a helpful and enlightening book while trying to improve my meditation practice, and thought others might benefit from some of its wisdom.
I'll explain the idea behind it, describe the technique, and share a personal (abridged) example. It's easy to understand and try.
The book is called ‘Focusing’, and it's written by American philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin. He wrote it in the late 80s after studying under Carl Rogers and collaborating closely with him, and was re-issued in 2010. I came across it by accident, but I’m glad I did.
It may be especially interesting if:
- You hear others talk about how therapy helped them, but are either afraid or apprehensive of what happens in a session, hesitant to bring up things with a stranger, or think your problems "aren't that significant" to warrant therapy;
- You’ve tried meditation but found your mind wandering towards significant, but unresolved emotions or tension. You were maybe told to “observe and let go” of these thoughts, which feels like a missed opportunity. You sense there might be something in there, which adds to the confusion and frustration.
The technique works by itself for issues big and small, or as a companion to mindful meditation.
I'll skip the book review here, but one word of advice if you do pick it up: imagine it's narrated by Bob Ross. You're welcome 😉
You can learn how to perform self-therapy, and get insights from your body's sensations ("felt sense" in the book) if you know how to tune into it, and what to ask.
The insight and associated steps come off the back of the author’s research and collaboration with Carl Rogers while at the University of Chicago. His team analyzed hundreds of therapy session recordings to see what worked and what didn’t in many. They asked, "Why are some people successful in therapy and why did others fall short of their goals? What is it about the therapist, the person, or both?"
They found two factors that determined whether or not a patient would have a good outcome:
- Whether the person was aware that the body knew something they didn't, or couldn't quite verbalize as they went into the session;
- Whether the person was ready to work with that feeling, lean into it and listen to what it has to say.
Back then, experts were just starting to explore and take the mind-body connection seriously, and that "hard" science could only help so much in a therapy session. They reasoned that the body is a highly complex organism, regulates itself in incredibly smart ways without you thinking about it or being aware that it happens, and that things in the mind can be felt in the body.
Today, we've (still) barely scratched the surface of the topic, even as neuroscience reveals more about our brain and consciousness.
How it works
The idea is to sit with your feelings. Feel what there is to feel. Take stock of what's bothering you, name the most salient one and locate it in your body (the book calls it the 'felt sense'), then probe it for insights.
I loved the idea that this kind of practice lets you find a “place”, “a spot in your inner landscape” that you can always go back to, by yourself, once you know how.
It's easy to try, and remarkably effective in my experience.
How to get started
Allow yourself 10-20 quiet minutes in a relatively unfamiliar place. Maybe 30 minutes at first, and feel free to take a sneak peek at the steps.
Find a quiet bench in a familiar park, or some quiet spot in your house are better. Even a cushion on the floor can give you a new perspective if you don't usually sit there. Pro tip here: avoid dissecting conflicts where they happened, or in places with emotional baggage.
Let the 6 steps guide you. Think of them as destinations on a map, but it's up to you to figure out the way there.
Note: The steps are paraphrased and adapted based on my understanding and usage. The book has much more detail for any specific case you can think of.
1. Awareness: take stock of what's bothering you
Once you're somewhere comfortable and quiet, take 30 seconds to see what's floating in your body. Ask yourself, “How's life right now? How am I feeling on this day? What’s a thing in my life now? What's bugging me on this particular day?”
You want to find the things that make you the most tense right now, not every slight under the sun. Be aware that they exist, and don't engage too deply. Take a mental step back, say “Yes, that’s there.” Wait until a few things add up.
2. Narrow it down
A few things may have come up, major or minor. Pick the one that bothers you the most, but don't overthink it at this stage.
You want to narrow down the most bothersome feeling, and see where you can feel it in the body. See if you can ask a question, but don't answer with words. Try to feel the answer, like you were fishing for it.
It's a challenging step that can bring discomfort. You can pause if what you're focusing on is overwhelming, and remember you're in control. But it's worthwhile to stick with it and see where it leads. Go down that rabbit hole.
You'll know you're getting somewhere important when the mind (or ego) cranks up the noise: you lecture yourself, criticize yourself, overthink, the usual bullshit. You can reassure it by saying, "oh yeah, that old trick!" Then move past it.
Note: steps 3 and 4 can happen together, but it's not a rule.
3. Get a "handle" on the feeeling
Now you found something, you want to find a word or phrase that describes the quality of the feeling. It doesn't have to be perfect or accurate at first. "A sense of..." is just as good as a "quality word" like "tight, sticky, scary, stuck, heavy, jumpy" or even an image.
4. Find the best word or image that resonates with the feeling
Sometimes you nail it on first try, sometimes you have to keep asking, "if not this, then what exactly?" Keep scanning until something fits the feeling just right.
You want to find the best word or image that resonates with the feeling.
5 Ask: probe into what you're feeling
Once you have a label for the feeling, get to the heart of it. Experiment with questions like, "OK, so what's the worst part? What is it about this problem that makes me feel this way? What do I need? What would it take for this to feel OK?"
You want to find an answer that feels like something clicked. A small shift, release, or like something "gave way".
Asking a felt sense is very much like asking another person a question. You ask the question, and then you wait.
6. Be ready to receive the answer
Up until now, you've basically signalled to the body, "OK, I get it. I'm listening. Where do we go from here?" Sit and see what happens.
The ideal outcome is that you'll gain some insight or clarity into why things are the way they are, and what comes next. You'll know you're somewhere if your understanding of the problem shifts, even if it's one small leap forward.
You can repeat the process if you need more thorough answers or clarity, or stay here.
A very abridged but real example
One day, my family went through some multi-layered drama, and I was caught between two parties. It sapped my energy, and I was keen to address the issue without aggravating anyone (even further).
As I sat down, it took around 1 minute to tease apart several threads, with one main culprit: a very specific action from one person. It felt "lumpy" in my stomach, like I'd swallowed an acid fur ball. Not surpising, given all the serotonin receptors down there.
It took 5 more minutes to find the right word. "Unease", "confusion", and so on came up. But then it hit me: "disgust". Something clicked. An "Oh!" Surprising, but it felt right, and I rolled with it.
Probing further, I realized what the worst part about this action was: it was patronizing. It triggered a sense of injustice, hence the disgust. I probed it for a while longer, and got a couple of very clear (in my mind) next steps, and how to communicate them.
It was like learning a magic trick!
Maybe you'll give it a go.