Body-mind psychotherapy: Accessing the wisdom of the body
We are born with the ability to know how we feel from moment to moment and use that information to navigate our life choices. However, the emphasis on intellect and thinking in our society, as well as our experiences of hurt while growing up have caused us to lose trust in our bodies and our feelings.
Our thinking minds are keen to know, to be clear, certain and correct, and they are impatient with a vague hard-to-describe body awareness that we directly experience about our life situation. The problem comes with situations that are hard to understand and uncomfortable, with confusing information and feelings, with a sense of being stuck. How can we use our minds to connect to the present body awareness, instead of guessing, assuming, doubting, and going around in the circles? Focusing gives us simple and clear steps. Focusing is actually re-learning and re-fining that natural skill and re-connecting the mind, body and spirit into one whole again.
In Focusing-oriented/ experiential therapy (FOT) the body is seen as a totality of being before the split between body and mind. The body is seen as an ongoing process of experiencing and interaction with its environment. As such, the body senses many more nuances in a situation than we are able to verbalise in the moment and it feels implicit meaning. As such, the bodily knowing is of a far more complex nature than rational knowledge. Our conceptual minds search for meaning by noticing already formed patterns and by linking and creating order. What is not formed or clear is considered a disorder or out-of-order. However FOT perceives that what is not already formed, what is vague and not yet clear as of a greater order, more intricate and finally differentiated than any forms or concepts, but not yet fully grasped and articulated. In Focusing we get familiar and open to something that is directly sensed in the body, neither known nor just unknown. Gendlin (1981) has named this a ‘felt sense’.
The word ‘focusing’ is a visual metaphor. It describes looking carefully and closely at something that is there but is blurry and vague, like looking through binoculars, and bringing it into focus so that it can be seen, known, named, understood… And that is a process that has steps of refinements, little adjustments until it’s clear what is actually there. However, Focusing process has an essential receptive aspect, a very specific way of listening that is probably better captured with an auditory metaphor: a kind of inner listening that is able to hear not just the ‘loud mind’ but also the gentle ‘whispering of the heart’.
The key to a successful Focusing process is that receptivity and the quality of our awareness and connection to what we are experiencing. In Focusing we approach our experience with friendly, interested and respectful curiosity. And like in any good relationship, we are available, responsive and engaging with it.
Yes, this sounds like a good therapeutic relationship and the very ‘thing’ that makes therapy work. With this Focusing attitude and relational emphasis we (therapists and Focusing companions) model the quality of relating to our clients that changes the way they are with themselves and their unfolding experiencing. We could say that our clients gradually learn to become the therapist for their own inner process, something that Gendlin (1984) rightly called ‘the client’s client’. They learn to be with their emotional experience with a sense of safety, trust and compassion, the qualities that provide the experience of a secure attachment bond.
Despite robust evidence of its efficacy in psychotherapy and counselling, Focusing has not yet enjoyed the recognition it deserves. Nevertheless, it deserves careful study and artful application.
There is ample of research suggesting that the strongest predictors of positive outcome in therapy are (a) the quality of the client-therapist relationship, (b) the personal characteristics of the therapist, and (c) the resources the client brings to therapy (Hubble, Duncan, Miller, 1999; Wampold, 2001). "Client feedback" has been specifically identified as the most important relationship factor that decreases dropout rates and improves therapeutic outcomes (Miller, 2004; Miller, Duncan, & Hubble, 2004). A unique feature of Focusing is its constant, moment-to-moment relational focus with elaborate methods for routinely "checking in" with a client using the particular quality of the therapist's presence and her or his attuned responsiveness. Checking -in is crucial and ongoing. Furthermore, as a client-centred therapy, Focusing incorporates sophisticated means for helping clients identify, honour, and express their personal realities, resources and inner truths. Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy assists clients in removing the judgments, doubts, and fears that block the access to their innate wisdom and self-understanding.
Focusing-oriented therapists ‘walk their talk’ and practice Focusing for enhancement of their own self-awareness and their ability to embody empathic therapeutic presence with every client. There is a high correlation between therapists knowing Focusing and clients having positive therapy outcomes, as reported in the research of Hendricks (2001). A part of what Focusing-Oriented therapists do is a continuous attending to both their own ‘felt experiencing’ and the experiencing of their clients. They are in touch with their own felt senses and have access to ‘embodied situational knowing’ (Cornell, 2013) in the relational field that also includes both what is going on for the client and between themselves and the client, moment-by-moment. In other words, the therapists' bodily experiencing contains an inner synthesis of their own experiencing in the moment; their personal values and beliefs, previously acquired professional knowledge and expertise, as well as the client’s experience.
While what we know as therapists is important, ‘how we are’ present with our clients impacts them in many ways. “Our authentic personal involvement, emotional responsiveness, and unavoidable subjectivity, far from interfering, are essential features of every successful psychotherapy”(Wallin, 2007, p.171). It is of enormous importance how aware we are of what we bring into the therapy room and into the relationship. The more we can advance our personal development, attending to and further unfolding our own stopped processes, the more we can be available for our clients in integrated, grounded and compassionate way.
To conclude, therapists who know and practice Focusing are embodying grounded compassionate presence and are in contact with their own felt sensing during therapy. They are more available to their clients as a genuine person, more able to access embodied, situational, felt knowledge about the client’s unfolding process and implied needs. They are better responsive to transference, counter-transference with faster recognition, ease and clarity. They listen deeper and better, conceptualise faster and are able to look after themselves in better ways.
- Cornell, A. W. (2013). Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
- Gendlin, E. (1981). Focusing, Second Edition. New York: Bantam Books.
- Gendlin, E. (1984). The Client’s Client. In J. M. Shlien and R. Levant (Eds.), Client-Centred Therapy and the Person-Centred Approach. New York: Praeger.
- Hendricks, M. N. (2001). Focusing-oriented/ Experiential Psychotherapy. In D. Cain and J. Seeman (Eds.), Humanistic Psychotherapies: Handbook of research and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Hubble, M. A., Duncan, B. L., & Miller, S. D. (eds). (1999). The heart & soul of change: What works in therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Miller, S. D. (2004). Losing faith: Arguing for a new way to think about therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 10(2), 44-51.
- Miller, S. D., Duncan, B. L., & Hubble, M. A. (2004). Beyond integration: The triumph of outcome over process in clinical practice. Psychotherapy In Australia, 10(2), 2- 19.
- Wampold, B. E. (2001). The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Wallin, D. J. (2007). Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford.