When Words Make Me Wander

Dr. Eugene Gendlin pioneered the therapeutic practice called Focusing. As a practice, Focusing brings our attention to unclear felt senses, which are are sensations in the body that we struggle to label and or understand it's cause. A common example of an unclear felt sense is "I have butterflies in my stomach and I'm not sure why." The research into Focusing and other psycho-somatic phenomena tells us that we experience emotions through feelings in our bodies that are typically located from the throat down to the belly. We can often link chronic gastrointestinal problems, difficulties swallowing, and chest pain to underlying emotional pain, especially in the absence of a constitutional or organic cause. Focusing is a tool commonly used in Somatic Experiencing, Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFST), and Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) to assist people in gaining access to the emotional genesis of our psycho-somatic complaints or lingering bad feelings.

The Focusing Protocol roughly follows these discrete steps:

  1. Connect to an unclear felt sense in the body and/or salient issue that feels unresolved by bringing it into awareness by describing internally or out loud.

  2. Consider a word, phrase, or metaphor that aptly describes the felt sense whilst repeating it internally to check-in to notice if it resonates with the essence of the feeling itself.

  3. Then engage in a conversation with the felt sense by asking a series of reflective questions i.e. what's __________(the metaphor) trying to bring to my attention? What is the worst of this_________________? What does this_______________need me to do? What needs to happen for_____________to feel okay?

  4. After gaining insight from the felt sense you sit in silence for a few moments to see if any additional information comes from the felt sense and or to be in silent gratitude for what you learned from the felt sense to aid in integration.

For more information on Focusing a good book to read is The Power of Focusing by Ann Cornell.

Nevertheless, the most profound lesson I have taken away from my training in Focusing through EFT is that concept of being at the edge of awareness. Early on in my career as a clinical social worker, I felt that if a person with whom I worked was unable to clearly and easily identify their feelings that I was somehow failing. More often than not I would bring them back from the edge of awareness because I perceived it as being a place for which they were ill-prepared or incapable of occupying.

In fact, the edge of awareness was the tormentor of my career which lead me to return to graduate school for a Ph.D., not because I wanted to research what impairs emotional awareness, but a feeling that I was not cut out for clinical work. Imagine my surprise when I attended my first EFT intensive to only learn that I was doing my job correctly all along. Gendlin, Rogers, and Greenberg attest that when a therapist brings someone to the place where they cannot easily or precisely describe what they're feeling they're at the edge of their awareness; the place where change can now take place. I was shook!

How was it that through six years of post-secondary training in social work that I had never come across this important and humbling information? How was this not a part of the clinical skills curriculum? I started to think about my peers and colleagues near and far who feel, or have felt, inadequate or insecure about their clinical skills because those with whom they work can't name their feelings as they were at the edge of their growing awareness. I also questioned how many of those whom sought out psychotherapy only to prematurely end their work because they felt they were failing at their emotions whilst their clinicians struggled to validate them as they too felt insecure.

Like any epic tale or odyssey that survives the test of time, contemplative practices must incite the wanderer in each of us. A story that brings us to the edge of our seat rarely disappointments at the moment of climax, or in Focusing terms, the felt shift. When words make us wander, nay, wonder, we are precisely where we need to be. However, a tale or odyssey are only epic when witnessed by another. Therefore, the edge of awareness is far less scary when we have someone standing next to us who has been there before.

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