“Focusing” for skeptics

Duncan A Sabien
May 4, 2018 · 9 min read

Gendlin’s Focusing technique is super rad. I know this because everybody keeps telling me so.

(Okay, not quite everybody, but a really tediously large percentage of the people in my online social circle.)

But I’ve tried it a bunch of times, in a bunch of variants, with a bunch of qualified mentors trying to help, and it’s just never clicked. I’ve listened to the audio book and gone through all the steps, and it just doesn’t do anything for me.

So here’s my variant — the thing that I do instead, which I claim is using the same hardware and software and providing me with the same kind of improved introspective access. If you’re one of those skeptics who thought it all sounded nuts, or one of those unlucky people who thought it sounded awesome but could never make it work, this post has your name on it.

The “big idea” of Focusing (according to me) is that parts of your subconscious System 1 are storing up massive amounts of accurate, useful information that your conscious System 2 isn’t really able to access. There are things that you’re aware of “on some level,” data that you perceived but didn’t consciously process (see blindsight as both concrete example and metaphor), competing goalsets that you’ve never explicitly articulated, and so on and so forth.

Focusing is a technique for bringing some of that data up into conscious awareness, where you can roll it around and evaluate it and do something about it. Half of the value comes from just discovering that the information exists at all (e.g. noticing feelings that were always there and strong enough to Imperius you but which were somewhat “under the radar” and subtle enough that they’d never actually caught your attention), and the other half comes from having new models to work with and new theories to test. If I manage to recognize that a significant chunk of my romantic problems stem from self-censorship pressure because of a strong aversion to seeming needy, I suddenly have threads to pull on rather than falling back to just “Yeah, things with Cameron are not great.”

The actionable claim of Focusing (again, according to me) is that this information expresses itself in “felt senses” in the body — think butterflies in the stomach, or your throat closing up, or the heat of embarrassment in your cheeks, or a heavy sense of doom that makes your arms feel leaden and numb, or whatever physiological sensation happens to you when you catch yourself about to tell a lie. The brain doesn’t know how to drop its information into your verbal loop, so instead it falls back on influencing your physiology and hoping that you notice (or simply respond). Gendlin recommends a series of steps that help you build up the skill of noticing and dialoguing with these felt senses until they yield their precious data (often changing or disappearing in the process).

I’m going to focus (tee hee) on the one part of Gendlin’s process that makes the most sense to me, which is finding the felt sense’s True Name. In the official algorithm, this is step three — finding a handle. In my version, it’s basically the whole technique.

Take a look at this face.

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A particular face making a particular expression is going to be our metaphor for a felt sense. Faces and expressions are rich in contrast and detail, they’re extremely specific and recognizable, and they’re very hard to describe in words — just like my implicit models of the dynamics between me and Cameron and all of our history and all of my unstated assumptions about how romantic relationships work.

(Side note: Cameron isn’t real. Cameron is like Maria in a Counting Crows song.)

A sketch, on the other hand, is compressed. It can be evocative, but it’s sparse and utilitarian, conveying as much of the relevant information as possible with economy of line. In order to get something as rich as a real face out of a sketch, your brain has to do a lot of processing, and regenerate a lot of information from cached models and past experiences.

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What’s most important for our metaphor is the concept of trueness. Fit, accuracy, veracity — the quality of an actual correspondence between model and reality. It’s not about how detailed or technically sophisticated the sketch is, it’s about whether it matches what it’s trying to match.

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The relationship between words and felt senses is like the relationship between sketches and faces. You could riff off the old saying and claim that “a felt sense is worth a thousand words.” And the practice of Focusing (or at least my version of it) is one of using careful introspective attention to zero in on the right words. The name or “handle” you come up with won’t be anywhere near the whole story, but it can nevertheless be the short, compressed version of the right story.

(The same principle applies to “partial” sketches—you could imagine just a few lines around the nose and one side of the jaw that don’t convey the whole picture, but do very accurately match a part of it. In our metaphor, that would be like gaining clarity on one aspect of the thing that’s bothering you, even if you still can’t see the whole picture.)

So let’s try it. We’ll bounce back and forth between words and pictures to try to give you a sense of what mental motion I’m making.

Okay, so there’s clearly SOMETHING bothering me. And it’s got something to do with Cameron.

(This is like knowing “the picture is a face” as opposed to maybe “the picture is a fighter jet.”)

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Have we been fighting a lot?

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No, that’s not it at all.

(This is the equivalent of saying “no, not a smiley face, a serious face.” And you get that reaction by holding up the hypothesis/potential handle against the feeling and comparing them. Gendlin’s Focusing emphasizes attending very closely to whatever physiological sensation seems most alive or most pressing or most relevantly sensitive/responsive to your thoughts about the subject, but while I often find this useful, I can also make progress just using my sense-of-what-is-true, which is not necessarily embodied.)

It’s more like — like — ugh, like I never know what to say?

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No, it’s like I have to say the right things, or else.

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(Here I’ve gotten a partial match — I’m nowhere near the real story, but something about that handle I just tried out resonated. It has the right flavor, and I can sort of poke around near the thing I just said for other words that might be a closer fit. If the initial flailing about was the “stochastic” part, now I’m in “gradient descent.”)

It’s like — if I say the wrong thing, then everything falls apart and it’s all ruined.

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And it’s like I’m the only one? Like, Cameron doesn’t have to pay attention, just me. Cameron gets to —

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— to —

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— to relax. That’s it. Yeah. It feels like I’m the only one who doesn’t get to relax.

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(There I was doing a super-fast scan over a whole bunch of possible words and phrases and explanations, all the while paying very close attention to my truth-detection module. I knew where the answer would be, and I knew its general shape, but I had to keep looking until I found something juuuuust right. It’s like when you mentally stutter past five or six different comebacks to throw at your classmate until you find the one that’s cutting, true, and okay-to-say-even-though-your-teacher-is-listening.)

You get the idea. As the process continues, the picture grows more and more accurate, and evokes more and more of the underlying what’s-really-going-on. I can feel a sort of click, or a release of pressure, or a deep rightness, once I say the thing that really completes the picture.

(In Gendlin’s Focusing, he makes the point that the felt sense will often change — or vanish — once you’ve given it the right handle. It’s sort of as if the part of you that was trying to send up a red flag and expressing itself in a physiological sensation no longer has to keep sending that signal once your conscious brain receives the message. There’s often a relaxing, opening-up sort of feeling once the unrecognized problem becomes explicitly recognized.)

The problem is, I feel like I’m the one who has to be the grownup, because if Cameron gets mad and I don’t fix it, then that’s it — things are just bad forever. But when I’m the one who gets mad, Cameron doesn’t do jack squat. Cameron protects Cameron, and I protect us, and that’s something I never get to put down. It feels like I’m the only one who’s putting effort into maintenance, and that makes me feel like Cameron doesn’t really want the relationship at all, or at least doesn’t value it and wouldn’t miss it if it ended, and that’s lonely and exhausting and it makes me feel like maybe I’m not worth valuing.

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I’ve glossed over a few things in describing this process, to save time. For instance, the handle doesn’t always come in words—sometimes it can be a vivid image, or a metaphor, or a poem rather than a straightforward description. For another, often there’ll be a whole separate felt sense that arises and needs to be either dealt with or set aside, and frequently a given attempt to iterate on finding a handle will move your overall understanding away from accuracy rather than toward it.

And of course, just because you’ve accurately named your brain’s sense of what’s going on doesn’t mean that you’ve found the actual truth — it’s almost trivially easy to construct another side to this story in which Cameron’s trying to relate to me as an equal, but I insist on being patronizing and untrusting and laying blame for things Cameron never asked me to do, why does it always have to be this huge deal, why can’t we just have fights every now and then like normal people and just get over it without acting like it means something? Now it’s not only that you’ve pissed me off, it’s also that I’m not allowed to be angry — that I have to calm down and make up or you’ll start acting like our whole relationship is doomed. That’s some serious hostage-taking right there.

Or maybe not. Maybe that isn’t it, and the real problem is on a completely different axis. But either way, I’ve gotten clarity on what was going on in my head, under the hood — on what sorts of narratives and frames resonate with the part of my subconscious that was generating the feelings of frustration or unease in the first place. That’s a huge step forward in turning the problem into something tractable, with gears and levers and switches. Instead of being a Mysterious Mystery, it’s now mundane (which is not to say that it’ll be easy to fix, just that I’m no longer fumbling around in the dark).

To me, that’s super valuable, even if a lot of the people I know who do Focusing insist I’m doing it wrong.

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