Focusing: A way to deepen experiencing for more effective psychotherapy


From BCACC Insights Magazine, April 2010

By Leslie Ellis, PhD, RCC

In the mid 1960s, a philosophy student named Eugene Gendlin started asking some hard questions about the process of psychotherapy: “Why doesn’t therapy succeed more often?… When it does succeed, what is it that those patients and therapists do? What is it that the majority fail to do?” (1978/1981, p. 3). Over the next 15 years, he and his colleagues at the University of Chicago conducted a series of studies that concluded something surprising about psychotherapy: the key element to success is not the skill of the therapist, nor their methodology, but the therapy client’s own inner process.

Gendlin and his colleagues studied thousands of therapy sessions and soon were able to tell by watching just a few minutes of the first session or two whether or not the therapy was going to be successful. They could tell by the way the client spoke: a groping, tentative, but forward-moving sort of dialogue clients had with themselves that ultimately led to a easing or tangible shift in their whole sense of what had been a troubling situation. Gendlin was intrigued by the experiential process these rare, successful clients were engaged in and wondered whether it was something that could be replicated and taught. He broke it down into steps and called it ‘focusing.’ It is now being practiced and taught worldwide.

The Origins of Focusing

It is now commonly accepted that immediacy of experience is a key element of successful therapy, but Gendlin’s ideas were ahead of their time. He arrived at the University of Chicago in the mid 1950s and was intrigued by the work of Carl Rogers who, at the time, was laying the foundation for what became the person-centred school of psychotherapy. Focusing has retained many elements of person-centred therapy, notably the primacy of the client’s own experience, and the methods of reflective listening and empathy.

However, Gendlin diverged from Rogers in some important ways. Rogers’ emphasis was on the qualities of the therapist: he saw empathy, acceptance and genuineness as the keys to facilitating therapeutic success. He was disappointed by the results of the study with Gendlin that showed much of the onus for success lies with the client (Purton, 2004). Gendlin was intrigued and pursued ways to replicate what the successful clients were doing.

The Basics of Focusing

The basic steps of focusing were developed as a guide so that anyone interested in the process could learn and teach it. Gendlin does not take credit for inventing focusing, but he coined the term, has gone on to develop an entire philosophy around it and has written books on how to apply it both to psychotherapy (1996) and to working with dreams (1986). Because focusing is such an experiential method, it is easier to understand by doing, and difficult to describe. According to Gendlin, “General descriptions do not convey focusing. It differs from the usual attention we pay to feelings because it begins with the body and occurs in the zone between the conscious and the unconscious” (Gendlin, 1996, p.1).

Gendlin sees therapeutic change as possible when we approach an issue from an unclear felt sense about the whole of it. As we stay with it, the next step naturally comes. If we start from what we already know, we will travel the same well-worn paths. Focusing asks us to sense into what is present, complex, and implicit, like the feeling we get from a piece of art that stirs up far more than we can immediately say about it.

“Every experience and event contains implicit further movement. To find it one must sense its unclear edge,” (Gendlin, 1996, p. 15). He says small steps of change can come at these edges, and many small steps add up to real, lasting change. Gendlin has written extensively about the practice and philosophy of focusing — more than one can do justice to in the scope of an article. The Focusing Institute is a repository for his writings, as well as a source for focusing books, courses and focusing practitioners and trainers worldwide (

Other Approaches to Focusing

Many others have taken focusing and made further contributions to its theory and practice. Ann Weiser-Cornell, for example, with her linguistics background, has taken a strong interest in developing language that facilitates the focusing process. For example, when a focuser says, “I’m scared,” she would suggest the therapist rephrase this, “You’re sensing something in you that feels scared,” (2005, p. 51).This is a way of providing greater distance from what is sensed, to help the focuser to stop identifying with the fear.

Focusing teaches one to find the right distance from a felt experience: not so far away that it is intellectualization, and not so close that one is immersed in the feelings, but just the right distance to be in contact with whatever comes. This makes it possible for focusers to work with anything that might come up for them, even if it at first appears difficult or frightening.

Vancouver-based therapist Shirley Turcotte has become a well-known expert in the use of focusing for trauma. She has added several variations to the original process to make it safe and effective. She stresses the tendency for trauma survivors to experience flashbacks and regression while focusing. She also applies focusing to intergenerational and vicarious trauma, and has developed unique and profound ways to understand and treat these issues based on her aboriginal heritage, her own experience of healing from trauma and from decades of treating trauma survivors. (Her DVDs are available from The Focusing Institute.)

In conclusion

I have worked with focusing for more than a decade and now teach this skill to therapists based on Turcotte’s trauma-sensitive method. I have found focusing especially helpful for working with trauma and stuck places, but definitely not limited to these. It can apply to any issue and be used in conjunction with any methodology. When a client enters deeply into their experience of a seemingly intractable problem and can sit with this in open, curious way, something stirs and shifts inside, changing the way the body holds the issue. After this shift, focusers often experience a flood of insights, but what’s interesting is that these can be the very same insights the client expressed before. Without the bodily-felt shift, insights simply do not ‘land’ in the same way — they are mere ideas, intellectualizations. After focusing, clients often report that while the problem itself has not changed, they are different in it, freer and now feel more able to move forward.

Leslie Ellis, PHD, RCC, is a focusing-oriented therapist in private practice and a Certifying Coordinator with The Focusing Institute. She welcomes questions about focusing and can be reached at , (604) 787-6430 or


Gendlin, E.T. (1978/1981) Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.

Gendlin, E.T. (1986) Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams. Wilmette, Illinois: Chiron Publications.

Gendlin, E.T. (1996) Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy: A Manual of the Experiential Method. New York:The Guildford Press.

Purton, C, (2004) Person-Centred Therapy: The Focusing-Oriented Approach. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Weiser Cornell, A. (2005) The Radical Acceptance of Everything: Living a Focusing Life. Berkeley: Caluna Press.