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Eugene Gendlin was born in Vienna, fled the Nazis and settled in the US in 1939. He studied under Carl Rogers at Chicago University where he ultimately became Professor of Psychology and Philosophy. From a basis of phenomenological philosophy, he developed an approach to therapy called ‘focusing’ (Gendlin 1978, 1981) or ‘focusing-oriented psychotherapy’ (Gendlin 1996) in which awareness of a ‘bodily-felt sense’ is central.
In his 1962 book ‘Experiencing and The Creation of Meaning’ Gendlin contends that we feel our meanings in the body, as a ‘bodily felt sense’ implicitly, unconsciously and vaguely before we make them explicit through words or visual images. Focusing is the development of these ideas into a therapy process which can be used as a standard psychological therapy or as a self help programme. Gendlin delineates six steps in focusing:
clearing a space
identifying a ‘felt sense’ in relation to a problem or an issue
capturing the quality of the felt sense in a word, phrase or image
‘resonating’ between the word or image and the felt sense
inquiring what it is all about, its context and meaning
receiving the understanding that comes
Gendlin, while recognising considerable overlap, differentiates a felt sense from an emotion. ‘The first and main difference between an emotion and a felt sense is that an emotion is recognisable. We usually know what emotion we have. When we are angry, sad or joyful we not only feel it but we know what it is. But with a felt sense we say ‘I can feel it, right there, but I don’t know what it is’.
Emotional processing encompasses both an unknown felt sense and a known emotion.
experienced as gestalt
In our model (see above) (link to full model) we outline various components of emotional experience, including experiencing emotions as a gestalt, awareness of the emotion, labelling the emotion and linking it to causative events. Different elements may be present at different times or in different individuals. Some individuals, possibly those prone to psychosomatic conditions, may be very aware of bodily sensations but may not experience an emotion as a gestalt; others may experience an emotion but only be dimly aware of it or may not be able to label it correctly, such as mistakenly labelling ‘anger’ as ‘anxiety’. (Baker, Holloway, Thomas, Thomas, Owen, in press). Part of effective emotional processing would involve the transformation from vague undifferentiated bodily sensations to experiencing the emotion. Our formulation of emotional processing fits well with the stages of focusing Gendlin has described. In the chapter ‘Emotional Processing and Prevention of Panic‘ from ‘Understanding Panic Attacks and Overcoming Fear’ Baker (2003) describes a simplified version of Gendlin’s focusing within the emotional processing model (Emotional processing & preventing panic attacks). It involves:
1. Looking at one’s feelings and emotions (heightening awareness of bodily felt sense and emotion)
2. Labelling one’s emotions
3. Linking emotions with causes
In summary, while Gendlin’s ’emotional focusing’ refers to a psychological therapy and ’emotional processing’ refers to a change process, both share common assumptions.