Somatic approaches to psychology can be summed up by the expression, “The issues are in our tissues.” While I value a variety of approaches to psychotherapy and personal growth, I have a special affinity for somatic approaches that have gained popularity for good reason.
To be clear, there are certainly times when approaches that have a predominantly cognitive component, such as CBT, are very helpful. Uncovering core beliefs, such as believing we don’t deserve love or that we’re not meant to find love in our lives, can keep us stuck and isolated. Uncovering such dysfunctional beliefs, challenging them, and replacing them with more realistic beliefs can free us up and help us move forward in our lives.
Yet I have found that cognitive approaches alone can be limiting. Like myself, many therapists today consider themselves to be eclectic, meaning that they borrow from a variety of approaches.
An approach I’ve found especially helpful, and which I’ve sometimes referenced in my articles, is the research-based approach of Focusing, which was developed by Dr. Eugene Gendlin. He studied with Carl Rogers, and then they became colleagues. They collaborated on the research that led to Focusing.
Gendlin and his colleagues at the University of Chicago found that when clients who were connecting with — and speaking from — their bodily-felt experience made the most progress in therapy, regardless of the orientation of the therapist or what kind of therapy it was. Rather than just speaking from their heads or sharing the content or story about their lives, they slowed down their speech and groped for words or images that described what they were feeling inside. “I felt angry when she said I was selfish… well, not exactly angry. There’s a knot in my stomach as I talk about it… It reminds me of when I felt criticized by my mother… like there’s something wrong with me. It brings up a feeling that I’m flawed and defective. Yeah, the shame of being defective — that says it.”
Gendlin discovered that when a word, phrase, or image came that resonated with our inner sense as felt from they inside, then something shifted. He called this a “felt shift.” The issues may still be there, but the way it is held in the body changes. What made the difference is pausing and being with the bodily felt sense of an issue—and listening to the wisdom of the body rather than trying to figure things out in one’s head.
Gendlin emphasizes that he didn’t invent Focusing, he merely observed it in clients who were making progress in therapy, as determined by various outcome measures. He originally called it “experiential therapy,” then changed it to Focusing—like in the old days when a photo that was being developed gradually came into clearer focus. Gendlin fine-tuned the process into teachable steps so that others could learn what these successful clients were doing naturally.
Gendlin, who died in 2017 at age 90, grew up in Austria during a time when the Nazis were rising to power. He observed how his father made intuitive choices, trusting one person but not another, which enabled their Jewish family to escape. He later asked his father. “How did you know who to trust?” Tapping his chest, his father replied, “I trust my feeling.” Gendlin says he always wondered what kind of feeling is it that we can listen to and trust. Thus he coined the phrase “bodily felt sense.”
His book, Focusing, has been translated into many languages. Gendlin has often said that Focusing works best in combination with other approaches. Indeed, the approach has entered other forms of psychotherapy, such as Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing. He borrowed the term felt sense from Gendlin and gives him credit for it. However, Gendlin made a decision many years ago to generously offer Focusing without copyrighting it. He just wanted people to benefit from it. I believe that such generosity is one reason that many people have come to appreciate the heartfelt offering of Focusing as a gentle, yet powerful path to personal growth.
For more info about Focusing, you can visit the website focusing.org.