By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
How to Conceptualize the Experiential Dimension of Psychotherapy
The experiential dimension of psychotherapy has been with us from the beginning, yet the process itself remains somewhat of a mystery. What exactly is this “more in the moment” that we are attempting to bring out in experiential psychotherapy? Or, to ask an even more basic question, why do so many therapists today work in an experiential way, as opposed to emphasizing more structured or educational approaches?
Freud gave us one way to conceptualize the experiential process when he identified the realm of the unconscious and the possibility of “making the unconscious conscious.” Today we are still very aware of the unconscious and the opportunities for uncovering unconscious material in psychotherapy, but most of us now think of experiential psychotherapy in a much broader way. We tend to think of it as a process where the client is able to connect with feelings—or, more specifically, a process where clients can check in with how they are feeling or feel about something and find words or images to express this. Connecting with feelings is now such a central feature of most psychotherapy that therapists are often parodied for always coming back to a client and asking, “How do you feel about that?”
But how do we define “feelings?” I prefer to use the word “touched.” We might say that the goal of experiential psychotherapy is for the client to be touched in the process in a way that leads to growth and development. The advantage of the word “touched” is that it suggests something fresh and new, something that is felt in a palpable, bodily way and at the same time can encompass a wide range of experiences. It can mean emotionally touched (including the painful moments as well as the sweet or poignant ones); it can mean touched by the truth of a new insight; it can mean touched in the many ways that clients and therapists are touched in the psychotherapy relationship; and it can include a broader understanding of touching where a client can tap into an “underneath feeling level” below the surface of what is being said.
Eugene Gendlin and the Use of “Alive Concepts”
For further clarification, I turn to the wok of Eugene Gendlin, an American philosopher and psychotherapist who has devoted much of his career to understanding what is happening in these moments when we feel touched in the psychotherapy process. Gendlin is also known as the founder of Focusing, a specific therapeutic approach that emerged from his collaboration with psychologist Carl Rogers. Gendlin has done psychotherapists a great service by giving us a comprehensive but also a very precise view of what the experiential dimension is all about. He would probably say that all of the forms of “touching” that I mentioned above are part of his vision of what promotes healing and growth in psychotherapy.
As a phenomenological philosopher, Gendlin is doing something quite different from most other psychologists or psychotherapists; rather than developing theoretical concepts about what is healing, Gendlin begins with concepts that describe the therapy process itself in its full intricacy and continuous movement and unfolding–what he calls “alive concepts.” The use of alive concepts is a way of bringing the language of psychotherapy forward to better reflect the cutting edge of today’s science and philosophy, including the new physics, complexity theory and postmodernism. Just as complexity theory describes the world in terms of systems nested within systems going out to infinity, alive concepts capture what is mysterious about the dynamic process of human experiencing.
Gendlin is also different from most psychoanalytic writers in his focus on “felt meaning” and its importance in psychotherapy. He began his philosophical inquiry as an attempt to better understand what he refers to as an “ah-ha moment”–that experience that most of us can relate to when we sense that something is right or meaningful. Felt meaning involves the body as well as the mind, not just the left brain, rational experience.
Tapping Into the Implicit Realm
For Gendlin, the process of finding meaning is very much about our ability to connect with what he calls an “implicit” domain. Lynn Preston, Director of the Experiential Psychotherapy Project (EPP) in New York City, calls it a “flow of life process that is always present just beneath the content of what is being said.” The implicit is similar to the unconscious in that we can be unaware of it when we are just functioning in a more surface way. But unlike the unconscious, there is a fluidity in accessing the implicit realm; we have the ability to tap into it and speak from this infinitely intricate place within us. When we do, what comes out is totally unique, with its own kind of complexity—not something that could be entirely predicted in advance.
We as therapists depend upon this interplay between the implicit and the explicit for therapy to be successful. After all, our clients are not just repeating what they already know but are allowing thoughts, feelings, images and reactions to emerge freshly out of their lived experience in the therapy process. Lynn Preston sums it up as follows: “A nutshell version of a focusing orientation is that it is a therapy centrally concerned with helping the client to speak from his feeling sense rather than about his feelings.”
As Gendlin describes it, a specific sequence of events occurs when we experience moments of felt meaning. It begins with what he calls a “felt sense,” which connects us with our deeper implicit realm. A felt sense “forms at the border zone between conscious and unconscious” (at the edge of awareness), comes to us in a visceral way and represents a whole complexity. Although a felt sense can include emotion, it is not the same thing as emotion. It is more like a whole bodily mood. When we tap in to the felt sense, emotion sometimes accompanies the process, but the felt sense also includes the bigger experience, the “place where the tears come from.”
The Forward Movement of a Felt Sense
“When I was listened to for that mood–which has come to be called “a felt sense”–
and invited to speak from it, I experienced a special kind of connection to myself
and to a forward moving process. I found a direct line of access to the “underneath
feeling self”–the self that is sometimes hard to find, sometimes hard to bear and
often hard to comprehend. I learned to touch into myself in this way and this self,
amazingly came forward clearly speaking it’s own truths. New steps of awareness
emerged organically, leading out to a hopeful, fresh, unexpected creativity.”
Lynn Preston from Two Interwoven Miracles: The Relational
Dimension of Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy
As Lynn Preston describes, when someone finds just the right words to express their deeper felt sense, there is a feeling of connection, rightness and truth. Gendlin calls this the forward movement of a felt sense and believes that this is the basis of what works in psychotherapy. This is the moment of felt meaning. We know when we have found it because we can feel the shift, in the same way that we can feel the relief or release of an “ah-ha-moment.” “There is a sense of “emergence” when what had been implicit is made explicit.
Moments of emergence in therapy can be quite dramatic in a beautiful way, which is ironic since what is emerging or newly expressed by a client sometimes comes from hidden parts of themselves that may be associated with shame, vulnerability or fear. Clients may connect with sadness or other aspects of themselves that they normally would ignore or fail to express. The client’s words may be beautiful or hopeful (“Ah. . .so now I see what I have been missing all my life!”) or they may be dark (“I realize now that I would rather be dead than alive.”). But either way, if the client is speaking from a place of their emergent truth, it is safe to assume that the process will provide some type of forward movement, even though we cannot anticipate the particular form that movement will take. We want to encourage clients to say what has been “unsayable” in their lives, whether it is hopeful, dark or somewhere in between.
But emergence and forward movement are not just limited to dramatic moments. Much of the value of Gendlin’s concepts is that they capture and explain a wide range of experiences, including those that are more subtle or that occur in small steps. In any given session, for example, there may be many times when a thought or a word or an image comes to a client in a way that feels meaningful, or when we feel touched in some way in the psychotherapy relationship. We might think of psychotherapy as the sum of these kinds of moments, both large and small, that feel right to us and offer us a sense of direction as to how to proceed—both in the psychotherapy process as well as in our lives in general.
The Goal of the Therapist: Facilitating Emergence
To a large extent, the role of the therapist has shifted from one who holds the answers or the truth to one who facilitates a dialogue that leads to forward movement. As a therapist, I like to think of my goal as “facilitating emergence.” One way to do this is to encourage clients to slow down and check in with what they are experiencing in the present moment rather than staying caught at the more superficial, conversational level. As with contemporary spirituality, we want to “honor the pause” and resist the temptation to rush in to fill up quiet times; we want to avoid sending the message that we are in a hurry or that we are more concerned with analyzing or educating than with experiencing.
This does not mean, however, that the therapist is passive or just sits back and waits for something to emerge. Felt meaning does not take place in a vacuum; what emerges for a client is very much influenced by their relationship to and interactions with the therapist. So, in addition to leaving room for the client to make contact with their inner experience, facilitating emergence is also very much about the way that the therapist listens and responds to what is being said.
As Lynn Preston is fond of saying, therapists need to be “evocateurs.” We want to listen with an appreciation for what might emerge, which involves our own felt sensing, our ability to sense the “more” of what the client is wanting to express. We want to interact with our clients in a way to help evoke the felt sense level, lift it out, welcome it, explore it, cultivate it, mark it and celebrate it (although these steps are not necessarily done with words). This is a far cry from the old psychoanalytic stance of neutrality, where the emphasis was placed on interpretation (of transference, etc.) rather than on forward movement through the emergence of felt meaning.
The Relational Dimension of Felt Meaning
It follows that facilitating emergence is not something that the therapist undertakes as a removed, objective observer. At any given moment both the therapist and the client are impacting each other in infinitely complex ways. As two human being engaged in a process of discovery, the therapist and the client are both intricately involved in their own felt sensing. It is difficult to help our clients tap into deeper levels if we are not also doing this ourselves. As evocatuers we use our felt sensing along with our rational, left brain thinking to help us guide the therapy process.
This happens in a variety of ways. Even when we are just listening we use our own felt sense to get a feeling for the often elusive “more in the moment” that the client is wanting to express. But so much of what we do goes beyond listening skills. Emergence also occurs through spontaneous conversation or improvisation, where the therapist assumes a more active role. According to Preston, “The therapeutic process is often an interplay of the slowing down and sensing into of focusing, and the spontaneous back and forth of conversation.” As therapists, we want to be skilled at the “creative use of self,” which involves a kind of “coming from underneath,” an ability to access and act upon our own felt sense in a more spontaneous way. As Preston puts it:
“The therapist is like a dance partner in the twists and turns of implicit
emergence. It’s something that the two people are doing together, not
only that one person is helping the other to do. Although the roles are
different, both partners are equally struggling to be present, coordinated
with each other, to find their way together toward a future that is centered
in the present moment.”
The Therapist’s Paradox: Being Purposeful and Receptive at the Same Time
Of course our role as therapists is not limited to being evocateurs. Clients also need us to offer feedback and suggestions, educate them and provide a certain amount of structure. Most clients expect us to have some theories about the nature of their problems, how those problems or patterns perpetuate themselves, and how psychotherapy can help them meet their goals. Yet having a sense of purpose in this way requires concentration and limits (to some degree) our ability to be open and receptive.
I call this “the therapist’s paradox:” how can we as professionals be both purposeful and receptive at the same time? Therapists must perform a delicate balancing act between taking charge of the therapy process while still maintaining that critical openness to the emergence of felt meaning. Learning to juggle the proactive, willful, more conceptual aspect of our jobs with what might be called a more “spiritual,” open stance can be a wonderful although challenging journey.
When I was first introduced to Gendlin’s concepts, I assumed that his approach would be strictly “client-centered” in the tradition of Carl Rogers, with an emphasis on a receptive stance that encourages a client to find their own way and leaves plenty of room for the emergence of felt meaning. As such, I imagined that his focusing-oriented style would be incompatible with other types of therapy that demand a more pro-active stance, such as cognitive therapy, guided imagery, EMDR, stress reduction work, behavioral therapy, etc. I had the impression that therapists needed to choose between these seemingly incompatible styles.
When I studied Gendlin’s philosophy I was surprised and much relieved to find that his emphasis on facilitating emergence did not mean that he disapproved of more proactive types of therapy and, in fact, he advocated using a wide range of psychotherapy approaches. He described how a focusing orientation could actually be used in conjunction with other theories, concepts and approaches to provide the right balance. This is true because theories and concepts are more like “things” while focusing is more about how we make use of the potential for aliveness and forward movement in each moment, in the “now.”
We can always ask ourselves if our interventions are helping the client to tap in to a deeper implicit level and if they are contributing to forward movement. Our theories, concepts and agendas can be seen merely as hypotheses to be discarded if they do not contribute to the emergence of felt meaning. As long as we are focused on the “now” we will be alert to opportunities for touching into or being touched, for the client, for the therapist and for the two together. And this means that we are less likely to make mistakes or lose our way and disconnect from the client. Ideally we learn over the years to do this gracefully, to relax with paradox and ambiguity. No matter how strongly we are attached to any particular concept or approach, we need to make room for “awe” and that unpredictable and often inexplicable “more” in the moment.