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24th May 2023

The Felt Sense – Your Guide For Authentic Change

What is Felt Sensing?

It is probably one of the most powerful tools that we have to access our own inner navigator. Felt Sensing allows us to make skillful choices and deeply understand what direction to take in our lives.
An example of natural felt sensing is the following. Recall a moment when you walked out the door, and somehow you knew that you forgot something. But no matter how hard you think, it just doesn’t come to you what it is. Right after you close the door, you suddenly know, the keys are inside.
What was this vague knowing inside you? How did it show its knowing to you? If you learn to feel into that vague feeling and listen to it, something more clear comes from it, and you might realize what it is that you forgot.

We all face big changes, and they show up with many faces.

For example, changes occur naturally with the different stages of life, such as choosing a career, considering whether to have children, retiring… Changes also come unexpectedly, as triggered by the pandemic, if your partner leaves you unexpectedly, and they come with illnesses and accidents… All these situations force us to adapt, to change. It is like a crossroad, confronted with the question of how to proceed from there.

If all goes well, each of these stages will add more depth and fulfillment to your life. But what if you feel stuck? What if what you have come to value and rely on, what has given you a sense of well-being, belonging, or pride, has been taken away from you, and you just can’t figure out which way to turn?

Skillful Felt Sensing offers a whole new way to listen for what the flow of your life wants to bring into manifestation next.

Although Felt Sensing is a natural capacity of all human beings, for many, it got buried under emotional turmoil and mental noise. Once we have rebuilt the Felt Sensing awareness-“muscle”, for example by following and practicing the twelve steps below, it becomes our pilot. Life attains a creative quality, a sense of rightness emerges as we join the forces of nature rather than struggling against them. In essence, we can now “go with the flow”. These natural forces give us direction if we care to listen to them, just as every seed knows which unique plant to become if given the right conditions such as soil, water, and sun.

A simple step-by-step process for relearning or refining the skill of Felt Sensing was first introduced by Eugen Gendlin, Ph.D. (American Philosopher and Psychotherapist who studied with Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago). This skill is now taught around the world in a process called “Focusing”. Felt Sensing has also found its way into almost every other field of therapy and self-help approach.

12 Steps to Authentic Change – The Art of Felt Sensing

Are you ready to become curious about an unresolved situation in a completely new way?
If so, find an undisturbed space, allow enough time, 30 minutes or more, and follow these steps. It is easier if someone you trust reads these steps to you one by one while you go through the process. Having a welcoming listener helps keep you stay focused.

  1. Chose a relaxed yet alert position, close your eyes or soften your gaze.
  2. Ground yourself, sense what you are sitting on, sense your breath. Consciously recognize what offers you a feeling of being supported, within or by the space that surrounds you.
  3. Feel your chest and abdominal region. While keeping your attention in this central area, invite the memory of an unresolved, challenging situation. Notice what is changing in this inner area. There might be a sense of warmth or coolness, a strong heartbeat, a certain kind of breath, a vibration or numbness, an emotional quality…
  4. With what has come, ask yourself, “What is the main challenge?” Wait and keep sensing. Perhaps a few words arise from your sense of what your main challenge is. Even if what arises is very surprising and seemingly absurd, it contains something important that you haven’t seen yet. It might come up as a metaphor or simile, as an image, a sound, or a gesture. Somehow it lets you know what the challenge is like.
  5. With these words, take time to feel your chest and abdominal area again. Listen for sensations, energy flow, images, postural changes, movements, and qualities such as dark, edgy, soft, agitated, daunting, suffocating… Keep returning freshly to the specific sense of what the main challenge is, and allow it to change freely. It might become clearer and sharper; it might open up into whatever it is about. Probably, many thoughts will come up. Allow them to just “go by” and focus your attention on the feel of the challenge.
  6. Make your feel, bodily sensation, image… of the challenge, into an “it”, as if it were an independent object, a being, or a good friend in need. As you continue to attend to it, a slight shift might occur in how it feels. The feeling might become more specific and sharpened. Again, it is like remembering something you had forgotten. The moment you remember it is a felt experience, maybe a relief or a flood of “oh…sure…”.
  7. Let it be a conscious “zig-zag” movement, from feeling into your chest and abdomen to the emergence of words, and taking those words back into your sensing. If you have a phrase, feel what it does to you. Then let that feeling generate a new phrase. Then feel what that new phrase does to you, and so on. What comes might seem very illogical. What you had said with so much perceived truth may later be contradicted by new words. This search for words as a felt process is a journey into and beyond where you were stuck.
  8. The indicator of how true a word is for you is a bodily felt shift. It might be a deep breath, more space in your chest and belly, tension releasing… Take time to enjoy the easing that this sense of rightness brings. Something has moved forward.
  9. At times, make a fresh start. While staying with the same felt challenge, step back and sense again the whole “all of that”. Wait for a new expression of a specific feeling to come.
  10. After a series of the above-mentioned body shifts, you may experience a profound easing. You may have a sense of having discovered something new, it might be a vague or a clear sense of direction. Take time to receive this new inner sense.
  11. Ground yourself, as you did in the beginning, and come to your center.
    Let an expression arise that best characterizes the new that has come. At times, the new isn’t something that you can put into words, or explain to someone. It may simply be something that you unmistakably feel. In this case, the expression may be a gesture, a posture, a sound or a movement, an image that you can draw…
  12. Again, something explicit may have come, a knowing what the next step will be, for example, or it may simply be a new felt experience that you notice within.
    Imagine the whole world as it will be if you moved forward with this new inner space, or if you took the next step that showed itself to you. If several possibilities came, envision and feel each one. Give this new felt experience and whatever else may come, enough time, space, and acknowledgment.

When you are ready open your eyes, stretch, do what feels right. You may not want to talk about it right away. Trust that more will emerge from your process on its own.

How are you now? You may be surprised to find that you have tapped into something within you that knows the next step or perhaps even the direction of your life at this moment. You might write a few words or draw what you found.
It is also quite possible that you will have to go through this process a few times before you feel a body shift. You cannot make the change happen; it comes when the moment is right.


If this was an eye-opening experience for you, or if you feel it hasn’t worked for you, but you’re curious, then you have the possibility to learn Partnership Focusing. You can join my online Focusing course, or book a one-on-one session.

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15th Mar 2023

Campbell Purton (2018): A new way of thinking about Focusing

Paper presented at the First European Focusing Association Conference, Loutraki, Greece. 10-14 May 2018

In this paper I want to suggest a new way of thinking about Focusing. I would like to think that this new way will help us to understand a bit more clearly what we are doing when we engage in Focusing, and also that it may help to resolve some of the difficulties that Focusing teachers face when they try to explain Focusing to newcomers.


Many Focusers, whether newcomers or ‘old hands’, may never have been troubled by the problems I will be discussing. That is in itself an interesting fact, which I think is due to the problems in question being essentially philosophical problems. Philosophy, from the time of Socrates onwards, has been interested in questions such as ‘What is time?’, ‘How is knowledge possible?’, ‘How can we know what other people feel?’ The more a philosopher digs into such questions, the more difficult they turn out to be. But for most people, most of the time, the questions don’t arise. The fact that there seem to be deep philosophical puzzles about time, knowledge and other people’s feelings doesn’t usually interfere with our abilities to use these concepts in everyday life. On the other hand, the philosophical problems can every so often come to the surface and cause real trouble. An example would be that of behaviourist psychology, where the philosophical problem of our knowledge of other minds led some psychologists to try to develop a psychology that reduced mind to behaviour. Similarly, there are neuroscientists today who, without much understanding of the philosophical problems involved, try to explain our thoughts and feelings in terms of processes occurring in the brain.


In the same way, people can learn the basic Focusing concepts, such as ‘felt sense’, ‘handle’, ‘resonating’, without being troubled by philosophical questions such ‘What is a felt sense?’ or ‘How is it possible to learn about one’s situation by attending to a vague murky feeling in the centre of the body?’ Yet, as I hope to show, the philosophical problems lurk in the background, and can interfere with our attempts to explain what Focusing is.


What is a ‘felt sense’?


Probably the central concept of Focusing is that of a felt sense. Kevin Krycka (2014, pp. 54-5), a professor of psychology at the University of Seattle discusses the importance of Focusing to psychotherapy in general and says, and says “By far the chief contribution FOT makes is bringing the felt sense to the field of psychotherapy”.


However, Focusing teachers don’t always find it easy to explain to students what a felt sense is. Some sort of explanation is called for, because Gendlin means something quite specific by the phrase, and in his more theoretical writings spends a lot of time explaining how felt senses are different from ordinary bodily sensations, or emotions, or images, or other ‘mental phenomena’. He writes that there is no word in English that means what he means; that is why he had to invent the phrase.


Ann Weiser Cornell (2005, p. 219), who probably has more experience of teaching Focusing than anyone else in the world wrote a few years ago: “After 33 years with Focusing I feel as though I am just beginning to really understand what a felt sense is”. When I myself first learned Focusing from Barbara McGavin in the early 1990’s she was already saying, along with Ann Weiser, that she thought that use of the phrase ‘felt sense’ could do more harm than good, because students naturally want to know what a felt sense is, but the explanations given usually don’t enable them to decide whether what they feel is a felt sense or not. And then they spend much of their Focusing session in trying to decide.


Ann wrote in 1996 “The biggest barrier to successfully finding a felt sense is wondering if you are doing it right – if you ‘really’ have one” (Cornell 1996, p. 29). But the reason that students can spend so long wondering about whether they have a felt sense is that the teachers find it very difficult to explain what the phrase means. Occasionally, people have tried to say why it is so difficult to explain what a felt sense is. For example, Peter Levine (1997, p. 67) , who wanted to make use of the term ‘felt sense’ in his work on trauma wrote: “The felt sense is a difficult concept to define with words, as language is a linear process and the felt sense is a non-linear experience”. However, I don’t think that sheds much light on the matter.


Here are some more reasons why people can find the notion of a felt sense puzzling: Gendlin says that a felt sense is a special kind of bodily sensation, and that it is usually located in the centre of the body. However, other Focusing teachers hold that a felt sense may form anywhere in the body. Ann Weiser writes that felt senses can be located outside the body, as when a Focuser says that something scary that was inside their body has now moved to being behind their right shoulder. Other Focusing teachers hold that felt senses may have no bodily location at all. These disagreements are puzzling; is it that felt senses take quite different forms in different people? But why then do they all count as examples of the same thing?


Another thing that can cause difficulties is that the phrase ‘felt sense’ has been picked up by therapists and others who use it in ways of their own. For some writers, the felt sense of a situation is simply the ‘feel’ of a situation, so that if someone is asked how they feel about their situation, and they reply “It feels very embarrassing!”, then this embarrassed feeling would count as a felt sense. But for Gendlin, feeling embarrassed is not a felt sense; it is an emotion. A felt sense is a murky, unclear feeling that leads to steps of change, not something that can be expressed by a familiar emotion word.



In thinking about these things I have been helped a lot by looking at the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein[1]. Wittgenstein is an unusual philosopher in that, at least in his later work, he is not concerned to develop a system of philosophy, in the way that many philosophers have, such as Kant or Schopenhauer, or indeed Gendlin himself in his philosophical work A Process Model. Wittgenstein is sceptical about such systems and approaches philosophical problems in less systematic way. He sees many philosophical problems as arising from misleading pictures that we have about the way our language works, and sees the aim of philosophy as simply to remove the intellectual confusions that we can get caught up in. Philosophy thus becomes in a way analogous to psychotherapy, though unlike therapy it is concerned with widespread, intellectual confusions, rather than with personal, emotional confusions. Rather like good psychotherapy, this way of doing philosophy tends to be slow, and sensitive to detail. It is not a matter of quick definitions and logical arguments, but of looking closely at how we actually use words, and also of noticing how our ways of picturing the use of words can mislead us. I hope that what I mean by this will become a clearer as we proceed


I hope to have shown so far, that there are some real difficulties with the notion of a felt sense, difficulties that should be of interest not only to philosophers, but also to Focusers. Quite apart from it being satisfying to feel clear about what we are doing, there is Ann Weiser’s point that the difficulties with the notion of a felt sense may help to explain why Focusing has not caught on in the therapy world in the way that mindfulness has. Kevin Krycka (2014, p. 60) makes the same kind of point when he writes:


…the felt sense, the core of FOT practice… remains elusive and difficult to describe….This reality makes it very difficult for FOT to find and hold a place in contemporary theory and practice because, although many may be genuinely interested, it is simply too difficult to grasp the approach without continued experiential practice with a teacher or therapist.



One thing that seems clear is that a felt sense is a special kind of feeling. Now, in English there are many different things that are loosely called ‘feelings’, for example, emotions such as anger or fear; moods such as anxiety or depression; bodily sensations such as itches and muscle tensions; desires and impulses; likings and dislikings; feelings of familiar situations such as ‘the feeling you get when someone gives you a present that you don’t want’; hunches such as the hunch that a decision is wrong, though you can’t say why. The dividing lines between these different kinds of feelings are not always sharp – for example, it can be difficult to say how some examples of fear differ from some examples of anxiety. However, there is no doubt that in the everyday language of feelings there are many useful distinctions. A feeling of tension in the jaw is somehow different in kind from a feeling of jealousy, even though they might be present at the same time.

Feelings are only one category amongst what we could call mental phenomena. There are also, for example, beliefs, intentions, attitudes and several others. The category of feelings could be compared with that of marine animals. There are plenty of other animals apart from marine animals, but also within the marine animals category there are many different kinds of creature. There are fish, which tend to look rather similar to each other, but also lobsters, crabs, octopuses, all of which are very different from fish. Then there are whales and dolphins, which look a bit like fish, but which turn out to be very different when examined in more detail. Also, you may have seen natural history programmes on TV which show us very strange creatures from the depths of the ocean, which are almost transparent, have no obvious heads, but long spindly legs, or possibly antennae. It is hard to know where they fit in with the more familiar creatures – they are a special and unfamiliar sort of marine animal

If we compare the classification of marine animals with the everyday classification of feelings, then perhaps felt senses are analogous to these strange creatures. Gendlin says that the felt sense is a feeling, that it could be classified as a sensation – but it is a special sort of sensation. It is also rather like an emotion, but nevertheless isn’t an emotion.

Now consider another analogy, which I think will be more helpful. On a computer keyboard there are 26 alphabetic keys, 10 numeric keys, several more keys for asterisks, hyphens, brackets and so on. Each of these is used to produce a particular character on the screen, and later on a printout. The characters are given code numbers in the ASCII classification, so that uppercase ‘A’ is number 65, ‘B’ is 66 and so on. We might explain this to someone unfamiliar with keyboards by saying that each key corresponds to a printed character. After watching us type for a bit they say “But what about the space key – it doesn’t print anything!” We say “No, that one just leaves a space, but you can still think of it as a character. Admittedly it is a rather odd sort of character. But it is listed as character 32 in the ASCII system.” They say “OK, but what about this one – marked ‘RETURN’? What character is that?” We explain that pressing this key brings the cursor back to the beginning of the next line. It doesn’t print a character at all. They say “But couldn’t you think of this as a very special sort of character?” What should we say? Perhaps “Well I suppose you could think of it that way. It is character 13 in the ASCII list.” They say “This is fascinating – what a very strange character”. But of course there is nothing at all strange here. It only seems that there is something strange, because we had been picturing the keys as all working in the same way, so as to produce something on the screen. And in a way that is true – the space key could be said to produce something on the screen, but that something is a nothing. How strange! But again, of course, there is nothing strange here. The feeling of strangeness is a kind of illusion which is generated by the way we have been picturing the use of the keys.

In the comparison of feelings with kinds of marine animals we ended with the strange deep-sea creature. It really exists, and really is strange compared with the other creatures. In the comparison with keyboard symbols we end instead with a strange way of speaking. Wittgenstein suggests that in thinking about what are called mental phenomena, we often get into strange ways of talking, and then think that we are dealing with strange kinds of things, inner things. But for him these strange kind of things are in a sense illusions. It is not that we don’t have feelings. Of course we do. But picturing feelings as inner things or processes is like picturing SPACE or RETURN as strange kinds of character.

I hope that all this will become clearer as we go on. For the moment I just want to convey something of the flavour of Wittgenstein’s approach to our ways of talking about feelings.

As I said earlier, Gendlin regards a felt sense as a feeling that is in some ways like a bodily sensation, such as a feeling of muscle tension, and in some ways like an emotion, such as fear. I will say a bit more about bodily sensations later, but will first discuss the nature of emotions.


Emotions, I think, are always linked with particular kinds of situation. For any named emotion, we can, with a bit of thought, say roughly what the relevant kind of situation is. For example, we speak of fear in situations where there is a response to some perceived danger. We speak of jealousy in situations where person A is upset because person B has preferred person C to them. We speak of hoping for an event to occur where the person would be disappointed if the event did not occur. Embarrassment involves one having done something socially inappropriate. Feeling guilty involves one having done something one considers to be wrong. These are just rough sketches; our emotional language is subtle and complex, so that more may need to be said to specify what the relevant kind of situation is. The important point is that we can, at least roughly, set out what the situation is that corresponds to each named emotion.


But emotions are not limited to those which have names, and within each named emotion there will be varieties of emotional feeling that can be specified in various ways. For example, we feel jealous, but it is a particular sort of jealousy. Thus someone might say, not simply that they are jealous, but that they are jealous in a resigned sort of way, rather than in an aggressive sort of way. In some languages there could be different words for these two kinds of jealousy. Or someone might say “Yes, I am jealous… but… I was thinking of Anna Karenina …. I’m jealous in the sort of way that Dolly is jealous of the governess, not in the way that Karenin is jealous of Vronsky”.


These varieties of an emotion are often specified by novelists by telling a story of the sort of situation which gives rise to the emotion. And often in Focusing sessions, little stories are told, some of which are expressed in imagery. To take an example from Ann Weiser (2005, pp. 228-9), a Focuser speaks of


having an image of seeing a row of blackbirds on a wire. They are huddled together and a cold wind is blowing….Then she says that some of them are flying away but some are just staying there. It’s like they are resigned to the cold, the ones that are staying…Those are the ones that no other bird is near. They’re on their own….There’s especially one of them. It’s huddled…and cold…and sad”


This story-imagery specifies the emotional response much more exactly than it can be specified by a single word. Nevertheless, we are still speaking of a kind of situation here. The person listening might say “It sounds a bit like what John felt in that story you mentioned last week”, and the Focuser might say “Yes, like that – exactly.”


When she was around three or four years old my daughter liked being read stories about Little Grey Rabbit and a rather boisterous character called Hare. She had listened to one of these stories the previous night, and when her mother next morning did something that upset her she exclaimed “Oh Mummy – just like Hare!” Little Grey Rabbit’s situation and my daughter’s situation were no doubt different in many ways, but my daughter recognised the same kind of situation, and the same kind of emotional feeling.


Thus while there are many emotions for which we have names (far more than those in the lists that psychologists are fond of), beyond these there is an indefinite number of emotions that correspond to kinds of situation that are familiar within a particular culture, and can only be expressed by telling little stories. I will call these un-named emotions ‘emotional feelings’. One source of confusion in talking about felt senses is that we may be inclined to think of a felt sense as the emotional feel of a situation. The blackbirds story was the expression, in imagery, of the emotional feel of a situation, but such an emotional feel is not a felt sense. In fact the blackbirds story continues as follows “It’s huddled… and cold…and sad… No not exactly sad…he’s more… hard to put into words…” Here is the felt sense, and it is here, as Ann says, that the person strictly speaking begins to Focus. In Focusing sessions the expression of emotional feeling, and the expression of a felt sense, often interleave with one another. Another example, taken from Gendlin (1996) is this: A client says


What came to me was like, the image I have, when I got it I had an image of a fence, and part of it is really treacherous. Its like … barbed wire … you don’t touch that; you can’t go through or get past it, but another part of it has a little hole, and that part I could slip through…A part of it is just poles and a little barbed wire, and I could really crawl over it if I wanted to. [What] felt the best right now was to crawl through that little hole, that felt…like… felt like saying “Here I am; I’m coming through,” a really neat part coming through, and looking back to see the reaction, at the same time feeling, I don’t care what the reaction is.



Here there is the expression of emotional feeling through words as well as imagery, but every so often the client pauses, and waits for either a further image, or further words. “It’s like…<pause>…barbed wire” or “felt like…<pause>…saying ‘Here I am; I’m coming’.” As Gendlin uses the term, the felt senses here occur in the pauses; they are not the emotional feelings that are expressed in the words and images. But it is easy to get confused here. In his first paper on Focusing Gendlin did not use the term ‘felt sense’ but instead spoke of trying to get the feel of a problem as a whole. Suppose we ask someone to do this, and they say “Yes, I can feel it as a whole – it is a feeling of being put in a position where, whatever I do, I will hurt someone”. That is a clearly articulated emotional feeling, but just because it is clearly articulated, it is not a felt sense. A felt sense, Gendlin says, is something vague or murky. By contrast, if someone says, “Yes, I can feel it as a whole…but it’s hard to put it put it into words”, that tells us that they have a felt sense.


I will return to the question of when, exactly, we speak of felt senses, but first we need to look at another issue that has been prominent in the discussion of felt senses This is the question of whether a felt sense is a bodily sensation, whether it is felt in the body. In order to approach that question it will be helpful to consider whether emotions, and emotional feelings, are felt in the body.

Do emotions involve bodily sensations?

I said that to have an emotion involves responding to a situation of a particular kind, but there are many different types of response. If we see someone running from a bull, we say that they are afraid. To run in that context is to be afraid. But another person, on seeing the bull charging towards them, might freeze, and that too would count as fear. Someone else, seeing the bull from a distance, might experience tension in their chest or stomach, and feeling these bodily sensations could be said to be their fear. Or after being chased by the bull, the person, now sitting at home, might have recurrent thoughts and images about the incident, and these responses could be said to constitute the fear that they still feel following the episode.


Consider the emotion of hope as another example. We say that someone hopes that an event will occur, if they would be disappointed if it did not occur. A person’s hope for something could be manifest in their imagining the occurrence of the event, or in their pacing excitedly up and down, or in a holding of the breath, but these responses only count as manifestations of hope if the situation is one in which the person will be disappointed if the event doesn’t occur. The responses in themselves do not constitute hope, or feelings of hope. The same responses could be manifestations of an expectation that the event will occur. But hoping is different from expecting. We often expect events that we certainly don’t hope for, and we can hope for things that we don’t really expect to occur. These two feelings are not distinguished by any differences in the bodily sensations involved, but by the fact that in hoping we would be disappointed if the event doesn’t occur, while in expecting we would be surprised if it doesn’t occur.


So, emotions may involve bodily sensations, as well as many other kinds of response. But none of these things are essential to the emotion being the sort of emotion it is. For there to be an emotion one has to respond in some way to a particular kind of situation, but how one responds can involve behaviour, thoughts, impulses, imagery, as well as bodily sensations.

In some cases, the response to the situation may involve quite intense desires or aversions, and the accompanying impulses and bodily sensations may overwhelm us. It is a familiar view that emotions are to be contrasted with rational beliefs, but that is not generally true. We may quite reasonably feel hopeful that an event will occur, and our feeling of guilt could be entirely appropriate to the situation.


In some cases the response may be almost entirely linguistic. We learn to use the word ‘wistful’ in certain kinds of circumstance (though I couldn’t say right now what those kinds of circumstance are, and probably you can’t). Nor need my feeling wistful involve any specific behaviour, or bodily sensations, or thoughts or images. My saying I feel wistful may be my only response to the kind of circumstances I find myself in.. But don’t I have a wistful feeling? a ‘datum’, or ‘direct referent’, as Gendlin sometimes calls it? Well, I can say that, but it doesn’t seem to add anything to my saying that I am wistful. There is no feeling here that is independent of what I say, no feeling on which I base what I say. I don’t base what I say on anything; certainly not my knowledge of the circumstances in which the use of the word is learned. For I can’t say what these circumstances are. I have learned to use the word, but I haven’t learned to say how it is used. I have simply picked up the use of the word as an articulation of my response.


If that seems puzzling, compare it how it is with having a hunch or intuition about something: Hunches can form a helpful bridge to the notion of a felt sense. Suppose that on returning home from a walk, we have to decide whether to turn right or turn left. I say “To the left!”. My companion says “How do you know?” I reply “It’s just a hunch, but I bet I’m right!” We go to the left and indeed this turns out to be the way home. To have a hunch is to think that something is so, without being able to justify what one thinks. It is not just a guess; we sometimes are very sure that our hunch is right. Now suppose someone says “When you said ‘To the left!’ surely something must have gone on in your mind that made you say that. Perhaps you had an image of turning left? Or maybe the word ‘left’ just came into your mind? There must have been something that made you say ‘To the left!’.” I reply that there really wasn’t anything like that. We came to the junction and I spontaneously said ‘To the left’. That was all that happened. I had a hunch, but that is just to say I couldn’t justify what I said. But now the sceptical person says “But you must have had a feeling that you should turn left! The hunch was that feeling!” What should I say to that? Perhaps “How do you know what went on in me? I’m telling you that nothing went on, but you have a picture or theory that says something must have gone on. Well, so much the worse for the theory!” This talk of the hunch as a ‘feeling’ adds nothing at all to a description of what happened. It seems to be the invention of a person who believes that we must always have feelings, in the sense of inner data, going on in our minds before we can speak. Yet that is clearly not true. Usually we speak without anything special going on in our mind.



In sum: we could say that to have an emotion is to respond a particular kind of situation. The response may be a matter of having certain bodily sensations, or other things such as characteristic behaviour, facial expressions, impulses, thoughts or images. It is misleading to say that the emotion is the response: that the running away, or the inclination to run away, or the dry throat, or the facial expression is the fear. But nor is it right to say that the response is simply a sign or accompaniment of the emotion.


We want there to be a thing or a process that is the emotion, but not all words function as the names of things or processes. Emotion words draw our attention to particular kinds of lived situation, but there need not be anything in the situation that is the emotion. If someone hopes that an event will occur, that is a particular kind of situation; it is the kind of situation in which they would be disappointed if the event did not occur. But it does not follow that there is a thing or process in the situation that is the hope. We are inclined to picture the hope as something going on in the person at the time, but the fact is that nothing need have gone on in them at the time. They might have thoughts or images of the anticipated event, but there is no necessity for such things to have gone on. All that is necessary is that they would respond to the non-occurrence of the event with disappointment. If we know that, then we know that they hope for the event.


The picture of feelings as inner events or processes is a captivating one. Wittgenstein suggests that it arises partly from another captivating picture, that of the meanings of words being the things they refer to. In an infants’ school classroom there may be pictures on the wall of dogs, trees, tables and so on, each being intended to illustrate the meaning of the word that is written alongside the picture. We think of the meaning of the words as being displayed in the pictures, and say that the meaning of a word is the kind of thing it picks out. But there are many, many words for which that is not true. There are no things in the world that are picked out by the words ‘Not’, or ‘Therefore’ – Wittgenstein argues that to specify what a word means does not usually involve presenting examples of the things or processes it refers to, but specifying how that word is used. ‘Not’, for example, is used to make a denial, ‘Therefore’ tells us that what has just been said is a reason for believing what is about to be said. There are no ‘nots’ or ‘therefores’ in the world.


If we can free ourselves from the picture that for each word there is a kind of thing, we may be able to see that there doesn’t have to be a feeling that a person has when they hope for something, or fear something, or experience some other emotion. But as Wittgenstein says, it is hard to free ourselves from such pictures, because they are embedded in our language. I just referred to ‘experiencing some other emotion’, and this form of words suggests that there is, in addition to the emotion, the experiencing of the emotion. Then this can bring us back to picturing hope as an inner process, that we are now calling an experiencing.


It is not that there is anything wrong with saying that a person feels hope, or experiences a feeling of hope, just as there is nothing wrong with saying that a person feels that they should take the right-hand path. But if we try to take these feelings out of their contexts and ask what they are in themselves, we are likely to end up talking nonsense. We might for example ask whether the feeling of hope is a bodily sensation, and wonder whether that tingly sensation we feel is the hope. Or we might ask where in our body do we have the hunch that we should take the right-hand path? Can we detect the hunch in the way our legs are inclined to move? Such questions, I think, lead us only into confusion. They are not sensible questions to ask, because they presuppose that words for feelings are names of things or processes going on inside the person.


Felt senses


In the previous section we have been concerned with one important group of feelings, those that are called ‘emotions’. As I said earlier, there are many other kinds of feeling, but the one we are especially interested in is the kind of feeling that Gendlin calls a ‘felt sense’. Gendlin had discovered in his work with counselling clients that the clients who make best progress are those who engage in therapy in a special way. Rather than simply talking about their difficulties, or speculating about what is wrong with them, or directly expressing their emotions, they say what they are thinking or feeling, but then pause. The therapist can see that this is a special sort of pause; it is not that the client has run out of things to say, or that they are afraid to go on. Rather they are searching for words for something that they can’t yet express. They may screw up their face, rotate their hand in the air, or say things like “It’s not that I am afraid of him, but…<pause>…I’m not easy with him…<pause>…He makes me feel sort of tangled up inside…<pause>…I can’t put it into words…” They are clearly responding to some difficulty in their relationship with this person, but they can’t articulate that response. Or rather, they can’t articulate it yet. Their situation is one of being on the way to articulating their response.


It is in this kind of situation that we say that the person has a felt sense of something. They have, as it were, reached the edge of what they can say. Gendlin discusses an example where a person is talking about their fear of approaching someone at a party: They say “I think I know what goes into that fear; it’s that I’ve always been scared just to make a decision on my own. I’m scared it will be wrong. But… uhm…”. This person, Gendlin writes, “has a sense of the edge. ‘Uhm’ is the felt sense.”


What the “Uhm” tells us is that the person hasn’t yet found a way of articulating their response, but that they hope to do so soon. Instead of saying “Uhm” they might rotate their hand in the air. Or if they are familiar with Focusing they might say that they have a peculiar sort of feeling, a felt sense. But it is misleading to say that there is a thing there that they feel when they have a felt sense, just as it is misleading to say that there is a thing which one feels when one hopes for something, or that there is a feeling called a hunch when one has a hunch.


As in the case of hopes and hunches we may experience various bodily sensations when we have a felt sense. We might feel tension in our chest, or a gnawing feeling in the stomach, or bodily sensations associated with rotating our hand in the air, or drumming our fingers on the desk. Are these the felt sense? Well, it is the same as it is with the emotions. We do speak of feeling anger in our chest or fear in our gut, and may be able to identify the bodily sensations involved, such as muscular tightness or contraction. But as we have seen, it is misleading to say that the emotion is that bodily sensation; rather we are responding to a situation in which we are being insulted or threatened, and for that reason are said to be angry or scared. Just by attending to the bodily sensations we couldn’t tell which emotion we are feeling. It is only in the relevant contexts that we can say that the tightness is the anger or the contracted feeling is the fear.


In the case of a felt sense, the relevant context is that the person is responding to a situation, but can’t yet articulate their response. That is the point at which they pause and say “Uhm”. When Gendlin says the “Uhm” is the felt sense we know what he means, but clearly he is not saying that the felt sense is the utterance of a word. In the same way the felt sense is not the rotation of the hand in the air, nor the gnawing sensations the person might have in their stomach. The difficulty is that we picture a felt sense as some sort of inner thing or process, but fail to realise that in saying that someone has a felt sense we are not reporting on anything going on in them. What we are reporting is that they can’t yet find a way of articulating their response.


It may help to reflect on what happens when the person does succeed in articulating their response. They may let out a deep breath, smile, say “Now I’ve got it”, or they may simply say “OK, I’m jealous (or scared or whatever)”. Now, just before they said or did these things, did they have to have a feeling that they had found what they were looking for? They may well say “No – it just came to me”. But doesn’t saying “Now I’ve got it!” or the deep release of breath express a feeling? Well, as with hunches, someone might say that there must be such a feeling; but I think we have a right be suspicious when a person insists something must be so.


What I am suggesting is that to say that someone has a felt sense is to say that they are responding to a situation, can’t yet articulate their response, but hope and expect to do so soon. More briefly, we can say with Gendlin that the felt sense is the “Uhm”. However, there are many places where Gendlin says something much more than that. In discussing where the change steps in therapy come from he says (Gendlin 1984):

The steps of change and process do not come directly from the recognizable feelings as such.

They come, rather, from an unclear, fuzzy, murky “something there”, an odd sort of direct datum of awareness.


What do we assume the client will do with a listening response? We hope and assume that clients will check the response, not with what they said or thought, but with some more inner being, place, datum… “the felt sense,” we have no ordinary word for that.

It is this notion of an inner datum that Wittgenstein questions. Undoubtedly we talk of inner thoughts and feelings, and we may picture them as inner things, or processes going on in our heads or bodies. But this is surely picture language: we do not mean that if a surgeon opened up our head or body they would find the thoughts or feelings there. It is a way of talking, a picturesque mode of description, and one which does not mislead us in everyday conversations. The problems only begin when we suppose that the inner processes constitute explanations for what we say and do. Then we will start to say things like “He said he was afraid because there was a scary feeling (or process or datum), inside him, and he recognised it as fear”. But that is not why an English speaker says “I am afraid”; the real explanation is that they have learned to use this phrase in situations where some danger threatens.

The same misleading picture of the inner datum is what causes the difficulties with the phrase ‘felt sense’. A person may pause in a Focusing session and speak of having a vague feeling that they cannot put into words. To have such a feeling is to have a felt sense. There is no problem with that. The problem comes if we now try to explain why they pause by saying that they have a special sort of feeling, or inner datum, to which they now need to give their attention, and from which may soon come other feelings that are helpful for them. The inner datum, or felt sense, is supposed to contain all the intricate detail of the problem, and within it, the person may find something that is of help to them. That is the picture.

However, the real explanation of why the person pauses is simply that they can’t yet find the words to articulate their response, although they are seeking them, and with luck will soon find them. They find them through attending to the problem as a whole, and realising that just these words give expression to some aspect of the problem.

The difference between the two formulations is that in the first formulation the person attends to an inner datum, and describes it, whereas in the second they attend to their situ Wittgenstein (1992) is especially relevant. ation and articulate their response to it. I think that the reason Gendlin prefers the first formulation is that he is concerned with an important difference in the way clients speak in therapy. It is the difference between simply speaking, and speaking after pausing to check whether this really is what one wants to say, or is all that one wants to say. Gendlin thinks that in the pause one consults an inner datum, whereas I think Wittgenstein would say that this inner datum is a fabrication, or an illusion. For Gendlin, the inner datum is an “it”, a direct referent, something one can attend to, in there, there where we have our feelings. The job of the therapist is then to respond to the client in a way that helps the client the find the inner datum.

The alternative formulation is that the client is responding to their situation in a way that they can’t yet fully articulate. The job of the therapist is to encourage the client to attend further to their situation, and to articulate further whatever new responses come to them. I would like to end by looking in a bit more detail at how this alternative formulation would work in practice.

Much of the traditional Focusing framework can remain in place, beginning with Clearing a Space. This is not something one always needs to do, but it can be an important way of bringing attention to a specific problem. The point is to attend exclusively to that problem, for the moment. How do we do that? Well, by not letting ourselves be distracted by the other problems. We attend to one thing by not allowing ourselves to attend to other things, as we mind our own business by not minding other people’s business (White 1964). It can help if we give some brief attention to the other problems – we are not just ignoring them – and then attend to the problem we wish to work with. Then the next step is to attend to this problem as a whole. Before the session we may have spent some time thinking about the problem or noticing various things that are involved in it. We may need to remind ourselves of what the problem is, and what seems to be upsetting or concerning about it. In other words we bring that whole problem to mind. We are going to Focus on the problem, but we want to go beyond what we already know about it, beyond the familiar difficult feelings that it arouses in us. To get to something new, we need to attend to the whole of the problem. What might help us is not to be found in what we already know, but nor do we know where it is to be found in the situation. It could be anywhere, or we might need to construct something new. So we need to keep the whole problem in mind.

How do we attend to it as a whole? Well, by not attending to its particular aspects. If we find ourselves attending some particular aspect of the problem, we need to stop doing that, and let our attention come back to the problem as a whole. This is probably the most difficult part of Focusing; we are so used to attending to details, that we find it hard to attend to something as a whole. Yet we can do this: the problem is there as a whole; we chose it from amongst other problems. All we have to do is to open ourselves to all of that, putting aside any specific aspects that come to mind.

Familiar Focusing questions may now help. As we keep our attention on the problem as a whole, we can gently ask ourselves “What is this really all about?” or “What is the crux of this?” or “What is needed here?” Then we wait, and see if anything comes. Often something does come, and often it is a surprise to us. It could be a word, a bodily sensation, an impulse, a wish, a liking for something, an image, a fragment of music, a memory. It is something that has come from our awareness of the problem as a whole, and is likely therefore to have some relevance to the problem. It is something new in connection with the problem. So now we gently ask “What is it about the problem that brings this?” “What is it about the problem that makes me think of this, or feel that, want to do this, remember that?” And again we wait. Then other feelings, or words and so on, may come, and whatever comes, we may try asking “Is that exactly it?”, and then sense the reply “Yes, it is”, or “No, not exactly; more like this.” or,No, not just that; also this”. Finally, if we are fortunate, we may find ourselves saying something like “Oh, so that’s what it’s about!” or “So there’s a whole new side to this!” or “I never thought of it like that”.

All this can be explained without using the term ‘felt sense’, but it is clear enough where that phrase could be brought in. It is at the point where we attend to the problem as a whole. At this point someone might say to themself “I’m feeling the problem as a whole”, and they might picture this feeling of the problem as a vague, fuzzy thing that they sense in their stomach, but which nevertheless contains within it all the familiar aspects of the problem, together with innumerable other aspects that could be helpful. This picture need not cause trouble, so long as the Focuser remains aware that they need to be attending to the feel of the problem and its unarticulated edges. What would cause trouble would be if they started to ask whether this fuzzy image they have really is a felt sense, or whether they should be attending to the tight feeling in their stomach. Then, I think, they would get lost.

As I mentioned earlier, in his very first paper on Focusing in 1969, Gendlin himself did not use the term ‘felt sense’. Instead, he laid out in the following way some guidelines for therapists who would be teaching focusing to patients. He writes (Gendlin 1969, p. 5):


One must explain that it is possible to sense a problem as a whole…People rarely let the crux of the problem come freshly to them from their feel of the problem as a whole. They already know what the crux is, or they decide what it is. Therefore, before we begin, we instruct the patient on this …point: ‘When you have a feel of the whole problem, don’t decide what is important about it. Feel it all and don’t decide anything. Wait and let the main crux come to you freshly’.


I think that way of putting it is much less likely to cause difficulties than the way in which he formulated the Focusing instructions later on.


The crucial point is that one is to attend to the feel of the problem, and then wait to see what more there is to it, or where the ‘edges’ of the problem are. But ‘Attending to the feel of the problem’ should be understood to mean no more than ‘Attending to the problem’. It is one of those cases where referring to a feeling adds nothing to what can be said without referring to the feeling. For example, to be hopeful, to feel hopeful, to have a feeling of hope are just different ways of saying the same thing, namely, that one will be disappointed if the hoped-for event doesn’t occur. There is nothing wrong with picturing hope as an inner feeling, but this is a picture, or a way of speaking.


As a final analogy, consider the fact that instead of saying that a person has a felt sense of something, we might, in English, say that they have something ‘on the tip of their tongue’. That says the same thing, namely that they can’t yet articulate their response, but it is clearly just a way of speaking. Someone who started to wonder about what exactly was there on the tip of their tongue when they were trying to articulate their response, would surely be deeply confused. In the same way, I think, a person is confused if they start to wonder about what exactly is there in the centre of their body when they are trying to articulate their response..




This discussion has been quite elaborate, but that is not because Focusing is itself something elaborate. It is the confusions and misunderstandings surrounding Focusing that give rise to the elaborations. In Wittgenstein’s metaphor, the untangling of a knot has to be as complex as the knot itself, but the result of untangling it is something simple.


It seems to me that there doesn’t have to be any fundamental difficulty in teaching Focusing. I am a bit sceptical about the extract I quoted from Krycka, that “it is simply too difficult to grasp the approach without continued experiential practice with a teacher or therapist”. After all, Gendlin wrote his original Focusing book as a self-help manual, and it has sold over half a million copies. I think that in practice people are able to read past the picture-language that Gendlin often uses in speaking of the felt sense as a murky inner datum, and appreciate that what he really means is that we need to give attention to those places where we are responding to our situation in a way that we can’t yet fully articulate. That may not always be easy to do, but it is not anything complicated or mysterious.







Canfield, J. (2007a). Becoming Human: The development of Language, Self, and Self-Consciousness.

Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Canfield, J. (2007b). Wittgenstein on fear. In D. Moyal-Sharrock (Ed.), Perpicuous Presentations:

Essays on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Psychology (pp. 12-27). Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Cornell, Ann Weiser (1996) The Power of Focusing. Oakland: New Harbinger.

Cornell, Ann Weiser (2005) The Radical Acceptance of Everything. Berkeley: Calluna


Gendlin, Eugene (1969) Focusing. In the Gendlin On-line Library

Gendlin, Eugene (1984) The client’s client: the edge of awareness. In the Gendlin On-line


Gendlin, Eugene (1996) Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Jolley, Kelly Dean (2010) Wittgenstein: Key Concepts. Durham: Acumen.

Krycka, Kevin (2014) Thinking and practicing FOT in the twenty-first century. In: Greg

Madison (ed.) Theory and Practice of Focusing-Oriented Therapy: Beyond the

Talking Cure. London: Jessica Kingsley

Levine, Peter (1997) Waking the Tiger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books

Moyal-Sharrock, D. (2000). ‘Words as deeds’: Wittgenstein’s ‘spontaneous utterances’ and

the dissolution of the explanatory gap. Philosophical Psychology, 13(3), 355-372.

ter Hark, M. (1990). Beyond the Inner and the Outer: Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of

Psychology. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Vesey, G. (1991). Inner and Outer: Essays on a Philosophical Myth. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

White, A. (1964). Attention. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1963). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

(Revised edition (2009). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Wittgenstein, L. (1992). Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology. Vol. 2:The Inner and the Outer. Oxford: Blackwell


Back to EFA posts

Back to EFA posts

15th Mar 2023

Campbell Purton (2009): Theory Construction in TAE

I taught TAE to psychotherapy research students for the first time this year, and found that in order for this part of TAE to make sense to them, I needed to say something about the nature of scientific theories and their development. Why bother to develop a theory? Why not just stay with one’s experiencing?


As Gendlin says in one of his video presentations, in order to appreciate the importance of theory we need to have some appreciation of what a theory is.

In this presentation I will give three examples of theories, drawn from the work of Rogers, Newton and Freud. This should make it clearer what a theory is, and then at the end we can look at the question of why theory construction can be interesting and important not just in connection with large questions at the frontiers of science, but also in connection with more everyday concerns.


Theories are distinguished from facts, although the dividing line between the two can be hazy: the theory that the earth revolves around the sun as become an accepted fact. And sometimes a previously accepted fact, such as the fact that the earth is flat, can be demolished by the construction of a new theory. People say ‘But that’s just a theory’ or ‘Evolution is not a theory – it is a fact’. Sometimes people use ‘theory’ to mean much the same as ‘hypothesis’, but we need to distinguish between hypotheses about what happens in the world and hypotheses about why these things happen.


(1) Hypotheses about regularities (patterns) – eg whether it is true that coffee can interfere with sleep, or that listening to people is therapeutic. Establishing whether such regularities exist usually requires observation, data collection or experiments. The discovered rgularities are, as it were, straightforward facts about the world. Things behave like this, or they don’t.


(2) Theories, on the other hand don’t just state what the regularities or patterns are. They attempt to explain why the regularities exist, through putting forward a view of the underlying nature of things. Theories answer ‘Why?’ questions. E.g. once it is established that coffee 9in some circumstances, and in some people) interferes with sleep we can investigate what it is about the nature of coffee and the nature of sleep, such one interferes with another. The theory is likely to bring in

lots of other things – caffeine, chemicals in the brain and so on. Once you have the theory you say ‘Ah, yes, now I understand why that happens’, or at least ‘I do see how that could explain why it happens’.



A theory of that sort still works within familiar concepts and principles – it shows how the pattern fits with those concepts and principles. It is essentially a puzzle-solving activity – the puzzle is how existence of the regularity follows from what we already know about the world. Much scientific research is like this – the historian Thomas Kuhn referred to it as ‘normal science’.


However, some scientific developments are not a matter of fitting the pattern into the familiar concepts and principles but of developing new concepts. This clearly happens in the work of great innovators such as Newton, Darwin and Freud. But it probably happens in a less obvious way in many theoretical developments. It is that sort of theoretical development that TAE is concerned with, the sort where we do not explain a pattern by fitting it into pre-existing concepts, but allow the pattern to change the concepts or to generate new concepts.



Carl Rogers’ theory of psychotherapy can illustrate this generation of new concepts. It is characteristic of theories that once they become widely accepted they tend to be seen as established facts – it no longer seems to us a theory that the earth rotates around the sun. And for many of us in the therapy world it can seem that Rogers simply discovered some regularities that are there – especially that clients make better progress if the therapist is empathic, accepting and genuine. But this misses the creativity involved in the construction of Rogers’ theory, and also assumes that empathy, acceptance and genuineness were there all the time, and it only needed Rogers to notice them and their importance.


What Rogers seems to have begun with is the realisation that most of the factors that might be expected to be relevant to successful therapy, are not very relevant. In practice, what seemed to matter was that the therapist should, in Rogers’ (1961, p. 131) word, ‘receive’ the client. And then within that general sense of ‘receiving the client’ Rogers began to differentiate various elements in ‘receiving’. One element was the idea of standing in the client’s shoes, or remaining in the client’s frame of reference. This was a kind of understanding, which could called ‘empathy’. Then there was the element of prizing, valuing, treasuring the client – Rogers had many words here, but eventually adopted a technical term to label this element – ‘unconditional positive regard’. Then a bit later Rogers was struck by a further element, which could be pointed at by terms such as ‘genuineness’, ‘authenticity’, ‘realness’, but again he chose the technical term ‘congruence’ as a label for this. Notice that only one of these crucial terms – ‘empathy’ – is used in something like its ordinary use; precisely because of that it has to be carefully guarded from misunderstanding. It needs to mean here what Rogers wants it to mean; for instance, it needs to be distinguished from such things as sympathy and intellectual understanding.


There is something that Rogers wants his terms to mean. He wants them to mean what comes from different elements of the felt sense of ‘receiving the client’. In that felt sense they are all together. Several writers on person-centred theory have noticed this – that Rogers’ ‘conditions’ are closely inter-related. For instance Bozarth (2001, pp. 145, 147) writes:


Empathy in client-centred therapy is a concept that is integrated with the conditions of congruency and unconditional positive regard…The concepts of empathy and unconditional positive regard are fundamentally the same in Rogerian theory.


If we were beginning from the felt sense of ‘receiving the client’, and working in a TAE sort of way we would do something like this: We would give the three main terms labels and try understanding them as inherently connected.


The TAE development would be something like:


E Empathy


C Congruence


Our felt sense tells us these terms are connected.

So we try connecting them explicitly – using ‘=’ to indicate some kind of inherent link. We could try out:


Empathy = UPR ( This could be the idea that Empathy involves UPR : you can’t really be with someone unless you respect them, and UPR involves an element of empathy: you can’t really fully respect someone unless you understand them )


UPR = congruence (UPR must be genuine: you are not really respecting someone unless you are being genuine with them, and being congruent with someone shows a respect for your relationship with them).


Congruence = empathy (This could be the point that Empathy must be genuine: You are not really empathising with someone if you are not being genuine with them, and you are not being congruent with them unless you understand them).


Now we could bring in another term that seems closely bound up with the three conditions – the notion of self-healing, or what Rogers called the ‘actualising tendency’ (AT).


We try making AT inherently link with the others, like this:


AT = empathy: the idea that self-healing involves empathy with oneself

A new concept has emerged here – the concept of self-empathy


AT = UPR AT flourishes in UPR

UPR encourages the AT

This suggests that the AT is relational – it depends on the environment.


AT = congruence Congruence is the AT – congruence is the organism being itself

So congruence is a process


Here the theory is developing: it brings a new set of concepts, a new way of thinking, and this new way of thinking begins to explain some important regularities – such as the fact that just listening to a client can be healing, that deep relationship can be healing, that focusing can be healing:


Why can just listening to a client be healing?

Because the listening can embody UPR and the AT flourishes in UPR

The theory suggests that only some sorts of listening will be healing – it won’t be healing if I’m listening hard with a view to catching you out! The theory will tell you about the kind of listening that is important


Why is engaging at relational depth healing?
Because relational depth typically involves high levels of U, E and C

But only this sort of relational depth will help – not, e,g., the sort that is said to exist sometimes between torturer and victim, or other abusive relationships. There can be relations in depth that are deeply destructive.


Why do clients who do focusing make better progress?

Because focusing involves self-empathy and self-acceptance, and empathy and acceptance facilitate the actualising tendency.

Also because focusing involves being more congruent and being more congruent is an actualisation of the individual


A good theory develops terms that illuminate many regularities, many connections.

It pulls together things which previously seemed separate

It also shows us the limitations of the regularities, such as the limitation that not all listening will be therapeutic. The theory begins to tell us what the limitations are.


Finally, it may be possible to apply the theory in new fields – Rogers began to apply his theory to education and group work. The theory now being applied in the field of spirituality. If the theory is a good one it will work in new fields because it is tapping into something that is there in the nature of things, in the deep interconnectedness of things. The felt sense comes from that place, and the theory makes explicit the interconnections within the felt sense.


Theories are important because they give us access to the interconnectedness of things. They display the world in a way that shows its interconnectedness. The connections between the terms of the theory are rooted in the connectedness of the world, although there may be alternative theories that can display different ways in which there in interconnection.




Does what I have said apply in science generally? I think it does, but the point is hard to illustrate without technical knowledge of the branch of science in question. In physics it can be hard to see what is going on, because the interconnections are often formulated mathematically. However, we can get a glimpse of how it works by looking briefly at Newton’s theory of motion, developed in the 17th Century, near the beginning of modern physics. Newton’s theory is so much part of common sense by now that we may have some difficulty in appreciating it as a theory. We take for granted that a moving object will continue to move unless prevented by an external force, and that the change in the motion of a body is proportional to the force exerted on it. Really to appreciate Newton, one has to look back to Aristotle’s very different conception of motion, or to look ahead to Einstein for another quite different way of seeing things. However, without going deeply into the historical aspects we still can appreciate that Newton didn’t find his concepts there ready-made – he formulated them out of his knowledge and experience of motion (including much that was familiar to him through the earlier work of people such as Kepler and Galileo).

In coming to understand concepts we don’t necessarily have to follow the route that their originator followed. All we have to appreciate is the way the concepts are interconnected. So rather than trying to follow Newton’s own train of thought we will try reconstructing his concepts in the following TAE way:


In our experience of motion, big things take more shifting than little things, and the bigger the push the more something moves. We could start with that, and draw out of it three main terms:


B Bigness

P Push

AM Amount of motion


In our experience of moving things, these three seem all to come together. So we try making links between the terms:


B=P Big things in motion create more push

P=AM The more the push the more the change in motion

AM=B The more the change in motion, the bigger the thing must have been.


Then checking back with the felt sense we realise that we need to specify more exactly what our terms are to mean, or introduce new technical terms that will have just those specified meanings:


By B (bigness) we mean not just size but more pushing-ability, or massiveness (M)

By P (push) we mean not just what moves something, but also what stops things from moving, deflects things, gets thing moving faster – P produces change in motion. Call this ‘Force’, F

Then instead of AM we seem to need a term for change in the amount of motion, what we might call acceleration, A


Then we can say precisely that


More F (force) gives more A (acceleration) for a given M (mass)

More M (mass) needs more F (force) for the same A (acceleration)


These are the sort of relationships that can be expressed by elementary algebra:


F= M x A (fix M – then more F gives more A)


M = F/A ( fix A – then more M means more F)

A= F/M (fix F – then less M will mean more A)


The terms are interlinked – none can be understood without the others. These are theoretical terms, terms developed as elements of theory, and dependent on each other for their meanings.

They have very specific meanings – acceleration doesn’t cover only going faster and faster – but also slowing down, or being deflected – A is change in motion.

Mass is not same as bigness in the sense of size – it is ‘quantity of matter’ – measured by how much push is needed to give a particular acceleration.

Force is not just something felt. We feel the force of the wind, but we don’t feel the force of the earth’s magnetism. That force is shown in how a compass needle moves. It is shown in how the moon moves around the earth. (That particular force becomes known as ‘gravity’. There was no such thing in Aristotle’s physics).


These concepts form the core of Newton’s theory of motion. Aristotle had different concepts, so did Einstein. Newton’s theory could be applied in many areas, and formed the backbone of much of physics for 200 years or more.


A theory is an interlinked set of terms (concepts) that illuminates the inter-connectedness of the world. (But the world is interconnected in myriad ways, so that although Newton’s theory is a good theory there can be others, such as Aristotle’s and Einstein’s).


Rogers could sense a connectedness involved in ‘receiving’ a client and the client being helped – his theory formulates this connectedness in an explicit way.


Newton could sense a connectedness involved in all motion, whether that of an apple falling to the earth, or that of the planets – his theory formulates that connectedness in an explicit way.




Here is a third example, that Gendlin has discussed a bit in one of his video presentations. It concerns one of Freud’s early formulations of his basic theory.

(see his ‘Formulations regarding the two principles in mental functioning’ (1911). In Psychological Papers, Vol 4, pp. 13-21).


We can begin from these patterns (regularities):


People often have distorted perceptions, unrealistic views.

People may deceive themselves, deny things, or see things that are not there.

Some slips of tongue seem to be motivated.

We may mis-remember – in a way that is congenial to us.

These all seem to be connected – as if there is one bit of us that sees things as they are, and another bit that sees what it wants to see. As often happens in theory construction, there is a metaphor at work here – a metaphor (very familiar now) of a person as a committee of sub-persons.


If we are following a TAE process we now choose some terms and link them:


The bit that sees things as they are: Call this RB – the reality bit

The bit that sees things as we’d like them to be: Call this PB – the pleasure bit

The process by which the pleasure bit represses (distorts or denies) reality: Call this REP


Then TAE suggests that we connect the terms:


RB = PB The RB (reality bit) is repressed by PB (pleasure bit)

PB = REP The PB (pleasure bit) is what does the REP (repression)

REP = RB REP (repression) works on the RB (reality bit)


From this Freud’s early concepts naturally arise:


A ‘pleasure-ego’ that ‘can do nothing but wish, work towards gaining pleasure and avoiding pain’ and a ‘reality-ego’ that does ‘nothing but strive for what is useful and guard itself against damage’ (Freud, p. 18). Also repression, where ‘the neurotic turns away from reality because he finds it unbearable – either the whole or parts of it’ (p. 13).


The theory now begins to explain some of the patterns we started from:


In psychological disturbance the pleasure-ego is dominant, and the reality-ego is weak, so that the person has difficulties through not being in realistic contact with the world.

Self-deception is explained as the pleasure-ego over-ruling the reality-ego.

Mis-remembering is similar.

Slips of the tongue can be understood as the pleasure-ego managing to say what it feels in spite of the reality-ego’s attempts to guard against such expression.


Freud believed that he had discovered that much psychological disturbance is related to sexuality – can the theory explain that? Yes, because in human sexual development there is a long latency period in which the pleasure-ego is not modified by the reality ego. Hence it would not be surprising if psychological disturbance were related to sexuality.


Freud then extends his theory to issues in religion, education and art. He suggests that:

Religion reconciles the pleasure-ego with the reality-ego by promising happiness in the next life if you abandon pleasure in this life

Education involves the control of the pleasure-ego by the reality-ego – learning how the world is, not how we would like it to be

Artists reconcile the pleasure-ego with the reality-ego by creating fantasy realities which other people will nevertheless buy from them. Thus artists can indulge their pleasure-ego while managing to earn their living in the real world.


‘Pleasure-ego’ and ‘reality-ego’ are theoretical terms. They can be seen as ‘bits’ of the self, but they are different from phenomenological ‘bits’ such as ‘my angry bit’ and ‘my scared bit’. Yet it would be wrong to say that they have no experiential aspect: someone who has come to think in these terms may well describe an experience as one in which their pleasure-ego broke through the normal repression. Similarly, although electrons and other sub-atomic particles are theoretical terms, physicists speak of seeing their tracks in cloud-chamber photographs.


Small-scale theories


The theories I have considered are wide-ranging theories in which theorists of genius have created new way of seeing things. But one fascinating thing about TAE is that the same principles apply in trying to understand much more limited aspects of the world. In the natural sciences theory has by now become highly developed, and in order to make a creative contribution one has to become familiar with the development of the theory up to now. That is what undergraduate and postgraduate study of a branch of science involves. However, in human affairs, unlike in the natural sciences, there are few really well developed theories, and those that do exist, such as psychoanalytic theory, tend to be highly controversial.


This means that there is plenty of space for people who are familiar with some aspect of human life to develop theories about it. The point of doing this, apart from the inherent satisfaction of gaining understanding, is to make explicit some of the connections that can be sensed within that field, so that other people can pick up more quickly on what some of those connections are. Once a theory is developed, other people will be senitised to what they might usefully look for; they won’t have to go through the whole process by which the originator of the theory got hold of the concepts. This is largely how advances in understanding come about. I remember the philosopher Karl Popper saying in his lectures ‘If everyone had to start where Adam and Eve started, then we would not have got any further than Adam and Eve’. But for one person to build on another’s experience, the first person needs to be able to formulate their experience in general concepts that nevertheless arise from their particular experiencing. The second person then approaches their own experiencing with those concepts, and then discovers either that the concepts work for them, and carry them forward, or they may find that the concepts need to be modified. The development of new understanding is thus a highly inter-personal and collective activity. It involves both individual experiencing and the development of general concepts and theories which formulate that experiencing.


Such development of concepts and theories is what is involved in creative thinking, and Gendlin points out that anyone can do this. It is true that you can’t do creative thinking in physics without a long immersion in physical theory, but in most human fields there is little pre-existent theory to be mastered. These fields await the creative thinking of anyone who has significant experience in the field, and who can therefore sense the connections that are there. It is from those sensed connections that a theory may be developed.




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