Some of the kinds of biases often associated
with the Focusing process.
Table of Contents
Now, with over 40 years since its initial articulation, successful forms of
Focusing have developed and continue to grow.
Along with sharing our understanding of the value of Focusing, it is important to also share our growing understanding of some of the limitations and pitfalls of Focusing that we have encountered.
Software designers continually seek to ‘bug-proof’ their program. In the same way, it would be wise to be aware of potential vulnerable aspects of the Focusing process, so that these areas can be supported, maximizing its utility and minimizing breakdowns in its use.
This article intends to point out several of these areas. A later article offers a few suggestions for ways to bolster areas where Focusing can break down in effectiveness by “alloying” Focusing with other processes and structures.
One category of biases I categorize as “attitudinal” – based on, and perpetuated by, attitudes which can inadvertently be acquired and continued if one is not aware of them. Awareness is often remedial for these - they can be avoided once one is aware of them.
Another category of biases might be categorized as “inherent”. These, I feel, may be inherent in a felt sensing process by its very nature, and may benefit from structural or practice modification to support vulnerable areas.
1) Felt experiencing valued above other experiencing.
This can be also called a self-referencing bias (considering Focusing to be
“the center of the universe”, the place to which all else is referenced and
a) Relying solely on the bodily-felt sense (believing that an internal reference is enough) is an attitude that Focusing inadvertently tends to support.
Because Focusing was the first process to intricately describe and intentionally work with the felt sense, it is easy to excessively foreground felt sensing, and undervalue other ways of knowing and working in the world.
This is common and also ironic. Focusing itself was validated by external observation, referencing, making hypotheses, and studying outcomes. Dr Gendlin verified the differences between what successful and unsuccessful clients did by looking at outcomes data - not by felt sensing!
b) Focusing uses the body as instrument, and can inadvertently feed an overemphasis on the self and inner world and background the rest of experiencing. This can also lead to a tendency to “own” felt senses, as if all were personal. These can be subject to personal and psychological distortion.
c) Believing that everything is contained within Focusing, and there is no need to look elsewhere or do other practices. This bias continues in spite of Gendlin’s repeated encouragement to “Use everything!” Gendlin has said that Focusing IS so effective in getting movement in stuck places, that it can become seductive – one can feel something moving, and not realize that the larger structure one operates in is still stuck.
2) The “new life is better” bias
Overemphasis given to ‘aliveness’ can lead to one considering structure and past unfolding as an impediment to life unfolding in the present.
This can take several forms:
a) Foregrounding the growth edge, the felt sense of what wants to emerge in the present, while, at the same time, undervaluing the movement of that edge over time.
To “live from the edge”, one needs solid supportive structures to anchor into. The secret of growing up tall is having deep roots – an implicit structure is needed to support unfolding.
Focusing can fall into overidentifying with what
is described in Polarity Management (http://www.polaritypartnerships.com/ )as Crusader Energy. Crusading and Tradition-Bearing are
two archetypal poles of change in Polarity Management. Both are equally
important, and help balance and regulate each other. In Polarity Management,
identifying with one pole and trying to avoid the other leads to experiencing
the negative side of BOTH poles.
b) A bias against structure - a belief that structure inherently limits growth, and that therefore it is deleterious to the process of felt-sensing.
Depending on how structures are ‘held’, structures can support growth, limit growth or both.
Flowers needs stems and stalks upon which to bloom – structure is often a life-forward step. While the bud may have to struggle to emerge from the stem, or the chick struggle to emerge from the egg, this is a life-forward struggle, NOT some inherent wrongness with the stem or the egg.
Often, structure and growing edge can co-evolve to support each other optimally. [In our example with the chick, the struggle to peck its way out of the egg is what builds strength in its lungs to be able to breathe and survive once it emerges.]
p33 of A Process Model states that: “En#3 is a kind of past IN which the fresh body-en#2 process goes on.
Another way to say this is that today’s structure is yesterday’s growth edge that took its action step into embodiment.
This relates closely to #3 below:
3) Underappreciating the role of models of reality to guide felt-sensing.
Felt sensing is always a sensing into SOMETHING. The felt exploration is directed and guided along certain lines (usually, but not necessarily, personal). Depending on the belief systems and process that one is sensing along, the results can be more or less successful, and more or less ‘biased’ towards partial experiencing.
It may well be that a felt sense is formed as the RESULT OF AN INQUIRY – that it is the result of our awareness asking a question, while allowing the ‘answer’ to form within, or in correspondence with, the “cloud chamber” of the human bodily felt-sensing system.
Even though all models are relative, some can be quite helpful. Many in the Focusing community do not take advantage of the support and directional guidance of good theory and models. This limits the vast potential power of the Focusing process.
4) A bias towards being overly receptive (giving oneself up)
During paired Focusing, the listener is often encouraged and taught how to maximally support the focuser’s process. The needs of the listener can be inadvertently framed as being an interference or impediment to the Focusing process. Tuning into one’s own feelings and needs as listener, and remembering that one has the right to take care of themselves as listener, are both given much less attention during focusing practice than their tuning in to the focuser.
If someone already has a tendency to “give themselves up”, they may not be very attuned to their own needs as listener in any given moment. This lesser attention to oneself as listener and more to the speaker can carry into other spheres of relating.
This is rarely an issue within a Focusing Partnership. However, in interpersonal relationships with shared content fields, one might be overly open or put oneself aside for the listener, rather than protecting themselves or stopping something hurtful from happening to them. It can be easy to carry the feeling and intention of “having to” listen or “having to” support the other person, when in contexts outside of boundaried Focusing space…
5) Bias against intention and use of will
Focusing Attitude is an accepting, allowing, gentle attentional quality, which is very nurturing and life-supportive. Making a conscious intention may be subtly discouraged in Focusing – because of the legitimate concern that the focuser is siding with one part (the part that wants something) and trying to push another part (the part that is not sure it wants to do that) around.
is often true. It is good to be aware of the excessive force that often
accompanies the use of the will. On the other hand, this can cultivate a
reluctance to use the power of directed focused attention for achievement and
personal growth, because it “feels pushy”. Becoming “allergic” to the use of
intention and will is unfortunate, and can occur in Focusing.
[A short discussion of this point is available if you click here , then scroll down to “A caveat, a suggestion, and a blessing”]
Early Focusing teaching included Clearing A Space as a first step. The early focusers used this between clients to reconnect with an openness and ease. This balanced the tendency to use Focusing to work on issues and problems. That has remained the main application of Focusing by many.
In addition, the removal of Clearing A Space as the first step taught potentially de-values the clear space, and also subtly encourages an emphasis on “the stuff IN the space”, rather than appreciating the stuff AND the space.
Since life continually emerges, and new needs arise (a la Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), this can set one up to be constantly working on emerging issues, losing touch with the vast spaciousness in which this all floats.
There are many ways to use Focusing to more deeply connect with joyous experiences, to deepen intimacy, and to connect with the interaffecting fields around us. In order to do so, it helps to be aware of the biases that help us forget the spaciousness inherent in our existence, and the tendency to practice Focusing when wanting to untangle difficult, complex, or distressing situations. There is great richness in alloying Focusing to many of the positive psychology practices of connecting with our resources and sources of joy and peace.
#7- 11 Inherent Biases and Influences:
There are a few factors that make these biases “inherent” in Focusing as it is commonly practiced. These include:
a) The dependent (fragile) nature of felt sensing
b) Working with exiles (workers) is not as high leverage a change intervention as working with managers
c) Biases occur when referencing within a particular system that has its own limitations, beliefs, and biases. These may not be apparent from WITHIN the system (may not be apparent when felt from inside the referencing) as is apparent from the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant.
d) In creating the protective space for Focusing, much of the outside world is held at bay. If that is not let back in somehow (and it usually is not), then something critical is lost, and the Focusing process can be kept from connection with certain important aspects of our living.
We can use this brief summary to help/identify several factors that can interfere with the Focusing process in certain contexts.
In Process Model terms, the VII sequences need to be paused, while the sensing into and opening to a new kind of space and experiencing occurs. If there is ongoing symbolic and language narrative or decision-making process going on, this is not conducive to the formation of felt senses. One may SENSE something, but that can be very different from this novel kind of felt-sense formation.
The process of felt-sensing is a delicate one, and easily disruptible. It is dependent on proper attitude, safety, and environment. This is why so much attention in training is given to how to support felt sense formation and unfolding.
It might be considered analogous to a “greenhouse” process – one in which a special environment is created in order to allow something to flourish that might not have in a more hostile intra- or interpersonal environment.
Focusing requires a certain energetic attitude of openness in order to sense well. This may require pausing and opening. Inherently gentle and interdependent, felt-sensing can be overwhelmed by raw emotion, critical voices, external content, or unhospitable ‘climate’. This can limit Focusing’s effectiveness in these situations when used as a stand-alone process of shared content or interpersonal conflict.
In these situations, having an auxiliary process available that does NOT depend solely on feelings or felt qualities is wise. See this for a few examples of connecting Focusing with Non-Violent Communication and Heart-to-Heart in a relational context.
See this for ways to connect Focusing with Dynamic Facilitation in a
workgroup or group problem-solving context.
7) Biases caused by felt dissociation.
Every process has its strengths and weaknesses. Every instrument has ways that its input can become biased or distorted. No good pilot or sailor uses only one method or instrument to navigate the unknown.
While “a felt sense of anything CAN be invited into the body”, there are reasons that one might NOT form or be found. There are reasons why one might habitually not-sense certain aspects of their experiencing.
Parameters of cultivated and natural sensitivity, signal strength, level of experience in the areas being sensed into, and habitual patterns of disconnection - all can allow things to be out of awareness.
The “direct referent” (as Gendlin calls it) is referencing within a particular system, or particular line of inquiry. Each has its own limitations, beliefs, and biases. These limitations or biases may not be apparent from WITHIN the system (may not be apparent when felt from inside the referencing.)
Just because one doesn’t sense something, that does not mean that it is not there, affecting us. If one relies on felt sensing, without some other way of cross-checking, one can find oneself off course, affected by habitual processes operating outside of their awareness.
Consciously directing attention to that area, or finding another way to increase signal strength or recognition, may allow one to access these experiences. This is where other processes can be combined with Focusing.
Two examples of processes that help identify possible areas of dissociation on a personal level are Treasure Maps and Gendlin’s dreamwork (the bias, and “looking for the life in the dream”.) Each of these have ways to help direct attention to something that can be habitually overlooked when Focusing in the usual manner, with the usual frames of reference regarding what is important and what is irrelevant, what is helpful and what is hindrance. . . .
More on this to follow, in the context of the terms
“managers” and “exiles”.
8) Biases caused when not appreciating dimensions of depth in Focusing
All sensing is a sensing into SOMETHING. Felt sensing occurs along a path, or trajectory.
Focusing is a vehicle which allows deep entry into the Implicit. Focusing can be used for different ‘journeys’. How the sensing is directed and guided, and what one’s values and worldviews are, are two factors that shape and steer the direction and experience of the Focusing process.
Sensing into “what do I want to eat now?” and “what do I feel called to do
with my life?” both can lead to felt sense formation. At the same time, the two are very different
explorations, with different depths and trajectories.
Some places are more likely to encounter “mother lode” than others. There are ways to help point to rich areas from which to launch a felt sensing investigation. Failure to recognize this can limit the search for more effective trajectories and frameworks in which to felt sense, and limit the power of Focusing.
Bias against certain parts while Focusing
A) One part using Focusing against another.
Focusing involves using our bodies to reference “something” that is felt and has meaning. It is possible, when Focusing, to be referencing from the perspective of only one aspect of our experience. A common example of this is when “something in us” uses the Focusing process with the intention to try and make some other aspect of our experiencing (some bad feeling) go away!
There are some forms of Focusing that intentionally acknowledge this (see Treasure Maps and Gene’s dreamwork), and make efforts to minimize its impact on the process. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of how pervasive this can be, and how this can lead to stuckness in Focusing.
B) Relating to some aspects of our experiencing as if they are not welcome or not valued or do not belong within the Focusing space because they do not present as felt.
Sometimes, parts are labeled in a way that can discourage their contributions within Focusing space. Just because something in our experience does not have an easily accessible felt quality, does not mean that it doesn’t deserve our attention.
It can become all too easy to preferentially attend to the needs of the parts that have easily accessible feelings, while subtly or intensely pushing away other aspects of our being that present with judgments or actions (but often have deep needs for connection or security.)
If the needs of these judgmental parts go unaddressed because they don’t
present in a felt way, the change process can be stymied or slowed.
That can also perpetuate a bias towards relating to self and other from a felt place, and being subtly critical when they do not do that…(more to come)
For example, treating a part called the Critic as if it was a nuisance or bully can have this effect – that part can stay exiled and stuck. Yes, that might allow some space for another place inside to have some fresh air. And, some other rich opportunity can be lost, as well.
Jerry Donoghue’s Inner Empathy (www.innerempathy.com),
and NVC-Focusing combinations often allow one to access and help heal the
profound needs within judgmental and critical parts (ones that seem to be
blocking or attacking the felt sense) by working with principles of NVC, such
as Marshall Rosenberg’s “all judgments
are tragic expressions of unmet needs”.
C. Bias against the important roles and contributions of “manager parts” can limit the process, or lead to protective backlash
Focusing, as it is often practiced, offers attention to tender places that want to unfold. Along with this sensitivity, one can fall into judging and undervaluing the protective, often critical, aspects of ourselves, ones that may not be so in touch with their own feelings and needs, but which are dutifully fulfilling a protective function.
Early on, when learning some of the aspects of Internal Family Systems work (http://selfleadership.org/ ), one is exposed to concepts of different kinds of parts, described as Managers, Firefighters, and Exiles. This helped me see the difference between their approach, and what often occurs when Focusing.
Managers keep things under control. Exiles are the parts that often are kept out of awareness, barely given a voice. They are often the parts that have feelings.
The parts that are worked on in Focusing, tender ones that we try to connect with, are often what would be labeled “exiles” in IFS. And, parts with critical or judgmental qualities would likely be labeled as “managers” in IFS. Some Focusing styles see the “managers” as interfering with the Focusing process, to be kept aside, away from more tender parts. That feels quite natural when doing some kinds of Focusing.
But let us take this analogy into the outer world. Let us say that you were going to help a company and its workers feel more healthy, alive, free, creative…
How might you approach the people within it?
Would you begin by listening to the workers, helping them feel their
feelings, find their voices, and ask for what they wanted BEFORE ASKING
PERMISSION OF THE MANAGEMENT? What do you expect would be likely to happen if
someone were to do that?!
This type of activity could easily be seen by management as upheaval, mutiny, rabble-rousing. It is quite likely that there would be a managerial backlash against the workers (parts) that began to speak up.
IFS might say that “the Critic is a manager, and one needs to work with the managers before working with the exiles” IFS has a respectful way to work with the critical managers that respect its power, just as one trying to change a company would find ‘going behind the bosses’ backs’ to be a potentially unskillful intervention in many (though not all) cases.
All of this power of working with managers may be missed if one limits their focusing to being with parts that have “feelings”, rather than also being aware of the systemic interactions within the inner landscape. Focusing often emphasizes attending to the exiled, tender workers, and ignores the key role and value of “management” in our mind-body system, labeling it as Critic, oppressor, etc.
It can be a higher leverage intervention to work with the structural managerial aspects of our being rather than staying only with the more tender parts. Quality improvement guru Edward Deming asserts that about 85% of the influence and power to change a system lies in management, and 15% in the line staff. I wonder if this is anything like the percentage of relative leverage for change between managers and exiles in the psyche!
Most good consultants ask permission of management, talk with them about their goals and concerns, and start by working with managers, before beginning an improvement project with the line staff. In like manner, much of the initial stages in IFS can involve connecting with and working with managers, then asking their permission before working with exiles.
In this system, if the manager parts are not willing to step aside, then one
works with the feelings and needs of the managers first, before going to the
(Gendlin’s dreamwork and Cornell/McGavin’s Treasure Maps both have ways to welcome and directly work with opposing or managerial parts, but do not use that terminology, so the powerful importance of these processes may go unappreciated in Focusing.)
Another model that can highlight the bias in Focusing towards the felt, and away from the protective parts is the Immunity to Change model. From the perspective of Immunity to Change, managerial parts often are trying to protect us from perceived intense threats to our integrity and well-being. If we just keep pushing our conscious commitments to growth, without surfacing these competing commitments, then it can activate powerful “braking” responses.
If this is not recognized, and one persists in trying to commit more to growth, to be more open, etc, without being aware of this ongoing protective dynamic, then there can be a very intense tightening, shutting down, or internal conflict as the protective aspects of our being do their job even harder in response to perceived threats.
This can sometimes apply to “trying to do Focusing”! When there is much resistance to getting into one’s body, it may be worth listening to the places inside that have good reason to NOT want to do Focusing, rather than interpret the blockage or resistance as something that needs to be bypassed or worked around…
A Focusing trainer contacted me some years ago because of this. Even though she had lovely experiences (quite profound, in fact), during a Focusing retreat, she then found herself having a severe flare of an autoimmune disease. When I suggested that this may have been because there might have been aspects in her being that had good reason for not wanting her to connect inside, this helped her opened up into some very powerful explorations, and into early experiences which validated the decisions these parts had made then. . . .
The key here is to apply the Focusing attitude “there must be some good
reason that….” even to parts in us that don’t want to do Focusing, feel, open,
grow, or anything else. . . .
10) A bias towards
valuing inner experiences and being-with over action and interaction
Some have said that the reason for this bias is that “Focusing attracts introverts”.
Whether or not this is accurate, there are structural dynamics in how Focusing is often done which influence the valuing of inner vs outer experiencing and actions.
a) Nothing is ever the last step – less deciding
In Focusing, we are often taught that “everything is in process and may unfold”. That is absolutely true. It can also exacerbate the Perceiving preference in Myers-Briggs, leaving things open and not decided, because more will unfold.
b) Overvaluing inner experience and feedback and minimizing outer experiences and feedback
The sensing process is very dependent on outside as well as inside biases.
In some areas, the felt sensing can be numbed out.
And, while the felt sense shows you more (than you thought you knew), it may just show you the “more” that the place that was referenced knows. It may not say anything about what OTHER parts of the system or person know!
One of the Blind Men can sense all they want into the elephant's trunk, getting deep insight and connection with a “snake”. But without knowing what the other men saw, they will never get a sense of the whole elephant....
This is even harder because of something that is built into most Focusing:
c) In order for Focusing to happen, we often block out aspects of the rest of the world. If these are not brought back in at some point in time, Focusing loses some of its touch with interactive reality.
From an engineering perspective, many processes put some kinds of constraints on reality in order to leverage benefits of some sort. For example, therapists attend to their clients’ needs during the sessions in order to facilitate certain kinds of connection and healing. But that one-sided form of interaction is limited to the structure of the therapy interaction.
Likewise, there are moves that Focusing makes which are intended to create safety by protecting the focuser and their felt sensing from outside disturbances and others’ feelings and ideas.
Gene Gendlin has been a champion of individual
process, of protecting that precious inner act that was described, encouraging
connecting with fresh living experiencing process:
-No commenting on content
-Protecting felt experience from critical voices
-Having the felt sense be “the client’s client”…
-Separating discussion of process from discussion of content during demonstrations and trainings…
Many of the demands of the rest of the world, and of critical voices, are placed on hold during Focusing. Other people’s thoughts and opinions are placed far in the background so as to not disrupt the process. This leads to much depth, profound nurturance and connection.
This is the “greenhouse” in which tender shoots, which would not have made
it otherwise, thrive and blossom
This can lead to potential disconnection between the inner and the outer worlds, between personal and shared content if one starts to think that all connections “should” be done this way, with this kind of extreme protection from other feedback and input.
The inner world can become overvalued, and the outer world devalued, as it does not support the greenhouse….
Since much of the world is kept at bay, it would seem important to find some way to bring it back before completing the process, to avoid some kinds of biases such as the ones mentioned here.
However, Focusing does not consistently incorporate/teach/practice ways to bring the rest of the world and its necessary information back into the space with the Focuser, which would have allowed other perspectives and other needs to be welcomed and integrated.
If people are used to protected personal content and feelings, minimal
cross-talk and interpersonal discussion, then this can make group process
difficult, particularly ones in which there are fields of shared content or
need for group decisions.
One of the most cogent and brilliant ways to understand this have been described by David Young (inspired by McKeon) in his descriptions of the Four Orderings. Click here for links to articles on this.
Perhaps David’s work summarizes and articulates the biases in Focusing much better than the first 11 pages of this article! Please read his articles for more depth and examples.
For the sake of a brief inclusion, these four orderings are all aspects of one large living process. They are:
-The Logical Order (conceptual thought, logical thinking, left brain process)
-The Implicate Order (including what is felt)
- “In The Worlding” – relating to and interacting with other people and external information and the environment
- Homing (“With-Toward Being”)
I do not do these justice in this brief mention. But, hopefully, you will understand that if ANY of these FOUR are excluded from any process, than limitations, process-skipping, and biases will occur – guaranteed!
As David has written, Focusing, as practiced, accesses the Implicate order par excellence. It can resonate and zigzag with the Logical Order. Some schools of Focusing include Homing.
However, Focusing as it is often practiced, tends to ignore, or even actively discourage, in-the-worlding. If you reread this section 10c), you will see how this is built in to the teaching and practice of much of Focusing as we do it.
This encourages a form of isolation and disconnection that loses much power that was potential within the process.
11) While not really a bias, Focusing does give people an experience of a very gentle and supported world.
Some people who are very sensitive may find a real home when Focusing. In raising the bar for what is possible, it also can give rise to deep grief and longing in relation to much of the rest of their experiencing of the world, and of their life, outside of Focusing space.
The positive side is that it can motivate people towards creating a world in which sensitive people can dwell comfortably . . .
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