Focusing: A Path Toward Emotional Sobriety and Fulfilling Relationships with Ourselves and Others

Life is often difficult. Relationships are a challenge.
Living a good life rests upon the art of cultivating emotional
sobriety.

Bill Wilson, the cofounder of AA, spoke about emotional
sobriety in his famous letter to a depressed friend.
He defines emotional sobriety as “real maturity” and
“balance” in our relationship with ourselves, each other,
and our Higher Power. The elusive key to finding such
balance is developing a healthy relationship with the
full range of our feelings, hearing what our feelings are
trying to tell us about our lives, and living in harmony
with how things are rather than trying to control and
manipulate life.

Things often don’t go our way. Events may leave us
feeling disappointed, angry, or frustrated. Not knowing
how to deal with overwhelming feelings may have
prompted us to turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictions
to ease our anxiety and numb us to our pain.

Not having enough inner resources to deal with life’s
challenges, we distracted ourselves from an inner emptiness
or depression—often at a big cost.

Emotional sobriety begins by being honest with ourselves
about what we’re feeling and finding a way to
comfort ourselves when life gets stressful. We need to
care for ourselves emotionally, physically, and
spiritually.

Focusing: A Method for Emotional Sobriety and
Self-Compassion

As psychotherapists for over thirty years, we’ve each incorporated
a practice known as Focusing into our therapeutic
work, as well as into our teaching and writing.
Focusing is a method of bringing mindful awareness
to our felt sense of an issue or experience, listening to
it with compassionate acceptance and accessing the
body’s intrinsic wisdom.

We see Focusing as a powerful, practical, yet gentle
path toward emotional sobriety. Here we want to outline
some of the principles of Focusing, the Focusing
Attitude, and how Focusing can assist you (and your
clients if you work with others) to connect more deeply
and richly with yourself and with other people.

History of Focusing

During the 1960’s Dr. Eugene Gendlin was a student
and then a colleague of Carl Rogers, the founding
father of Humanistic Psychology. Gendlin was interested
in what happens inside of those clients who make
progress in psychotherapy. After evaluating hundreds
of hours of taped psychotherapy sessions, Gendlin’s
team found that the clients who grew the most were
those who paused, slowed down their speech, and
searched within themselves in a certain kind of way.
Gendlin proceeded to develop steps that others could
learn what these gifted clients were doing quite naturally.
He came to call the process “Focusing.” Life issues,
feelings, and new steps forward come into clearer
focus as we stay with how they’re being experienced
inside our body.

The core of Focusing is a certain attitude that we cultivate
toward ourselves and our life experience. Gendlin
named this, the “Focusing Attitude.” Here are some of
its elements.

Suspending Control

Have you noticed how issues rarely get resolved by trying
to figure them out in your head? Creative insights
and fresh directions emerge as we let go of trying to
control everything and allow things to be as they are.
We trust the process of life. We tap into a source of creativity,
our Higher Power, or whatever we prefer to call
this mysterious larger something that we participate in.

We try to control ourselves and others when we feel
uncomfortable inside. Focusing is a path toward letting
go of this destructive control. It offers a gentle structure
that helps us bring mindful attention inside ourselves
and welcome our experience just as it is.

Being Gentle with Ourselves and Our Experience

Being harsh and critical toward others often reflects
how we’re harsh and critical of ourselves.

Many of us grew up with judgmental and shaming
parents, teachers, or peers. We internalized an “inner
critic” that barks at us with unfriendly comments. We
tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, successful
enough, or attractive enough. These criticisms are associated
with a gnawing sense of shame. We experience a
sense of being defective and unworthy. We don’t value
ourselves.

One reason people turn to drugs, alcohol, and other
addictions is to soothe the pain of this destructive
shame. We need to find a path toward healing our
shame. This begins by accepting, honoring, and valuing
ourselves just as we are. As Carl Rogers famously said,
“The curious paradox is that when I can accept myself
just as I am, then I can change.”

Focusing brings an attitude of robust gentleness,
respect, and compassion toward ourselves. Whatever
feelings arise, we notice them, allow them, and learn
how to be with them in a gentle, caring way. When
emotions arise in our therapy sessions, we often ask
our clients, “Can you just allow that to be there? Can
you be with that feeling in a gentle, caring way?” Such
suggestions, combined with our own caring presence
toward our clients, often allows a softening of difficult
feelings. Emotions that were once overwhelming or
unbearable become more tolerable as we embrace
them—in the same way we’d embrace a hurting child
or a loved pet. New understandings and directions
emerge as we welcome our feelings and hear the wisdom
contained within them.

This Focusing attitude of gentleness and caring is reflected
in the teachings of the popular Buddhist teacher
Thich Nhat Hanh:, who invites us to have a gentle,
friendly relationship with our feelings: “It is best not to
say, ‘Go away, Fear. I don’t like you. You are not me.’ It
is much more effective to say, ‘Hello, Fear. How are you
today?’ Then you can invite the two aspects of yourself,
mindfulness and fear, to shake hands as friends and
become one.”

Loving Ourselves

We often hear that it’s important to love ourselves.
But what does this really mean? Taking a warm bath or
treating ourselves to a massage is one way to take care
of ourselves. But more importantly, loving ourselves
means finding a way to bring gentleness toward whatever
we’re experiencing inside, including the scary and
painful places.

Focusing offers a practical path toward self-love. It’s a
practice of loving-kindness toward ourselves. We accept
and embrace our experience just as it is. We learn,
grow, and move toward inner peace and harmonious
relationships as we find peace with our own inner
experience.

We so often judge ourselves. We create suffering by
comparing ourselves to others and trying to be someone
we’re not.

Using substances may temporarily ease
the pain of harsh self-judgments.

Focusing invites us to gently and courageously open
to whatever we’re noticing inside in this moment. We
trust the process. We don’t judge our experience or
push anything away. If we’re sad, we’re sad, and that’s
ok. We make a gentle effort to be with whatever we’re
experiencing and notice how our experience changes
as we accept it.

By being with what is from moment to moment, things
begin to shift, release, or open up. Stuck, tight places
tend to loosen and we find a breath of fresh air within
the painful or difficult process that we were busily
avoiding or denying.

Accessing Inner Wisdom and
Self-Empowerment

The Focusing process is self-empowering; it helps us
hear and trust the wisdom that resides within each of
us. As we bring mindful awareness to our body’s felt
sense–listening deeply and compassionately to what
we’re experiencing inside, new understandings and
steps toward healing naturally unfold.

One aspect of Focusing is posing questions to our felt
sense. As we wait, surprising answers often come. For
example, a client might ask their therapist or sponsor,
“How can I deal with the relationship stresses that lead
to relapse?” As a therapist or sponsor, you might offer
some suggestions, such as finding better ways to communicate
or calling a friend.

With Focusing, you can engage the client’s inner knowing
by inviting them to slow down, notice their breathing,
and ask inside, “What do I need in order to deal
with the stress and anger that comes up in my relationship?”
In Focusing we wait…and the client learns to
wait…for a minute or more, to give time for the body’s
knowing to respond. Perhaps a similar answer comes
that a therapist might suggest, such as calling a friend
rather than acting-out. But when it comes from inside
them, it’s more deeply resonant, alive, and meaningful.
Or, something entirely different than what anyone
might have suggested might arise as a unique step forward
for them. As they stay with the felt sense of stress
or anger (which requires expanding their tolerance for
uncomfortable feelings), they may recognize that a
step forward would be to meditate more. Or, they may
realize that their anger is covering up deeper feelings
of sadness or fear—and that it would be courageous to
allow themselves to feel and express these more vulnerable
feelings. Or, they may realize that they don’t let
in love when it’s there because they’re uncomfortable
with it or don’t think they deserve it, which keeps them
in a perpetual state of insecurity and anxiety. These
or other surprising insights and steps forward might
spontaneous arise during a Focusing session, which
would never be accessed by simply following another’s
advice.

Keeping a client company as they practice Focusing
helps them cultivate a sense of personal empowerment.
It teaches them to trust the quiet voice of their
own inner knowing, which will be invaluable when
they are no longer in therapy.

Focusing Benefits the Therapist Too

Learning Focusing is also a great benefit for the therapist
or Focusing guide. It helps us to stay grounded and
become increasingly skillful in navigating the moment-
to moment interaction with clients. It provides
access to our own knowing about how to best guide
clients, which often leads to greater effectiveness.
Learning Focusing begins as a method and technique—
but over time, it becomes a way of being, a
quality of presence. A greater compassion for ourselves
and others gradually unfolds as we come to trust our
body’s wisdom. As we become more present, accepting,
and friendly toward what we’re experiencing inside,
we move toward a deeper emotional sobriety. We
find a refuge within ourselves and in our relations with
friends, loved ones, and life itself.

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