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Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change

When you can’t put a particularly unsettling feeling into words or have trouble getting to the meat of a problem, try feeling it in your body. That’s the advice of Ann Weiser Cornell, a Ph.D. in linguistics who works as a teacher of and author on the therapeutic technique known as Focusing.

As Cornell writes, your inability to articulate just may make you a prime candidate for succeeding at the method. In fact, the less you intellectualize and evaluate that feeling you can’t describe, the more apt you will be to engage in experiencing what she calls “felt sense.”

Focusing in Clinical Practice, as the title suggests, is written for the psychotherapist or other mental-health practitioner rather than the client. Cornell details the process of stage-setting, how to recognize felt senses, how to help clients obtain felt senses, and how to use Focusing when working with trauma, addiction, or depression.

The idea behind Focusing is to feel an experience as a mind, body, and behavioral occurrence. Through the process a client may integrate aspects of self that allow her to fully explore an issue.

The concept of Focusing does not encompass a set of techniques, nor is it a standalone therapeutic intervention. Instead, says Cornell, “it is a way of understanding and facilitating what some human being naturally do — and all have the capacity to do — when up against the need for change.” But, what exactly does that mean? Because the process is difficult to articulate, Cornell provides excerpts from client sessions to demonstrate the nature of Focusing and the importance of the felt sense.

To effectively use Focusing the practitioner must listen actively and empathically from the first session. Some clients may not be as receptive to the method as others, but all are capable of benefiting from the technique over time, Cornell writes. A client who might do well in this type of therapy may have difficulty articulating their emotions and pause and fumble for words, as in, “I don’t know … it’s like … not exactly this but that … kind of like that.” It is from this pausing and fumbling that what Cornell describes as the felt sense often emerges.

The “felt sense” is a relatively new term and should be viewed as a method of looking at a process rather than as a specific and identifiable set of milestones, Cornell writes. Some characteristics of it include the tendency to “form freshly,” the sense of the whole situation, and a more-than-words-can-say quality. The author spends a good deal of time describing what it means to have a felt sense and how a clinician can learn to recognize and work with the experience. As she explains, because the concept is non-linear, it does not conform to the linear requirements of language and remains a difficult idea to define.

Cornell makes it a point to say throughout the book that because of the elusive nature of felt sensing, potential practitioners of Focusing must first be able to identify it within themselves prior to integrating the concept into their client sessions. And to illustrate the idea further, she provides some beautiful transcripts of therapist-client sessions. It is through reviewing these transcripts that the reader obtains an understanding of otherwise-elusive concepts.

The book also discusses ways to apply Focusing to challenging clients types, among them the resistant client, the self-critic, and the evaluator, and how to use it across different treatment modalities.

Finally, Cornell provides an excellent one-pager designed to support therapists in the art of using so-called presence language, a cornerstone of mastering the Focusing technique.

Focusing in Clinical Practice is enlightening primarily for its rich and detailed client-therapist transcripts. While it is written as a guide of sorts for the prospective Focusing-oriented practitioner, it may also benefit laypersons with an interest in alternative psychotherapeutic interventions. Whether you pick up the book as a professional or simply as an observer, you will come away with insights into sensing and some helpful ways to apply them.

Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change

W. W. Norton & Company, August, 2013

Hardcover, 288 pages


Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change

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K.M. McCann, PhD

APA Reference
McCann, K. (2016). Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
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Last updated: 17 May 2016
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 17 May 2016
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