Focussing: 6 steps to mental health with nothing but your good self required

I know I’m relaxed when I realise I’m cutting a cherry tomato into no less than 6 pieces. What about you – what are the tell tale signs of what’s going on inside? Staying in touch with our ever-changing selves is key to mental health. You may already be on top of this. If not..

A more informative and accessible path – than cherry tomatoes – to mental health is to check in with our bodies, in particular, any visceral sensations. I regularly ask clients to be aware of what’s happening in their bodies. This is because of well-cited research (Cornell 2013) looking at why some people get better in psychotherapy and why others do not. They identified two key interdependent variables: the therapist’s quality of being with the client; and second, the client’s quality of being with their own experiencing.

One of these researchers was (also) a psychotherapist and philosopher, Eugene Gendlin. The conclusion he came to was that those who benefited most from therapy had the ability to ‘sense vague, still unformed feelings in their body and connect this sensing (which he names the ‘felt sense’) with words and images that described it. This meant being able to discover what was not yet fully known, which in itself could allow the process to move forward’ (Jordan 2016). 

This process has come to be known as ‘focussing’. It is a skill that can be practised alone as well as in therapy. Gendlin (2003) offers the following 6 steps to focussing, although this is by no means the only approach. He stresses that this is a framework for individuals to adapt as suits them. Don’t push too hard is the advice; if you find difficulty move on to the next step and come back if you want to.

Six steps to focussing:

Clearing a space. Find a quiet space and pay attention inwardly, perhaps to your gut or chest. Ask yourself, ‘how is my life going?’ Let the answers come slowly from your body. If a concern arises, do not delve into it. Acknowledge it then wait to see if something else arises. Then ask, wait and sense again. Usually there are several things.

Felt sense. From among what arose, pick one personal problem. Continue to keep some distance – i.e. still do not delve. There tend to be many parts to a problem, too much to think of all at once. However, you can feel all of these things together. Paying attention to where you usually feel things is your ‘felt sense’. There, you can get a sense of what all of the problem feels like.

Handle. Find a handle for this felt sense – a word, phrase or image. Stay with the quality of this unclear felt sense until something fits it just right.

Resonating. Go back and forth between the felt sense and the word, image or phrase. See how they resonate with one another.

Asking. Ask yourself, ‘what is it about this problem that makes it so ________?’. For example, if the word (handle) that came up was, ‘sticky’, you would be asking what is it about this issue that makes it so sticky.

If you get a quick answer to this question, without any give or shift in the hazy felt sense, let that answer go. Turn your attention back to your body and ask again until something comes along with a slight shift.

Receiving. Receive whatever comes with the shift in a warm, acceptant way. Stay with it for a few moments.

NOTE, according to Gendlin (2003), ‘if you have spent a little while sensing and touching an unclear holistic body sense of a problem, you have focussed’. It is not about whether you experienced the release or shift. That comes in its own time.

So how about that for something therapeutic and free? It takes patience, mind.


Cornell, A. W. (2013). Focusing in Clinical Practice: The Essence of Change. New York: W. W. Norton & Company and Kindle Edition

Gendlin, E. (2003). Focusing. London: Ebury Publishing

Jordan, S. 2016, An Introduction to Focussing, viewed 19 November 2019,

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