Campbell Purton's website

HOME      Publications:      Buddhism       COUNSELLING      FOCUSING     PHILOSOPHY





The notion of the implicit in the philosophy of psychotherapy


Amended version of the keynote lecture at the 30th Conference of the Japanese Association for Humanistic Psychology, Nagoya, 10 October 2011.

Published in Japanese in the Japanese Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 29, 139-55 (2012). Japanese translation by Mako Hikasa.



Campbell Purton

Centre for Counselling Studies, University of East Anglia, UK



In Gendlin’s approach to psychotherapy a central theme is the relation between what he calls the explicit and the implicit.   This theme arises from the fact that in psychotherapy much attention is give to finding words that will express what the client is feeling.  The words make the feelings explicit.  Gendlin has constructed a whole philosophy around the notion of the implicit, but I will not be discussing this directly.  Instead I want to look at the ground out of which this talk of the implicit arises.


My concern with the implicit arises from what I believe to be a central feature of psychotherapy: the facilitation of  client expression. In different ways such facilitation is important in all the ‘talking cures’, whether psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioural or  person-centred.   In psychoanalysis the main procedure is that of free association, in which the client is encouraged to freely express what comes into their mind.  In cognitive-behavioural therapy the client is often encouraged to find alternative ways of reframing their problem, that is, alternative ways of expressing what the problem is.  And in person-centred therapy the whole emphasis is on creating conditions in which the client can find ways of expressing their feelings.


Expression seems to be a fundamental characteristic of human beings.  We not only have wishes, attitudes, hopes and fears,  but we want to find ways of expressing and hence sharing these things. Animals have fears and desires, just as young children do, but in human development there soon arises the expression of fear and desire.  We can tell from its behaviour as it scratches at the door that the cat wants to be let out, and we can tell from its behaviour as it raises its arms that a young child wants to be picked up.  But very soon the child’s arm-raising becomes gesture rather than behaviour, and a bit later this gesture is replaced by vocal sounds such as ‘Up!’  ‘Up!’ is a linguistic variant of the arm-raising gesture;  it expresses the child’s desire to be picked up.  Notice that ‘Up!’ is not a report or statement of what the child wants; it is an expression of what he or she wants. That point will be important for what I say later.


Very much of what is characteristically human in us is a matter of finding ways of expressing ourselves, whether in words or in other ways such as in music, dance, or art.  In expressing ourselves we transform our animal-like behaviour, such as banging on the door in order to open it, into knocking on the door in order to express our desire to come in.  Expression, we might almost say, is what makes us human.   Further, I think that much psychological disturbance is to do with disturbance in our capacities to express ourselves.  Such disturbances range from the totally withdrawn state of people diagnosed with catatonic schizophrenia, to the difficulties of expression associated with states of anxiety or depression, or the difficulties that couples often find in expressing their feelings to each other.  One of the important things that psychotherapy can do is to help to free up clients’ abilities to express themselves, so that they begin to feel ‘more themselves’, to ‘come alive again’.  For these reasons it seems to me that the facilitation of expression is central to psychotherapy, so that it is not surprising that the main traditions of therapy all work at such facilitation.


In each of these traditions a distinction tends to be made between client expressions and client statements.  By client expression I mean what a client says spontaneously; by a client statement I mean what the client states in response to a question, or as a conclusion from their reasoning, or through the persuasion of the therapist.  For example, suppose a client has been talking about how terrified they are of failing a forthcoming exam.  A therapist, working in a cognitive way, tries to clarify with the client what the consequences of failure would really be, and then asks:


T: Realistically, would it be so terrible to fail the exam?

C: No… I suppose not.  It wouldn’t actually be terrible….but I still feel it would.


Here, ‘It wouldn’t actually be terrible’ is not an expression  - it is a statement grounded in reason, or accepted because of the therapist’s persuasive powers.  It doesn’t ‘come from  the feeling’, it is not spontaneous.  But what they say next  - ‘I still feel it would (be terrible)’  - does seem to be a spontaneous expression.


Another therapist, working in a more client-centred way, might simply summarise what the client has said:


T:  It would be really terrible to fail the exam.

C:  Yes… well … maybe terrible is not quite it….  But I would be …. so ashamed.


‘I would be so ashamed’ is an expression.  It comes spontaneously ‘from the feeling’.


In person-centred and focusing-oriented therapy it is spontaneous expression that is valued, rather than the making of statements about feelings.  Statements such as ‘I think I must be angry’ or ‘I get angry when people talk like that’ are often  seen as ‘intellectualising’ or ‘externalising’, and making such statements is seen as unlikely to be very therapeutic.  In his writings on a ‘process conception of psychotherapy’ Rogers (1961, Ch. 7) is in effect distinguishing between stating and expressing.  In the early stages of his process scheme clients typically make statements about external events, later they make statements about their own feelings, and then from stage five onwards they begin to express their feelings.


A similar distinction is made in psychodynamic therapy.  Here the therapist may suggest an interpretation to the client, but interpretations are not expected to be therapeutic unless the client  can fully assent to them.  If the therapist says ‘I wonder if you really despise him?’ and the client says ‘You are probably right -  yes, I expect I do despise him’ then we do not have a successful interpretation, even if what the therapist says is true.  Whereas if the client responds with ‘I’d never thought of that… Ah!…yes…that’s it… I actually despise him!’ then we feel that the interpretation is a valid one.  As Freud (1911/2002, pp. 17-18) put it “It is one thing for the doctor to know something, and another for the patient to do so.”  Apart from the difference in terminology, the distinction being made here is the same as the one that is made in person-centred therapy.


In cognitive therapy there is a tendency to blur the distinction between expression and statement.  Theoretically, cognitive therapy seeks to change a client’s thinking and assumptions.  The therapist helps to uncover the client’s automatic thoughts and irrational beliefs.  Once the thoughts and beliefs have been uncovered, then more positive, realistic or rational beliefs can be suggested by the therapist or discovered by the client through the therapist’s guidance.  However, as in other forms of therapy, there is surely a difference between cases where a therapist intellectually convinces a client that their beliefs are irrational, and cases where the client now fully realises that their beliefs are irrational, and begins to express themselves differently. 


For example in a cognitive behavioural textbook (Westbrook, Kennerley & Kirk, 2011, p. 35) we read that


therapy is rarely fruitful if it is a purely intellectual discussion of abstract thoughts.  If the client is experiencing no emotion during the process, it is very unlikely that he will achieve a shift in emotion or behaviour.


Or as Neenan and Dryden (2011, p. 17) put it:


Guided discovery through Socratic questioning is not about arguing with clients, exposing their ‘poor’ thinking, or telling them what to think… Helping clients to think things through for themselves assists and accelerates their progress …


 In other words, the cognitive therapist is helping the client to find their own forms of expression.  The fact that in cognitive therapy we speak of the expression of thoughts, rather than of feelings, is not, I think, as big a difference as it may seem at first sight.   Human thought and feeling are so bound up with each other that they cannot really be separated in the way that cognitive theory suggests.  I think that in practice cognitive therapists work with feelings as much as any other therapist, and that like any other therapist they distinguish in practice between getting a client to state their thoughts or feelings  and getting the client to express them. They would accept that it is a quite different matter for a client say ‘I do see that this is irrational’ and for the client to say ‘I never thought of it like that  -  it’s just completely irrational!  Wow!’ 


The importance of facilitating expression is thus recognised in all the major traditions of therapy.  However, while this is well established in practice, the theory of expression is not well developed.  A common view of what is involved in expression is found in Rogers’ understanding of ‘congruence’.  For Rogers (1959, p. 206) a person is congruent if they ‘accurately symbolise’ their experience.  For example, a person who is jealous may or may not acknowledge that they are jealous.  In Rogers’ terminology the person’s experience here is a feeling of jealousy, and the symbolisation is their saying or thinking ‘I’m jealous’.  If instead of saying or thinking ‘I am jealous’ they say or think ‘I am not jealous, just a bit irritated’, then they are being incongruent:  the words don’t match the feeling.  The notion of congruence, as Roger’s acknowledged (Kirschenbaum, 1979, p. 196), makes use of a picture drawn from geometry:  two triangles are congruent if they match each other exactly in size and shape.  The idea is that, in an analogous way, words can be matched or mismatched with experiences.


What Rogers’ account assumes is that language works by matching words to experiences, but that is a view of language that is open to serious objections.  In his early philosophy Wittgenstein (1922)  set out just such a view of language, but later argued (1953) that this picture of how language works is very misleading.  And it is especially misleading when we are thinking about psychological language, for example where we are discussing the use of words such as ‘pain’, ‘jealous’, ‘fear’, ‘expect’.  Wittgenstein (1953) argues that we have a misleading picture of how these words are used; that is, we think of pain, jealousy, fear, expecting, as being inner experiences on which we can report.   The picture suggests that just as we can give our attention to the ‘outer’ world of trees, birds, tables and chairs, so we can ‘look inwards’ and give attention to our ‘inner feelings’.  Then, just as we can check, for example, what kind of bird this is by comparing its features with those of birds we know, in the same sort of way we can look at our inner feelings and compare them with the features of feelings that are familiar to us. 


The difficulty is that when we turn our attention inside, to what is going on in us, we don’t really find our jealousy or our expecting.   What we usually find is some sort of bodily sensation, for example a tension, or an unease.  Indeed it may be such bodily sensations that alert us to our jealousy  -  we feel a sudden bodily disturbance, a pang, and then realise that we are jealous.  But the bodily disturbance is not in itself very specific.   Just by giving attention to the disturbance we couldn’t tell that we were jealous  -  to realise that we are jealous we have to realise that we are in a particular kind of situation, a situation in which – roughly  - someone whose attention we value is giving their attention to someone else.  That is what jealousy involves; that is how we would explain it to someone who didn’t know what the word means.   We wouldn’t explain it by saying that jealousy is a specific sort of bodily disturbance, with certain characteristic features…. What features? 


As Wittgenstein (1953) pointed out, if we picture feelings such as jealousy as ‘inner states’ we will have difficulty in understanding how children could ever learn the words for these states. For according to the picture, only the child themself can know their own inner feelings; the adults will have to guess, based presumably on their own experience of correlations between their own feelings and their own behaviour. 


The picture we have of feelings as inner things or processes is not a good picture.  And so also it is not good to picture expression as a matter of looking inwards at one’s experiences and finding the words for them.   If that were how we found the words, then how could we ever know that we had found the right word?  Since experiences, as Rogers and many others understand them, are private entities, no one else could ever be in a position to contest or confirm what we say. 


We need to look at how we actually use, and learn to use, words such as ‘jealous’, ‘expect’, ‘afraid’ etc.   Take jealousy as an example:   Jealousy is a common pattern in human life  -  we speak of someone being jealous in situations where, roughly,  one person wants some special attention from another, but the other gives more attention to a third person.  Such situations often arise in early childhood, for example when a mother gives attention to a sibling, and the other child becomes upset or angry, and tries to displace the sibling in order to get mother’s attention.  In this sort of situation  we see clearly that the child is jealous.  Their jealousy is manifested in their behaviour in that particular kind of situation.  Then as the child begins to develop its linguistic capacity, parents may, instead of simply  responding behaviourally, say ‘You are jealous’.  Later the child begins to recognise the situation and behaviour that is characteristic of jealousy, and can say to their sibling ‘Jealous!’ or ‘You are jealous!’  And finally  they learn to say ‘Jealous!’ or ‘I’m jealous’ instead of trying to get the mother’s attention in the more primitive behavioural way.   The utterance ‘I’m jealous’ replaces the original behaviour in just the way that ‘Up!’ replaces the young child’s arm-raising behaviour[1].


The important point is that expressions such as ‘I’m jealous’ are not reports of inner events; they are not usually reports or statements at all.   They are the linguistic versions of forms of behaviour that were initially manifested without language.  Another example would be that of expressions of pain.  Initially the child who has fallen over simply cries and clutches its leg, and the parents give attention to the injury.  Here there is a familiar situation and the child’s behavioural response.  Later, instead of crying, the child learns to say ‘Ouch!’  This is clearly not a statement of anything  -  it is a linguistic expression of what was previously manifested in crying.  Still later the child learns to say ‘My leg hurts!’ or ‘I have a pain in my leg!’.  Such utterances are usually not statements but expressions.   The use of such an utterance as a statement is a more sophisticated use of language.  Once the child can use ‘My leg hurts’ as a spontaneous expression, it is possible for the doctor, for example, to ask ‘Does your leg hurt?’  and for the child to respond ‘It hurts’.  This sort of reflective response to a question is the sort of thing we call a report or statement, but such statement is only possible for a child who can already use ‘It hurts’ to express the hurt.  Stating what one’s feelings are is a more sophisticated and detached procedure than expressing one’s feelings.

As another example, consider the case of expecting something to happen. We may at first be inclined to say that expecting something is a matter of having a particular sort of feeling – a feeling of expectation.  But what exactly is this feeling?  Consider Wittgenstein’s example of  someone watching a fuse burn, the flame getting closer and closer to the explosive  (1953, section 576). The person expects an explosion very soon.  What are they feeling?  Well, probably tension and excitement  - it depends a bit on the context, and on what the implications of these events are for them.  But do such feelings – taken together – constitute the feeling of expectation?   It is not an easy question to answer  -  on the one hand these are the feelings that are there;  on the other hand one can feel tension and excitement without expecting anything.  And conversely one can expect something without having feelings of tension or excitement.  For example, suppose the question has been raised of whether  John will come to the party.  Mary asks me if I would be surprised if John doesn’t appear.  I say, Yes, I would be surprised, and Mary rightly concludes that I expect John to come.  But do I have to have any special feelings as I make this response?  Suppose a counsellor quizzes me about this, but all I can honestly say is that I said I would be surprised because I would indeed be surprised.  ‘But what did you feel at the time?’  -  the honest answer to that question may be ‘Nothing special’.  I can expect someone to come to a party without having any particular feelings.


What I have said so far can seem puzzling, especially to therapists whose work involves helping clients to express their feelings.  The phrase ‘express their feelings’, together with the background picture of inner mental processes, impels us almost irresistibly to say that feelings are there, inside, waiting to be identified.   For example, when a client says ‘I feel kind of embarrassed’, we naturally picture the person as having some kind of embarrassed feeling inside them.  We encourage them to attend to this feeling, to look more closely at it, in  order to express it more clearly.  However, the question is: what is involved in their expressing it more clearly?  If they look more closely at what is going on in their body they may find various tensions or twinges, but these in themselves are not embarrassment.  Just by looking at them the person couldn’t tell that they were embarrassed, rather than, say, ashamed.  That is not how they are able to say what they are feeling.


How then is a person able to say what they are feeling?   When a client says ‘I feel embarrassed …’ they are articulating their response.  They could have expressed this response in a gesture.  There is something more primitive here than what they say.  There is the non-linguistic response, which can be replaced by the linguistic response, just as primitive manifestations of pain, such as crying, become replaced by ‘Ouch!’ or by ‘It hurts!’  ‘I feel embarrassed’ is not a report or statement of an inner feeling, but a linguistic variant of a behavioural or gestural response in the situation. Having grown up in an English-speaking community, the client has learned to replace the inarticulate gestures with the use of the word ‘embarrassed’.  If someone still asks ‘How does he know that it is embarrassment that he feels?’ the answer can only be that he speaks English.  In English-speaking communities, that is the word that replaces the relevant  gestures.  The client doesn’t have to ‘look inside’; they simply have to respond naturally as a speaker of English. 


A slightly different example may help, drawn from a familiar kind of situation in focusing-oriented therapy.  Often a client says something, but then realises that what they said does not articulate their response adequately.  For example, they say ‘I feel ashamed’.  But when the therapist reflects this back they sense that ‘ashamed’ is not the right word.  Then they try again, and find a word that is better.  How do they do that?  We need to set aside the picture of them looking at an inner state and seeing if the new word fits that state better.  What is really involved is something like this:  they have learned the use of the word ‘ashamed’ in contexts of someone responding in a particular way to having done something wrong  -  that is, they normally use the word as English speakers use it.  But then, in the present circumstances,  they realise, with the help of the therapist,  that this is not a context of wrongdoing. They may notice this explicitly, but more often their linguistic training enables them to say that ‘ashamed’ is not the right word, even though they can’t say why.  Someone who wasn’t at all inclined to reject the word ‘ashamed’ after giving attention to the details of the situation would thereby show an inadequate grasp of English.  It is part of knowing English that one knows that ‘ashamed’ is the word to use in this kind of situation.


That was an example of a situation in which the client -  knowing a particular language - is able to find a word in that language that applies in the situation.  However, it is quite often the case that there is no word in the language that seems right.  In these circumstances a client may use a familiar word, but in a new way; in what we call a metaphorical way.  For example, a client may say ‘My life is an empty box!’ or ‘I am trapped!’.  The therapist reflects such an utterance  back.  When the client hears it back then either:

(a)    It feels just right, and they are happy to say it again

(b)   It doesn’t feel quite right, and they are no longer happy with saying it.

With metaphors we can’t say that they are right or wrong, exactly.  In that way they are different from non-metaphorical uses of words.  We can say, for example, that a particular situation just isn’t a situation for which ‘ashamed’ is the right word, but we can’t say that a particular situation just isn’t a situation for which ‘empty box’ is the right phrase.  The question with metaphors is not whether the use of the word is correct, but whether it is apt.  But how does the client know whether ‘empty box’ is an apt metaphor?  Again, not by looking within at bodily sensations.


Consider a situation where the therapist reflects what the client is saying, using a metaphor that the client rejects. For example, suppose the therapist says  ‘You feel trapped’, and the client says: ‘No  - it’s more like paralysed.’  The client may reject ‘trapped’ because ‘trapped’ is used in circumstances where a person or animal can move, but is restrained, whereas ‘paralysed’ is used in circumstances where one can’t move.  The client may not be explicitly aware of this, but if they know English they can use these words ‘trapped’ and ‘paralysed’ in the appropriate situations. With ‘trapped’ you can go on to ask e.g. ‘What exactly is constraining you?  What could be a way out?’  But these questions don’t fit with ‘paralysed’.  For ‘trapped’ to be an apt metaphor there needs to be something in the situation that could be seen as constraining, and it should make sense to ask about possible ways out  -  ways of getting rid of the constraint.  The client knows (though may not be able to explain) the web of connections involved in ‘trapped’ .  They also know (though may not be able to explain) that significant portions of this web don’t exist in their situation, whereas much more of the web associated with ‘paralysed’ does exist.  So again, the answer to the question ‘How does the client know what to say?’ can only be ‘Because they have learned English’.   An English speaker who gives attention to their situation isn’t going to feel happy with the word ‘trapped’ when the situation is one to which the word ‘paralysed’ better applies.


To summarise, when a client is trying to find words to express their response to a situation it is misleading to say that they are consulting their inner feelings, as if they had access to an inner screen on which their feelings are displayed.  What they are doing is giving attention to their situation and seeking for words that will articulate their response. They are pausing and allowing the natural linguistic form of response to come.  This may take a few moments, as they need to give attention to the whole situation, and sense what it is appropriate to say here,


Gendlin’s account


In Gendlin’s view expression is not a matter of matching words with experiences, but of finding words that make explicit what was implicit.  To a large extent this fits with what I have said above.  Gendlin is especially interested in the kind of case where we cannot at first find the right word, and his focusing procedure involves giving attention to a situation and then pausing, so as to allow words to come from the feel of the situation.  The only difficulty I have with this lies in how we should understand the phrase ‘the feel of the situation’, or what Gendlin calls the ‘felt sense’.   In at least some places in his writing Gendlin regards the felt sense as a kind of inner object, a special sort of bodily feeling.  We are invited to look within, especially at the more central part of the body ‘where we have our feelings’


Gendlin writes (1996, p. 18) that the felt sense

occurs bodily, as a physical, somatic sensation.  It is sensed in the viscera or the chest or throat, some specific place, usually in the middle of the body.  It is a special kind of bodily sensation… It is sensed inwardly, not as an external physical sense such as tight muscles or a tickle on the nose.


In his philosophical writings, especially in A Process Model (1997), Gendlin’s account of the relationship between felt sense and bodily sensations is much more elaborate.  Also, tThere are places in his psycholological writings where Gendlin he does acknowledge that there are difficulties with how he expresses himself.  In a footnote to his first paper on focusing (Gendlin 1969, p. 5) he says of his early focusing manual “The language of this manual is objectionable in many ways….felt meanings are not really ‘inside’ a person, but are his body sense of  his external life and situations”.  The ‘objectionable language’ was chosen, he writes, because it ‘seems to communicate quickly’, but of course the danger then is that what it communicates may be misleading, as I shall argue below.


In the paper I just referred to, Gendlin writes that in focusing we “sense a problem as a whole and let what is important come up from that bodily sensing”.  At the heart of focusing is the practice of ‘getting a felt sense of a problem as a whole’.  But as in the case of such things as jealousy, pain and expectation it is easy to be misled into thinking that what is involved is giving attention to an inner bodily feeling.  As we have seen, what is really involved in those cases is giving attention to the situation and to one’s response, and allowing the appropriate words to articulate the response.  Bodily sensations may be relevant, as when we feel a sudden pang, and realise that we are jealous, but we don’t identify the emotion as jealousy by attending to the pang.  And of course we can be jealous without feeling any pangs.


We speak of a felt sense in situations where we think we have something to say but we can’t yet say it.  One of Gendlin’s examples is where a word is ‘on the tip of our tongue’; another is where we are sure that we have forgotten something, but we can’t say what it is.  In such situations we may express our inability to find the word by gestures or inarticulate noises.  Then, as we say, the word ‘comes to us’ and we can continue.  Similarly, in focusing, we give attention to a problem, we think that we can find a way of expressing it although the words don’t yet come, and then (sometimes, at least) they do come.


I think that Gendlin (1971/2003, p. 86) accurately describes the sort of thing we do when we try to find the words, when he writes:


You might try simply becoming quiet, receptive, …hoping that what it was will come flooding back by itself.  Or you can ask yourself questions: “Was it something about …?”   Or you can try to trace logical connections:  “They were talking about such-and-such, so it must have had to do with …”  Or you can try to create the lost meaning by surrounding it with events like a lost bit of jigsaw puzzle: “It came to me right after Carol said  … and then, before I opened my mouth, Lou said…”


This is the kind of context where we talk about a ‘felt sense’:  notice that the context can be described effectively without any reference to bodily experiences. 


 Gendlin goes on to say (p. 86)

Both when you knew what you wanted to say, and when you knew only that you had forgotten it, there was a felt sense.


But the question is: What is involved when someone says ‘I sense something but can’t find the words’?  The attraction of the picture of the inner feeling is very strong here:  if the person senses something, there must, we feel, be something there that they sense, and what can this be if not some bodily sensation?   Wittgenstein (1953/2009, pp. 298, 300) discusses Gendlin’s example of ‘the word on the tip of my tongue’ as follows:


What is going on in my mind at this moment? That is not the point at all.  Whatever went on was not what is meant by that expression… “The word is on the tip of my tongue” tells you: the word that belongs here has escaped me, but I hope to find it soon.  -  For the rest , the verbal expression does no more than some kind of wordless behaviour….The words, “It’s on the tip of my tongue” are no more the expression of an experience than “Now I know how to go on!”.  We use them in certain situations…


Having a felt sense can be expressed not in words but in gestures or inarticulate noises:  in the relevant situation (such as a focusing situation) we can see that a person has a felt sense of their problem by noticing how they pause, rotate their hand in the air, screw up their face etc.  If they say ‘I really have a sense of it now’ this, I suggest, should be understood as a linguistic variant of what might equally well have been expressed by such things as the hand rotation.  ‘I have a sense of it’ is no more a statement about an inner bodily experience than ‘I’m jealous!’ is a statement about an inner bodily experience.  These are, rather, linguistic expressions of where we are in our situations. 


As with emotions, such as jealousy, there need be no particular bodily sensations involved in having a felt sense, or if there are such sensations they are not the felt sense.  Consider for example the sort of case where we say that someone has a good sense  of a situation,  even though they can’t express it in words.  We know they have a good sense of the situation because they are able to act appropriately, and the nature of their bodily sensations is irrelevant.  If we ask them how they know what to do, they may say they just sense it, but that doesn’t mean that they give attention to any body sensations.  To say ‘Yes, I can sense now what to do here’  is not to report on any inner experiences but to say ‘Now I can go on!’  It is an expressive, not a descriptive, use of language.


The idea of the felt sense first came into therapy through Gendlin’s studies of which clients were more successful in therapy.  The more successful ones were clients who responded to their problems in a special way.  They did not simply talk about their problems, and they didn’t simply act out their emotions.  Rather, they made attempts to say something (such as ‘I feel kind of hurt…’), then paused…., said something different (such as ‘It’s not hurt, it’s more disappointment…’ then paused again.  It was clear that they were trying to find words to express their responses to their situation.   We very often see this happening in therapy.  If we asked such a client what they were doing at the point where they paused, they would probably say ‘There was something new I wanted to say there, and I was trying to find words for it’.  That is the sort of situation where we naturally say that a person has a felt sense of something.  That is the context in which talk of the felt sense came into psychotherapy. 


Notice that we can say all this without making any reference to bodily experiences.  We could also ask the client what their bodily sensations were during the time when they paused.  They might then reply that they felt a bit tense, or had a gnawing feeling in their stomach, or they might say they had no special bodily feelings.  The point is that whatever bodily feelings they had, it is not those feelings that determine whether they had a felt sense.   We know they had a felt sense not from knowledge of their bodily feelings, but from the way they were talking. To have a felt sense is not a matter of having a special sort of bodily sensation;  it is a matter of being in the position of having something to say, but not yet having the words for it.  To say that one has a felt sense is to express the fact that one is in this sort of position; it is not to report on inner bodily sensations. 


Another point that Gendlin often makes about the felt sense is that it is usually not there when we first turn our attention to a problem or situation. (Gendlin, 1971/2003, p. 10; 1996, p. 20; 1997, pp. 230, 233).  He remarks that the felt sense usually takes half a minute or so to form, but does not say why this is so.  In this respect the felt sense is very different from ordinary bodily sensations.   If we give our attention to our bodily sensing it does not take half a minute for us to notice that we have a pain in our leg, or a tickle on our nose.  I would say that the felt sense is not there at all in the way bodily sensations are there.  It is rather that as we give our attention to a situation we often come to say ‘Yes, I do have a problem here, but I can’t yet put into words what is really difficult about this.’  At this stage we have articulated the problem in a minimal way by calling it ‘this problem’, and then we can go on to ask questions such as ‘What is the crux of this?’, ‘What would help with this?’ and wait to see what comes to us.  But ‘I do have a problem here’ and ‘I can’t yet find any words for it’ are not reports or statements about bodily experiences; they are expressions of where we are in our grappling with the situation. 


We can see now why the felt sense is not there at the beginning.  We talk about having a felt sense in contexts where we are giving our attention to a problem, have been able to say at least that there is a problem, and have tried to say what exactly it is, but can’t yet do so.  At that point, where we can’t yet go on, we rotate our hand in the air or express where we are by saying ‘I have a sense of this – but not yet the words’.  The hand rotation, or its linguistic equivalent, clearly isn’t going to happen when we first start to grapple with the problem; it belongs to a slightly later stage. 


I have said that a felt sense is not an inner bodily experience, but I don’t mean

to suggest that bodily feelings are never relevant in focusing.  It may often be helpful to notice that when a particular word occurs to us we feel a slight tension or release, that at this point we bodily cringe, at that point we sigh with relief, at another point we feel tears coming.  These spontaneous bodily responses can contribute significantly to our articulated responses, such as (respectively) ‘I want to get away from this’, ‘I’m glad it’s not going to happen’ or ‘I’m moved by that’.   However, the articulated responses are not reports of inner experiences: they are linguistic versions of more primitive non-linguistic responses. 


In the same way, I suggest, ‘I have a felt sense of the problem’ does not report an inner experience: it expresses the fact that I have something to say but that I don’t yet know what it is.  And just as the utterance ‘I’m glad it’s not going to happen’ might amount to the same as a sigh of relief, so ‘I’ve got a sense of the problem now!’ might amount to the same thing as a pause, a pursing of the lips and a ‘Hmm!’  We might still want to say that ‘I’m glad it’s not going to happen’ expresses a feeling, but that does not mean that there is present an internal bodily experience that is the feeling.  Similarly, we might still want to say that ‘I’ve got a sense of the problem now!’ expresses a felt sense, but that does not mean that there is present an internal bodily experience that is the felt sense.


As Wittgenstein suggested, we can be misled in this area by two things.  One is the powerful pull of a picture: the picture we have of experiences as constituting an inner realm.  The other is certain misleading parallels in language:  if I feel something sharp under the table then there is something sharp there – perhaps a nail that is sticking out.  So, by analogy, if I feel a sense of relief, there should be a sense of relief somewhere.  Where?  Well, perhaps in my inner world, or perhaps in my body.  But the analogy is an unsound one -  the uses of the phrases ‘feeling something sharp’ and ‘feeling a sense of relief’ are radically different.  The first is a report, the second an expression.  To think that the sense of relief exists in my inner world in the way that the sharp thing exists under the table is to be confused about how language works in these cases.


Relevance to focusing and psychotherapy


It might be suggested that all this has no practical relevance to focusing or psychotherapy, but I think it has.  In focusing-oriented therapy, especially, much attention is given to getting a felt sense of a problem, and therapists, or focusing trainers, have to be taught how to work with a felt sense.   What is often done is to encourage the student to give attention what is going on in their body, especially in the centre of the body where, it is said, we usually have our feelings.


But this can lead to difficulties.  Some students say that they have their feelings in other parts of their bodies (Weiser Cornell 2005, pp. 30-31). Others say that they get a felt sense of a problem without being aware of any particular feelings in their body  (van Woerden 1990, p. 223;  Afford, 1994; Cortijo Santurino, 2007).  Still others have difficulties in deciding whether a bodily sensation that they have, really is a felt sense (Weisser Cornell 2005, p. 219).  Gendlin devotes a whole chapter of his book Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy to the task of distinguishing the felt sense from other kinds of bodily feelings, such as emotions or bodily sensations that have physical causes.   But I have found that even this detailed set of distinctions often does not help in deciding whether a particular bodily feeling is a felt sense. 


For example, suppose someone says they wake up each morning with a vague sense of anxiety, but they don’t  know what it is about.  Is that a felt sense?  Gendlin says (p. 64)


A felt sense is not anxiety, but it may include, or form quite close to the anxiety.  It can be the sense from which the anxiety arises and what is involved in it… Anxiety … could be classified as an emotion.  


But what if the person says they wake up with a vague sense of unease?  -   they ‘feel it right there’ in the centre of their body.   Is unease an emotion?  Is it a felt sense?   Or what about moods?  Someone is feeling rather low today.  Is that a felt sense?  Does it depend on whether they are feeling low about something, or whether they are just feeling low?  


In practice I think that focusing teachers tend to bypass these questions.  For example,  Ann Weiser Cornell, who probably has more experience of teaching focusing than anyone else in the world,  has written (1996, p. 29):


The biggest barrier to successfully finding a felt sense is wondering if you are doing it right  -- if you ‘really’ have one.  In fact it might be a good idea at this stage to forget you ever heard the words “felt sense”.  We don’t want the concept to get in the way of your experience.  Just think of yourself as looking for “something”.  Anything can be something.


 And on the same page she says that a felt sense


can be an emotion like “sad” or “scared”, a sensation like “tight” or “jittery”, an image like “a knot” or “a rock”  - anything at all.’  She adds ‘ Don’t worry about whether what you are feeling is a felt sense. Just keep on sensing... .Each felt sense is unique.


It seems to me that at this point we have lost the notion of the felt sense altogether, which is unfortunate, since that notion is clearly the central notion in focusing-oriented therapy.  I suggest that the reason for all this confusion about the felt sense is that we are thinking about it in the wrong way.  We are trying to turn it into an inner bodily sensation about which we can make a statement, rather than realising that to talk of having a felt sense of a problem is a matter of expressing our current inability to find the words we are looking for.  If we are to find the words we need to give our attention to the problem, and allow words to come, if they will come.


The answer to the question of whether, for example, an uneasy feeling experienced on awakening is a felt sense should now be clear.  It is not a felt sense, because in order to speak of a felt sense we need the appropriate context.  If the person with the uneasy feeling starts to wonder why they feel uneasy, waits for half a minute, and then says ‘There’s something about this unease… I can’t quite get it yet’, then we will say they have a felt sense, and they themself could say they have a felt sense of what the unease is about.  It is only at that point in the process of reflection that we can speak of someone as having a felt sense; there is no place for talk of a felt sense before that point is reached.


I have said that being aware of  bodily sensations can be helpful in working with a felt sense, since when a word comes we may notice a bodily tension indicating that this word is not right, or a bodily relaxation indicating that the word does articulate some aspect of the situation.  In that way, bodily sensations often do come into focusing, but such sensations, or bodily responses, are not ‘the inner felt sense’.  I think there is no such thing as the inner felt sense, by which I mean that it is misleading to think of having a felt sense as being an experience of a bodily sensation.  To be sure, people in therapy or in focusing often say ‘I have a felt sense of all this’, but such utterances don’t report experiences; rather, they express the fact that the person has something to say but can’t yet articulate it.  The felt sense is important because that point in the therapeutic process  -  the point where one can’t yet find the words – is an important point.  It is from that point that new forms of expression can come, and hence new ways of living.



A Buddhist parallel


I will end by discussing very briefly a possible parallel, in Buddhist thought, to Wittgenstein’s view that to talk of such things as one’s jealousy or one’s pain, is not to make statements about inner objects or processes.   Buddhist philosophy has always held to the doctrine of anatmam, of  ‘no-self’.  Of course, it is not being denied that there are individual people, or that people can refer to themselves. What is being denied is that there is such a thing as the self.   In early Buddhist philosophy this line of thought is very similar to that of Hume in Western philosophy: that is, when we look within we may find  - it is said - various thoughts, emotions, sensations, but we do not also come across a self.  Hence in early Buddhist philosophy it was held that the self is unreal, or empty, but that specific mental contents or dharmas are real.  I suggest that the best way to understand this is to say that in using the word ‘I’, for example in saying ‘I am afraid’, we are not making a statement about the condition of an entity called ‘the self’, but expressing our fear.  When Buddhists say that there is no such thing as the self, the emphasis should be on the word ‘thing’; there is no such thing as the self.


In later Buddhist (Mahayana) philosophy the approach to the anatman doctrine of emptiness is different:  it is seen that it makes little sense to hold on to mental contents such as feelings, while denying that there is any self that has the feelings.  Self and feelings seem to stand or fall together.  The Mahayana response is to say that feelings are just as empty of reality as the self, although it is not denied that there are people and that they have feelings. I suggest again that we should understand this as saying that ‘I am afraid’ is neither a statement about an entity called the self, nor a statement about an inner entity called ‘fear’.  To say ‘I am afraid’ is usually not a statement at all, but a linguistic expression of what might otherwise be expressed, in the relevant situation,  by screaming, cowering, running away etc.  Fear, conceived of as an inner entity, is empty -  there is no such thing.  


Wittgenstein held that philosophical problems often originate from misleading pictures of how language works.  When we say ‘I’m afraid’ it can seem that this utterance works in much the same way as the statement ‘He is afraid’.  It then seems that ‘I am afraid’ is itself a statement, a statement not about what is going on in the so-called ‘outside world’, but about what is going on in ‘my inner world’.   But that is not how the words are used:  they are most often used to express, not to state.  In focusing and in psychotherapy what we are concerned with is helping people to express themselves, and that means helping them find ways of saying what previously was a matter of inarticulate response.  That is what talk about ‘making the implicit explicit’ amounts to.   It is not primarily a matter of helping clients to ‘look within’ at ‘the implicit’.  If we look within, that is, give attention to our bodily sensations, we may well discover various tensions, twinges, constrictions etc, and noticing these may help us in sensing whether the words that come to us are what we really want to say.  But our primary concern should not be with ‘the inner’ or with ‘the body’, but with our situations and our responses to them.  




Afford, P. (1994)  The felt sense need not always be physically felt.  The Focusing Connection, 11, 1


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.) Perspicuous Presentations: Essays on Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Psychology.  Basingstoke: Palgrave.


Cortijo Santorino, R. (2007)  A New Theory of Focusing.  MA dissertation, University of East Anglia.


Freud, S. (1911) On the use of dream interpretation in psychotherapy. In Freud, S.  Wild Analysis.  London: Penguin (2002).


Gendlin, E. (1969) Focusing.  Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 6 (1), 4-15


Gendlin, E. (1971/2003)  Focusing.  London: Rider


Gendlin, E. (1996)  Focusing-oriented Psychotherapy


Gendlin, E. (1997)  A Process Model. New York: Focusing Institute.


Gudmunsen, C. (1977). Wittgenstein and Buddhism. Basingstoke: Macmillan.


Kirschenbaum,  H. (1979) On Becoming Carl Rogers. New York:  Delacourt


Moyal-Sharrack, D. (2000)  Words as deeds: Wittgenstein’s ‘spontaneous utterances’ and the dissolution of the explanatory gap.  Philosophical Psychology, 13 (3), 355-372


Neenan, M. & Dryden, W. (2011)  Cognitive Therapy in a Nutshell.  London: Sage.


Rogers, C. (1961) On Becoming a Person.  London: Constable.


van Woerden, R. (1990). Gendlin: The small steps of the therapy process  -  Questions from           

       the audience. In Lietaer, G., J. Rombauts & R. Van Balen Client-Centered and

       Experiential Psychotherapy in the Nineties. Leuven: Leuven University Press: 223.


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


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


Westbrook, D., H. Kennerly & J. Kirk (2011)  An Introduction to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy:  Skills and applications. London: Sage


Wittgenstein, L. (1922)   Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. London: Routledge.


Wittgenstein, L.  (1953/2009)  Philosophical Investigations.  Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell






[1] I have learned much from John Canfield’s (2007a, 2007b) discussions of these topics.  See also Danièle Moyal-Sharrock (2000).