Kristin Glaser and her husband had disagreed over how to deal with the crying of one of their 20-month-old twin sons. Her husband wanted to get firm, but the idea -- somewhat to her surprise -- "outraged" her.
"I freaked out," said Glaser, 37, who is working on her doctoral thesis in psychology. The intensity of her feelings about her husband's suggestion convinced her, she says, that something else must be troubling her, but she didn't know what.
To find out, she tried a form of selfhelp therapy called "focusing" she had learned about in her studies. Basically the technique: You (in a sense) talk with your body and it lets you know -- by a feeling of physical release -- when you've successfully made contact with a problem and taken a step towards resolving it.
For Glaser, that feeling came quickly. "I had overidentified with my baby. I thought my husband was trying to punish me."
Once, as she believes, her body told her this, she could conclude that her husband "was right. We needed to do something about the crying."
Glaser's is one example of the kinds of everyday problems -- "major or minor, painful or pleasant" -- that University of Chicago psychologist Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing's principle advocate, says can be tackled with the technique. When you've touched your problem through focusing, says Gendlin, there's a "body shift -- something releases, some tight thing lets go."
For successful therapy that brings about a change in your life, Gendlin believes, you must engage in a focusing experience.
About 15 years ago, Gendlin and his Chicago colleagues began asking why therapy succeeds for some patients, but not for many others. In their research, says Gendlin, they found that the successful patient could be spotted easily -- and early -- in treatment.
Differneces in methods of therapy meant little, he says. What did count, the researchers concluded, "is what successful patients do inside themselves." They were focusing intuitively.
Those patients who did not, he suggestes, were paying for expensive sessions that were not all that helpful. "If they did not somehow know right from the start how to approach themselves inside in that special way," his research found, "they did not achieve major changes, no matter what they or their therapists did, or how earnestly, or for how long,"
The focusing skill -- in which one makes "contact with a special kind of internal bodily awareness" -- can be learned by anyone in or out of therapy, says Gendlin, who presented a focusing workshop in Washington. Therapists are using his work, he says, throughout the United States.
Tim Engebretson, a research associate at the National Institute of Heart, Lungs and Blood who attended Gendlin's workshop, says he has included focusing in classes on stress and tension he gives at the University of Maryland.
Focusing, Gendlin says in a book of that title (Everest House, 178 pages, $7.95), will "enable you to find and change where your life is stuck, cramped, hemmed in, slowed down." It works, he argues, where common approaches to problem solving do not.
You can belittle a problem ("I shouldn't let such silly things bother me"), analyze it furiously or lecture yourself ("It's time you pulled yourself together"). But, he says, this does not "touch and change the place where the discomfort really exists. It exists in the body. It is physical. If you want to change it, you must introduce a process of change that is also physical."
Gendlin says he focuses when walking down the hall or at other quiet moments of the day. Most people "run through the day building up one tension after another." He gets rid of his as they develop.
"It's a friendly touch inside. you ask yourself, 'what are you dragging around inside?" The answer comes very naturally."
The process of focusing involves a series of mental steps in which you stack up your problems, step away from them and concentrate on the one your body tells you is the worst that day. You ask it questions and wait for a flow of words and images "to come," says Gendlin, "from the body sense." When there's a match of feelings and words, something inside your body releases.
Sheila Wolf, a career counselor at American University, discovered focusing at one of Gendlin's seminars about two years ago. Now, she says, she "uses the approach throughout the day."
If, for example, something at work puts her body "on edge," she'll ask what Gendlin refers to as "the body discomfort": "What's this all about? What's happening now?'
"It's kind of like your body is telling you something is wrong -- 'Ah ha, that's where it lies.'"
Recently, says Wolf, who is coordinating an area network of persons interested in focusing, she had a vague "jagged" feeling. As she began to focus to find out why, there "unfolded an image of a paper doll cut in half."
She confronted the discomfort. "What needs to happen?" she asked. Eventually the paper doll became whole, and she experienced a physical release. She concluded that to feel whole herself, she needed to round out some aspects of her life, including getting more exercise.