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Breaking Free of the Habitual

By Ann Weiser Cornell

You’re sitting with a client, fighting your own feelings of frustration and boredom as she tells you the same sad story that you heard last week and the week before. She’s explaining to you, again, what’s wrong with her and why she can’t change. You long to be able to help her, but nothing that you say seems to get through. You start wondering if someone else could do a better job. You even wonder if you should refer her to a physician for medication, which shows you’re really starting to get desperate. In the end, all you want is to see her eyes light up, her shoulders lift, her breath deepen, as she finally “gets it” and makes important connections, sees her life in a new way, feels fresh hope. These are the moments we live for as clinicians.

Of course, we know that not every session needs to bring that kind of dramatic change. Some clients just need to sit with difficult feelings without much seeming to change from week to week, and yet their sessions still feel productive. We appreciate their willingness to remain engaged in their own inner exploration, however difficult it may be, and we can tell they appreciate our willingness to hang in there with them. Even if we can’t foresee the outcome, we trust that eventually they’ll work through their trauma, or gain confidence, or learn whatever it is they need to learn through the safety and empowerment of their alliance with us.

But then we have sessions that feel like we’re slogging along with lead weights around our feet, getting absolutely nowhere. It’s as if the client keeps hovering around a doorway but never goes through. She can talk about her problems all day long—and frequently does—but something in this “talking about” never really drops down to a deeper level or shifts into another gear. Her stories are like journeys on a well-worn road filled with ruts—a path that doesn’t lead anywhere except back on itself.

Clients need to tell their stories, of course, but it’s not the stories themselves that are the problem: it’s when the stories manifest habitual categories—ways of labeling and explaining experiences—that the process can get stuck. The pioneering philosopher and psychotherapist Eugene Gendlin illuminated this key point in his 1978 article “The Body’s Releasing Steps in Experiential Process” when he wrote, “We think in the terms and pieces of the problem as we have it cut up. And it is just these terms and pieces that would change if the problem moved toward resolution. Therefore, there is often no way to think about a problem except in a way that simply reinstates it in the very act of thinking it, and draws it, in heavy lines, all the harder.”

Clients who are getting nowhere have sliced up their world into categories that explain their problem: “He betrayed me so . . . I’m not the kind of person who can . . . It’s probably that I . . . .” Even as they’re doing their best to think their way through their issues, they keep going down familiar pathways, ruts of thought and behavior that circle back to the same place. A perfectionist, for instance, might work hard to arrange and organize himself out of his difficulties, but those difficulties essentially arise from an exaggerated tendency to arrange and organize—so instead of moving forward to address his problems, he’s reinforcing them.

No wonder so many clients feel frustrated, helpless, and angry! It’s as if they’re going in endless circles or digging deeper in a hole they can’t get out of. This stuckness isn’t caused by some personality defect or innate inability. It’s simply a consequence of being inside the problem, imprisoned within automatic habits of thinking, feeling, and verbalizing. As Gendlin points out, thinking doesn’t always help our clients solve their problems. Instead, they need a fresh, immediate experience to take them outside the box of their narrow, frozen ways of experiencing life.

As a young man in the 1950s, Gendlin headed a research project that’s had a profound impact on nearly all the somatically oriented, mindfulness-based work being done today. The study showed that clients who freshly referred to ongoing felt experiencing during therapy sessions tended to have significantly more positive outcomes than did clients who merely talked about their problems or emotions. At the core of Gendlin’s research was the discovery of a new type of experience, which he named a felt sense. The formation of a felt sense is a breakthrough moment, which takes a person outside his or her usual concepts and habitual categories. It’s not the same as having a simple emotion or thought. We speed up to think; to get felt senses, we slow down and form a new bodily awareness of some life situation.

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