How Focusing Partnerships Can Re-energize Your Therapy Practice

Joan Klagsbrun and Lynn Preston Offer a Self-Care Method for the Therapist

Lynn Preston and Joan Klagsbrun

Therapists aren’t miracle workers. When we’re slow to help a client get back on her feet (and this happens more often than we might like to admit), it’s not always easy to maintain our enthusiasm and confidence about our work. For instance, a therapist named Sally recently told me the story of seeing a 34-year-old woman who’d fallen into a deep depression after being rejected by her boyfriend. As the client slouched into the therapy room for her 10th visit, she reenacted the opening scene of every appointment thus far: lowering herself heavily onto a chair, she sighed, gazed down at the rug, and announced tonelessly, “I’m still depressed.”

“So why don’t you try to make some of the changes we’ve been talking about?” Sally retorted sharply.

As she watched her client go pale, Sally was aghast. Where had that impatient tone of voice, so tinged with judgment, come from? It seemed this fed-up discouragement had been building in her for several weeks with this client. Worse, Sally’s feelings of ineptitude were beginning to leak into sessions with other hard-to-budge clients. Her capacity for compassion seemed to be shrinking. Now, as she struggled to slow her breathing, a small inner voice whispered, Do I even want to be doing this work anymore?

Contacting the Felt Sense

A growing body of research indicates that when we don’t feel effective in our work, burnout is likely to follow. Slowly but insistently, we begin to feel heavy-hearted and demoralized. Although we may not quite understand the source of our malaise, we know something doesn’t feel right. We may even wonder whether we’ve chosen the wrong profession.

Or maybe we just need a way to freshly grasp what’s actually brewing inside us, and use that knowledge to begin to rediscover the energy and excitement that drew us to the therapy profession in the first place. In fact, as long-time clinicians in private practice, the two of us have discovered how to do just that through a process called Focusing partnerships.

Unlike peer supervision, which tends to focus on problem-solving about the client’s issues, this two-person encounter emphasizes the clinician’s issues, especially those that are still fuzzy or half-formed, not yet able to be verbalized. It lets us dive beneath our cognitive brain into our embodied knowing to find what’s actually troubling us, and use that knowledge to recover our zest for our work and our lives.

Focusing partnerships evolved out of Focusing-oriented psychotherapy, developed in the 1960s by University of Chicago philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin. In collaboration with Carl Rogers, Gendlin interviewed hundreds of therapy clients to try to tease out the elements that made for successful outcomes. He found that clients who used therapy most effectively were able to make direct contact with their bodily experiences and speak from those deeply felt sensations, rather than only from their rational brains. Gendlin coined the term felt sense to describe this deep, preverbal knowledge or awareness that’s not available to the conscious mind.

The felt sense isn’t just a way to get in touch with our experience: it also has the power to gently propel us out of our stuck places and move us forward in our daily lives. Gendlin and Roger’s studies further found that when individuals paused and tuned into a bodily sense, they could articulate what had previously been outside their awareness.

Focusing-oriented psychotherapy got its start as a therapeutic model, but it wasn’t long before impromptu Focusing partnerships began to form between therapists, who paired up to support each other in doing this deep work of self-discovery. Today, increasing numbers of clinicians are forming Focusing partnerships throughout the country and around the world. Typically, participants get together in person, on the phone, or via Skype every week or so. During a session, each individual receives equal time to explore and issue or his or her choice.

Honoring the Slow, the Still, the Silent

In ordinary conversation, we tend to report on our problems or our breakthroughs. In the Focusing partnership, we’re granted all the time we need to discover them freshly, right then and there. In a Focusing partnership, the listener is fully devoted to the Focuser’s discovery of self without the intrusion of opinion, interpretation, cheerleading, problem-solving, or commentary of any sort, knowing that the most supportive thing he or she can do is reflect back to the Focuser what she’s just said, thereby allowing the Focuser’s own words to reverberate more deeply in her body and heart.

Someone to Accompany Me

As therapists, too many of us go it alone, trying to shoulder our clients’ load of expectations, worries, and needs without much opportunity to explore how this work affects our own bodies and spirits. But while many of us bring questions about clients to peer supervision, we have little space for exploring our own experience as therapists.

Focusing partnerships permit us to feel deeply heard and seen in our own struggles to do the work of psychotherapy, allowing us to investigate how our experiences as clinicians trigger our own veiled vulnerabilities, hopes, and hot buttons. This committed, heart-centered connection with another therapist---a comrade-in-arms who knows in spades the difficulties as well as the delights of the work, and who steadfastly roots for us in our work of self-discovery and renewal---may be our most potent antidote to burnout. If we encounter each other regularly with the aim of uncovering our truth, one day, unbidden, a thought may arise: Ah, yes, now I remember. This is why I do therapy.

This blog is excerpted from “Don't Go It Alone". The full version is available in the May/June 2015 issue. To subscribe, click here. >>

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Topic: Mindfulness

Tags: conversation | depression | felt sense | meditation | psychotherapy | therapist | therapy | Joan Klagsbrun | mind | networker | Lynn Preston | Gendlin | Rogers | focusing | partnerships | body | peer | groups | supervision

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