In “The Power of Focusing,” Anne Wesier Cornell wants to get us out of our analytical minds, away from our thoughts, and into our bodies.
This book describes a technique of working with our emotions through the sensations we experience in our bodies. Cornell observes that, in personal development work, we often lead with our logical minds and emphasize what we’re thinking…at the expense of what we are feeling in our bodies.
According to Cornell, learning to tune in to the “felt sense” of how our emotions are cropping up in our physical bodies— a process called “Focusing”— can help us get in touch with emotions, fears, instincts, wisdom, and programming that might otherwise remain inaccessible to our logical, analytical minds.
Focusing isn’t hard to learn— but it can be challenging to practice.
It entails doing an attentional body scan, focusing on the central structures of our bodies— our abdomen, throat, and chest— and asking, inwardly, what’s going on in there.
In Focusing, we invite our body to yield information to us— we don’t aggressively seek it out or demand that our body give it up.
We focus in on what we’re physically feeling in our body— tension, heaviness, lightness, uneasiness, sturdiness— and we go through a process of acknowledging it (“saying hello to it”), attempting to put words to it, and asking questions of it…all with an attitude of gentle, unconditional acceptance.
The idea is, when we approach whatever we’re feeling in our bodies with curiosity and respect, not insisting it be anything other than what it is, we’ll have a better chance of it softening and telling us what it’s all about…and, if we take the trouble to listen, we might be surprised.
Much of “The Power of Focusing” is spent on emphasizing the importance of acknowledging that we are not our feelings. There are PARTS of us that feel various things— but we can, and do, exist independently of whatever parts of us feel whatever ways.
(This is a key concept in one of my areas of specialty treatment as a therapist, Dissociative Identity Disorder. Cornell’s technique here mirrors tactics found in Internal Family Systems theory, which also emphasizes empathic, supportive communication between “parts” of the self.)
In Focusing in on what we’re feeling in our bodies, Cornell stresses that our job is to sit with our feelings, give them space to be what they are, acknowledge them, and invite them to tell us what we need to know.
This is in contrast to how many well meaning patients— as well as therapists— go about conducting therapy— many go into therapy assuming that the idea is to grill ourselves about why we feel what we feel and do what we do, and/or to strong-arm ourselves into behaving differently.
The best thing about this book is how straightforwardly Cornell lays out her technique, then goes on to discuss its practical applications (using just enough case studies, in contrast to similar books which devolve into anecdote after anecdote about how awesome the technique is). Cornell doesn’t attempt to overreach in her claims of what her technique can do; she acknowledges it as essentially a starting point or deepening tactic, which is exactly what it is.
Students of psychology will note similarities in “Focusing” to both object relations theory and person-centered psychotherapy. Cornell emphasizes strongly that the key to personal development is forming a supportive, accepting relationship with one’s self first and foremost— and when one is using Focusing as a tool of self-knowledge, it’s almost impossible NOT to develop such a relationship.
The only limitation that occurs to me about Cornell’s technique might be when readers assume that Focusing, in itself, is the end-all, be-all of personal development. To my mind, Focusing is best thought of as a tool, not a comprehensive theory of how healing happens. Just like any tool, it can be instrumental in healing…but there is more to emotional regulation and behavior change than supportively exploring one’s emotions through the body.
That said, Cornell seems to go to pains not to oversell her technique. I’m appreciative of how readable and concise her book is, and how practical her focus is.
“The Power of Focusing” is a useful introduction not only to listening to and honoring one’s self…but the very basis of self-esteem in general.