Focusing to Move Beyond Addiction

Not long after my wife and I were married, we decided to proactively increase our chances of staying together by enrolling in one of couple silhoutte beachDr. John Gottman’s weekend couples workshops in Seattle. At the time I was deeply immersed in my graduate studies in counseling and was excited to spend some time with the world-famous marriage guru.

What I had not realized was that 1,000 other people would be crammed into the Seattle Center taking the workshop as well, so my chances of a little one-on-one time were not so good. Fortunately, he circulated around while we all were doing exercises and I told my wife that if he ever came within 200 yards we should wave our hands wildly and grab his attention.

The moment came and sure enough my plan worked. He sat down and we began talking about some martial issue that escapes me now. During our conversation I began challenging him a bit about how people really change behavior, at which point he brought up Focusing.

Because I had told him I was nearing completion of my graduate program he assumed I would know all about focusing, but my deer-in-the-headlights response gave me away. I had to admit that never in any of my classes had the word focusing ever been mentioned. I was clueless and a bit embarrassed. He said it was the key to behavior change and I needed to know about it.

Coincidentally, the relative I mentioned a couple of blog posts ago who had given me a bunch of psychology books, had included the book Focusing. Written in the 1970’s by Eugene Gendlin, the book is based on about two decades of research analyzing what happens in therapy sessions that explain good outcomes.

What Gendlin found is that it has little to do with the therapist or the specific type of therapy one gets, and far more to do with what happens inside the client. In essence, he discovered that positive outcomes occur when clients have “ah-hah” moments during sessions that awaken them to deeper truths about themselves and life.

These moments occur when we (and clients) go inside and connect with what he calls a felt sense – a pre-verbal inner knowledge or awareness that comes from paying attention to an integrated and holistic aspect of our being that we can access at any time. If this sounds a little new-agey it really is not, it is just hard to describe something that cannot be easily put into words.

Have you ever lost your keys and banged your head against a wall trying to remember where you left them? No matter how hard you try nothing seems to work. So you go on to something else and then, in the middle of folding laundry, it hits you.

You remember exactly where you left them! That moment of remembering is what Gendlin would call a felt-sense, an ah-hah moment that awakened you to an answer that previously was outside your awareness. While focusing can help you find your keys, it really has the power to change your life.

Focusing is the name Gendlin uses to describe the six-step process he developed for helping people – both and in out of therapy – have felt-sense experiences to solve a multitude of life problems, including addiction!

If you have never heard about it, I really encourage you to check out the focusing website and read one of the many books written on the topic. What started as a little research project in Chicago in the 1950s has evolved into one of the greatest tools we have for overcoming addiction.


  1. Courtney Hucke says

    I had the opportunity to see you present at PSU a few weeks ago in my drug education class. My whole thought process surrounding addiction and treatment was changed. I wanted to say thank you for all the research and the work that you are doing to change the treatment process and the stigma around addiction in America. This and a few other blogs have really spoken to me, not just because of the new book references I got and can’t wait to start reading but because I have always struggled with understanding how someone can really change. In some of my public health classes they talked about the stages of change and other models that have been created to outline the process of change. I really do agree with Gendlin. It has everything to do with what that client is willing to focus on or not. The person needs to have a instinctive change happen within them so that they actually are stronger at saying no to the addiction that has controlld so much of their lives. For me, I have struggled my whole life with my weight. I love food, I eat food when I am bored, depressed, happy, etc. It is a part of our society to have food be a centeral part of any gathering. I grew up on fast food and it is hard for me to break my addiction to bad foods because inside I haven’t had an ah ha moment. Until I do I will most likely always be bigger than I want to be but that is what is so complicated with addictions, the person struggling is the one that has to make that decision to change. The ah ha moment needs to happen before any other steps are taken and I think it is important to find out what will help that person have an ah ha moment and that is why I appreciate your approach to treatment, that it is about finding that deeper cause and dealing with that first and then moving on to the addiction. I think that within that period of time of getting to know the client and getting to the deepr issues is where you can hopefully see the ah ha moments happen. Thank you again.

  2. admin says

    Courtney, thanks so much for the nice feedback! I also struggle with eating healthy and maintaining a good weight. It is hard in our fast-food culture. check out the work of the Rudd Center: – one of my favorite sites on all things food.


  3. Angela Bonin says

    I agree that the “ah-ha” moment can be useful for addiction treatment, but i also think that the “ah-ha” moment can quickly be forgotton if not further explored. In this fast paced world having an “ah-ha” moment seems to come at the most inconvenient of times. I am sure that this book “Focusing” would have some tools for exploring these moments. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

  4. says

    It’s wonderful to see someone else using Focusing as a way to recover from addiction. I have been facilitating Recovery Focusing groups for five years. In my opinion, felt sensing IS Recovery in the sense that we are processing LIFE and situations by connecting and relating with ourselves, others, and the power of Focusing — rather than disconnecting and skipping all processing.
    Though I cross Focusing with the 12 Steps, using my H.O.W. model, I know it is illuminating any way it is used.
    I would love to hear more about how you use it with addiction and recovery. Thanks!

  5. admin says

    Thanks for the feedback! Will check out your site and try to write more about focusing in the near future.


  6. Rully Adisuryo says

    I do agree that ah-hah moment came without noticing when it will come. That moment for just come out out of nowhere without realizing it. But I do believe that felt sense can be encouraged by believing and focusing on what you are trying to do. Its true that sometimes no matter how hard you try to remember something it just wont come out. Then you just empty your mind, and there you go, its there. What I am saying is when you keep on focusing on something, eventually you will have your ah-hah moment. Moreover, It can be apply to everyday’s problem which for me is very valuable.

  7. Christine Yim says

    Those ah-ha moments happen all too often to me which at first, are obviously very frustrating, but afterwards, are very relieving and even exhilarating. You have instilled in me an interest that seems to be extremely helpful for not just drug addicts in their recovery but for all people who need some self-realization, such as spouses in a marriage or college students who don’t really know what they want to do in life.

    For myself, as I’m growing into a young adult, I find that I not only have these ah-ha moments when I lose something like my car keys but for much more serious moments. I sometimes feel like something’s missing and I start worrying (although it’s not anything physical that I’ve misplaced). I delve deeper and I discover that sometimes I miss seeing my nephews and nieces and it’s only their company that can fill this gap I’m feeling or sometimes it could be something as little as realizing that I haven’t made a home-made meal in weeks and this is something I truly miss and has made me really happy.

    I don’t know if these would truly be considered ah-ha moments; but they do remind me of what this post is about. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Jennifer Walker says

    Ah-ha moments come at the strangest times and when it comes to addiction that moment may be months to years later. There seems to be a similarity between ah-ha moments and rehab. When people go to rehab they can say they had a ah-ha moment that made them realize that they needed help with their addiction. If the individual relapses they may have other ah-ha moments regarding their addictions which may lead the back to rehab. When it comes to any type of addiction focusing is crucial which may mean the difference between overcoming addiction (having the one ah-ha moment) or relapsing back into addictive behaviors (having multiple ah-ha moments). I am hoping to find a copy and so I can read this book and hope it helps me as well. I also look forward to reading more on this topic and how you relate it to addiction.

  9. Alexandria Fowler says

    Dr. Fitzgerald,

    Thank you for sharing much a personal story with us all as it was a little funny yet very “ah-ha” in-and-of itself! I recently turned 25 years old and I’ve found myself reflecting a lot about the decisions I’ve made in the past that has led me up to this point in my life. I was raised in a very loving family and was taught to always be mindful of other people and self-aware of myself in the world. I can hear my mom now repeating “focus, focus, focus, all you need to do is focus” and as much as I knew and know that it’s what I need to do, I tend to get distracted with everyday events. I gravitate toward men who need me to be the mom/girlfriend/motivator/catalyst for their life and I’m never happy, yet I continue to bounce in and out of relationships with men I couldn’t see myself settling down with. I don’t believe that I’m “addicted” to toxic relationships but I keep experiencing these “ah-ha” moments you wrote about in terms of my dating history. Recently I broke up with a 30 year old who was convinced that he and his death metal band would be signed and they’d able to tour around the country (or world) and “take care of me through Nursing school”. As an analytic mind I struggled with accepting that would ever really happen, and if it would have, how long would that even take? When I was having that awkward “lets talk” conversation he continued to beg me to stay, and right in the middle I had that focused mindset of NO! I’m not going to allow myself to continue to get sucked into a relationship that wasn’t making me happy and of which had been growing sour for awhile. I guess I’m just asking your thoughts about the idea of being addicted to relationships and why do I seem to attract these kind of people?
    This is my first time visiting your blog and I want to thank you for all your insightfulness wisdom about the complex system of addiction that has made me really think about my own struggles.

    Take care,

    Alexandria F.

  10. admin says

    Alexandria, thanks for the your reply and feedback. As to your relationships, sounds like you are beginning to connect the dots and see patterns. A book you might find useful is Betrayal Bond by Patrick Carnes which frames relationships like yours more in a trauma model rather than addiction. Working with a therapist if you are not already may also open up new insights.

    All the best –


  11. Alexandria Fowler says

    Dr. Fitzgerald,

    Thank you for commenting on my thoughts about relationships and for suggesting the book. I will definitely look into it!

    Take care,

    Alexandria F.

  12. Noelle Torres says

    This book sounds amazing, and while I have not read it, reading your blurb makes me want to understand how ‘focusing’ can help us reach more ‘ah-ha’ moments. I suppose the question I have is whether or not these moments are controllable. What factors impact one’s ability to have ‘ah-ha’ moments? Are they based on personality, length of addiction, what substance one is addicted to, etc… It seems as though every great idea is always followed by a disclaimer of some sort, or a list of its limitations. While there is never a ‘one size fits all’ solution to problems with addiction, there is a overwhelming need for good solutions for people with real problems with addiction. Perhaps self-reflection and ‘focusing’ would never happen for most, and therefore no ‘ah-ha’ moment to inspire meaningful change.

  13. admin says

    In all honesty there are not many disclaimers needed for focusing. True, different factors influence the outcomes of focusing, but I believe it is a skills we should all learn and use.


  14. Eunho says

    Thank you for the interesting post and introducing the amazing book. So, is Focusing related to meditation, or are they the same in a sense? Well, it sounds like they are not exactly the same, but I think there would be relationship between them. The remembering time and the “ah-ha” moment is like searching and finding a specific file out of tons and tons of files, comparing to a computer process. Like remembering time is same as searching time. Going back to meditation, what I think is if you train more meditation (training inside), there is better chance to improve focusing, which then leads to behavior change most likely. I believe it’s the similar process to body building. As we build more muscle by weigh-training, it gets easier to control different weighs.

  15. says

    Eunho, thanks for the feedback and question. Focusing aims to help people solve life problems through a specific process that was born from watching therapists work with patients. It does use the mind and body, and share similarities with meditation, but I think the big difference from my perspective is that there is an endpoint or goal to do doing a focusing session. Meditation, on the other hand, is done more for long term benefits without the expectation of an immediate payoff even though it has immediate benefits. Hopefully that makes sense.


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