Embodied growth: Inner Relationship Focusing and Human Development

Anders B. Asphaug, Facilitator & guide

28 July 2016

Human growth and development can seem like a mystery. Why do some people grow and thrive, while others don’t? What does it even mean to grow? Here I’ll try to show as clearly and concretely as I can how I think that happens, and how the method of Inner Relationship Focusing facilitates growth.

It is obvious that maturation happens in children. Their bodies grow, and it is very noticeable that a 12-year-old has much more mental and emotional maturity than a 7-year-old.

In adults it’s less obvious. There is an assumption in western culture that “an adult is an adult,” and that’s that. It’s just about success in managing life after that. And yet developmental psychologists clearly show that for many people, growth continues to happen in adulthood. We don’t necessarily stop growing, even though our bodies do.

This information is vital, because your continued growth is vital to this world. And it is not a given. If you believe you cannot grow, that will increase the likelihood that you won’t. On the other hand your continued growth will lead you toward increased aliveness and sense of connection.

Even if you already know that growing is possible, my own experience tells me that it is not obvious how it happens. My hope for this article is that it will give you some meat to the bones of the various theories of development (from scholars like Susanne Cook-Greuter, Terri O’Fallon, and Robert Kegan to mention a few), and give you a concrete picture of how it happens and what you can do to have it happen. I also want to argue that Inner Relationship Focusing provides us with some vital tools and capacities on this journey.

Growth happens when what is unquestioned, and implicitly experienced as “me,” becomes a something (an “object”) that we are aware of, can look at, and reflect upon.

This article attempts to tease out how growth happens, and then identify some ways that Focusing facilitates this kind of growth. I have sought to keep the language as simple and free from theoretical lingo as possible. The fields of human development and Focusing are both huge and complex each in their own right, which can be confusing. I think it will be useful to make things as concrete as possible, and so I invite you to this small excursion to get a taste of what the two fields entail and can contribute to each other.

Having said that, here is some theoretical lingo (just a bit, and then I’ll explore an example):

Development means differentiation and integration

A well-known general way of describing how growth happens originates from Robert Kegan, and describes a process where “subject becomes object.”

This, in a way, simply means increased self-awareness, becoming aware of things about yourself that you weren’t aware of before. That is perhaps a deceptively simple way of putting it though, because what growth actually entails is a shift in your sense of self, which is pretty profound.

Growth happens when what is unquestioned, and implicitly experienced as “me,” becomes a something (an “object”) that we are aware of, can look at, and reflect upon. What then needs to happen, is a process of integration, where what was differentiated as object becomes re-included in a more mature, conscious and healthy manner.

First, something is differentiated (made object) then it is integrated. It is transcended (no longer limiting me) and included (not split off, judged or repressed).

But what does that mean? What would it look like?

In the following I’ll describe an example of the type of process and practice that people may employ in order to have such shifts in perspective happen.

John’s story

This is where we look at the example of «John’s» self esteem issues. First we’ll have a brief snapshot look at John before and after his growth has taken place:


John’s behavior can sometimes be frustrating, both for himself and his friends. He can become very angry for seemingly very minor things. For example, after a day of hiking with his friend Sean, they are returning tired and happy back to the city. Sean offers to buy John dinner. John tenses up, looks away and rejects his friend’s offer abruptly. He’s very angry, and Sean can’t understand why. For Sean, it’s simply a friendly gesture, and no big deal. For John, however it’s an obvious insult: “How dare he belittle me? Does he think I can’t pay for my own food?”


A year later, a similar situation occurs, but this time John graciously accepts, and even though he is aware of some of the old emotions, they are merely in the background. He’s able to enjoy good times with his friends.

What has happened? The short answer is that John has become aware of the reasons for his earlier misinterpretation. Being aware of them, he’s no longer owned by them, and so he naturally is much more able to enjoy his life.

Prior to being aware of what’s behind his anger, he simply reacts. When he’s aware of it, he sees things more clearly and acts more maturely.

The growth process fleshed out

Pre-growth, John is aware that the emotion anger is there, but he’s unaware of the more subtle experiences, assumptions, and beliefs that underlie that feeling. In his reality, it is about them doing something to him, and he is a victim of this perceived maliciousness. “They have insulted me.” Period.

The growth process might have gone something like this:

First increase in awareness:

Seeing behavioral patterns and taking responsibility for them

John first became aware of his own behavioral pattern. He started noticing that he sometimes reacted with anger when he felt like his position in the group was threatened. What previously simply was his unquestioned way of being in the world (subject) has become an object in his awareness, something he can explore.

And, crucially, he’s starting to take responsibility for it. It’s not about other people victimizing him; he’s getting that on some level he is actually doing it to himself.

This taking responsibility enables his self-exploration to unfold even more:

Second increase in awareness:

Uncovering background feelings and beliefs

Examining his experience in such situations, he becomes aware of a tendency to feel small and weak. He notices how that feels in his body. At first this is easiest when he is alone in contemplation, and later he is able to spot it as it happens in his life.

He can feel it like a sort of sadness behind his eyes, and a searching or grasping sense of helplessness in his belly. It is very subtle, and yet clearly there. Actually it is very familiar. It used to be who he thought he was: a small and weak person.

So again he has made explicit something that previously was implicit. He wasn’t aware that he was feeling small, but simply acted (and compensated) from that place. Now he knows that he feels this way, and as a consequence of this awareness, automatically acts and feels differently.

His subject (or an aspect of it) has become object again, this time in terms of his bodily felt experience. He has also uncovered the closely connected hidden belief of being small and weak.

Third increase in awareness:

Uncovering needs and wants

John can now understand more of his behavior. He gets that this sense of smallness feels vulnerable, and that he has the need for the opposite: to feel big, powerful and strong.

Where before he felt like others should change their behavior, he now sees that it is up to him to access his sense of being powerful and competent. This in its turn actually makes him more powerful, as he realizes it is within his power to do so.

And come to think of it, he also realizes that he already is strong. He has created a lot of great circumstances in his life (his education, job and relationships) and generally handles himself competently. He sees that these feelings of smallness are remains from his childhood, and not really who he is as an adult.

Now he can meet his old blustering self with much more compassion. He sees that it really makes sense that he would compensate in this way, when this part of him felt so vulnerable. From its point of view it seemed like others threatened his need to access his power! And that power is important; something needed to take care of his boundaries, and to go for what he wants in life. There was a positive intention and (albeit twisted) logic behind those seemingly random and irrational outbursts.

John has now transcended his immature reactions, and he is not judging or trying to repress them. The reactions are included, i.e. understood and met with compassion. They are allowed to be there, even if they are no longer allowed to run the show.

And a crucial reason why this feels possible for John, is that he can now access what these reactions were (innocently) trying to conjure up: his power.

Now, extend this sort of inquiry and insight into John’s life at large, and soon he’s operating from a different level on a general basis.

He’s no longer offended by the things that used to bother him, because his “me” is no longer the same.

He’s no longer offended by the things that used to bother him, because his “me” is no longer the same. The “me” changes automatically when he becomes more and more aware of unconscious beliefs, moods, urges and feelings.

The case of John is imaginary. In the video below Gabor Mate gives a similar sort of example. The content is different, but his process of making inner automatic reactions into objects of consciousness is similar:

Gabor Mate describes his growth process.

(From 1:11:38-1:13:48)

It is necessary but not sufficient to see and intellectually identify our patterns and beliefs.

Inner Relationship Focusing

So how does the method of Inner Relationship Focusing (IRF) fit into this picture? IRF is a form of body-centered inquiry that emphasizes the “inner relationship,” and which is developed by Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin. It is a flavor of the “Focusing” method, originally discovered and developed from the 60s onwards by prof. Eugene Gendlin of the University of Chicago.

The core of the method is a mode of being present while sensing in the body. What emerges in the Focusing process is not only emotions, but also more subtle and complex bodily sensations, termed by Gendlin the “Felt Sense.” A Felt Sense is a bodily sensation that is difficult to put into words. In other words, there is a richness of meaning to it, which unfolds as we continue to be with it. This is different from a feeling, like anger or disgust, which is relatively straightforward to unpack, and which also has measurable physiological correlates.

There are at least a couple of ways that Focusing facilitates development:

  • It creates a safe container for self-exploration.
  • It helps develop some essential capacities necessary for making subject into object.

Here we’ll concentrate on the second one. What capacities does Focusing develop?

Capacities needed in order to develop

First though, let’s have a more general look at what sorts of capacities that were required in the case of John. Then we’ll highlight where Focusing can contribute in that picture.

To do what he does, John must

  • be able to observe himself in life’s situations without too much reactivity (i.e. without being caught up in emotions and beliefs).
  • understand that context is important, and that his behavior is related to that. He sees that his pattern has to do with certain situations (to do with who he is socially) and this becomes a hint for his further exploration.
  • be able to remember several instances of his behavior in context, form questions and hypotheses, and to generalize and see patterns.
  • be able to sense not only his emotions, but also the subtle sense of feeling small, and the underlying need to feel powerful.
  • be aware of subtle bodily sensations even in the midst of everyday life.

More generally, we can see three types of capacities here:

  1. Presence (being able to remain unreactive faced with difficult emotions and situations)
  2. Bodily awareness (being able to feel subtle bodily sensations and feelings)
  3. Cognitive capacity (such as remembering, rational thinking, contextual understanding etc.)

Focusing develops your presence and bodily awareness

Focusing excels in developing the first two. While cognitive capacities are certainly also utilized and enhanced in Focusing, specific cognitive capacities (like rational thinking) are better developed through other types of studies (mathematics, philosophy, social science, etc.).

In its essence Focusing is a process of remaining present with our body experience. Presence is the core, the prerequisite needed for the Focusing process to unfold. In practice that means having an open, spacious curiosity about what’s happening inside.

Focusing always brings us back to sensing in the body (which in itself facilitates presence). Although we acknowledge and include thoughts and mental imagery, we always bring our attention back to the body. We become aware of very subtle sensations there, and we learn that by taking them seriously, and by following them with attentiveness they can turn out very significant, despite their inconspicuousness. The level of detail we are able to perceive in our inner world increases, we see more and more subtle things. We can follow such sensations with openness and curiosity, not knowing what it is, just being present with them. From there many things unfold. We might start with an emotion like anger, and end up in a subtle sense of feeling small, and then the sense of inherent power, like in the example above.

The more nuance we are able to see, the more subject is made into object, and the deeper our transformation and understanding.

What I think is important here is that the subject-into-object movement is not only a cognitive realization. It is necessary but not sufficient to see and intellectually identify our patterns and beliefs. We need to “unpack” the emotional nuances of it, the complex meaning that underlies it, that imbues it with its power to trap us. We need to feel the substance of our patterns, the reactive core, the pain, the grit. The more nuance we are able to see, the more subject is made into object, and the deeper our transformation and understanding.

This is what happens in the process of letting a Felt Sense form and unfold, and this is literally how it feels like to grow, because according to Gendlin, the very formation of a Felt Sense is a subject-to-object movement:

With the emergence of such a single bodily sense [i.e. the felt sense] comes relief, as if the body is grateful for being allowed to form its way of being as a whole. The bodily sense becomes something in and of itself, a fact, a datum, something that is there. The person has that “something that is there.” It is something you have, but not something you are. Before you were that way of being. Now you are the new living that is ongoing, as you sense how you were. How you were is now something you have in front of you. It has become the object to which you attend. (From E. Gendlin, 1996: Focusing-oriented psychotherapy, p. 20, my emphasis)

A Felt Sense can only form when we are present, and so this is part of what Focusing offers: skills, tools and techniques to become present, even when emotions seem overwhelming, or when we are faced with compelling beliefs and thoughts. There are many such maneuvers and techniques, too many to mention here, but arguably one of the most important ways is via the partial-self model, which I will describe below.

The Partial-Self Model

One of the most useful and facilitative tools that Inner Relationship Focusing employs is the Partial-Self model. Through this lens we view reactions and emotions not as mere abstract body sensations, but as meaningful information that comes from something in us: a Partial Self. By relating to our emotions as Partial Selves, we can more easily form an inner relationship with them. There is a self here, a sort of inner entity that we can become curious about. From here, a sort of communicative process can emerge: we become a listener to our parts. By listening compassionately and with curiosity to something in us that reacts, the sense of being merged with it is replaced with a sense of being bigger than it. We can draw on more of our inner resources, and stay present with more intense material.

The richness and warmth of this process can be both astonishing and extremely nourishing.

In Kegan’s terms, by identifying our Partial-Selves we have made a part of our subject into object. However, the word “object” does not capture the quality of the shift. The Partial-Self is not «thingified.» It remains a sort of subject, but a subject that our mature and larger self (what IRF calls Self-in-Presence) can relate to, listen to and, in a sense, become a parent to.

As we listen to it, more and more of its worldview and emotions can unfold. The richness and warmth of this process can be both astonishing and extremely nourishing. Through listening we gain lots of information about the inner workings of this Partial Self. Far from being an abstract, or even inert, “object,” it becomes a rich well of various qualities, beliefs, images, impressions and memories.

However, the important part is not so much the information aspect of it, but the healing that occurs, and how we are able to access inner resources that were previously bound up in rigid and blind reactions (like John’s power). We can transcend and include it, not merely intellectually, but also in terms of our deep emotions and our way of being in the world.

The models and injunctions we use, and the way we view and talk about our inner experience, shapes the way that the process unfolds.

How you approach your inner world matters

So an important point here is that of enactment, or how our very approach shapes what sorts of things we tend to find inside. The models and injunctions we use, and the way we view and talk about our inner experience, shapes the way that the process unfolds. When we observe something and view it as an inner “object” we might easily treat it more like an abstract sensation, and we will get something different than if we view it as an inner Partial-Self, an alive entity. Our self-exploration might still unfold in a way that is very valuable and clarifying, but the quality of the process will be different. In other words, our models and language enact what we find inside.

The Partial-Self model is facilitative of a very compassionate and invigorating process. We relate to our inner reactions as parts in process, rather than something abstract like “fear,” “anger,” or “disappointment.” It is something in me that is angry, afraid or disappointed. Adjectives, not nouns. Process not things.

Through the Partial-Self model then, the way that our subject becomes “object” takes place in a way that is much less likely to get hijacked by our inner critic or our analytical mind. In fact in Focusing both the critic and our analytical mind are viewed as Partial Selves, who are to be listened to, and been with, from compassion as Self-in-Presence, just like other reactive parts.

The Partial-Self model, in other words, makes it easier to include what is being transcended.

Through Focusing we cultivate a nourishing inner climate. Here our subjective self is deeply seen and accepted as it is. This naturally and effortlessly leads to growth.

In summary, the growth process is a complex and fascinating journey, which involves many different sorts of capacities. Focusing is useful for developing some crucial elements, like the ability to be present (including how to disidentify from what we are taking ourselves to be) and to sense subtle bodily sensations. Through Focusing we cultivate a nourishing inner climate. Here our subjective self is deeply seen and accepted as it is. This naturally and effortlessly leads to growth. It enables us to not only deal with more and more challenging situations, but also to use such challenges as «fuel» to grow and live more full and joyful lives.

Anders B. Asphaug

Anders B. Asphaug

MSc, Cand. polit.

Anders is a certified Circling Leader, a educated conflict worker, and is currently certifying as a Focusing professional. He leads regular authentic communication workshops and communication courses. He is also available for one-on-one sessions for people who want to gain the inner strength (and skill set) necessary to stand more firmly in their life. He finds that in order to master your relationships with others, it is essential to cultivate your inner relationship.

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