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Gendlin, E.T. (1961). Experiencing: A variable in the process of therapeutic change. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 15(2), 233-245. From

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Experiencing: A variable in the process of therapeutic change

Eugene T. Gendlin, Ph.D. University of Wisconsin


For many years there has been a heated discussion in psychology between those who emphasize the need for operational scientific method and those who emphasize the need for consideration of the subjective, personally important variables of human phenomena which science too often omits. The present paper holds that both viewpoints express the need for science to move from naturalistic and subjective observation of important human phenomena to operationally defined observations of these phenomena.

The purpose of theory is to lead to hypotheses and operationally defined observations which test hypotheses. It is the contention of this paper that theory which conceptualizes subjective observations can lead to operational hypotheses and research. Operationally defined observation is the aim, not the start of theory. The theory of experiencing, here presented, starts with subjective and naturalistic observation. It attempts to formulate theoretical concepts which lead to operational research categories. Operational and objective standards of science should be applied to the research procedures that result from theory, not to the naturalistic observations from which theory must start. If the start and the outcome of theory are confused, observations of central variables of human behavior will be kept out of science on the grounds that such observations are subjective. The present paper formulates six theoretical propositions which refer to a subjective process: "experiencing." The paper will attempt to show that a theory which formulates concepts referring to a subjective process can lead to objective operational research.

I. The Experience Process

Therapeutic change may be viewed as an outcome or as a process. Outcome is the difference between personality measures before and after psychotherapy. A good deal of theory and research has been [Page 234] devoted to the outcome of psychotherapy. By "process," on the other hand, I mean an ongoing flow of events that occurs continuously in the individual. Outcome differences are the result of an ongoing process of therapy. Very little theory and research has so far dealt with this process.

In this paper I will discuss one variable of the process of therapy. I will call that variable "experiencing."

Let me begin my deliniation of the variable "experiencing" by discussing two of its characteristics: (1) Experiencing is felt, rather than thought, known, or verbalized. (2) Experiencing occurs in the immediate present. It is not generalized attributes of a person such as traits, complexes, or dispositions. Rather, experiencing is what a person feels here and now, in this moment. Experiencing is a changing flow of feeling which makes it possible for every individual to feel something in any given moment. I would like to discuss these two characteristics of experiencing together:

(1) Experiencing is a process of feeling

(2) Experiencing occurs in the immediate present

When therapists discuss cases, they use rough metaphoric terms to refer to a feeling process. They often say that they observe clients "emotionally absorbing something," or "working through," or "feeling through." The therapeutic process is observed to involve not only concepts, but also a feeling process, which I would like to call "experiencing."

Freud relates how he discovered that it was not sufficient for therapy to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. The diagnosis had to be communicated to the patient. Then, the patient still had to be brought to understand and accept it. But even then, the patient often accepted the diagnosis more as a matter of courtesy for the doctor, or as a matter of intellectual insight, without genuine emotional change.

The ego still finds it difficult to nullify its repressions, even after it has resolved to give up its resistances, and we have designated the phase of strenuous effort which follows upon this laudable resolution as the period of "working through" [1].

Genuine psychotherapy began at this point, that is to say, at the point of going beyond the intellectual approach by helping the patient to an immediate, present experiencing of his problems. Even though the problems may concern events which occurred early in [Page 235] life, therapeutic change in these problems requires a present experiencing, that is to say a present feeling process. Freud achieved this present immediacy by discovering manifestations of the patient's problems in the present moment of the relationship between doctor and patient. In this way the patient could be helped to grapple with his problems on an emotional level and in the immediate present.

From this discussion by Freud we may formulate the two characteristics of experiencing stated above: (1) experiencing is a process of feeling rather than intellectual understanding; (2) experiencing is a process which occurs in the immediate present of the therapy hour.

(3) Experiencing is a direct referent

Let me now add a third characteristic: Experiencing can be directly referred to by an individual as a felt datum in his own phenomenal field. Very frequently, during therapy hours, clients may be observed to refer directly to their experiencing. Experiencing itself is, of course, private and unobservable. However, gestures, tone of voice, manner of expression, as well as the context of what is said are often observable indications of direct reference to experiencing. Certain characteristic forms of verbal expression are also observable indices of direct reference to experiencing. When a client refers directly to his experiencing, he is likely to use some demonstrative pronouns like "this" or "it" or "that all tied-up feeling." His verbal expressions indicate that he is pointing to a felt datum within himself. Let me cite some common observations from therapy hours in which experiencing is directly referred to.

Clients frequently speak of feeling something without knowing what it is they feel. Both client and counselor call such a feeling "this feeling" and continue to communicate about it although neither person knows just what that feeling is. At such times, both persons directly refer to the client's ongoing experiencing. They do so without a conceptualization of what the client refers to. The symbols used (such as the term "this") do not conceptualize. They do not formulate anything. They only point. Such symbols are neither accurate nor inaccurate. They convey no information about the feeling, they only refer to it. I am giving the name "direct reference" to such pointing to present experiencing.

Direct reference may also occur when client and counselor do [Page 236] know what the feeling is but nevertheless need to refer directly to the experiencing and not to the conceptualization. For example: "I have known all along that I feel this way, but I am amazed at how strongly I do feel that."

Let me cite another, similar case where direct reference to experiencing is necessary even though an accurate conceptualization is also present. A client has all along asserted something about himself, for example, "I am afraid of being rejected." After many hours of therapy he comes upon the feelings which make this so. He discovers anew that he is afraid of being rejected. Usually he is then somewhat troubled by the fact that the feelings are new, different, amazing, yet no better words exist for them than the old, trite, "I am afraid of being rejected." The client then struggles to communicate to the counselor that now he "really" feels it, that the concepts are old but the experiencing is new.

Direct reference to experiencing is also noticeable in many clients' reports about their experiencing between therapy sessions. Clients often report being "disturbed," "unsettled," a "churning," a "something going on in them" but they may or may not know what it is.

In these observations it is clear that the client is referring to something other than conceptualizations. He is referring directly to his present experiencing.

(4) Experiencing guides conceptualization

A fourth characteristic of experiencing lies in the client's use of it to guide him toward increasingly accurate conceptualizations. A client may feel a feeling and refer to it for quite some time before attempting a formation of it in terms of concepts. When he has attempted such a first formulation he often considers what he has just said and then feels: "yes, that's it!" or, "no, that isn't quite it." Often he does not know how what is said differs from what he feels, but he knows it differs. In these examples it is clear that the client refers directly to his experiencing, and is checking his first rough conceptual formulations against his present experiencing. In this way present experiencing guides conceptualizations.

So far, I have said about experiencing that it is felt and occurs in the immediate present, that the individual refers directly to it as a datum in his own phenomenal field, and that he guides his conceptual formulations by such direct reference.

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(5) Experiencing is implicitly meaningful

The fact that direct reference to experiencing can guide conceptualization, implies a fifth characteristic of experiencing:
It is implicitly meaningful. The implicit meaning is only felt, and may not become explicit until later. Yet this implicit meaning can guide conceptualization.

Here is something we call a "feeling," something felt in a physical sense, yet later on the individual will say that certain concepts now accurately represent that feeling. The feeling, he will say, was such and so all along, but he didn't know it. He only felt it. He felt it in such a unique and specific way that he could gradually, by directly referring to it, arrive at concepts for it. That is to say, the feeling was implicitly meaningful. It had a meaning which was distinguishably different from other feelings and meanings, but its meaning was felt rather than known in explicit symbols.

If I may speak of "felt meaning," I am of course using the term "meaning" in a very special sense. Such "meaning," is somewhat different from the sense in which concepts or words have meaning. Here is an example of the difference. One concept or one word has a univocal single meaning, whereas one feeling often implicitly contains very many different conceptual meanings. Like a dream symbol, one felt datum may give rise to a great many complex conceptualizations. A client in therapy can work with one felt referent which implicitly contains very many complex meanings that may become conceptualized only much later.

The following is an example of how felt implicit meaning becomes conceptualized.

A person may say "I have to go to a meeting tonight, but for some reason I don't want to go." Now, from this verbal content we have no way of getting at why he doesn't want to go. Only he has a way of getting at the feelings and this way lies through direct reference to his present experiencing about it. As he refers directly to his present experiencing he may say, "Well, I don't know what it is, but I sure don't want to go." He may continue to refer to his present experiencing and it may change even without further conceptual formulation. Or, as he continues to refer to it, he may say, "H-mm, I don't want to go because Mr. X will be there and he will argue with me and I hate that." This verbal content will have arisen for him from a direct reference---a direct grappling with his present experiencing. Nor is this all the meaning that might emerge [Page 238] as he grapples with his present experiencing. A little later he may say, "Oh, it isn't that I hate arguing with Mr. X; actually I love to argue with him, but I'm afraid he will make fun of me when I get excited in arguing." In this example, the individual forms concepts on the basis of direct references to his experiencing. He is not simply using certain concepts which accurately say something about him. He is not deducing from his behavior that he is afraid of being ridiculed. Rather he forms the conceptualizations on the basis of direct reference to present experiencing.

As he refers directly to the felt datum from which all these verbalizations spring, he finds new aspects which he can now differentiate, all of which were implicitly contained in his not wanting to go to the meeting. He may all the while be feeling intensely and working with his fear of being ridiculed and his feelings of inadequacy. A book might be written about all the meanings which are implicitly contained in this one datum of directly referred to experiencing with which he is now working. Although not conceptualized, all these meanings may be in the process of changing. Such meanings are felt as a single "this way I feel"; the implicit meanings can be complex, multiple, and can contain all sorts of perceptions and differentiations of circumstances, past and present. Thus, present experiencing is an implicitly meaningful felt datum.

(6) Experiencing is a preconceptual organismic process

I would like to distinguish implicit felt meaning from what is usually called "unconscious," or "denied to awareness." Implicit meaning is often unconceptualized in awareness. However, the experiencing of the felt datum is conscious. Only because it is conscious can the client feel it, refer to it, talk about it, attempt to conceptualize it, and check the accuracy of his conceptualizations against it. The implicit meaning of experiencing is felt in awareness, although the many complex meanings of one such feeling may not have been conceptualized before.

The many implicit meanings of a moment's experiencing are not already conceptual and then repressed. Rather, we must consider these meanings to be preconceptual, aware but as yet undifferentiated.

Preconceptual events in the organism can have meaning, because all organismic events occur in organized patterns of interaction in the biologic and interpersonal environments. In this way, as Harry [Page 239] Stack Sullivan [2] points out, "all human experience is symbolic." The complex organization of the organism is partly biologic and partly interpersonal. It exists at birth but it is also modified by subsequent conditioning and learning. Thus any event of the organism is symbolic of its organized interrelations with other events and processes of life and interaction. Hence one such event can implicitly represent---or mean---many complex aspects of many other events. Hence the directly felt data of present experiencing have implicit preconceptual meaning.

The process of therapeutic changing involves this directly felt, implicitly meaningful organismic experiencing. In the therapeutic process, certain few differentiated meanings do play an important role. However, a vital role is played also by organismic processes, as these are at any given moment felt. They constitute a present inner datum, a direct referent. Change in therapy does not concern only those few conceptual meanings which the individual thinks or puts into words. Therapeutic change occurs as a result of a process in which implicit meanings are in awareness, and are intensely felt, directly referred to, and changed, without ever being put into words. Thus the process of therapy involves experiencing.

The characteristics of experiencing which I have mentioned are: (1) Experiencing is a process of feeling (2) occurring in the immediate present. (3) Clients can refer directly to experiencing. (4) In forming conceptualizations, clients are guided by experiencing. First rough conceptualizations can be checked against direct reference to experiencing. (5) Experiencing has implicit meanings. (6) These are preconceptual. Experiencing is a concrete organismic process, felt in awareness.

II. Therapeutic Responses

If it is true that therapists observe and talk about the function of what I am calling experiencing in therapy, then this formulation of experiencing should help state the aim of therapeutic responses and should help explain how therapeutic responses achieve their aim. Let me attempt to discuss the aim and the effect of two kinds of therapeutic responses in terms of the function of experiencing in the therapy process.

I will try to show that both client-centered responses and interpretations can be described in a way which makes them seem effective, or they can be described so as to seem ineffective. I will try [Page 240] to show that when therapeutic responses are said to be effective, it is because they are said to maximize the role of experiencing in the therapeutic process.

Client-centered responses are sometimes described as mere repetitions of what the client says. According to this description, the therapist adds nothing to what the client says. Such a description makes client-centered responses appear shallow. Client-centered therapists do not merely repeat. But since they also wish to emphasize that they do not interpret, it is difficult to formulate just what they really do. Applying what I have said about experiencing, I believe it would be true to say that a good client-centered response formulates the felt, implicit meaning of the client's present experiencing. The client-centered response at its best formulates something which is not yet fully formulated, or fully conceptualized. It formulates what the client is aware of, but not conceptually or verbally aware of. It formulates the meaning which the client has been trying to get at by various different verbalizations. In short, I believe that the optimal client-centered response attempts to refer to, and to formulate, the client's present felt experiencing. It thereby helps the client formulate it, and refer directly to it, so that better and more differentiated conceptualizations can be worked for, and so that he can feel his present feeling more deeply and intensely.

I have tried to contrast a shallow and inadequate description of the client-centered response with what I believe is an accurate description. This accurate description requires the notion of experiencing as an aware, felt, and implicitly meaningful direct referent.

Let me attempt the same kind of contrast in the case of interpretation. A poor and shallow description of interpretation, I believe, would be that interpretation explains to the patient something of which he is himself unaware. He is unaware of the matter, presumably because his defenses make direct awareness impossible. Therefore, the patient can profit from such an interpretation only in an intellectual sense. The mere concept does not overcome the emotional defenses. Hence the patient goes home with only a concept. Instead of helping the patient, the therapist leaves him to grapple with the emotions and defenses by himself.

Obviously this describes interpretive therapy as it stood previous to Freud's discovery that intellectual insight is not enough. An effective interpretation must somehow help the patient deal with the [Page 241] inner experiencing to which the interpretation refers. How does it help him to cope with the experiencing? Fenichel [3], in The Psychoanalytic Theory of the Neurosis, says:

Since interpretation means helping something unconscious become conscious by naming it at the moment it is striving to break through, effective interpretations can be given only at one specific point, namely, where the patient's immediate interest is momentarily centered.

In other words, an effective interpretation is one which refers to just that datum on which the patient's interest is centered, or, as I would put it, an effective interpretation refers to the present experiencing to which the patient just now directly refers. Also, an effective interpretation names or tries to conceptualize the implicit meaning which, although now being felt and now striving to break through, has not quite fully broken through yet.

I have tried to show that when therapeutic methods are oversimplified and criticized, they are usually portrayed just so as to omit experiencing. This makes them appear purely conceptual. Client-centered responses can be oversimplified as mere repetitions of the client's concepts. Interpretations can be oversimplified as mere intellectualizations. On the other hand, these responses are said to be effective when they are said to enhance the role of experiencing in the therapeutic process. They refer to the individual's present experiencing. They attempt to name accurately what he is aware of and feels, but has not fully conceptualized. They help the individual refer to a present inner datum which, although felt in awareness, is not conceptually known.

I believe that when these kinds of therapeutic responses achieve their aim, they are in practice quite similar to each other. Let me now try to describe such a response in words which do not belong to any one orientation. An effective therapeutic response refers to what the individual is now aware of. However, it does not refer simply to his words or thoughts. Rather, it refers to the present felt datum, his present experiencing. Presumably, the individual's words and gestures are attempts to express, imply, get at, this present felt datum. The response will not always be able to state it accurately, but it can always refer to it. Even before it becomes clear just what the implicit meaning of a present experiencing is, both persons can refer to it, both persons can call it "this feeling which is so and so," or "this whole problem with your mother," or, [Page 242] "what you are trying to get at seems to be somewhat scary," or similar words which obviously refer to this in the individual, to which he now directly refers. An effective therapeutic response thus aims to refer directly and to help the individual refer directly, to his present experiencing. Such a response aids him to feel this present experiencing more intensely, to grapple with it, face it, tolerate it, and work it through. Such a response helps him to put the implicit meaning of his experiencing into concepts which accurately state it.

It is clear that the therapist's responses, when they refer to and name present experiencing, are not theoretical deductions about the client. Rather, they refer to an implicit meaning of which the client is now directly aware and which he communicates by implication. When responses refer to and name experiencing, they have "depth," because what the client now feels is often much more than his words explicitly state. It is a kind of depth, all of which is in the client's awareness, but in a felt, rather than a conceptual form.

I have tried to give a theoretical formulation of the role of experiencing in the process of therapy, and to show how this role of experiencing is implied in the aim of effective therapeutic responses.

III. Research

I would like now to turn to the operational indices which have so far been used to test hypotheses concerning experiencing. The studies I will cite are not presented as research reports. They are intended to illustrate that although the theory of experiencing formulates subjective phenomena, it leads to operational research employing commonly known techniques and instruments.

The instruments used are those which have been developed during the last ten years in order to measure outcomes of psychotherapy. In addition to personality measures they include Q sorts, rating scales and other ways of quantifying the subjective aspects of psychotherapy. Although these instruments are used in new ways, their basic operational character is not altered by the theory of experiencing.

Indices of experiencing are observed by counselors. Thus one avenue of research uses counselor rating scales concerning their observations of clients during therapy. Scores on these scales are then correlated with other measures. Another avenue of research is the client's own quantified report of his experiencing on a Q sort [Page 243] consisting of descriptions of therapy experiences. A third avenue is a classification of verbalizations on tape recordings of therapy hours. Indices of experiencing found on the tapes can be correlated with measures of personality change.

The basic hypothesis derived from the theory is: the greater the role played by experiencing during the therapy hours, the greater will be the therapeutic change and the successful outcome of therapy. Change and outcome are measured by traditional personality measures, such as the TAT, Rorschach, or MMPI, and by counselor success ratings after therapy. The role played by experiencing during therapy has been measured in terms of operational indices of three of the mentioned characteristics of experiencing:

(a) immediacy of feeling (characteristic 2) as contrasted with postponed affect.

(b) direct reference to directly felt data (characteristic 3) as contrasted with external or cognitive content.

(c) feelings which are not yet understood but which guide the individual's formation of new concepts about himself (characteristic 4).

In each of the following research projects the hypothesis is that the amount of therapeutic change will correlate with the degree to which an operational index of a characteristic of experiencing is observed during therapy.

(a) Immediacy of experiencing: In a study by Gendlin, Jenney, and Shlien [4] counselors quantified their observations of clients during therapy by marking several rating scales with a range of 1--9. These ratings were then correlated with the clients' success ratings. It was found that success ratings did not correlate at all with those scales which concerned verbal content. It made no difference whether clients chiefly talked about past or present events. On the other hand, success ratings correlated with a rating scale of immediacy. Success ratings went to those clients who were observed, during therapy, as most often expressing feelings directly and with immediacy, rather than merely talking about feelings.

Immediacy of experiencing is also measured by Rogers' Process Scale [5, 6]. A part of that scale rates tape-recorded interview material on a continuum between the poles of "remoteness from experiencing" and "experiencing in the immediate present . . . as a clear and usable referent."

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(b) Direct reference to experiencing: Direct reference to experiencing is being measured by Zimring who devised a classification system of clients' verbalizations. The classes include direct reference to presently felt but not cognitively known data as well as other types of reference. The classification system is applied to tape-recorded therapy interviews, and can be correlated with measures of personality change to test the prediction that those clients who show the most indices of direct reference will show the greatest therapeutic change.

(c) Feelings guiding concept formation: A Q-sort was devised to measure the degree to which a client's experiencing during therapy guides his formations of concepts. The Q-sort consisted of 32 cards containing statements which describe experiences that many clients have during therapy hours. Each statement describes an experience involving strong feelings that are not yet understood, or efforts to understand puzzling present feelings during therapy. The Q-sort was administered to clients during and after therapy. Preliminary findings show that success ratings by counselors correlate significantly with client's scores on this Q-sort. The finding is a preliminary indication that clients succeed in therapy if they often experience immediately present feelings which they do not as yet understand.

Rating scales, Q-sorts and classifications of verbal responses used by counselors, clients, and judges can define quantitative operational formulations of the characteristics of experiencing. Thus, although theoretically the term experiencing refers to the subjective feeling process privately referred to by the individual, the theory leads to operational hypotheses which can be tested by quantitative objective observation.

This paper introduces some of the theoretical concepts [7] of the continuing research on experiencing. Many of the basic concepts were originated and developed in collaboration with Fred M. Zimring [8]. The whole approach was developed from the work of Carl R. Rogers.

These beginnings of research show that it is possible to measure the relationship between the outcome of therapy and indices of experiencing as it functions in the process of therapy. Thus operational research is possible concerning the function of experiencing in the process of therapy.

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Experiencing is a variable of the process of therapeutic changing. Experiencing is a process of feeling, rather than concepts. It occurs in the immediate present and can be directly referred to by an individual as a felt datum in his phenomenal field. Experiencing guides the client's conceptualizations, and has implicit meaning which is organismic and preconceptual. Change occurs in therapy even before the client has accurate concepts to represent the feelings to which he directly refers. Experiencing is in awareness, but is felt rather than known conceptually. Experiencing can implicitly have a great many complex meanings, all of which can be in the process of changing even while they are being directly referred to as some one "this way I feel."

When therapeutic responses, both client-centered and interpretive, are said to be effective, it is because they are said to enhance the function of experiencing in therapy.

Operational research has begun to test the importance of the function of experiencing in therapeutic change by correlating observable indices of experiencing with other measures of therapy.


[1] Freud, S. The Problem of Anxiety. W. W. Norton, New York, 1936, p. 105.

[2] Sullivan, H. S. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. W. W. Norton, New York, 1953, p. 186.

[3] Fenichel, O. The Psychoanalytic Theory of the Neuroses. W. W. Norton, New York, 1945.

[4] Gendlin, E., Jenney R., and Shlien, J. Counselor Ratings of Process and Outcomes in Client-Centered Therapy. Report to the American Psychological Association Convention, 1956.

[5] Rogers, C. R.  A Process Conception of Psychotherapy. Am. Psychologist. 13: 142, 1958.

[6] Walker, A., Rogers, C., and Rablen, R.  Development and Application of a Scale to Measure Process Changes in Psychotherapy. Report to the American Psychological Association Convention, Washington D. C., 1958.

[7] Gendlin, E. Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning. The Free Press (in press).

[8] Gendlin, E., and Zimring, F. The Qualities or Dimensions of Experiencing and their Change. Counseling Center Discussion Papers. 1: 3, 1955.

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  • Biographic Note: Eugene T. Gendlin is a seminal American philosopher and psychologist. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and taught there from 1963 to 1995. His philosophical work is concerned especially with the relationship between logic and implicit intricacy. Philosophy books include Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning, Language Beyond Post-Modernism: Saying and Thinking in Gendlin's Philosophy edited by David Michael Levin, (fourteen commentaries and Gendlin’s replies), and A Process Model. There is a world wide network of applications and practices ( stemming from this philosophy. Gendlin has been honored three times by the American Psychological Association for his development of Experiential Psychotherapy. He was a founder and editor for many years of the Association’s Clinical Division Journal, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. His book Focusing has sold over half a million copies and has appeared in seventeen languages. His psychology-related books are Let Your Body Interpret Your Dreams and Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapy.
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