In this video interview, Larry speaks with our friend and colleague Ann Weiser Cornell, developer of Inner Relationship Focusing or IRF. IRF is a hidden treasure. It’s an incredibly simple yet sophisticated way of giving compassionate presence and engagement to your own inner self that leads to powerful insights and inner shifts in how you feel. Problems that may have been stuck for years can get unstuck, at times easily and quickly.
Ann is a compelling speaker. In this interview, Ann explains the IRF process and the concepts of “disidentification” and “Self-in-Presence,” which allow you to “be with” difficult and stressful emotions and thoughts in a way that you can listen to what they’re saying and how they’re trying to help you in order for them to, in her words, “take their next steps of life, become whatever they need to become,” and get “closer and closer to who we really are.” As Ann explains, “there are no enemies inside.” She also shares how two issues of her own, writer’s block and her fear of flying, got resolved through using her method on herself.
Ann is also the author of four books including The Power of Focusing and Presence: A Guide to Transforming Your Most Challenging Emotions, and the founder and CEO of Focusing Resources.
Below is a list of key highlights from the interview and a lightly edited transcript:
- 0:00 Introducing Anne Weiser Cornell
- 2:35 What is Focusing?
- 5:10 How it all began
- 8:22 What is Inner Relationship Focusing?
- 12:52 How IRF differs from “processing of feelings”
- 14:43 Why feelings get “stuck”
- 17:23 Difference between IRF and mindfulness
- 18:44 Ann’s story on conquering her fear of flying
- 22:00 Ann on overcoming writer’s block
- 29:00 Why people fear their emotions
- 29:45 What is “Self-in-Presence”?
- 30:42 What is “dis-identification”?
- 32:54 A shift in perspective
- 33:54 There are no enemies inside
- 35:22 Larry’s story about working through anxiety
Hi! I’m Larry Letich. Welcome to the Art of Feeling! Today it is my great pleasure and honor to interview Ann Weiser Cornell, the developer of the fantastic method of mind-body self-help and self-healing known as Inner Relationship Focusing, or IRF.
IRF is an offshoot, or variation, of the powerful mind-body self-healing approach known simply as Focusing, which is in fact the granddaddy of all of today’s somatic therapies. Yet in many ways, Focusing is still more cutting-edge and radical than the ones that have come after. Focusing is a way of listening to all that is within you deeply and compassionately in a way that leads to profound inner change.
Getting back to Ann: Ann has brought Focusing, in the form of IRF, to more people than anyone else in the world. At last count, she’s brought Focusing to people in more than 20 countries on six continents. She’s also the author of four books on Focusing and the founder and CEO of Focusing Resources, which teaches and trains people throughout the world in the IRF method.
Ann is also my very dear friend and one of the most important and influential people in my life. Helene Brenner and I learned IRF about 30 years ago from Ann, and it’s been our go-to practice ever since. IRF has brought me more psychological growth and healing than anything else. It also forms the bedrock of what HeIene and I believe as professionals and how we practice as therapists. And it’s the springboard for so much of what we share with you here in the Art of Feeling.
I’m very excited to have Ann join me here today for this interview. The ideas she’s going to share with you in just a few moments are positively life-changing. So now, I’ll get off my soapbox so you can meet and hear one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, Ann Weiser Cornell.
Larry Letich: Hi, Ann! Nice to be with you!
Ann Weiser Cornell: Nice to be with you!
Larry: So, let’s start this from the very beginning for all the people who might be listening to this and have no idea what Focusing is. Tell us, what is Focusing?
Ann: Focusing is an awareness process. It’s turning attention toward how you feel, how you are, your inner sense of anything. Focusing was developed through research into successful psychotherapy. That research was done by Eugene Gendlin among other people. Eugene Gendlin is the man who created the method we now call Focusing based on that research.
They found that psychotherapy clients tended to be more successful if they would pause at some time, not just talk nonstop, and not just cry, but pause sometimes and just feel what they were feeling, even and maybe even especially when it was hard to put into words. Those clients were observed saying things like, “I don’t know how to say this, but it’s right here. And then when they could put it into words, there would be a kind of a sense of freshness, a breakthrough or a new possibility. He looked at the results of this research and said, “if some people are doing this naturally, and their change process is going so much better, and other people are not doing it and they never start doing it just because they have a therapist who’s kind and insightful and so on, we better learn how to teach this, whatever it is, to the people who aren’t doing it naturally.” So formulating this natural change process that some people do naturally into a method, he called it focusing.
Larry: Let me see if I can reiterate that… you’re saying they were paying attention to something inside that made them kind of pause and grope around for words. It was different from what people normally do. And that’s the root of Focusing, the basic thing that Focusers do. Am I getting that right?
Ann: Yeah, that’s right.
Larry: Now tell me, how did you get into it? Where do you come into this picture?
Ann: Well, I’m 72 years old. When I was 22, 50 years ago, I met Gene Gendlin. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and in 1972, a time of great ferment, student activism…,
Larry: Yes! I do remember….
Ann: Gene decided he would teach this method for free as a way of contributing to positive social change and helping to create a community of people who could give emotional support to each other. So I heard about this because it was like this wild rumor about this guy teaching this thing for free down at the Community Church, and I showed up on a Sunday night, and I was captured partly because my life, my personal life, was an emotional mess. And I recognized something that could maybe give me some help with that. And it definitely did.
So from that moment, I became a Focuser. There was a format where you would learn to trade the method with other people. For half an hour, I would do the focusing process and somebody would sit with me. They called it the listener, not giving me advice or counseling me, but just sometimes saying back when I said so that I could stay with the process more easily. And then the next half hour, we’d trade roles, and this is called Focusing partnership. So I had four focusing partners that first year, but I never thought focusing would be part of my professional future. I was on my way to becoming a college professor in linguistics.
But once I got to my first job, I had Focusing, so I could tell that I was unhappy and dissatisfied and unfulfilled teaching linguistics to future English teachers. I was missing something really important for me. So I quit. I went back to Chicago. I didn’t know what I would do. And while I was doing part-time jobs and searching for my next real step, Eugene Gendlin and I happened to have a conversation. He said, “I’m doing workshops in Focusing. Do you want to assist me?” So I became one of his assistants in his Focusing workshops, and that was my real education in how to do this process and how to teach it. And within a few years, I had decided this is my life. I’m going to be a Focusing teacher. And I have been. (laughs)
Larry: You sure have! I mean, that’s like saying Picasso decided to be an artist.
Ann: Thank you! (Laughs)
Larry: So, what is IRF? What is Inner Relationship Focusing, and how did that evolve? What’s different and why?
Ann: Well, the best way to answer that question, I think, is to tell you a little more of my history. After a few years of helping Gene Gendlin teach his Focusing workshops in Illinois, I moved to California for other reasons. Following a husband who was also moving to California, I realized, what I want to do here in California is create the profession of Focusing teaching because nobody had ever done it. Nobody had ever made their living teaching this odd new method. So I put an ad in the local directory, I got a part-time job doing something else to keep body and soul together and people started showing up answering my ad saying, “yes, I’d like to learn this thing.”
But what happened was that the methods that I learned from Eugene Gendlin, good for him to teach to a group, were not working, as well as I would like, to help the individual people that I was seeing have powerful and fulfilling sessions that carried their life forward.
As I sat with people, they actually taught me what they needed in order to do the process, and I kept the essence of Focusing, which we’ve already talked about, which is that there’s something here that comes that’s not just our usual thoughts and repetitive concepts, but something fresh that we can feel and that isn’t easy to put into words, but that when you bring a kind of nonjudgmental awareness to it, it begins to shift and open up to reveal new possibilities, and what was there begins to change. Tight feelings loosen, anxious feelings, relax, and so on.
Turned out all the changes were, I realized, in the direction of enhancing and emphasizing the inner relationship between the person as a whole self and these aspects of themselves that were coming in their body—the tightness, the anxiety, sadness, and so on. So the relationship needed to be one of acceptance, allowing, compassion, empathy, and that I could begin creating invitations and prompts that could support the people I was working with, to have that kind of compassionate, and so on, inner relationship. That’s why I began to call my work Inner Relationship Focusing.
When I met Gene Gendlin about six years after being on my own that way, he encouraged me to keep going. I had been a little nervous about it, but he wasn’t at all bothered by the fact that I was working in a different way than he did. He said, keep going.
Larry: That’s wonderful. That says so much about him. And probably about you too.
Ann: If I’m talking about the history of Inner Relationship Focusing, I just need to mention my colleague, Barbara McGavin. I met Barbara also a few years into this development process. She was a Focusing teacher in the UK at that time. And when she and I formed a collegial relationship and a friendship, it turned out she’d been working along the same lines. And we recognized in each other, this emphasis on Inner Relationship and Focusing. So I really consider her the co-developer of Inner Relationship Focusing and we work together very closely today and are the co-owners of the business, Focusing Resources.
Larry: Oh! I didn’t know that.
Ann: Kind of a new development.
Larry: Would you say more about the Inner Relationship? I’ll explain why. I’d say pretty much anybody who speaks about their feelings or what’s going on with them, there’s no inner relationship, it’s “I’m feeling this and I’m sad about that. And I know exactly what this is about, and I’m really angry at my mother” and [then they’ll] explain exactly why and all the reasons and then explain exactly why they need that to change. And this is what people think of as processing feelings is getting in touch with them, and then correcting them. You know? Correcting the ones you don’t like. So what is this inner relationship? Could you say more about it?
Ann: I will say more about it. But I also know you know all about this. Your and Helene’s great work on the Art of Feeling has been really pointing to the problems with the way most people treat their emotions. Most people treat their emotions as objects…
Ann: …. to be manipulated. You know, “I’m angry. I need to get rid of my anger. I need to change my anxiety. I need to figure out why it’s here and then put something else in place. It’s like it’s furniture, to move around. But no, emotions are part of living process. And we respect that emotions are part of living process. Therefore, change is natural. It’s even in the word “emotion.” Right? Change is natural for emotion.
The odd thing is when emotions stay stuck and don’t change, which I think is a very fascinating question. I think one of the reasons that emotions stay stuck and don’t change is the way they’re treated. If we treat our feelings as if they are unchangeable objects, then they won’t change and Eugene Gendlin wrote, what is not felt remains the same. Meaning not just “I’m feeling angry,” but “I’m turning toward the angry feeling. I’m getting to know it better.”
And then we let go of the word “angry.” We let go of any labels we might have had. Because labels can also interfere with the process of a direct, present, interested relationship.
You know, if I were sitting down with you, Larry, and I said, “How are you? Don’t tell me, I already know,” how good would our conversation be from that moment on? So we don’t want to tell our feelings that we already know what they’re about and how they feel. We want to treat them freshly as something that we can bring curiosity toward. And it turns out that it’s like an iceberg, right? The first thing you feel is only the top layer. There’s always more underneath, and the more that’s underneath, takes you to more deeply understanding yourself, your life, what’s needed, and so on.
It has to do with how we treat how we feel. This attitude of interested curiosity is what makes all the difference. So inner relationship includes these qualities that we bring to ourselves- compassion, empathy, curiosity, openness, allowing it to be as it is, and that forms a kind of environment in which feelings can take their next steps of life, become whatever they need to become. What seemed to be angry, turns out on the next layer down to be disappointment. As you sit with it, it turns out on the next layer down to be a profound sadness, and so on. And at each layer, we feel closer and closer to who we really are. It’s lovely,
Larry: It is lovely. And this is the most profound thing about Focusing and the thing I love about it most and also the most difficult thing I have found for many clients, not all but many clients, to truly understand. And they’re not alone. I have spent the last month reading about various meditation [processes], mindfulness and other things, because I wanted to compare them to Focusing. And I have found that whether it’s mindfulness, or whether it’s cognitive behavioral therapy, or whether it’s any form of other kinds of therapy that I know, no matter how nonjudgmental, others say they are about—what I’ll call “erroneous” thoughts and feelings—they all boil down to [the idea] that somehow they gotta be corrected. They’ve got to be corrected and if they’re not going to be corrected, then somehow the process of observing them- rather passively observing them—will quiet them down so that you’re no longer triggered into being them. But this is different. This is more than that.
Ann: I’d love to tell you a couple of stories. First of all, I want to tell a nice simple little story about my fear of flying. It isn’t exactly flying that I fear. I fear turbulence…
Larry: Well, everybody fears turbulence!
Ann: I know! So this is a very common feeling. But I find it so unpleasant to be in turbulence that it affects me before the plane gets off the ground. And I’m remembering right now a time when I was about to fly in a small plane, which is worse, on a snowy bad weather day. A short hop from Milwaukee to Chicago, sitting in the plane, hadn’t moved an inch, it hadn’t even started to taxi and the anxiety in my body was at a very unpleasant level. I find anxiety one of the most unpleasant feelings to have.
So I tried my own method. (Laughs) I thought, “Look, I might as well try my own method as a last resort.” And I deliberately just sensed the body feeling of anxiety, that gripping in the stomach and I used the language we like to teach. “I’m sensing something in me that feels like ‘gripping’.” I found the word “gripping,” “anxious gripping.” And then I spoke to it directly. “I sense you,” I said to my stomach, “I sense you are feeling really anxious about this flight.” And I said it with a quality of kindness and acceptance, not trying to change it just like a friend saying, “I sense you’re feeling really anxious right now.” Nothing happened. (Both laugh)
So then I did it again. “Okay, yeah, I sense you’re feeling really anxious right now.” Nothing happened. Third time and I’m being persistent. I’m demonstrating that I’m willing to hang in there and willing to keep showing up. And finally, the anxious feeling, realized that somebody else is here, somebody’s listening, and there was a slight easing, and I said “and I realize you’re really worried about this flight, and I am here with you now.” And the feelings went away. My stomach was relaxed not only at that moment, but all through the flight. When there was a bit of bumpiness, now it seems like a miracle. You don’t do anything, but just sit and say, “I sense how you’re feeling, and I am here with you.”
Well, sometimes it works that way. But sometimes there are deeper layers. and it needs something more than that. So I’m going to tell you another little story. This is about one of the biggest positive changes I ever went through because of Focusing because I had writer’s block. I had written the PhD dissertation. But since then, I longed to write a book. And I felt like it was my destiny to write a book that I had things inside me that I really thought would help change the world. But I couldn’t get myself to write or if I did write, it would come out so slowly like I was trying to squeeze my brain.
Years and years went by, years and years and years. And I was doing Focusing. And one day I decided I need to bring my writer’s block to Focusing but I’m not sure how. Because if I take time to sense in my body, how bad it feels to not be able to write, it just goes in circles.
So I had the idea from a friend of mine that I might assume there is a part of me that doesn’t want to write. I wasn’t in touch with anything like that. I wanted to write. I just wanted to so much, I just had a hard time doing it. But I thought okay, maybe there’s something else going on. If I want to write and I’m not writing, maybe there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write. It’s worth a try.
So I sat down to do Focusing, brought my awareness into my body, this area of the body [gestures to torso and abdomen] is most likely. And I said [to myself], maybe there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to write; if so, “hey, I’d like to get to know you better wherever you are.” And I waited. And slowly I began to feel a kind of sensation that was like a bending forward of my body. Just very subtle at first but as I stayed with it, it got clear enough that I could see oh, it’s like a bending. And then I stayed with it further.
So there’s a moment there when you have a choice. You can start thinking about what it means, you can start analyzing it, you can start blah, blah, blah, but I didn’t, and that’s the Focusing method. I just acknowledged it’s like a bending, and I stayed with it further.
And then it became clear that it was more like ducking and I got an image, and images are fine too. I got an image of myself in front of one of those targets. I was like on a firing range in front of a target. Well, I don’t know what that has to do with not wanting to write. And if I started thinking about it, it’s not going to help so I just stayed with it. I said okay, it’s like being on a target bench down by the targets. And then after a while, I got an image from my childhood.
I saw my father shooting at me with sarcasm and critical comments, especially if I was being self-expressive. My expressiveness seemed to scare or bother my father and he would shoot it down. “Who do you think you are?” he would say. And that memory was shown to me as part of my sitting with the body feeling of not wanting to write and as I sat with it further, the whole thing became clear there was something in me that was protecting me from not getting shot at, by not allowing me to write. And from that session, writing got easier. And as you know, I’ve written four books and I’m still going and it is fulfilling. It is my destiny to write. So, what we see from that story is that change can happen from just staying with what you’re feeling, with that curiosity and that openness and letting it take its forward steps of revelation and understanding.
Larry: Yeah, you know, gosh, I have to admit, it makes me think, I should finally commit to Focusing about my own writer’s block. I struggle so much. All the things I say to myself to get through it, even all of my insight, even all of, perhaps long ago Focusing sessions [I might have done], don’t speak to what’s happening right now. For all I know is there’s something more that I actually need to get in touch with.
One of the beautiful things about the story you just shared, and I see it with clients who are open to Focusing in their therapy sessions, is the unexpected quality of Focusing. I always know somebody is truly in touch with their inner self in this inner focusing way when they reach something that neither one of us could have predicted at the outset. Where there’s no moving the furniture, as you said earlier. There’s no cognitive manipulation going on. It emerges, and what emerges, they didn’t know.
Or, actually in a way they did know. All of a sudden they say, “Well, I always knew [that] deep down. I always knew that was it. But somehow I never put it into words. I never became aware of it until just now.” This is quite astonishing and magical and makes my work much better. It’s more fun, and more satisfying, because something’s changed in them. We could have been going around in circles for months, certainly for weeks, and not really change.
Ann: We’ve talked about not treating emotions like furniture. But I think another dimension to how people often treat their emotions is that they fear them.
Ann: They’re afraid that something inside might actually be like a scary monster. That if you get in touch with it, it’ll be too much for you, it will overwhelm you.
Larry: Or it will get stronger, it’ll take you over, you’ll become more like that.
Ann: Right, or you’ll or you’ll discover something about yourself that’s really awful.
What I think is really important is to understand that those attitudes, of fearing emotions, and fearing being overwhelmed by them, those are emotions too. So I want to build my ability to not be merged with or identified with any of my emotional states or stressful thoughts. One key element of Inner Relationship Focusing is something we call Self-in-Presence. I often make this circular gesture because it’s like the whole me, the big me, has emotional states, has stressful thoughts and beliefs that aren’t serving me. And also body sensations that are painful, like tension, tightness, heaviness and so on. But I am more than all of them.
And so, “dis-identification” refers to sensing something in me that’s sad or heavy or tired or worried and so on. And then I notice, how am I about that? Do I accept it? Am I welcoming of it? And if not, there’s another “something.” So I am also sensing something in me that doesn’t like feeling that way, or is scared of feeling that way, and I am the space, I am the environment, where both of those can be the way they are. If I want to do Focusing with either one of them, I sort of turn toward it, [and say] “I’d like to get to know you better,” but either one, or both, can get a turn, and I can discover richness and possibilities for change and growth inside my stressful emotions and my feelings about my stressful emotions. So that’s, I think, another amazing part of Inner Relationship Focusing. Once you get it, it changes everything.
Now, it’s not necessarily easy. Our first reaction may be “I don’t like this.” So there is a process of learning to recognize that I’ve just become identified with something in me that doesn’t like this other “something,” and then be able to make that shift into being with it instead of being it.
Larry: Right. I want to say that some people hearing this might think that this Self-in-Presence means somehow you call upon some Buddha-like part of you, like all of a sudden you’re now Self-in-Presence. But it’s not even that. It’s almost simply a shift in perspective.
Ann: It’s a shift in perspective. It’s another place to sit. You don’t have to have any qualities of perfection in order to be more self-in-presence right now. The language itself that we teach can help you move toward it. Whether you feel it yet or not. If you say I’m sensing something in me is really upset or whatever, the language has a bit of an effect to help you feel that difference between you and your emotional states. It’s not a distance because it can still be very close. But it’s that I am here with it.
Let me say something more than I know you’ve been looking forward to me saying (laughs). When people are afraid of what they’re feeling, afraid it means something really awful or bad inside of them, what I always like to tell people and remind them is that there are no enemies inside.
Take my writer’s block. For example, I might have thought that my lack of ability to write, my procrastination and my dragginess about being able to ride was from a saboteur inside. Something in me that was trying to hurt me. Turns out that wasn’t true at all. Something was trying to save me, trying to help me. Now working with hundreds and hundreds of people over the last 40 years, I’ve found no exceptions to this. What seems to be something in us that’s self-destructive or trying to hurt us or damage us always turns out to be something that in a way that’s perhaps not very successful, is trying to protect us or save us.
And many of my friends who are therapists – maybe you, Larry, are one of them, although I’ve never checked with you – keep in their office a little handout about saying “I’m sensing something in me,” because no matter how great your sessions with your therapists are, you still have your life in between sessions. We can add to that by bringing awareness to our own self and doing these self-awareness, self-acceptance moves, even in between the sessions.
Larry: Absolutely, folks! That’s true. I do it all the time. This has had such a healing effect on my life. It’s so funny when you shared about the plane because just yesterday, I was panicking, absolutely freaking out about looking at something, having to look at something that I did, that was going to be published. And I knew this is absurd how extreme I was feeling. It was driving me a little crazy because of how extreme I was feeling. And yet I knew this didn’t make any sense, but knowing that it didn’t make any sense did not help at all, as I was just getting more and more and more anxious.
And finally I did say [to myself] “Okay, so there’s something in me that feels really terrified about looking at this, just terrified of it.” And I said it exactly as much as it really felt inside. It wasn’t a little afraid, it was terrified, and being free to say exactly how bad it was, but saying it was a part of me helped almost immediately to relax it. And then I got more, and then I got more, about how afraid I was of being criticized, and long-time feelings of fear of scorn and judgments and all these things that came up. And I felt, “ah yes, thank goodness, I know how to Focus” because, man I was a wreck. Because the more I either was in it or denying it or trying to say that it’s irrational—telling myself it was irrational was only making it worse.
So that just happened for me. And that was just part of life. That wasn’t doing any special sit-down thing, I didn’t have to go into any yoga positions, I didn’t have to stand on my head…
Larry: Which I can’t do anymore.
Ann: I never could!
Larry: (Laughing) Honestly, I never could either!
Ann: Okay. We’re really getting really honest here. (Both laugh)
Larry: So thank you Ann. I think this has been terrific. I appreciate you coming on and sharing this. I hope everyone here who’s listening has gotten a taste of this. Please feel free, if you have more questions to put them in the comment section. And if you want to learn more, please go to focusingresources.com, which is Ann’s organization’s website, which has an immense amount of resources for you.
So thank you so much, Ann for being here. It’s so lovely to hang out with you this Sunday morning and do this.
Ann: An honor and a pleasure. Thank you so much for your great work, Larry.
Larry: Thank you.