Briefer Than Brief
by Steve Andreas & Connirae Andreas, Ph.D.
~A methodical approach to spontaneous change
A friend of ours once told about a couple who had survived a fiery
plane accident a few years ago. They both experienced the horror of
the crash and the flames, the pain of serious injuries, the struggle
to escape, and the relief when they reached safety. Afterwards, both
their lives changed radically. But while one became an agoraphobic recluse,
almost totally incapacitated by horrible memories, the other experienced
the crash as a vivid reminder of the preciousness of life. He stopped
using drugs, lost 40 pounds, and concentrated on bringing as much meaning
as possible into his life.
Many people report experiences that have changed their lives in phenomenal
ways in a matter of moments. Falling in love, having a child, making
a move or a job change, or succeeding at a difficult task can also result
in dramatic shifts of a person's perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors.
How is it possible that some spontaneous changes can occur so quickly,
when, as therapists, our attempts to produce change are so often laborious
An air of mystery has surrounded rapid change experiences. People sometimes
use spiritual or global terms to describe such experiences, leaving
them sounding just as mysterious and elusive. Our understanding of transformational
experiences has been nebulous because we have had a murky language for
describing the inner: processes people use to make sense of the world.
In this article we would like to demonstrate that there is a new and
powerful language that enables us not only to understand these processes,
but to bring about enduring therapeutic changes in people's lives in
startlingly brief periods of time.
Our internal mental experience is a replica, more or less, or what we
have experienced through our senses. Our internal experience at any
moment has a visual component—what we imagine internality; an
auditory component—hearing sounds of voices internally; and a
kinesthetic component—our feelings of movement, touch, and emotion.
(We also have taste and smell, which are less significant for this discussion.)
So, a person might recall a pleasant memory of being with a friend that
includes seeing the friend, hearing her voice, and feeling good. These
sensory systems are called "modalities" of experience.
We can be even more specific about how we experience our inner images,
sounds, and feelings. For example, when I imagine a good friend, I can
see her right in front of me, or far away. I can see her as if she were
larger than life, smaller than life, or life-size. I can imagine her
in color, or in black and white. I can see a movie of the two of us
interacting, or I can see her just as a framed snapshot. These elements
are called "submodalities," because they are smaller elements
within the visual modality. Similarly, the auditory modality has submodalities
of volume, tone, pitch, tempo, among others, and the kinesthetic modality
has submodalities of intensity, location, extent, etc. These submodalities
are literally the building blocks of our mental processes. Typically,
changing submodalities alters our response to imagined events more effectively
than changing the contents of our thoughts.
For instance, think of someone you like very much. First picture that
person as small and far away, in a black-and-white still picture. Notice
how you feel in response to this image. Now take that same image and
make it into a life-size, dear, colorful, three-dimensional movie, and
bring it close enough so that you can step into it and experience actually
being there with this person. Notice how you feel in response to this
If you don't notice any difference in your feelings, check your pulse!
These submodality elements of our mental functioning are typically unexamined
and unconscious, yet they are often revealed in statements that we think
are metaphors, but are actually literal and precise descriptions of
the ways our minds work: "It's a small thing, but he blows it all
out of proportion." "When she's so distant, I can't talk to
Submodalities are literally the ways that we construct our inner world
and make meaning out of our experience. With this understanding, we
can intervene directly in that process to change how we think about
and respond to events. Consider the case of Ron, a young artist in his
thirties who complained of depression and a lack of motivation or sense
of direction. Many people experience a lack of meaning when they have
nothing to look forward to, and Ron was no exception. We asked Ron questions
to find out literally how he thought about his future. "What do
you see when you think of the future? Where do you see tomorrow, next
year, five years from now? Do you see this in color, or black and white?"
As with most people, at first Ron had no idea what we meant. Most of
us are not usually conscious of the way we see and hear things internally.
But by using questions designed to bring this experience into awareness,
and noticing Ron's nonverbal cues—especially eye movement and
direction and hand gestures—we were able quickly to get the information
we wanted. When Ron thought about his future, he imagined a dim, gray
pathway going off to his right, and then ending several feet away. As
he commented once he became aware of this, "It's as if my future
just ends after a few years."
Representations of time—of our past, present, and future—are
central to the problems that bring many clients to therapy. The discovery
that each of us has a unique, internal "time line" has made
some clients' limitations (as well as skills, like planning) suddenly
clear and understandable. If you imagine your future the way Ron did—as
dim and gray, and dissolving into nothingness—it's hard to have
a positive sense of direction, or to be very motivated.
When someone's future seems dim, colorless, and short, one way to experiment
with the possibility of change is to internally brighten and lengthen
it. However, before asking Ron to brighten his future, we wanted to
make sure he saw something positive and worth looking forward to. We
asked questions like, "What would you like to have in your future
that would be worth moving toward?" We asked Ron to imagine what
he wanted, and place these images on his future time line. We told him.
"Make sure these positive images are as colorful and bright as
they deserve to be." Ron's face brightened as he constructed a
more attractive future for himself. When Ron had finished this step,
we added, "And you can notice what happens when your whole future
brightens up . . . The brightness and color from these 'bright spots'
you've added can spread throughout your future."
Ron was excited about his new vision of his future because suddenly
and dramatically he could feel the difference in himself. "My future
has automatically gotten longer," he told us excitedly. "Now
that it's brighter, it seems good to have it going out farther—it
extends out for many more. I don't think I would have wanted to have
it longer the way it was before." Several months later, Ron told
us he liked having a bright, colorful future, and continued to feel
the difference. With this new representation of the future, he had no
problem being motivated and goal-oriented.
Fully recovering from depression often involves more than one simple
procedure. However, this precise focus on specific problematic aspects
of a client's internal processing helps guide the therapist in making
sure the client's goals are achieved in the shortest possible time.
Even when someone's problems need additional attention, submodality
shifts can be a step forward, and can make clear what further work may
be necessary. For example, such shifts may bring a person face-to-face
with a limiting belief that must be confronted. We have worked with
some clients who were concerned that if they imagined a bright future,
they would only be disappointed. Others have encountered a belief that
they aren't worthy of a bright future. When we come across objections
like these, it's important to deal with them by using other methods
before changing the person's image of his or her future. (For examples
see 1, 3, & 4.)
Mack, a former alcoholic who played the "tough guy" role—complete
with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and black leather jacket—wanted
help dealing with "bad feelings" towards certain people. When
Mack felt bad, he typically avoided the other person or lashed out in
anger or violence. As we explored how he imagined one of the targets
of his rage, we discovered that he saw her as a flat, two-dimensional
picture. When we asked him to see her as three-dimensional, however,
his response changed markedly. Mack's own comments on the difference
were: "It becomes more like a person rather than just a picture
... Now it is a lot softer…there isn't as much feeling of violence.
It's not such a black-or-white feeling ... When I don't see her as flat,
then it's a whole lot easier to see other stuff about her. There are
a lot more possibilities."
Clearly the simple shift to three-dimensionality made a dramatic and
immediate difference in Mack's experience. He moved from a black-or-white
response of avoiding or lashing out at the other person, to thinking
of her as more real. However, since Mack had protected himself by seeing
others as two-dimensional, he then had to learn other ways to feel emotionally
safe. (A more complete description of the process we utilized to resolve
these objections appears in our book Heart of the Mind, pp.184-190.)
It makes sense that viewing others as flat, cardboard figures can lead
to violence. Governments have always utilized this dehumanizing process
in wartime propaganda. The enemy is always depicted as somehow nonhuman—often
as caricatures or cartoons—making it easier for ordinary citizens
to perform acts of violence.
Returning these nonhuman images to their human forms can be the beginning
of creating a more human response. Seeing others as two-dimensional
is far from the only cause of violence. Nevertheless, when Mack saw
the other person as three-dimensional, his response became deeper and
more empathic. Violence became less likely, and Mack automatically had
a softer, more considerate response. Months after this session, Mack
told us about an incident in which he was physically attacked. Previously
Mack would have responded to this situation with violence, but this
time he was able to handle the attack, protecting himself without becoming
We have devised a variety of simple experiments to help people notice
the profound changes that can take place when they alter basic elements
of their internal experience. One of these experiments is to have someone
think first of a pleasant experience and then an unpleasant experience.
Then we ask people to notice what point of view they took when they
recalled each experience—do they remember the experience as if
they were seeing it through their own eyes, or as if they were watching
themselves and everything else from the outside, like watching a movie?
Experiencing an event from one's own point of view we call an associated
experience. Remembering by observing oneself from an outside point of
view is called dissociation.
This one difference in experiential viewpoint has tremendous impact
with a multitude of therapeutic applications. For instance, by teaching
people how to move from an associated to a dissociated position, we
are typically able to cure most phobias in a single session. When people
re-experience an event in an associated position, from their own viewpoint,
they feel all the immediate feelings triggered by the event. When they
imagine the same event from an outside point of view, they have the
feelings of an observer rather than a participant—what has classically
been described as being "objective." From this position they
can still see all the information in the event, but they don't have
the feelings of going through the event again.
Some people tend to experience everything from an associated viewpoint.
These people are very responsive and expressive. When they're having
fun, they're having a lot of fun, and when they have unpleasant emotions,
they also feel those emotions fully. Others tend to experience everything
as dissociated. They are literally observers of their own lives. These
people tend to be cool, detached, and "objective."
Neither of these points of view is "the right one," or better
than the other. They are both powerful abilities, useful in different
circumstances. Association is wonderful for having a good time, enjoying
being with someone you love, and "getting in touch" with feelings.
However, seeing an experience from the outside can be equally useful
with traumatic experiences that we want to learn from, but not feel
For instance, a client named Martin noticed that he always saw himself
from the outside. "It makes sense." Martin said, "I think
of myself as a good observer. But I think it would be good for me to
feel things more directly. I'd like to enjoy my life more. My wife complains
that I'm too detached and unresponsive." We helped Martin identity
which experiences he wanted to begin to associate into—good times
with his wife, etc. Initially, it was difficult for Martin to experience
anything from the point of view of being there. Having Martin purposely
step into a memory brought out an objection to associating that otherwise
might have taken a long time to surface. As a young child, Martin had
gone through a series of unpleasant experiences, and he had unconsciously
concluded that the safest approach was to always be an observer. If
he was always watching from the outside, he couldn't be hurt. Since
Martin wanted to go further, we assisted him in resolving these old
experiences using methods described elsewhere (see 1, 4, & 5). Once
this issue was taken care of, Martin found it much easier to step into
a pleasant memory and enjoy it from his own point of view.
Most of us occasionally have the experience of feeling so competent
that almost nothing can bother us. At other times the slightest problem
or stress seems overwhelming. We all have states of mind that we would
like to experience more often. A person might feel competent and resourceful
on the job, or with friends, but feel inept at home in the presence
of a two-year-old or a mother-in-law. One approach we often use helps
clients gain more direct, experiential access to resourceful feeling
states so they can more effectively handle problem situations.
Sara came into therapy because she wanted to improve her relationship
'with her boyfriend. She was a competent woman with her own small business,
and was satisfied with most areas of her life. According to Sara, the
problem was that when she was with her boyfriend, she "lost her
center," what she called her "sense of self." This made
her feel insecure, more dependent and "clingy" than she wanted
to be. As Sara talked about her boyfriend, she indeed looked un-resourceful.
Since Sara usually had the positive feeling she called “her sense
of self” in other situations, I was able to move directly to a
solution. I asked her to "think of a time when you had this sense
of self really fully. Let yourself step into that experience and relive
it now, so that you can be aware of what it is like, enjoying it even
more completely now." I guided Sara softly, encouraging her to
close her eyes and let herself experience this resourceful state deeply.
As I observed Sara's skin color and breathing rate shift on entering
this state, I gently placed my hand on her arm. The more fully she experienced
the state, the more I pressed gently on her arm, so that the pressure
of my touch became connected with this feeling state by simple conditioning.
"That's fine ... Now, what is the first thing that usually lets
you know your boyfriend is around? Do you see him, or hear his voice?"
As soon as I could see that Sara was imagining being with her boyfriend,
I gently pressed on her arm in the same spot. This nonverbal "reminder"
of her sense of self helped her connect that resourceful state to the
boyfriend's imagined presence. "Notice what it is like being with
your boyfriend with this sense of yourself fully a part of you. You
can take as much time as you need to feel this fully, so that every
part of you has memorized this experience." As soon as I touched
her arm, the skin color and breathing rate that I had observed in her
resourceful state returned, so I knew she was "feeling her center."
To test whether this new resource was automatically connected to the
presence of her boyfriend, I talked briefly with Sara about something
else, and then asked her, "So when will you be with your boyfriend
next?" As Sara answered me, I again observed her resourceful, centered
state, rather than the insecure state she had initially demonstrated
when she talked about her boyfriend. The next time I saw Sara, she thanked
me. Not only had she appreciated feeling centered and solid with her
boyfriend, but he liked the change as well.
This simple example illustrates how the process of helping people call
upon their internal resources can make a difference. Other, more complex,
ways of adding resources are available to deal with more complex situations.
When we examine limiting beliefs and attitudes, poor self-esteem, and
other problems, we find that these experiences are also composed of
submodalities. The same is true of the near-death experience with which
we began this article. A close encounter with death often results in
radical shifts in meaning and importance. Day-to-day events and concerns
that had been important simply fill out of the person's awareness, while
previously neglected activities become large and preoccupying.
The approach we have presented here is based on our work in Neurolinguistic
Programming (NLP) during the last dozen years. Many associate NLP with
Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the two brash and sometimes outrageous
young Californians who first developed the foundations of NLP 15 years
ago, and continue to develop it. However, the field has matured, mellowed,
and grown immensely since then, with the input of many other able researchers
The NLP model allows us to study spontaneous transformation in many
different realms, with a profoundly expanded understanding of how to
ask questions and what to notice. Studying people who have spontaneously
gotten over grief, for example, enabled us to develop a one-session
grief resolution process. One of the most distinctive characteristics
we found among people stuck in grief was that they see the lost person
from a dissociated viewpoint. In contrast, those who had resolved their
loss imagine the lost person "as if that person were with them
now." The same kind of approach resulted in a method for dealing
with guilt and shame, for changing the importance of key values, for
resolving trauma, and a strategy for responding to criticism. We consider
one of our most important discoveries to be that of personal time lines,
The NLP model has been used to generate other discoveries: the one-session
phobia cure mentioned above, an allergy cure, a process for rapidly
transforming early "imprint" experiences, and ways to become
positively motivated and make effective decisions—even a good
An underlying theme uniting the many processes in this approach is the
recognition that people don't just have problems; they create and maintain
problems by how they construct their internal worlds. NLP offers a gentle
and specific model for assisting clients in transforming the way they
see, hear, and feel the world in ways that make their lives more satisfying.
NLP is more than a set of techniques; it is a comprehensive approach
to change which emphasizes the following:
1) Clearly identifying the structure of a client's limitation. This
involves asking specific questions and utilizing both verbal and nonverbal
responses to gather precise information about the present state.
2) Determining the structure of a solution. Knowing how to find counterexamples
to the problem makes the therapist’s job much easier. These can
be found in the client's past experience, or in someone else who doesn't
have the limitation. These counterexamples offer keys to resolution.
3) Carefully checking out the ecology of change. Often a change that
would be beneficial in one isolated facet of someone's life can have
disastrous effects in other areas. Perfectionism may curse a relationship,
yet be the basis for holding a job as an inspector. Adapting the solution
so that it becomes fully ecological eliminates most resistance.
4) Being flexible and skilled in a wide range of possible methods for
reaching a client's goals. Certain methods will be more appropriate
with some clients, and for some difficulties, than others.
5) Testing to see whether the desired changes have occurred or whether
more work is needed. When we train therapists to utilize NLP methods,
we include training in a variety of ways to find out if a shift has
occurred. The more important tests involve the client’s nonverbal,
unconscious cues that cannot be faked. Even if a shift has occurred,
more work may be necessary in order to reach the goal. Ways to easily
identify what remains to be done make a therapist's life much easier.
In summary, NLP provides a rich and precise methodology for helping
people develop and evolve their own solutions. As Wilson van Dusen,
former chief psychologist at Mendocino State Hospital, writes, "How
cheering it is for me to find it is all so much simpler and easier than
I had dreamed possible."References
1. Andreas, C. & Andreas, S. (1989). Heart of the mind: Engaging
your inner power to change with neuro-linguistic programming. Moab,
UT: Real People Press.
2. Andreas, S. & Andreas, C. (1987). Change your mind-and keep the
change. Moab, UT: Real People Press.
3. Bandler, R (1985). Using your brain-for a change. Moab, UT: Real
4. Bandler, R & Grinder, J. (1982). Reframing: Neuro-linguistic
programming and the transformation of meaning. Moab, UT: Real People