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 and slow?
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 experience.
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 her.”
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 violent.
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 devastated by.
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 and clinicians.
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, discussed earlier.
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 spelling strategy.
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 People Press.
4. Bandler, R & Grinder, J. (1982). Reframing: Neuro-linguistic programming and the transformation of meaning. Moab, UT: Real People Press.