Building a New Quality of Self-concept*

by Steve Andreas


Excerpt from the book, Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be

         We have been exploring the impact and the interaction of both process and content variables in making a quality of your self-concept durable and responsive to feedback. We have also explored the importance of integrating counterexamples, and how to transform counterexamples into examples. With what you have learned, you could ask someone about any important quality of their self-concept, ask them questions to find out how they already do it, and then teach them a variety of additional skills so that their self-concept functions much better than it already does. Making this kind of change will reverberate throughout their life, affecting many specific behaviors and responses.

         Now it’s time to demonstrate how to use all this information to do something even more useful and generative, namely to create a whole new positive quality of self-concept when a person has no representation of this quality.

         When someone thinks of themselves as having a certain quality, such as being lovable, that indicates that they have a positive self-concept with regard to that quality. Since they have this basis for inner knowing, they don’t need others to tell them, and when others express their recognition of it, they can fully appreciate the additional confirmation.

         When someone says, “I’m unlovable,” that indicates that they think of themselves as not lovable, a negative self-concept with regard to that quality, something that we will explore in considerable detail later. If we were to try to build a positive self-concept for that quality, it would be very difficult, because this would conflict with the negative self-concept that is already there. And if we did succeed in building a new positive quality, that would create ambivalence and uncertainty. Some people are already ambivalent in this way. Sometimes they feel lovable, sometimes they don’t, and often they are just unsure.

         When someone says, “I don’t think of myself as lovable,” we need more information to know what their inner experience is. They could be saying that they have a negative self-concept. Or they could mean what the words literally say–simply that they don’t have a positive self-concept (or a negative one) with regard to that quality. They presumably know what the word “lovable” means, but they have not assembled experiences (either positive or negative) that provide any information about whether they are lovable or not. For convenience I will call this absence of a database a “null set.”

         Since they don’t know if they are lovable or not, they typically often ask others for confirmation. But even when they get this support from others, it doesn’t last very long, because they don’t have a way to store this information. Hearing the external confirmation is like receiving water in a sieve–it goes right through and disappears. So they are likely to ask again soon, and are often described by others as “insecure,” “needy,” or “dependent.”

         In this case it is appropriate to simply assemble experiences into a desired quality of positive self-concept, a method that was first described years ago. (See the book, Heart of the Mind, Ch. 3). Since often someone already has an ambiguous or negative representation of the quality, the opportunities for using this pattern are somewhat limited. However, for teaching purposes it is useful to start with the simplest case, in which there is no negation or ambivalence to deal with, and we can simply use what we have learned to build a new quality of self-concept.   Soon we will go on to learn how to transform an ambivalent or negative quality of self-concept into a positive one.

         The verbatim transcript that follows is of a demonstration from an NLP Master Practitioner Training conducted in 1992, and is available on DVD    (Building Self Concept, Steve Andreas). At that time I was still in the process of modeling self-concept, so I knew much less than you do now. I had made a brief introductory presentation much like the foregoing, and when I asked for a volunteer for a demonstration of this process, Peter raised his hand.


           And what is it that you’d like to–? (build)

            Peter: Well, “lovable” really hit a chord.

            OK, you don’t think of yourself as lovable.

         Peter: Not particularly.

         think of you as lovable, so come on up. (Peter comes to the front of the room.)   OK, now when I said that, what did you do inside?

         Peter: (shaking his head and shrugging) I sort of went, “Nope.”

         OK. Now, if you go “Nope”–give me some more. (to the group) See, I’m testing to make sure it’s not one of these (negatives).

         Peter: Well, it sort of hits a– I get a sense that it hits a blank.

         “A blank.” OK. That sounds good. Because if it’s one of these (null sets), then it’s like there’s just nothing there. It’s not that there is a negation. And as I experience you, I don’t– I wouldn’t think that you think of yourself as unlovable.

         Peter: Not really, no. It’s more– I don’t think of myself as unlovable; I don’t think of myself as lovable.

         Yeah. That’s good. (to the group) That’s what we want. Does it make sense that I’m testing a little bit here? Because I want to make sure it’s one of these (null sets). What happens if you just go ahead and build one of these (positives) and you don’t weaken one of these (negatives)?. . . Think about it. Now . . . I’m serious. This is an important point. If someone has a negative belief–If he thought he was unlovable, and I build a belief in here that he is lovable, now what? . . . Now you’ve got a parts problem. Most people have enough conflict as it is; let’s not build in more. (to Peter) Think of something that you do believe is true of yourself.

         Peter: (nodding) I think I’m intelligent.

         Intelligent. Good. And you’re pretty sure of that, right?

         Peter: (nodding) Yeah. (laughter)

         Yeah. (joking) Now we didn’t say, “arrogant,” we said, “intelligent.” (more laughter) OK. Now, what I’d like to know is, what is your evidence? How do you represent this sense of yourself as being intelligent?

         Peter: Hmmm. . . . Umm, (laughs) I’m not really sure. Um, it’s sort of like it’s so built into me? . . . (gesturing toward his left ear) I have a voice that tells me that “I’m smart.”

         OK. So there’s a little voice over here. Now, what is its evidence? See, a voice is just a voice, right? So there’s a voice on your left that says “I’m smart.” OK. And that’s fine; I’m not disagreeing with that. I just want to know what is its evidence? How does it know that that’s the case?

         Peter: Other people have told me.

         Well, I don’t trust other people. Do you?

         Peter: (nodding) Yes.

         You do? So all I have to do is tell you that you’re lovable, and from now on–

         Peter: I guess if I hear it enough.

         “Enough.” OK. And so–

         Peter: Yeah. Now that kind of fits. Because that’s what you were saying–like I’m always wanting my wife to tell me how much she loves me. And her experience is that that’s really excessive. (laughter)

         Yeah. (laughter) (to the group) This is what we want. This is what we want. We’ve got it both ways, because the two major tests have just been fulfilled. The one is that he tends to go for confirmation from others, and the other is that if I tell him he’s lovable it’s like it doesn’t compute. It’s like, “Well, uh, it’s like there’s a blank.” And that’s what we want. OK, great. (to Peter) Now, in terms of “I’m smart,” do you have an auditory memory of lots of different people saying that, in a lot of different contexts? Is that the evidence?

         Peter: (nodding) Yeah, and um, I’ve done a lot of things that I got external confirmation.

         OK. So, as you hear these–let’s just take one–can you think of a particular one, where someone says, “You said something intelligently,” or something like that? Or whatever?

         Peter: (nodding)

         An auditory remembered– So what kind of thing might it say?

         Peter: I remember my father saying, “I can’t imagine where you got all this intelligence from.”

         Oh, that’s nice. Do you hear it? It’s presupposed. “I can’t imagine where you got all this intelligence from.” There is also an implied comparison, isn’t there–that he’s not that smart. Peter is saying that his father told him that he was smarter than his father.

         Peter: That created lots of strange stuff inside me, because I had always believed he was a lot smarter than me. So that was a real–(Peter looks amazed).

         When he said that. Got it, OK. (to the group) I’m just going to jot this down, because I want to remember it. Sometimes you get a good one like this, and it’s just wonderful for teaching. “I can’t imagine where you got all this intelligence from.” That’s a good one. I wish more parents did that. What would most parents say? . . . Keeping the same form of the sentence, and just changing a few things? What would most parents say? “How’d you get to be so stupid, obstinate.” “I don’t know where you got all that stupidity from.” OK, well, let’s not dwell on that. (to Peter) And are there others? Can you hear other voices in there? And what I hear from you is that it’s important whose voice it is. Is that right?

Peter: (nodding) Yeah.

         If this were just a man in the street, would it matter as much? Would it be as compelling?

         Peter: It wouldn’t be as compelling; it would still–it would still compute.

         OK. So it would still be part of it. OK. Good.

         Peter: The more intelligent the person is who’s noticing, the more impact it has.

         Sure. So the source is important. OK. How many voices in there do you have, do you think? You said you had a bunch of them, remembered, people–

         Peter: (shaking his head) I don’t know, but a number came to mind of fifty.

         Fifty. OK. This is a thorough person, right?

         Peter: I guess so.

         OK. Good. All right. Now, anything else in terms of the evidence? There’s this voice that gives you the message, and there’s the evidence behind that, of all these different people, saying this kind of thing. Anything else?

         Peter: Umhm. There’s– When you first asked the question I didn’t have anything–any pictures particularly. It was more an auditory thing. As you’re asking me now, I can remember pictures of when I went and accepted my degrees, and I have certificates hanging on walls that let me know–

         And if you hear your father’s voice saying this sentence, “I don’t know where you got all that intelligence from,” is there some picture along with that?

         Peter: (shaking his head) Um, no. Just the picture of him–I mean, just him saying–I can remember the situation in which he said that.

         Well, yeah, but do you have that– Is this a voice crying in the wilderness or do you have some picture along with it of when he said it? (Peter is English, so it makes sense that his representation is primarily auditory, but I am checking to see if the visual is also present, which is usually more prominent for Americans.)

         Peter: (nodding) I think the auditory is much more important than the visual.

         OK. Fine. Good. Now I’m going to ask you another question, which may seem a little strange. “Are there any counterexamples in there?” Are there any– ?

         Peter: (smiling broadly and shaking his head) No. In a way yes, and in a way, no. I mean I know that I sometimes do things that are kind of stupid, but (shaking his head) that doesn’t change the belief. For some reason it doesn’t have an impact.

         OK. That’s fine. Now I want to do something–kind of an experiment, and you tell me how it goes. What if you have one voice in there–at least–let’s say one, or two, or three that says, “every once in a while you screw up.”

         Peter: That’s fine.

         Is that fine? OK. Now what I’m doing here is something that–it’s a way to avoid pomposity. It’s wonderful to have generalizations, but all generalizations break down somewhere. Even the most intelligent person in the world–I don’t care who you choose–is going to say stupid things from time to time–or be stupid or act stupid, or whatever. If the person has only positive examples in their generalization, then they may think, “Everything I say is gold. Everything I do is perfect; everything I do is right.”

         Peter: (shaking his head) Nope.

         (to the group) This is not (the case) here. OK. And one of the ways you can do that (protect against pomposity) is to deliberately build in counterexamples to the generalization. It’s wonderful to have a big solid generalization. He has fifty (examples); some people have one. There’s the old joke about the guy who knows that all Indians walk single-file, because he saw one once. (laughter)

         And this is a whole area that’s fascinating to explore, in terms of self-concept, and generalizations in general. Because the self-concept is simply a generalization about the self. Some people do make generalizations based on one example. A person does one thing, and they go, “Oh, that’s that kind of a person,” because they saw them once–it’s just like the “single-file,” really. And others are much more thorough, and they have to get a whole bunch of examples in order to build a generalization.

         Did you ever see someone who thought they were really, really intelligent and other people didn’t agree with them? Unfortunately clients don’t come in to you saying, “I’m just too pompous, and I’d like you to change that.” (laughter)   They don’t. If a depressed person believes that nothing will work, he won’t come in to tell you about it, because (he thinks) that will not work either. So there are some loops that people can get into with certain kinds of problems, they will not bring themselves in. Somebody else may bring them in–a wife, or son, or daughter or someone else, but the person does not perceive it as a problem (or that a solution is possible).

         Most of the frames that we’ve had around the NLP that we’ve been teaching you is a voluntary client, somebody who comes in and says, “I’m hurting: my life is not working in this way; I want some help.” There are other things like this that are a little harder to deal with, because you have to kind of convince somebody that it’s a problem (or that a solution is possible).

         (to Peter) OK, back to this one now. What I propose to do–and I’d like to know if you have any objections–is to build the same kind of representation here that you’re lovable.

         Peter: (emphatically) No objections! A lot of voices are going inside “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”

         And your wife will like it too. Now, you know where you hear these voices, and how loud, and the details for the “I’m smart” or “I’m intelligent.” And I want to do this in the following way, because I think it will work better. You have this–the major generalization is “I’m smart.” I want to build that (summary generalization) last. Before I do that, I want to build these other ones, specific examples in the past. It doesn’t have to be that you’re “lovable”–that word doesn’t have to be in there. It could be, you know, “You just did a very loving thing with that child,” or “That was a sweet gift you gave me,” or whatever. And I want you to take the time, one at a time, to build fifty of those. And when you have got fifty of them built, then you give me–then build this one, the major voice that lets you know “I’m lovable,” or “I’m a caring person,” or however you would like to say it. The words are not important, except to the individual, because some words will work better for an individual. Do you have any question about that?

         Peter: No.

         OK. Go for it. (Peter closes his eyes.) Just search back through memory, . . . and of course your unconscious mind can participate fully in this, . . . to think of different times in your life . . . and just as it was important in the other one that the person was intelligent who said that you were intelligent . . . it would probably be important that the person who says these things . . . be a person who is intelligent, and lovable, or has something else that you respect along the same lines. Does that make sense? (Peter nods) OK. Just take your time. . . . Gradually assemble, one by one . . . voices that sincerely and congruently . . . give you appreciation for being a caring, lovable person. . . . (There is a 26-second pause, while Peter finds and assembles examples.)

         And I don’t think you really have to count to fifty.

         Peter: (in a softer voice, nodding) No, I was just getting a sense that the process is complete.

         So you have a sense of that being complete. You can also put in a few more in your spare time, too–when you’re waiting for a bus, or something like that. OK, now, have you already built the voice here that sort of summarizes all this?

         Peter: (nodding) Umhm. (softly) It says, “I am loved.”

         “I am loved.” Good. That’s a good one. And I like the tone of voice, too.

         Peter: (smiling broadly) Yeah. I like that one, too.

         Now. Are you a lovable person?

         Peter: (softly) Yeah.

         How does that feel?

         Peter: (smiling) Very strange.

         Yeah. It will at first. It’s a new thing. It’s like a lot of changes that are strange at first, but it’s a nice strange, right?

         Peter: Yeah. It’s sort of thinking about myself in a whole different way. . . . Do I sound different?

         Uhuh. (group members agree.)

         Peter: Because even to me, my voice sounds different.

         Uhuh. It has more depth. It’s a little lower.

         Peter: Ooooh! (smiling broadly) Thank you.

         OK. How does it feel now? Now that you’ve had all of twenty seconds to get used to it. (laughter)

         Peter: Um, it kinds of feels like there’s a whole bunch of bouncing around going on inside. And, um, it’s a little shaky. And I think I have a–the greatest thing is a sort of a feeling of total wonder. (softly) It’s like wow!

*    *    *    *    *

         About three minutes later, Peter commented: “What I’m having the sense of now, as I was going back through time, was a whole bunch of events immediately sort of came out as, ‘Oh that’s an example of that,’ and ‘That’s another one,’ and ‘There’s another one.’”

         That is a typical response as the new generalization becomes a nucleus for collecting other examples that fit the newly-organized quality. This session, including the teaching points with the group, took seventeen minutes.

*    *    *    *    *

Follow-up interview with Peter:

         The following is a verbatim transcript of an interview with Peter two weeks later, the day after Valentine’s Day.

         So it’s been a couple of weeks, Peter, since we did the thing on being lovable–or loved, as it came out to be, and I wondered if you had noticed any changes–and especially you had mentioned something I believe that you had kind of kept asking your wife if she loved you and stuff like that, or if she’s noticed anything.

         Peter: I’m not sure if she’s aware of what’s changed. I’m certainly aware of it, in that I feel a lot more independent. It’s like–exactly that–I don’t need that constant feedback. And the thing that was kind of interesting was–of course Valentine’s Day is a great time for this. And yesterday I got some really great Valentine’s gifts, a lot of them in a row, that really showed me clearly how much she does care about me. And that, in itself, was a difference, in that I really noticed. I mean like, it had an impact. Whereas before I’d sort of take this stuff and “Ahhh, well,” (Peter gestures with his left hand, as if casually throwing it away over his left shoulder) and it would sort of flow over my head (gesturing over his head).

         That’s a nice gesture. (laughter) (imitating) “Do you love me?” “Yes.” (copying Peter’s gesture) (laughter)

         Peter: (smiling and nodding) It’s not possible. Whsst. (Peter repeats the gesture)   So now, I was really noticing all the extent and–

         You could really savor it, and experience it, rather than just discard it. (Peter nods.) Great.

         Peter: Yes. That was really nice. The other thing that came up, I did a presentation to a group of people yesterday that I think are probably not particularly open to the kind of thing that I had to say. And I was amazed at how well it went over, the positive response that I got back from them. It was a really positive feeling, and again, I’m not quite sure how that ties in, but I’ve got a sense that that’s involved. Like there’s something very different about what I’m putting out in situations, or what I’m allowing to come back in.

         Perhaps both.

         Peter: Yeah. So I’ve been great. I’m–I’m feeling it.

*    *    *    *    *

Follow-up interview with Peter’s wife.

         A week after the follow-up with Peter, I talked with Peter’s wife, Joan. At this time, Peter still had not told her anything about the work that I had done with him.

         Well, Joan, it’s about three weeks now since I did some work with your husband, Peter. One week ago I had a little follow-up interview with him, and I asked him if you had noticed any difference in his behavior, and he told me that he hadn’t asked you. So I guess he didn’t even tell you that I had done some work with him. Is that right?

         Joan: No, he didn’t tell me the process. I kind of asked him what–that, you know, I had noticed changes in him.

         Can you say what those changes are?

         Joan: Oh, well, it was amazing. What I’m doing now is going back to the first time he came through the door after three weeks ago. And I noticed right away that even physically there was a change. There was more bounce in his step. There was a lightness about him. His eyes were brighter. His face was not as tight; it was a lot more relaxed. His voice was softer. The changes that I’ve noticed behaviorally in how we interact–

         Yes, that’s particularly what I’d be interested to hear.

         Joan: He’s a lot more fun. He plays a lot more. He’s gentler on himself–not as goal-oriented.

         Can you think of any specific things that were different before and after, or something that happened during the last couple of weeks that he wouldn’t have done before, or anything like that?

         Joan: He listens.

         He listens?

         Joan: Listens. Instead of being as judgmental as before, like saying right/wrong stuff, it was like coming from a more loving and understanding place. . .where there was no right, no wrong. It was just listening to me.

         You like the changes.

         Joan: Oh, I love the changes! They’re wonderful. We interact a lot more in a fun way. He’s lighter, he’s happier–

         Nicer to be around.

         Joan: Oh, bubbly, like–yeah, a lot nicer to be around, I love that.

         Great. Is there anything else? Then I’ll tell you what we did.

         Joan: It’s like he–I keep wanting to say–it’s like he loves himself more, and everybody else more, is more able to play.

         It’s made a big difference.

         Joan: Oh, an incredible difference. Yeah, I really, you know, yeah!

*    *    *     *     *

         In a discussion that followed this videotaped interview, Joan mentioned two other changes in Peter. One was that he had played for a long time with a child who was visiting, and that he had never done that before. She also said that Peter no longer worried if she wanted to do something on her own. If she were going to be away for the afternoon, he didn’t need to know where she was, and he didn’t need to call to find out when she was coming home.


         Do you have any questions about this videotaped session?

         Fran: It just seems too easy and undramatic. Most people think that identity level change is very difficult and takes a long time.

         Well, anything is hard, if you don’t know what to do, or how to do it, and most things are easy when you do. Can you all think of an experience of using a new piece of equipment for the first time, and being frustrated and upset by not knowing how to use it? But as soon as you found out how, it was easy?

         What I demonstrated with Peter is the simplest kind of identity change. It was a change that he congruently wanted, there were no negative beliefs to get in the way, and there were no conflicting outcomes to satisfy.

          Most people who attempt to build a more positive sense of themselves find it very difficult because they already have a negative sense of themselves that gets in the way of this. That’s a little like trying to lift a big rock that is firmly attached to the ground, so of course it’s very difficult, and very dramatic.

Soon I’ll teach you how to deal with those kinds of situations, but they do complicate the process somewhat.   

         Many people equate a large show of emotion with effective change, and I think that is one reason why NLP has often been criticized for “leaving out the emotions.” There are plenty of counterexamples to the idea that drama and emotion is a sign of effectiveness, and I think that this idea is actually exactly backwards. Quite often when people are very emotional, they are simply expressing their frustration, and their lack of resources to deal with a difficult situation.  

         In contrast, when your resources are adequate to cope with a difficult situation, you may not even think about it, much less become emotional about it! Think of tying your shoelaces, and all the other things that were insurmountable challenges for you as a small child, that are now so routine and unconscious that you don’t even think about them.

         Engineers know that any machine that makes a lot of noise is inefficient, because noise is a form of energy that is being wasted (unless the purpose of the machine is to make noise). An efficient machine is very quiet, because all its energy goes into carrying out its function.

         Many years ago, I used to do Gestalt Therapy, which has lots of drama–people screaming and yelling at empty chairs, and pounding pillows. It was very dramatic, but the results were seldom particularly useful. Before antibiotics or immunization, every family experienced many life and death dramas as their children struggled with diseases like scarlet fever and smallpox that are now virtually unknown. Antibiotics and immunization are very undramatic, and very effective. In nearly every field, when we know exactly what to do, change is easy, and very undramatic. Many of the changes you have already experienced were very undramatic, but they will have far-reaching consequences for you.

         Dan: What if someone can’t find examples of the quality that they want to have?

         That is usually a matter of how they are searching for them. Often when they can’t find any examples, their criteria are too high and perfectionistic. If they’re searching for examples of “courage,” they may think that word can only be exemplified by winning a small war single-handed. Or they may examine all their examples of courage, and find that none of them are quite perfect. In that case you need to loosen their criteria, and broaden their definition a bit, so that more of their memories will fit that word. Courage can mean a wide range of behaviors in which someone stands by their principles and values and bravely faces some kind of opposition. Once you have broadened their criteria a bit, most people can find plenty of examples.

         But let’s say that someone still couldn’t find any examples. In that case you could use all your skills to help them access appropriate resources and revise memories so that they were courageous in the past, and then future-pace them into the future, so that the person has future examples as well, and then use both for the database.

         Ann: Can you give an example of that?

         Sure. If they can’t find examples of courage, ask them to think of a time when they weren’t courageous and wanted to be. Then you ask them to review that situation and think of what personal resource would have made it easy for them to be courageous. Perhaps if they had simply thought at the time of the effect of this situation on their kids, or someone else, it would have been easy to take action. Then they can replay that situation with this larger frame in mind, running a movie of what they would have done differently until it’s what they want. Then put that experience into the future wherever they are likely to need it, and then put both the revised past example and the future example into a new database for courage.

         Or perhaps they were too concerned about other’s opinions of them. Then you could ask them for a time when they didn’t give a damn about someone else’s opinion, and when they are fully experiencing that feeling, have them rerun that situation, and see how it unfolds differently. They can do this kind of adjustment and testing as many times as they want until it is satisfactory, and then put this experience into the future, and into the database.

         Bill: I’m wondering if people might have different kinds of templates for different positive qualities

         I haven’t investigated that. What I demonstrated with Peter has always worked fine, so I have assumed that a person’s templates for different positive qualities are either the same, or else so similar that any differences don’t matter. I think it was Gregory Bateson who said that “A difference that makes no difference is no difference.” I have been most interested in the practical question of what people can do to change, but that would be an interesting thing to research, and you might discover something useful.

         Lois: I’m surprised that you didn’t give Peter more detailed instructions about what to do. It obviously worked fine, but I’d think he’d need more specific direction.

         This was in an NLP Master Practitioner Training, so I could presuppose that Peter already had a lot of advanced skills and understandings about submodalities and so on. If he had any difficulties, I would have made the instructions more detailed and step-by-step.

         Sometimes people need more instructions, and sometimes less. Some are really fast, and will run ahead of you. If you give detailed instructions, some will interrupt and say, “Will you please stop talking. I’m already doing the process, and you’re distracting me.” At other times you describe the next step in a process, and they say, “Yeah, I already did that.” Of course, sometimes they run ahead in the wrong direction, and you have to back them up to where they got off track. The main thing is to notice what the person needs, and adjust your behavior to make it as easy for them as possible.    

         Stan: It seems to me that Peter was an example of what you described earlier, someone who was competent, but not confident.

         Yes, I agree. Peter was a pleasant guy to be around, and his wife loved him, and many others liked him. However, he simply hadn’t assembled his experiences into a form in which he could know that as an aspect of himself. I really want to emphasize how important it is to assemble experiences. When I began, I said to Peter, “I think of you as lovable,” but it just didn’t compute. I’m sure all of you have had the experience of trying to convince a friend or a client of something by offering a counterexample to their limiting belief, and getting nowhere. A single counterexample is usually (and often literally) just brushed aside. But when you assemble a group of examples, in the appropriate form for the person you are working with, they become very compelling. Now Peter thinks of himself as lovable, and this is just as automatic, and “built into me” as he put it, as his knowing that he is intelligent.

         Fred: It seems to me that what you did could also be described as building a piece of what has been called “internal reference,” the ability to know something internally, independent of others’ opinions.

         Yes, that’s another useful way of thinking about the change in the way Peter thinks about himself. When people use the term “internal reference,” they often think of it as a single thing–that someone is internally referenced about everything, rather than understanding that it is made up of many smaller aspects that are often dependent on content and context.   Saying that someone is internally referenced is always a huge overgeneralization, because there will always be contexts in which someone will be externally referenced. Before I worked with him, Peter was internally referenced with regard to his intelligence, but very externally referenced with regard to being loved. Learning a new skill is a situation in which it is totally appropriate to carefully choose an expert in that skill as an external reference.

          You could also say that Peter had been very dependent on others in regard to loving and affection. By helping him create an internal knowing that he is loved, he was no longer dependent on others for this. I also want to mention something else that I think is very important. Many people mistakenly think that independence results in indifference. As the follow-up interview shows, now that Peter is independent with regard to being loved, he is both more loving, and also able to enjoy his wife’s affection and caring much more than before. Independence frees you to respect and appreciate and interact with others, instead of being caught up in your own desperate needs.

         A participant in a previous seminar worked with a man who was very critical, building a quality much like the one I built for Peter. The next week the man’s girlfriend came to see her, very curious about what she had done with him. The girlfriend said that she had been about to leave him, but that he was now softer and more open-hearted than she had ever seen him, and once when he was irritable, he apologized instead of blaming her.

         Ken: When you were testing at the end and you asked him if he was lovable, you followed up by asking how that felt to him, and he said, “Very strange.” You described that as simply being unfamiliar, and that seemed to fit for him. I thought that could have been an indication of an objection to the change.

         It could have been an objection, but strangeness is a very common response at this point, because they literally think of themselves very differently, so the difference is in the thinker as well as what is being thought. In all change work it’s very helpful to make a clear distinction between an objection to a change and simple unfamiliarity. Unfamiliarity is not an objection, just an observation. They notice how different they feel, and comment on it–it’s strange, but it’s OK. The nonverbal indications of “strangeness” are quite different from those of an objection. Some of the most prominent ones are that in strangeness, the eyes are typically wide open, and the face is somewhat relaxed and open, and the head moves slightly forward. In an objection, the eyes are usually narrowed, the whole face is more tense, and the head moves back a little. In order to sensitize yourself to these differences, you can ask a friend to alternately think of an experience of each, and notice how they differ.

         When someone says, “I don’t feel like myself,” that’s a very strong indication that you have made a significant change in their self-concept, and that the change will be very widespread, whether or not that was your goal. If you want to be sure that there is no objection, you can always ask, “All right, is it OK to be someone else?     

         Usually the feeling of strangeness wears off fairly soon, as they get used to it. But if they continue to be preoccupied with it, you can ask, “How many times do you need to experience something new for it to become familiar?” Usually people will give you a number that is ten or less, and then you can say, “OK, take a minute or two to experience it ten times, and let me know when you’re done.” Since your question (and their answer) presupposes that it will feel familiar after a certain number of times, it will feel familiar to them. But if it really was an objection, the feeling won’t go away with repetition.

         There is another frequent apparent objection that some people haven’t yet learned to distinguish. Often someone will say about a proposed change, “I don’t think that can happen.” That is not an objection, that is a statement about their belief or expectation. All you have to do is acknowledge their doubt, and separate that from whether they have an objection or not. “Fine, I understand that you don’t think you can make that change. If it did happen, would you have any objections?”

         You really have to listen carefully to people’s answers to your questions. If you asked someone where they lived, and they answered, “Thursday,” you probably wouldn’t accept that as a valid answer, so you’d ask again. Yet many people will ask if there are any objections, and when the person says, “I don’t think it will work,” they will accept that as an answer to the question they asked. Earlier I asked someone how a specific change affected the strength of a quality, and they said, “I like it better.” Since that was not an answer to my question, I had to ask again.

         Ted: I noticed that you didn’t ask him to include any counterexamples in his new quality of being loved.

         I agree. If I were doing this today, that is one of several things that I would definitely do differently. Remember that this video was made eleven years ago, and I have already taught you much more than I knew back then.

         Ann: All you did, really, was to help him select and organize his memories in a particular way that worked for him. You didn’t access resources, or anchor experiences, or do any of the other kinds of NLP change work that I’m familiar with.

         I basically helped Peter select and assemble a set of memories into a generalization about himself, patterned on one that he already had for being intelligent. Eliciting his structure for intelligence serves two purposes. One is the obvious one of finding an internal structure that already works for Peter, so that I can build a new quality that will function as well as the one that he already has. The other purpose in eliciting this structure is that it is a powerful convincer for Peter that it is possible to have a stable internal representation that works to provide him with knowledge about himself. Without that, he might say something like, “Loved isn’t something that you are; it’s something you get from other people.”

         However, you could also describe this process in the terms you mention. Each of his memories is a resource that is an anchor for a particular positive state. A set of voices in a particular location is a powerful anchor for a group of experiences that are significant to Peter, and so on.

         Each of us has an immense wealth of different experiences, but most of it goes to waste because it isn’t organized. It’s as if you had a big barn jumbled full of stuff piled to the roof, so you couldn’t see anything but some of the nearer stuff on the top, and a few things near the door. You couldn’t use all that stuff in that form, because it’s not organized in a way that you can find what you need. In many ways, building a quality is similar to the “change personal history” pattern, in which you search for, and access a resourceful response, and connect it to a context where you want to have that response available. The major difference is that in this pattern we assemble a group of experiences, and we pay particular attention to the form of this group.

         Most NLP patterns develop specific solutions for specified tasks or situations. But unpleasant and challenging events happen to all of us, and there is such a variety of them, that we can’t be prepared with a specific response for every one of them. When you work with self-concept, you create much more general attitudes, capacities, and qualities that fit with your values, how you want to respond, and how you want to live your life, irrespective of what happens. Personal qualities like resilience, honesty, curiosity, patience, etc., constitute a resourceful personal foundation for finding solutions to a very wide range of specific challenging events.

         This might be a good time to put in a plug for a very useful and often ignored quality, tenacity or persistence. Many people could use a more robust ability to hang in there and stay with a project or job or marriage through the difficult times, in order to reach a worthwhile outcome over time. When someone is having trouble staying with a diet or exercise or some other program, usually people think of motivation, or excitement, or some other way of getting the person going. However, motivation and excitement are often fleeting, and usually the problem isn’t in starting a program, but in staying with it. Many people have started on a hundred diets, but had great trouble continuing.    

         Tenacity can keep you going, not because it has intensity, but because it has duration, the ability to keep going through time. Many people desperately need tenacity to make a go of it in the world. Tenacity has a lot less drama than excitement, but it’s usually a lot more useful.

         A closely-related quality is commitment, making a decision now to do something for an extended period of time. If you decide to diet, or to get married, it doesn’t work very well to wake up every morning and go through a process of deciding whether to stay with it or not. It works a lot better to make a commitment, at least for a period of time, and not reexamine that decision too often. Of course, there will always be times when tenacity and commitment can become a liability, when it might be better to give up what you have been doing and try something else. Any skill can become a limitation if it is overdone, or used in an inappropriate context.

         Next I want you to experience what I did with Peter. This can be a real opportunity to build a wonderful new quality for yourself. One possibility is to search for an experience of dependence, such as Peter had, which often indicates where a quality is missing. Peter often asked his wife to show that she loved him, but the feeling he got from it didn’t last, so he had to continually ask for it again. If you can think of a situation like that in which you repeatedly ask others for some kind of reassurance or validation, but when you get it, it doesn’t last very long, that is probably an indication where this could be useful.

         Peter’s wife found his continual asking for reassurance “excessive.” So another way to search for something useful to build for yourself is to think of the kinds of complaints that you frequently get from others, and examine those situations. What quality could you build for yourself that would make those complaints much less likely? For instance, if people tend to complain that you are critical and judgemental, perhaps you could build a quality of acceptance of how things are. If you often get comments about being distant and uninvolved, you could build a quality of being present and involved.

         Another possibility is to think of someone that you have admired or envied, examine what it is that impresses you about them, and consider whether you would like to have that quality for yourself.

         Or you could read through the following list and notice which qualities sound interesting to you: curious, gentle, playful, healthy, balanced, funny, sensual, witty, honest, steadfast, scintillating, courageous, thoughtful, flirtatious, organized, loyal, creative, wise, kind, loving, deep, impeccable, social, considerate, centered, thorough, useful, responsive, adventurous, passionate.

         Remember that all these words are only broad nominalizations that can mean very different things to different people. For one person, “adventurous” might mean going up to someone and giving them a compliment, while for someone else that word might mean hanging by their heels from a bungee cord being towed by a helicopter over a mountaintop!

         For one person “considerate” might mean thinking about someone’s physical needs and convenience, while for someone else it might mean thinking about their feelings and emotional needs–and for someone else it could mean both.

         So as you read down the list of words, or think of other possibilities, it’s important to notice what the words mean to you. As you consider these possibilities, probably sometimes you’ll think, “Yep, I’ve got that already,” while for others you may think, “Nope I’m definitely not that.” When you get to one where you respond, “Hmm, I never really thought about being that,” that might be one for which you have no database, and you might consider building that, or some variation of it, for yourself.

         After choosing a possible quality to build, ask yourself, “What do I mean by that word?” Think of specific examples of that quality, examine them carefully, and then adjust them so that they fit well for you. For instance, kindness, consideration, and thoughtfulness share many criteria, so they are very similar, and for some people they might be interchangeable. However, for someone else they may have very different meanings, because of the specific experiences that they use to give meaning to the word. One of them may feel appropriate and comfortable, while the others might not quite fit for you.

         The next thing to do is to check carefully to be sure that you don’t already have a negative or ambiguous database for this quality that would interfere with building a new positive one. One way to test is to think of your examples of this quality. If all your examples are of other people and they all stay distant and dissociated, that is probably an indication that you don’t think of this quality as being part of your identity.

         Another way to check is to imagine someone else saying to you, “You’re a very _____ person,” and notice your response. If it’s “No, I’m not,” that likely indicates that you already have a negative database. But if you respond, “Huh?” or ‘What?” or some other “does not compute” response, that probably means that this would be an appropriate quality to build. I have always thought of myself as being very unreligious, and sometimes even anti-religious. Years ago when a friend said to me, “You’re a very spiritual person,” I had no idea what she was talking about; it just didn’t compute. For weeks afterward I kept wondering what on earth she meant by that. Now I have a much broader meaning for the word “spiritual,” but at the time I was totally puzzled. That’s the kind of experience that indicates an absence of a database.

         There are a couple of other situations in which this process can be very useful. One is where you do have a sense of having a quality, but it is very weak because you don’t have a very extensive database. Then you need to add more examples to the database you already have. Or you might need to adjust the form of your existing database to be sure that it is in the form of your positive template.

         Another possibility is to create a new quality that is intermediate between two extremes. Let’s say that sometimes you are very social, and get so caught up in enjoying the situation and responding to others that you lose your sense of yourself, and later find yourself exhausted, or regretting some things that you did. At other times you really enjoy solitude, because you can fully acknowledge all your internal experience, but at those times you find it difficult to respond to others and be social.

         You might consider building a new quality that is a balanced integration of the valuable aspects of both these extremes. To do this, you need to examine both extremes carefully, and then find or create examples of balance. In this example, you would think of times in your life when you could respond fully to others, while at the same time fully experiencing your own internal responses at the time, and then assemble these into a new quality.

         An example of opposing extremes is bulimia. The typical pattern in bulimia is to alternate between rigid conscious control of eating, and total unconscious control of bingeing, followed by conscious disgust and induced vomiting. Someone in that kind of situation desperately needs to have a balanced quality that respects both the conscious social need to be slim, with the less conscious biological need to eat, and create a balanced way of eating moderately.

         Given all this discussion, I want you to take a little time to consider what you might like to build. . . .

         Do you have any questions?

         Sue: I’d like to be “scintillating,” and for me that means that I could talk fluently about a lot of different abstract topics. But I don’t have a lot of information about many things.

         Well, it sounds like you might need to adjust your criteria for being “scintillating,” so that it fits for you. I can think of several people whom I’d call scintillating, and for them it is based much more on listening to other people than talking intelligently about abstract things–asking little questions to draw the other person out, making them feel noticed and appreciated. and responding attentively and enthusiastically. In exploring different meanings for “scintillating” it will probably also be useful to ask yourself what your positive outcome is for being scintillating, and to explore different ways of being scintillating to get that outcome.

         Melissa: I got a number of objections to having the new quality that I selected. I was able to satisfy some of them, but there was still one big one left–that if I show this quality in certain contexts, it could get me into trouble with some people who don’t value it.

         Ask that part if it would be all right for you to know that quality about yourself solidly in those contexts, as long as you were careful not to show it. In other words, you know that you have that quality, and you also know that you have the choice whether to behave in that way or not, depending on the situation.

         If you know how to drive a car, you can still know that, even when you’re not actually behind the wheel driving. You can know what your name is, even in situations where you’d rather not tell someone else what it is. Remember that we are dealing with qualities and capacities that you know are inherent in you as part of your identity. But you always have the choice whether or not to express that to others.

         Ben: I either had a “yes” or a “no,” or “I don’t think I want it,” so I decided that it wasn’t appropriate for me to do this.

         OK. It might be useful to reexamine some of the things that you think you don’t want. If you have a lot of experience of a quality, you probably have good reasons not to want it. But if you don’t have much experience of it, then you may not have a very good basis for knowing whether you’d enjoy it or not–like a sport that you have never tried–and it might be worth a second look. Have you ever seen an unfamiliar food that looked pretty awful, but when you tasted it, you liked it?

         Another thing that you can do is to try crossing some identity boundary in your mind, such as gender or age. You might consider a quality that you think of as a feminine, or one that only children or older people have. But perhaps you could be comfortable having that quality, as long as you did it in a way that was appropriate to who you are.

Exercise 9-1 Building a New Quality (pairs, 15-20 minutes each)

         This time I want you to get into pairs, and use this process to build a new quality for yourself, using the outline below. Since all of you have already explored how you experience a positive quality in yourself, you already know what your positive template is, so this shouldn’t take very long, perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes. Work by yourself, assisting each other as necessary.

Building a New Quality Outline

         1. Content. Identify what quality you would like to have as a stable part of your identity. This pattern will work best with a capability or quality of intermediate chunk size: tenacity, loyalty, dependability, intelligence, etc.

         If you want a more specific behavioral ability (such as the ability to drive a car or fly a plane) that requires learning specific behavioral skills, that’s not appropriate, since it’s not useful for you to believe that you can do something that you have not learned to do. However, if you already know how to drive a car and want to be able to do it with a particular quality, such as smoothness, or alert attentiveness to the surroundings, etc., that is appropriate.

         2. Congruence check. Do you have any objection to having this quality? Check carefully in all modalities, and satisfy any objections carefully, usually by modifying your definition of the quality.

         3. Testing. Be very sure that you don’t already have a database for having this quality. Proceed only when you are sure that you don’t already have a negative or ambivalent self-concept that would conflict with the positive quality that you would like to have.

         4. Positive template. Elicit the structure that you use to represent a strong positive quality that you like. This will include both a summary representation that serves as quick reference, and also the database of specific examples that support the generalization. The database will most often be primarily in the visual system, but may include any (or all) of the other systems. If the database is primarily kinesthetic, be sure that it is composed of the tactile and proprioceptive kinesthetics, and not just the evaluative kinesthetic emotions and feelings. (This is what you have already been doing. )

         5. Tune-up. Use all that you have learned to improve what you already do, to make your representation of this quality even better, by adding future examples, other perceptual positions, integrating or processing counterexamples, etc. (Again, you have already been doing this.)

         6. Build the new quality. Using the positive template as a model, find appropriate memories to use as examples in a database for the desired new quality, and assemble them into the form of the positive template. When you are done, create a summary representation of the quality. Be sure that the new quality has all the “tune-up” elements we have been working with, such as future examples, etc.

         7. Testing. Imagine someone asking you, “Are you___?” and notice your response, with particular attention to the nonverbal. If your response is ambivalent or ambiguous, back up a few steps, and gather information. The most likely difficulty is that your testing in step 2 did not detect a preexisting negative or ambiguous representation. While there are effective ways to deal with this situation, you haven’t yet learned the skills you need for this.

         8. Congruence check. Do you have any objection to having this new quality? Again, check carefully to be sure that this new quality fits with all your other qualities. Satisfy any objections.

*      *      *      *     *   

Further Discussion

         Now that you have all had an experience of doing this, do you have any questions or comments?

         Sam: I’m feeling something similar to what Peter described. It’s like having a whole new focus that I didn’t have before, looking at myself in a whole different way, a quiet knowing where there was just a kind of vacuum before.

         Al: What I noticed most was the change in how my physical body felt. My new quality is one that is particularly evident in posture and movement, and my body feels longer and straighter, more flowing and soft.

         Fred: I did it with something that I was mildly ambiguous about at first, but it worked fine anyway. There weren’t many counterexamples, and they weren’t very intense, so they didn’t get in the way.

         Melissa: I created a new balanced quality, and I love it. I used to be on the end of a teeter-totter, always up or down. Now I have a wonderful feeling of standing right on the pivot point, where I can shift a little from one side to the other, yet still stay in that stable middle zone of balance.

         Ann: Even though we thought we had tested really well to make sure that there was no negative belief already there, when I started to build a new quality I had a feeling of being torn between the new quality and its opposite. So we backed up and dismantled what we had done. Then I picked another quality to build, and that went smoothly.

         Good. When an ambiguous or negative structure is already there, it’s a little more complicated, because you have to deal with a significant number of counterexamples to the new quality. Soon you’ll have the skills to deal with that situation too.


         Everything that you have learned so far can be used to build an entirely new quality for yourself, by selecting and collecting examples into a new database. As long as you build this new quality in the same form as your unique positive template, it will function in the same way, providing a solid and unconscious basis for knowing that you have this quality, and being who you want to be. Next we’ll explore how to make a similar kind of change when someone has an uncertain self-concept because they have roughly equal numbers of examples and counterexamples.

This is an excerpt from the book, Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be, by Steve Andreas. Order from