Changing the “Not Self”

by Steve Andreas


This is chapter 11 of Steve’s book:

Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be.

An earlier version was published in Anchor Point, Vov. 16, No. 7, July, pp. 4-13

       When people speak of a “negative self-concept,” what they usually mean is that someone has a self-concept that is negatively-valued.  When someone says, “I’m clumsy,” that is probably negatively-valued, since people seldom value clumsiness.  However, even if the person doesn’t value being clumsy, “clumsy” is a name for a set of behaviors that can be represented positively, without any negation.  That is, I can make images of what it means to be clumsy–pictures of myself stumbling, or spilling things, breaking things, etc.

         Before learning how to transform a negatively-valued aspect of self-concept, I want to explore a very different kind of negative self-concept, in which the representation of self-concept is negated.  Fairly often you hear some people say, “I’m not the kind of person who–” or “I’m not–” rather than “I am–”   If clumsiness were described as “not graceful,” that would be an example of a self-concept in which the representation is negated.

         If you say to yourself, “I’m not graceful,” that usually elicits a very different set of representations than if you say to yourself, “I’m clumsy.”  I can imagine some of you saying, “Well, ‘not graceful’ means the same thing as ‘clumsy.’ ”  Negation is very difficult to talk about, and we have to make a very careful distinction between the words that people use and the experiences that underlie them. While those two sentences might mean the same thing in ordinary language, the experiences underlying them are often very different, and the consequences of defining the self by using a set of experiences that are negated can be profound and far-reaching. 

“Not self” (negatively-valued)          

         I want you to think of something that you’re not, some quality that you don’t like.  Because of the difficulty of talking about negations, it is helpful to use a little bit of content, so I’m going to use “cruelty” as an example, but you can use any other quality or attribute that you don’t like, if you prefer.  If you say to yourself, “I’m not cruel,” how do you represent this internally?  Take a few minutes to experience what it is like for you to define a quality in yourself by what you are not

         It can help to contrast your experience of the same quality defined positively and negatively.  What is the difference between your experience of “I’m not cruel” compared with “I’m kind”?  What is your database like for “not cruel”?  How do you respond to it, and what impact will this response tend to have on your behavior?. . .

         I’d like to gather several examples of how you experience a negatively defined (and negatively-valued), quality.  To preserve your privacy, I suggest that whatever disliked quality you chose to experience, you talk about it using the word “cruel,” as a kind of code word for it.

         Bill:  I felt awful.  When I tried to think of “not cruel,” all I could come up with was times when I was cruel.  Then I had to push that away and do the right thing.

         Fred:  I see the word “cruel” much more boldly and clearly than the word “kind.”  The database of cruel is what you would expect–lots of examples of people being mean, and enjoying someone else’s suffering. I don’t like seeing all those images, and I want to pull back from them.

         Rene:  I see images of other people being cruel, but I stay dissociated.  I usually step into my images, because even if I don’t want to actually do something, I want to have a sense of what it would be like.  So I begin to step in, and then a voice says, “No,” and I back away from it.  Then I feel kind of apathetic and bored, because I don’t know what to do.

         Lois:  I do much the same as Rene, but when I step in, I feel scared, and then I think, “Well, if I’m not that, what am  I?”

         Al:  I see indistinct, almost stick figure images, of someone being cruel, and then I have a feeling of recoiling, and curling up, wanting to defend myself.

         Although each of you has noticed somewhat different aspects of the experience, those are all pretty similar.  Words are clumsy things, and often people find creative ways to understand them.  Did any of you do something different?

         Ann:  I made images of a number of times when I could have been cruel, but wasn’t.

         Sally:  As soon as you said, “not cruel,” I immediately went to seeing the opposite–being kind.

         OK, you each did something a little different, but you both saw the opposite of being cruel.  You did something that is different from what most people do, and in this case it’s a very good choice, for reasons that will become clear as we explore this further. 

         However, right now I want you to make images of being cruel, and then negate them in some way, so that you can experience what that is like. When you know how others experience this, then when someone describes themselves with negation, it will be a lot easier for you to get rapport, and help them learn how to do something more useful.

         Bill:  I sort of flipped the words in my mind, and made images of all the things that don’t fit the definition of being cruel–which is a lot of different things!  My mind got pretty crowded with all that stuff.

         “Not cruel” can mean very different things to different people.  It can either mean “kindness,” or it can mean all the things in the world that aren’t cruel.  It’s easy to fall into thinking in digital “either/or” categories, completely ignoring the fact that there are a lot of things or events in the world that are neither kind nor cruel–the carpet on the floor, for instance. 

         Whenever you hear someone say or presuppose an either/or category like, “You’re either with us or against us,” or “either I have to do everything my wife wants, or get a divorce,” that is an indication of a very limited world view that could use some finer discrimination, and exploration of all the possibilities in the middle zone between the two extremes of the “either/or.” 

         Now I want you all to take this negation to the extreme.  What would your life be like if not just one of your qualities, but all your qualities were described as negations?  Take a minute or two to experience what it is like for you to imagine that whenever you think of yourself, it is always in terms of what you’re notAll your qualities are experienced in this way.  What is that like? . . .

        Sam:  It’s very dark; I feel very alone and scared, separate and powerless, hemmed in by all these things that I don’t like.

         Ann:  I have a tendency to feel like doing what is in all those images, and then I pull back from doing it.  I feel as if I am all those awful things, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to think that.

         Alice:  I’m very aware of seeing all these things around me that I don’t like, and I’m pulling back from all of it.  All my attention is directed to all this unpleasant stuff around me.

         Yes, it’s definitely an experience of going away from unpleasantness, with no possibility to go toward anything.  With no positive options to go toward, you naturally feel very limited and stuck. 

         Imagine that your home was entirely decorated with images of things that you don’t like–and that you never left home–and you will have an idea of what this is like. Some people collect unpleasant experiences–grievances, guilts, regrets, disasters, ugliness of all kinds, and then live surrounded by them in their minds.  Most people who come for therapy do much the same, at least with a problem situation.  They are so aware of what they don’t want, that they don’t have much attention left for what they do want. 

         Lois:  I can’t see any distinctions.  I have this sense of emptiness in my belly and chest, of not knowing anything about who I am, only who I’m not.   

         Yes, by focusing on the negation, there is no way to think about who you are, and there are no positive criteria for making distinctions.  You can even take negation a step further and say, “I’m not the kind of person who–”  The phrase “kind of person” describes a category of people, which separates the person  even further from the negated behavior. 

         Or someone could say,  “I’m not dishonest.”  Since “dishonest” is already a negation, they are negating a negation!  In Spanish, that’s easy to process, because multiple negations always produce a negation.  But in English, each negation flips the one before it, so you have to go through some mental gymnastics to figure out whether the meaning is positive or negative.  There may be some interesting and useful consequences of these variations, but the main point I want to make is that when someone defines themselves by negation, that gives them nothing positive to identify with.

         Since the kinds of images that we make in regard to ourselves will tend to generate the behavior that is in the images, what kinds of responses would likely be generated by negated images?         

         Fred:  I’d tend to notice cruelty, and all these other things everywhere in the world, and probably miss all the positive stuff.  I’d also feel superior to all those people around me who are doing all these terrible things.

         Yes, there is an implicit comparison between myself and others.  Other people do these awful things, and I don’t, so I can feel superior to them.  And that comparison and superiority will also result in my feeling very separate from them, different and alone. 

         Rich:  Since I feel an awful emptiness inside because I don’t know who I am, I’m preoccupied with what others think of me, as a way of having some sense of who I am.

         If you lived your whole life like this, what would a psychiatrist call it?

         Fred:  “Paranoid” is the word that comes to my mind.  Imagining and noticing bad things all around you, being scared and vigilant, ideas of self-importance and superiority, feeling alone and threatened, and fighting back.


         Yes, exactly.  Paranoia is the extreme of a process that nearly everyone does to some extent, and that was described over a hundred years ago as “projection.”  I “project” my unpleasant thoughts into the world, and see them all around me, rather than in myself.  But although projection was described in some detail long ago, no one has ever proposed a mechanism for how it actually works, or how to change it.  It was always just, “This is what happens, and everyone does at least a little of it, and paranoids do a lot of it, and this is how to recognize it.”

         Paranoids are usually thought to be very angry people who repress it, so it can only be expressed in retaliation against their persecutors, but I am not at all sure this is true. When I was in high school, living in a very small community on a ranch, I knew a truly sweet and gentle man, from a Quaker background, who cared a lot for other people. He repaired cars, but then found it very difficult to sell them. When someone would be interested in a car, he would ask them what they would use the car for. Then he’d usually tell them, “You don’t want this car,” and then tell them what kind of car would serve them better. 

         Even after fifty years, I can recall his face, and hear his voice clearly.  When talking about himself, he nearly always said, “I’m not the kind of person who–”  When I last saw him about fifteen years ago, he had gone all the way to full-blown paranoia–he knew that the FBI, the CIA, and the Mafia were all out after him.   Perhaps psychiatrists are correct that paranoia begins with angry impulses that are denied.  Since my friend came from a Quaker background, he may have suppressed times when he was angry because he internalized the peaceful ideals of that religion. Or paranoia may be simply the result of a self-concept that uses negation, and the natural consequences of doing that a lot. I think it traps a lot of very sweet and gentle people in a really cruel dead end.

         Here’s another example of the same process, though not quite so extreme.  Recently I was driving four 9th graders on a field trip. Two of them were in the “cool” group, and talked almost non-stop on the one-hour trip. Much of their talk was reenactment of some bits of TV programs and movies, some was about the field trip and other current events.  I gradually realized that what was common to all their comments was their attitude of scorn, derision, and disgust.   All their conversation revolved around what they weren’t, and their laughter expressed their superiority to the objects of their scorn.  In short, they considered themselves “cool” because they scorned nearly everything.  There was nothing in their statements about who they were, only about who they weren’t.  That has got to result in their feeling empty inside, and being with the “cool” group is a temporary refuge that provides at least a little bit of identity and connection with others.  Since they were so focused on what they weren’t, they had very little awareness of who they were.

         Another way of describing your response to a “not self” representation is that it acts in much the same way as a negative command. “Don’t think of purple bunnies.  Especially not dancing.  And certainly not turning somersaults.”  Anything stated in the negative makes us think of exactly what we don’t want to think of.  Thinking of yourself as “not cruel” results in your thinking of being cruel, just as many well-meaning parents trap themselves and their children with negative commands like, “Don’t spill the milk,” or “Don’t worry about how things will turn out,” not realizing how that programs their kids to do exactly what the parents want to protect them from.

         A very simple example of this is those “no right turn” signs–a bent arrow with the superimposed red circle with a slash across it.  First your mind makes a representation of what a right turn is, which prepares you to do it, and then you have to stop it, and do something else.  I’d like to talk to the person who invented that system!  It would work a lot better if the arrow told you what to do, instead of what not to do.  Under stress, I’ll bet quite a few people do exactly the wrong thing, because their unconscious response is faster.

         Since the unconscious doesn’t respond to negation, it will respond to whatever is negated. Meanwhile the conscious mind will identify with its opposite, creating an inherent conflict between the conscious and unconscious.   Consciously someone could feel good about thinking of themselves as “not cruel,” while unconsciously they will identify with being cruel, creating a deep and serious ambiguity. 

         This disparity between conscious and unconscious response will have a lot of unfortunate consequences.  Since the conscious mind identifies with one side of the ambiguity, while the unconscious mind identifies with the other, the person will often find themselves acting in ways that are inconsistent with their conscious identity.  When the unconscious side is expressed, the person’s conscious mind will usually ignore it or rationalize it.

         And if someone else draws attention to their unconscious responses, this will be incomprehensible and puzzling to them.   Because it is exactly the opposite of how they think of themselves, they are likely to interpret the comment as completely unfounded, or perhaps even malicious.

         This opposition between conscious negation and unconscious affirmation is a major process that creates a division between a conscious false self and an unconscious “shadow” self.  The shadow self is not simply a response to uncertainty or ambiguity, because someone can be acutely aware of both sides of an ambiguity.  It is only when one side of the ambiguity is negated, judged and rejected that the shadow self is created.

         This happened in the US on a national scale during the cold war.  Our government became so focused on anti-communism, that we allied ourselves with many very corrupt, tyrannical and undemocratic governments as long as they were “anti-communist.”  We didn’t notice what they were, because we were only interested in what they were not, and we had only one negative criterion for defining that.  When some people tried to point out the horrors that some of these governments were committing, often with our money and support, they were dismissed as disloyal troublemakers or communists.  That’s an example of denial and the “shadow” self at a national level, and although the content has changed, the same process is still very evident today.    

         This shadow self may become very powerful, and relatively independent of the person’s conscious control, and express itself independently.  A classic extreme example of this is a “fire and brimstone” TV preacher who is caught repeatedly with prostitutes.  Here in Colorado about ten years ago a radical right, anti-gay, congressional candidate turned up a couple of years later on a videotape having sex with an underage male!  You can probably think of many other examples of that kind of puzzling situation.  Embracing the shadow side is a good start toward becoming more whole, but only if it includes transforming it–by eliminating the negation, and then integrating that side to resolve the ambiguity.

Multiple Personalities

         Doris:  The shadow self sounds quite a lot like multiple personality, where there is another identity that is unknown to the conscious self which emerges from time to time, and where there seem to be two distinct personalities in one body.  That seems like the “mother of all ambiguities.”

         I think there may well be a connection between the two, and that multiple personality is another extreme form of a self-concept that is based largely on negation.  However, multiple personality is very different than paranoia, so how could the two result from the same process?  There is one clear difference that might explain this. While a paranoid perceives the shadow self in the outside world, a multiple keeps it inside their body, and it is possible that this difference alone causes one rather than the other. 

         In most multiples, the main personality has completely internalized social values and is hardworking, churchgoing, polite, etc., while the other personality values the opposite, and is lazy, rebellious, coarse, etc.  Over 90% of multiples are women, and women tend to internalize social values more readily than men do. Although a paranoid also internalizes social values, apparently they do it in a very different way. Although I haven’t been able to find very good statistics, most sources state that over two-thirds of paranoids are male. That is an additional suggestion that in some way paranoia and multiples are very similar, yet somehow also mirror-image opposites.  Is a multiple simply a case of denying normal healthy impulses that don’t fit with a rigid and perfectionistic social ideal, or does a multiple think of these forbidden impulses in the form of “not self’ representations? It should be fairly easy to determine this.

         I have never worked with a multiple, so you should receive anything I say about multiples with great caution and skepticism.  To simplify our thinking on a very puzzling topic, let’s restrict ourselves to dual personality.  The first multiples to be described only had two personalities.  In recent years both the number of multiples reported, and the number of personalities per multiple has exploded.  It’s unclear whether this is a process of discovery, or creation, or overenthusiastic diagnosis.  I have some very strong doubts about those who report more than two, and even experts in the field say that most of the additional personalities are “fragmentary,” so most of them are probably more like what we would call parts of the person related to  different outcomes, rather than full personalities. 

         One way of thinking about dual personality is that rather than having scattered individual ambiguous qualities, the way most of us do, one side of each ambiguity is assembled into one personality, while the other side of each ambiguity is assembled into another.  Each personality functions as a one-sided integrated whole, but there is a vast gulf between the two. 

         Milton Erickson, who worked with a number of multiples, believed that each personality used the same set of experiences, while applying completely different values to those experiences:

“. . . it seems to me that dual personalities actually represent well-organized, coordinated, and integrated use of the same total experience, but from two entirely different points of orientation. . . .

         “My finding with dual personalities is that they react in both ways simultaneously.  Usually one of the personalities is active and builds up an experiential background in that way.  The other tends to be passive and to orient itself about things of only minor consideration to the other personality.  As a consequence, you get two personalities constructed, each of which has its own set and scale of values, based upon totally different usage of the common experiences.” (18, p. 143)

         “While the ordinary personality is usually present, nevertheless the secondary personality is very definitely in the background, observing, participating, and sharing, but in a fashion unknown to the ordinary personality.  I will agree, however, that when the secondary personality is in the foreground, the primary personality is most completely out of the picture, and, so far as I can tell, actually misses completely the experiences of the active secondary personality.  Just how this is possible, I cannot conceive, and yet it seems to be so.”  (19, p. 144)

         If Erickson’s understanding is correct about different personalities arising from differently valuing the same experiences, that would also fit very nicely with what I have presented. Assuming for the moment that the conscious personality defines itself by negations, then the conscious mind would value the negated representation, while the unconscious would value its opposite. That would result in the secondary personality being completely unconscious and unknown to the conscious personality.  Then when the unconscious self becomes conscious, it would make sense that the previously conscious self would continue to be totally unaware of the other personality, and whatever it did while it was in charge. 

         Some day I hope to find time to locate and interview a dual personality. I think that I could use the approach presented here to learn more, and perhaps confirm some of these guesses. I’d  make a list of each personality’s constellation of qualities, to hopefully learn more about how they remain separate, and how to integrate the two, and I would determine to what extent each personality defines itself by what it is not.  If my guesses are correct, the primary personality defines itself by negation, while the secondary personality doesn’t. By working at the level of qualities, rather than at the level of the whole personality, I think that integration would be much easier and faster, just as the integration of ambiguities as I have presented it here is much easier than when using the Visual Squash.

         There still remains the question of how two sets of qualities can each be organized into a separate personality in relation to opposing sets of values, and how this is different from other extreme polarities such as bulimia. Most people include both sides of an ambiguity or conflict in one identity, even when one of them is severely dissociated and alienated. 

         Since multiple personality is such a rare disorder, we also need to consider the possibility that some kind of neurological damage prevents the usual integration of identity.  There are a number of neurological injuries that severely disturb the sense of self, so perhaps there is a unique and rare kind of injury that results in multiple personality.

         When I have seen films and videos of people who were described as multiples, most of them have not been very convincing to me.  I usually didn’t see the kind of complete nonverbal reorganization that people report.  I saw only the incongruence and partial dissociation that is familiar to anyone doing NLP work with different parts of a person with conflicting outcomes.

         However, many years ago I personally experienced a multiple who was very, very, convincing to me, so I am sure they do exist.  I was with a casual acquaintance who was under considerable stress at the time.  I looked away from her briefly, and when I looked back, there were strikingly different intently piercing eyes, commanding voice and posture.  I am not easily scared, but this was a scene that could have come straight out of the movie, “The Exorcist.” It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and the best way I can describe it is that someone else was there!  I later found out that this other personality was a Mediterranean fertility goddess who took over control of her daily, and was typing the manuscript of a book!

         Most multiples have been discovered during hypnotherapy, so we also have to consider the possibility that inappropriate hypnotherapy may play a part in creating a multiple.  Erickson reported a couple of multiples who had not experienced hypnosis, at least not officially, but some hypnotic life experiences could have had a similar effect. For instance, some parents say to a child who has just misbehaved, “Where’s my sweet little girl? Where did she go?  Who is this bad girl?”  If this sort of hypnotic language is used often, or during the kind of stressful events that often create traumatic “imprints,” I think it could at least contribute to creating a multiple.  

         Keep in mind that a lot of this is speculation, and that I haven’t tested it by working with a multiple.  It might well be that this is one of those theories that Thomas Henry Huxley spoke of:  “The great tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact.”  At minimum, these are some possibilities that could be checked out by people who work with multiples.

Changing Projection

         Now I want to return to projection.  Discovering the underlying process was a completely unexpected result of modeling how the self-concept functions.  Projection begins with negated internal images of what I’m not, and the rest is my natural response to these negated images. Now that you have an understanding of this process, you will be sensitized to it and start noticing it in what other people say and do. Knowing how this process works also points the way toward how to change it.  Assuming that negated images cause projection, how would you go about changing it, so that someone would project less?

         Sally:  Well, this sounds too easy, but couldn’t you just ask someone to make positive images of what they have been negating?  “OK, you’re not cruel; what are you?”  That would get them to make positive images of being kind or whatever the positive quality is.  

         Exactly.  If you say to them, “OK, you’re not cruel, so I assume you’re kind,” what are they going to say?  It’s something that they have to agree with, because of the logic–and usually paranoids are very logical, which is one feature that makes it hard to work with them.  And when you change a negated representation to a positive example, you are only changing the representation, not the meaning, so that makes it very easy to do. 

         “Tell me one of the ways in which you are not cruel.”

         “I don’t torture cats.”

         “OK, great. What do you do with cats?”

         “I pet them and feed them.”

         “Great, put an image of petting and feeding them in the place of that image of not torturing them.”         

         You first change the summary label for the database from “not cruel” to “kind,” and then have them go through their entire database and change each of the representations to positive ones of kindness.  That might seem a bit tedious, but it actually goes very quickly, especially when you group similar examples.  And usually the person’s unconscious mind gets the idea pretty fast and does the rest on its own.

         Of course this process is a lot more difficult if someone has progressed all the way to full-blown paranoia, because then you are part of his dangerous and threatening surroundings, so he can’t trust you. If you suggest changing negated representations to positive representations, he will probably think that is part of the plot against him, and refuse to do it.

         Sally:  How can you tell if someone has gone too far into paranoia?

         I thought that probably you were one of them, too.  But when you asked that trick question, you revealed yourself for what you are.

         Sally:  Oh crap.  All right!

         Dan:  What if you told them in great detail what not to do?  “Don’t change any of your images of what you’re not into images of what you are.”  It seems to me that if you are not trusted, and you tell him not to do something, that could be taken as a good indication that he ought to do it.

         That could work, but I think you might have to build in some rationale for doing it that paced his belief system–perhaps something, just casually mentioned in passing, about the great danger in making negated images, because they tend to blind you to what is really going on around you, and of course that makes you vulnerable to people who want to harm you. 

         Another way to go about it is to pace the mistrust by saying. “Don’t trust me.” That paradoxically makes you at least somewhat  trustworthy, because you are agreeing with their belief system.   “I want you to carefully scrutinize everything I say and do, to be sure that there is nothing harmful in it.”  That paces what s/he is going to do anyway, while presupposing that “There is nothing harmful in it.” Then you could go on to say something like, “Even if I’m acting with the best of intentions, I might do something to harm you inadvertently.” 

         That sentence may seem like a pretty innocuous pace, but it presupposes two very important and closely-related distinctions: One is the difference between intention and behavior, and the other is the difference between intention and accident.  A paranoid takes perceived harm as proof of bad intentions, so thinking about the possibility of harm resulting from good intentions, or accidental harm completely separate from any intention, introduces two different kinds of possible counterexamples to his belief system in one sentence.

         Just as very few people understand the consequences of negative commands, most people have no idea how important it is to have positive representations of their qualities (even if they don’t like them) rather than negations.  They don’t realize how a self-concept that is defined negatively can get them into serious trouble.  There are plenty of people who can benefit from learning how to  think of themselves without negations, and this is a change that is usually very easy to accomplish once you know what to do.

 “Not self” (positively-valued)           

         We have been exploring the experience of not being something that you don’t value.  The other possibility, thinking of yourself as not being something that you do value, turns out to be very different.  Again think of something that you are not, but this time make it something that you value.  “I’m not tenacious,” “I’m not graceful,” “I’m not patient,” or any other quality that you value.  Take a couple of minutes to explore how you represent this, and what that experience is like. . . . 

         Amy:  I see a lot of pictures of what it would be like for me to have that quality, and I can sort of step into them to feel what it would be like, but the feeling is only partial, and I know I’m not there yet.

         “Not there yet.” So this is a quality that you hope or expect to have in the future.  What is your response to those pictures, and the feeling that you get from them?

         Amy:  It draws me toward them, it’s motivating.  I think about it a lot.

         It sounds like you might have future-paced examples of this quality, but you don’t have present or past examples of it.

         Amy:  Yes, I think that’s how I know I don’t have it yet.

         Sam:  I thought about a quality that I have, but I want to have more strongly, so I know I don’t have that additional strength yet.  Like Amy, I feel drawn forward, and I like it.

         Yes, representations of something that you expect to have in the future are pretty direct and useful; they set a goal that is positively motivating. Each of us did a great deal of this while we were growing up and developing our adult skills and abilities.  However, thinking of a quality that you don’t have and don’t expect to have in the future is very different. Does anyone have an example of that?

         Sue:  Yes, I see others with the quality that I don’t have.  I feel vulnerable because I don’t have it. I’m envious of them, and I feel different and inferior in relation to them.

         Now I want to ask you all to do what Sue did, and to take this process to the extreme.  Imagine that all your focus was on valued qualities that you are not, and that you expect that you will never have them.  Take a couple of minutes to experience what that is like. . . .

         Alice:  I feel like a Martian. I don’t like that everyone else has all these wonderful qualities, and I don’t.  I feel really inferior to everyone else, and I don’t like them for being so different from me.

         Dan:  Again I feel an emptiness inside, because all I notice is what I’m not, and I don’t have any sense of who I am.  I also feel a lot of distance, and the word “unfair” comes to mind. 

         Yes, thinking of yourself as not being able to have a quality that you value usually involves thinking of others as having it, so again there is an implicit comparison, noticing the differences between yourself and others.  One of my criteria for an effective self-concept was that it not have comparisons, but only contain positive representations of your own qualities.  Another criterion was that a useful self-concept would join people and not separate them into up/down, superior/inferior, etc.  

         When we compare ourselves with others, we usually think of only one or two qualities at a time; we usually don’t think of all the other differences between us, or about all the many similarities.  When we compare ourselves with others, we can always find someone who is better or worse than we are, depending on what we choose to compare. 

         Whether we feel inferior or superior, this comparing makes our self-concept dependent on others, rather than being something that we have internally.  Comparing with others also draws our attention away from the qualities that we value in ourselves, and is likely to result in judgement of our shortcomings, bad feelings and other unuseful consequences. When I feel small and inadequate, criticizing others can give me a little temporary superiority, and make me feel a little better about myself. Now what is it like if you think of having that quality someday?

         Dan:  I feel a lovely release, like energy and attention flowing outward toward what I now think I could become.

         Sue:  It never occurred to me that I could have it.

         Well, it is occurring to you now.  Play the “As if” game.  What is it like if you think about expecting that you could have that quality someday?       

         Sue:  If I think about having that quality someday, it’s still a bit unreal to me, but I start wondering how it would feel to have it, and how that could happen, so I feel better about not having it.  I’m more curious about how those other people have it, instead of just feeling bad because I don’t.

         Our expectation of future possibility makes a huge difference in how we respond to an experience of not having a valued quality.  If you expect to have a quality in the future, it can provide a wonderful experience of being motivated to develop the quality.  Seeing someone else who expresses a valued quality can be a rich resource for finding out how much is possible, and for finding out how you can also develop that quality. 

         However, if you don’t expect to have something in the future, and you compare yourself to the people who have it, this often results in dissatisfaction, envy, feeling inferior, etc.  So if someone is thinking about a valuable quality that they don’t expect to have in the future, and you work with them to change their belief of impossibility into possibility, that can transform envy, inferiority, and unhappiness into eager motivation, and that is a huge difference! 

         “What experiences and beliefs underlie your expectation of not having the quality in the future?  What is your evidence for this belief about yourself, and what evidence is there for the opposite belief that you could hope to achieve this quality at some time in the future?  When did you experience even a small degree of the quality, perhaps in an unusual situation, or perhaps long ago, or in a dream?  Can you think of a time when you thought you could never have something, and then later you surprised yourself? If you could have this quality, how would your life be different?”

         Once you have loosened up their belief about the possibility of having the quality, you can often proceed to either build the quality, as I did with Peter, or transform an ambiguous quality into the positive one that they want.

         Fred:  At a certain stage of life, some things may no longer be possible for someone, especially when there are physical limitations.

         Well, all of us always have physical limitations.  Remember that we are dealing with personal qualities. Although a quality affects what we do,  it primarily affects the way in which we do it. Even if there are major limitations in what we can do, we always have some range of choice in how we do it.  A quality like physical grace can be expressed in pole-vaulting, or with offering someone a slice of toast, and that is true of most qualities.

         Did anyone do something different that what we have discussed so far?

         Wendy:  When I thought of myself as “not kind,” all my counterexamples to kindness jumped out at me and became very prominent and overwhelmed the examples of kindness, so all I had left was cruelty.

         Melissa:  I started out with a movie of kindness, but then it turned into cruelty.

         So you both flipped from “not kind” to representations of being cruel, a negatively-valued quality. People have lots of different ways of responding to words of negation, so you really need to find out what they’re actually doing in their minds, and not assume that they are doing the same thing that you do.  I think we have discussed all the different possibilities, so these can guide your information gathering when you want to find out if someone is negating their internal experience.


         Since it is very difficult for us to think and talk about negations, we need to make a very clear distinction between the words that people use, and the internal representations that they make.  When someone says, “I’m not cruel,” they could be making images of being kind, which works fine.  Or they could be making images of cruelty and then negating them, or they could be doing both.

         When we think of ourselves as not having a quality that we don’t like, we set a process in motion that creates a division between our conscious and unconscious minds.  This becomes the foundation for an unacknowledged “shadow” self, a process that can ultimately lead to paranoia. The same process may also lead to multiple personality, if the shadow side is thought of as being inside the body, rather than outside.  Replacing the negation with a positive representation of who we are is easy in the earlier stages of this process, but much more difficult later.

         Negated representations of valued qualities can be very useful and valuable motivators, as long as we think it is possible to develop that quality at some future time.  If you don’t think it’s possible, this usually leads to envy and feelings of inferiority. Changing your belief from impossibility to possibility opens up a wide range of choices, from eager motivation to a decision that even though it’s possible, you don’t want to put in the effort required. If we really conclude that we can’t achieve a quality, it is much better to simply focus our attention on all the valued qualities that we do have.  We can admire and take pleasure in the unique and exceptional qualities that others have, and dispense with useless comparisons and negated representations of ourselves.

         Finally we have learned everything we need to know in order to make the most difficult and useful kind of self-concept change, transforming a quality that someone doesn’t like into its desired opposite. 

This is an excerpt from Real People Press‘ book

Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be“.