Transforming an Uncertain/Ambiguous Quality*

 by Steve Andreas


         Up to this point I have asked you to explore a quality that you know is true of yourself, and that you like. That specifies that it is a quality that is solid, and is in alignment with your values, so you already have a fairly extensive and effective database of examples, with relatively few counterexamples. This is the simplest situation for learning about the various process and content aspects of self-concept. Of course, what feels “solid” to one person might feel “very shaky” to another, so we have still encountered quite a range; some of you had considerably more counterexamples than others. Some of your “solid” qualities were actually somewhat ambiguous because of the large number of counterexamples, or because of the way that you represented your counterexamples.

        Now I want you to choose a different aspect of yourself, one that you feel ambiguous or uncertain about. Again I want you to pick a quality about which your values are clear; you know how you would like to be. For instance, sometimes you think you’re considerate, and sometimes you think of yourself as inconsiderate–or perhaps most of the time you are simply unsure about whether you are considerate or not, but you know that you would like to be considerate.

        When an aspect of yourself is ambiguous, that indicates that there is a roughly equal number of positive examples and counterexamples, and because of this, you can’t come to a firm conclusion. There could be a lot of each, or only a few of each. A more disturbing ambiguity will usually have many examples, or more intense examples on both sides. It is also possible that you have only a few counterexamples, but the way you represent them creates ambiguity because of the resulting intensity.

        Since you are unsure about this quality in yourself, it is unlikely that you feel good about it, so it probably doesn’t contribute much to your positive self-esteem. However, if you think that you should manifest this quality unambiguously, the fact that you don’t could result in low self-esteem.

        The last thing that we did with counterexamples was to group them, find the worst one, and then process that one in order to transform the group into positive examples, and then return them to your positive database. There are only two important differences between that situation and working with an ambiguous quality. One is that the ambiguous quality probably has a greater number of counterexamples, so it might take somewhat longer. However, if you know how to mow one lawn, you also know how to mow three lawns; it just takes longer. The other difference is that the positive side of your ambiguity may not already be in the form of a positive quality for you. Simply putting the database of that ambiguous quality into the form of the positive template will make it more convincing.

        The first thing that I want you all to do is to take a few minutes to examine how you represent this ambiguous quality in yourself. Find out how your database for this ambiguous quality is organized.

        * * * * *

        Just as when we explored counterexamples previously, there are three possibilities for the organization of your ambiguous database:

        1. Examples and counterexamples are integrated into the same database, using the same modality.

        2. Examples and counterexamples are represented in the same modality, but separately in different locations.

        3. Examples and counterexamples are represented in different modalities, and in different locations.

        First, I’d like to see by a show of hands how many of you found that your database fit the first possibility? About a third.

        And how many fit the second possibility? About half.

        And how many the third? Only a few.

        Did anyone have counterexamples in a different representational system, but in the same location? No. Although it is theoretically possible, no one who comes to seminars seems to do it, but perhaps someone out there does it, so it’s good to keep the possibility in mind. Perhaps they are all in mental hospitals or something.

        And how many of you had an ambiguous database that was already in the same form as your positive template? Only one. Usually the positive examples are not in the form of the positive template, and the first step is to put them in that form, because when they are in that form, they are most compelling to you.

        As before, one of the first things that you can do is examine the content of your counterexamples as we did before, and consider the possibility that some, or all, of the counterexamples might actually be examples of a different quality. In that case, we can divide this ambiguity into two separate generalizations. The positive examples would form the basis for the unambiguous positive quality, and the counterexamples, or a group of them, would form a basis for a different and separate quality.

        For instance, let’s say that your ambiguous quality was intelligence, and you find that all the counterexamples are situations in which you simply hadn’t had an opportunity to learn anything about a topic. Then you could think of all these “counterexamples” to intelligence as examples of situations in which you hadn’t yet had an opportunity to learn, or simple ignorance. Ignorance doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence, although many people confuse the two. This would resolve the ambiguity about the original quality, and clarify that there are certain situations in which your intelligence can’t be expressed well because of a lack of information.

        Of course, this process still usually leaves you with situations in which your intelligence can’t be expressed well, but this is simply one of those difficult situations we face in life. If it’s important to you, then you can seek out and learn the kind of information that will make it possible to be intelligent in those situations, too.

        This is another way of understanding and accomplishing the process called content reframing, finding a different “frame” of understanding for a certain set of experiences. By reexamining a generalization, you can find a different way of thinking about the same information, such that it is valued differently. Although most of my examples here are of changing a negative evaluation into a positive one, can also change a positive evaluation into a negative one, when someone doesn’t recognize that a quality has harmful consequences. Someone’s quality of being a “free spirit,” and “responding spontaneously,” can also be described as being irresponsible and thoughtless of others’ needs. Reframing can be a very rapid and effective way to transform the meaning of a group of experiences. Since this process has been described in great detail elsewhere, (12, Ch. 1) I won’t spend much time on it.

        Let’s say that you have already examined your counterexamples, and have separated some of them out as belonging to some other valued quality. The next thing to do is to process the counterexamples that remain, in order to transform them into examples of the positive quality.

        Since there still may be quite a lot of counterexamples, it will be even more useful to first gather them into groups before processing them. Transforming an ambiguous quality into a positive one is a significant change, so it requires particular attention to congruence. Although all the processing methods include steps that check for congruence, it is useful to begin with one about the overall process itself. “Does any part of me have any objection to having this positive quality unambiguously?”

        The last important element is to check to be sure that the final database containing both examples and transformed examples is represented in the same form and location as the positive template. Now I would like to demonstrate how to transform an ambiguous quality.

        Demonstration #1: Ambiguous Quality to Positive Quality

        So, Janice, there’s some quality that you are aware of, and you’re not sure if you have it or not. Is that right?

        Janice: That’s right.

        I’d rather you didn’t mention content, by the way, unless we get stuck somewhere, and then you can just whisper it to me. Mentioning content would distract others from following the process, so I want to be kind to them and withhold it. You have already worked with a quality that you were sure of and that you liked. Can you tell me a little bit about the structure of your positive template?

        Janice: I had sort of a collage of pictures here in front of me.

        OK. Fairly close, are they?

        Janice: Yes, quite close, about here. (She gestures about a foot in front of her face.)

        And tell me a little bit more. About how many images are there?

        Janice: Oh, lots.

        Lots. Hundreds?

        Janice: Probably. Lots of them.

        So then the pictures have to be fairly small.

        Janice: Yes.

        OK. And are they more or less rectangular?

        Janice: No, they’re kind of oval shaped.

        Ovals. And how about the overall shape of the collage–is it kind of an oval, as well?

        Janice: It’s kind of wavy.

        OK. Now, given that the pictures are fairly small, how do you access information from them?

                Janice: I can choose any one of them and step into it. It happens spontaneously.

        So it’s easy for you to associate into any of them. It’s very quick, you go into it, and it’s right there in front of you, right?

        Janice: Yeah.

        And when you see the whole collage, there’s probably no sound, but when you step into one, then you get the sound and the feelings.

        Janice: Yeah, it gets big. (She gestures broadly with her hands.)

        Usually the nonverbal gestures give you wonderful information that confirms what the person says. Occasionally they appear to disconfirm, and then you need to check more to find out what’s going on, or if something important has been left out. OK, this is the positive template, the structure that we want to end up with when we are done. And Janice, you know all the ways in which you improved this template earlier.

        If I were working with someone who didn’t know anything about what you have been learning, I would go through the list of all the different things that we’ve done, and make sure that they have all three perceptual positions, small chunks and large chunks of time, future examples, counterexamples, and all those other things that we have been working with. Since you have all done that, I can just demonstrate the overall pattern.

        Next, Janice, we need to know the structure of your ambiguous quality. I’d like to call the positive aspect of your ambiguous quality “Q,” just so I have a way of talking about it without mentioning content. And there’s also the negative aspect, the “not Q.” How do you represent the ambiguity at this moment?

        Janice: (looking up) Ummm, it’s in a grid.

        It looks like it’s higher, too.

        Janice: Yeah. I have quite a lot of examples of the positive. But equally as many negative.

        And are they in the same place? Tell me a bit more about your grid.

        Janice: It’s more rectangular, and the individual pictures are more rectangular. . . . And I’ve got it tied in with time. They mostly alternate–the negatives and the positives. Sometimes there can be a bunch of either one or the other. The negative ones are brighter.

        The negative ones are brighter. That probably makes them more prominent to you.

        Janice: Yes, I notice them more.

        When you say it has to do with time, does that mean that each image is later in time than the one next to it, in a sequence?

        Janice: Yeah.

        And they more or less alternate, right? So you get a plus, then a minus, then plus, then every once in a while you get a few minuses, and then maybe a few pluses or whatever. They’re organized by time, and the negatives ones are brighter. Are there any other difference between the negatives and the positives? How about size–they’re both rectangles?

        Janice: The negative ones are maybe a bit more three dimensional, like a relief.

        OK, Are there any other differences? . . .

        Janice: I think those are the key elements. With the negative ones, there’s more auditory.

        There’s more auditory with the negative ones.

        Janice: Yeah, there is some auditory. If there’s any auditory in the positive ones, it’s much quieter.

        Since the negative ones are brighter, more 3-D, and have auditory, I’d guess that you more often think of yourself as “not Q.” Does that fit for you? (Yes.)

        Before proceeding, I want you to do a thorough congruence check. Turn your attention inward, and ask if any part of you has any objection to your having Q as an unambiguous part of your identity. Be sensitive to any signal in any modality–Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic. . . .

        Janice: No, all I have is a nice expectancy, a kind of eagerness to go ahead, and that’s in all modalities.

        OK, fine. I noticed that your head and body also moved slightly forward, which is congruent with that. Next I want you to group all the negative ones and then examine them, to see if a group of them are actually examples of some other quality, because if so, then we can simply separate them from Q.

        Janice: No, I don’t think so.

        OK. There are a number of choices about what sequence we use to transform these negative ones into positive ones. I’m going to try one sequence, and if it doesn’t fit for you, you can let me know, and we’ll back up and do it a different way, because I want to make sure it’s comfortable for you. If at any time we do something that is at all uncomfortable, let me know, and we’ll try something else.

        I’d like you to start by just bringing this collage for the ambiguous quality down into the same space where the positive template is. It looks like they’re both about the same distance, right?

        Janice: Yeah.

        Try just bringing it down into the same space that the positive template occupies . . . and report back to me about how that works for you, and if that results in any other changes. . . .

        Janice: It gets softer.

        It gets softer. Did the images become more rounded? Does it take the form of the template–with the wavy rounded outside, and oval individual examples and counterexamples?

        Janice: Yeah. They become more random, as well. The distribution isn’t arranged by time any more.

        OK. Great. That sounds good to me. Notice how important location is. When Janice moved the grid down into the location of the positive template, several things happened spontaneously. The time sequencing disappeared, the positive and negative ones became more randomly oriented, the shape changed from rectangles into ovals. Often when you make a location change, many other things change spontaneously. And I always like to track that, so I know what’s happening. Is that comfortable for you?

        Janice: Yes, I like the softness.

        Now, I want you to see if you can find any other examples of positive Q that you could add in to that. They might all be in there already, but maybe you could find some other positive ones, other times when you have had that quality in the way that you would like. . . .

        Janice: I think I have most of them in there already.

        OK, fine. I’m doing what I can to make Q more like the positive template. Sometimes people go, “Oh! There’s this other one and that other one,” and so on, and then they can add more positive ones into it, which makes it even stronger.

        OK, now I’d like you to take a look at the the images of negative Q, the counterexamples. You said that now they are ovals. Are they still brighter? And 3-D with auditory and so on? Or has anything changed in that?

        Janice: I get auditory if I step into them. And, yes, they’re still brighter.

        OK. And how about the 3-D relief?

        Janice: Uhhh, no, they’re flat now.

        Now I want you to close your eyes and allow those counterexamples, the negative Q, to group themselves. Maybe they start moving or swimming around and end up grouping themselves into certain assemblages that have something in common. Perhaps it might be one group, perhaps it might be several, I don’t know. But they’ll group themselves somehow in terms of what they have in common. . . .

        Janice: There are a number of different commonalities between them. And yet in some ways they could also share those commonalities, so it could be, say, three descriptions that would–

        OK, so there are three criteria that are common to all of them?

        Janice: Yeah.

        Let’s try taking them all at once and see what happens. I’m lazy, so if we can do something that could change a whole bunch of experiences at once, I always like to try for it. And then if it doesn’t work, or there are some left over, then we can always work more with those. So you’re aware of how they all share these three criteria, is that right?

        Janice: Well, I think I can group the three criteria actually into one word.

        OK, so the three criteria can even be grouped into one word, so they all have this in common. Now, choose the most significant one of those counterexamples–the worst one that somehow symbolizes all the others, and represents of all of them.

        Janice: Could I take two?

        Sure. Take two if you want. And now do some kind of transformation with them. I would transform them one at a time, probably, but do whatever is easiest for you. Start by trying simple videotape-editing. If you were to go through that kind of experience again, what would you like to do differently that would be an example of positive Q? You don’t need to tell me about it. Just let me know if you need any assistance in transforming those two examples.

        Janice: Well, in both situations there’s another person involved . . . who is implanting the negative aspect.

        OK. So what resources would you need to be able to comfortably deal with that situation in which this other person is behaving in a way that’s difficult for you? If you run into any difficulties, let me know, and I’ll offer you more specific instructions. . . .

        If I were working with someone who didn’t know anything about change processes, of course I would need to do much more, and I probably wouldn’t do it content-free. I would need to know something about the content of this one word that encapsulates the three words, which describe what is common to all the counterexamples. At this point, it’s a matter of using any change technique at your disposal to assist someone in transforming the counterexamples into positive examples.

        Janice: I am having a bit of difficulty in finding resources to deal with it.

        OK. Can you think of someone else that you know, or you’ve heard of, or seen in movies or something, who has that kind of resource? Someone who can deal with that kind of situation in a way that you consider resourceful and appropriate. . . .

        Janice: OK.

        So have you got it the way you want it? Have you done both of them?

        Janice: Yes, I’ve done both of them.

        So now you have two representations of positive Q that have been transformed from the negative. We said these were to represent all the others, so I want you to check several of the other negative ones, and see if they are transformed, or if we have some further work to do.

        Janice: Mmhm.

        Are they all different, too?

        Janice: They’re not as bright.

        That’s probably a good indication. I want you to pick any one of them and step into it, and find out if it is transformed, or if is it still a negative example. Doing change work on a group of experiences usually transfers to all of the examples, but I like to check to make sure.

        Janice: Should these feel all like the positive Q?

        Uh huh.

        Janice: (hesitating) Well, they’re not negative. Even the ones that I deliberately transformed are less negative, but they’re not–

        OK. Now, that’s an indication to me that you need an additional resource, because we want these to be fun, not just less negative. Maybe “fun” is the wrong word. But, we want them to be really positive, not just “OK.”

        Janice: “Fun” sounds good.

        If it fits for you, that’s wonderful. But whatever resource you add, we want these experiences to end up being so positive that no matter what happens out there in the real world, you’re “bullet-proof,” and you can take great pleasure in that. So maybe you need to search for another resource. Maybe fun, maybe humor–that is a wonderful resource–or some kind of enjoyment.

        And since you said this has to do with another person, I’m going to suggest a couple of things, without knowing anything about the content. Sometimes it can be very helpful to have some compassion for them, and to realize that their negative behavior is just what they’re doing out of their own unhappiness, or their own limitations, or family history, or whatever. In other words, what they’re saying or doing is not really about you–it’s about them.

        Janice: Mmhm.

        Are they positive examples now? (Yeah.) Great. Now check some of the others to make sure they’re also positive now. (Yes.) Great. Are there any leftovers? (No.) When you look at them, do you have some way of knowing which ones are transformed and which ones really happened.

        Janice: Yes, the transformed ones are smaller.

        OK. And they’re not as bright now, is that right? (Yes.) OK. Now, I want to ask you about them being smaller. I’m a little concerned that by making them smaller you would be deemphasizing them. Those transformed examples could be even more valuable as a direction for you in how you want to be in your life than the original examples, because they represent how you can exhibit that quality in situations where you previously couldn’t. I suggest that you consider color coding them in some way to indicate that they were transformed from counterexamples, so that they could be the same size as the others.

        Janice: In the positive template, the counterexamples are turquoise, so I could use that color.

        That sounds fine. Go ahead and do that, and then see if it is OK to have the transformed ones be the same size as the originals.

        Janice: Yes, that works.

        Now I’d like you to compare what you have assembled with the original positive template, and find out if you notice any differences.

        Janice: The only difference I see is that the positive template has those turquoise counterexamples that haven’t been transformed.

        Oh, you still have counterexamples there? Counterexamples are useful, but they are relatively crude, so my preference would be for you to take the counterexamples that are now turquoise in the original positive template and transform them into examples in the same way that you did the others.

        Janice: OK. Mmhm.

        Take a minute to do that.

        Janice: It’s done.

        It’s done already. OK, fine. Sometimes people are fast, and jump ahead. So now if you compare Q with the positive template, are they the same structurally? (Mmhm.) Now I want you to check to be sure that Q is an appropriate name for this database we have just created, or if some other name would fit better.

        Janice: Q is fine.

        OK, great. Open your eyes. Are you a Q person?

        Janice: Hmm! (slightly surprised) I am a Q person. (she laughs)

        Can you say anything about how you feel about that?

        Janice: Very positive.

        And if you look back and compare what you’re experiencing now with what you experienced 15 minutes ago? . . .

        Janice: It’s hard to remember. (laughing) It feels much stronger.

        If you examine one of the transformed examples, they used to have a lot of auditory in them. If you step into one of those, does it still have a lot of auditory, or is it different?

        Janice: It has the auditory, but it’s much softer and kinder.

        OK, so the tonality of the voices or the sounds has shifted.

        Janice: Yes. And it doesn’t “get me” emotionally in the same way.

        Great. When I ask questions like this, I am also testing, to be sure that the changes are complete. Janice, I want you to check again to find out if any part of you has any objection to the changes we have made? . . .

        Janice: I just have a little happy bubbly feeling all over, so I’m pretty sure the answer is “No.”

        Do you have any questions for Janice about her experience of doing this? Save any questions about the process for me.

        Fran: How did it feel when you were changing?

        Janice: Much easier than I anticipated. It was primarily visual. Because I only had the auditory if I stepped into a picture, what was going on was really just visual. When I grouped them together and looked at what could be their positive intent, there was a sense of relaxation when I recognized that there was a positive quality to the negative. So that was a sort of a “Whew!” feeling. And then when they were transformed, it just felt good. But primarily it was visual.

        Are there any other questions for Janice? . . . Thanks very much. Do you have any questions for me about the process?

        Tess: I’m wondering why you got all the information about the positive template and the ambiguous quality first, before asking about congruence? Why not ask about congruence right at the beginning?

        If you do a congruence check right at the beginning, there is some danger that the change we are proposing might be unclear, and that muddies the communication. A part of the person that might actually object to it might not realize it, and a part that wouldn’t actually object to the change might be worried and think that it did have an objection. By gathering all that information first, I set the stage for the check, so that every part of the person knows exactly what we’re proposing to do. “We’re planning to make this ambiguous quality just like that positive template.” That’s a very clear and specific communication that makes sure that we get any real objections, and not have to deal with concerns that are only due to vague communication.

        Fred: I still wonder about making all these transformations. If all I had is transformed examples, I might forget all the mistakes that I made in the past, and the way I thought of myself would be kind of a lie, because I didn’t actually do all those things.

        Well, there are several related issues here that I’d like to respond to. The first is that if you are concerned about forgetting past mistakes, make sure that you include the counterexample linked to its transformation, or color code the transformed examples the way Janice did. If you include the counterexample itself, then you have all that information about how you made mistakes in the past available to you. If you code the transformed examples in some way, that indicates that you made mistakes in the past, but omits the detailed information about how it occurred.

        The second point I want to make is that a transformed quality might be a lie with regard to the past, but it’s a truth with regard to the future. Remember that your self-concept is a feed-forward system that creates how you want to be in the future. In one sense, NASA’s moon program was a lie for years until it actually put a man on the moon. If you have made effective transformations of past mistakes, they will result in your actually being different in future situations, and that is the truth that matters.

        In order to understand behavior, psychology and psychiatry has searched for cause-effect relationships in people’s lives, and that has produced a lot of useful information. However, sometimes that gets warped into the idea that we are only products of our past, or completely trapped and determined by our past experiences. We also have feed-forward systems, in which our goals in the present determine our future–and the self-concept is the most powerful one that I know of. If you didn’t utilize your self-concept in order to change your future, then you would be trapped by your past.

        Alice: Janice’s ambiguous quality was in the same visual representational system as her positive template, but in a different location. What if the ambiguous quality was in the auditory or kinesthetic system, as well as being divided in different locations?

        OK, let’s assume that the positive template is visual, and the ambiguous quality is divided between the positive auditory examples and negative kinesthetic examples. I would first take the positive auditory ones, and change them into visual images, and then put them into the template, because that gives you a head start on creating the positive quality.

        Then I’d take the negative kinesthetic ones and change them to visual images, examine them, group them, and transform them into positive examples, and put them into the template. However, if that wasn’t comfortable, I’d try something else. When you keep your eventual outcome clearly in mind, you can vary how you get there.

        For instance, I might first try just moving the entire ambiguous representation into the location of the positive template, as I did with Janice, to see if the examples would automatically change into visual images. I wouldn’t count on that working, but it might. Rather than talk about it, let’s demonstrate. Who has an ambiguous quality that’s in a different modality and in different locations?

        Demonstration #2: Ambiguous Quality to Positive Quality

        Bruce: My positive template is basically like a screen of televisions, and my counterexamples are like smaller flatter televisions within that, a little lower. There are three of them, and they are meshed in.

        OK. So you’ve got a display of larger TVs, and every once in a while you get a little one that has a counterexample in it, and you were gesturing a couple of feet in front of you. So this is what we want to end up with. Now tell me how your ambiguous quality is represented.

        Bruce: Well, there are sequential images, a bit to the right. They’re actually quite small, but about the same distance, about two feet. A picture flashes up of how I would like to be, the times when I’m that way, the positive ones, and that gives me an auditory, “That’s great.” Then I get a feeling that contradicts that image, and then an auditory that goes with that, and then I get a second kinesthetic feeling of heaviness, of settling down.

        So the first image and voice is the positive image and then you get the contradictory feeling, that has an auditory with it. What does that auditory say?

        Bruce: It says, “I can’t be bothered. It’s too much effort.”

        Do you believe the “too much effort”?

        Bruce: Yeah, it just seems to be–I could get over it, but unless I had a really strong outcome, it’s just too much of a struggle.

        OK. I want to say something, just in case it might be relevant. I said I wanted an ambiguity where the values are really clear, and it’s possible that your values are not clear on this. You might think, “Oh yeah, I’d like to be this way all the time,” but it might actually be too much effort, “Well, you know, it’s really not worth it.” I just want to raise that possibility for you to consider. Do you have any response to that?

        Bruce: I would like this particular quality to kick in sooner. It does eventually, but it has to kind of to go through a threshold when the situation around me escalates, then I have to kick into that quality.

        OK. So it’s a little bit too slow for you; you have to reach a threshold, and it’s effortful. These are some of the criteria that we probably will want to use when we transform counterexamples. The reason they are counterexamples are because of the slowness in reaching threshold, and the effort. There might be more, but this is at least some of the content information that would be relevant.

        We’ve got the basic structure of the ambiguous quality. Now it’s time for a congruence check. Close your eyes and ask, “Is there any part of me that has any objection to having this as an unambiguous positive quality?” You wouldn’t have to go through the effort of reaching threshold, it would be quick and automatic. You always have the choice of exhibiting it or not, but it could be right at your fingertips, immediately available, just as with all the other positive qualities that you have. Given all that, do you have any objections?

        Bruce: No.

        OK, that looks good. The first thing I want you to do is take a positive example, one of those pictures that flashes, and represent it in this template. Make it into one of those TV screens. . . . You’re taking a little while to do that. Is it difficult?

        Bruce: Mmhmm.

        What makes it difficult?

        Bruce: As soon as I start to get a positive example of demonstrating this quality, I get a “but–” right away.

        OK, great. I apologize; let me adjust my instruction a little bit. I want you to take one of these units that includes both the positive and the negative. The positive is already an image, so that already fits the positive template. Take the kinesthetic that follows and the auditory that goes with that, and transform those into a visual image. What is that feeling about? What is that voice about? Trace it back from the voice and the kinesthetic to get a visual image of what that counterexample is. . . .

        Bruce: I saw two things. One is me just kind of slumped in a chair, and the other one is actually an image of my father making passing comments on a series of things that I’ve done, but always adding in, “but you could have also done this as well.”

        OK, we’re getting into content a bit more than I like for a demonstration. Pick either one of those images–or both if you want–and then take this unit that includes both the positive and the negative images, and represent it up here in the form of the template, so that you have the positive on the big TV screen, and the counterexample a bit lower in a small screen. . . .

        Bruce: Now the “but” is easier to ignore. I know it is there, but it’s more matter-of-fact. That makes it much easier

        Great. Now it has less impact on you. I apologize for making it hard for you at first. Usually they aren’t linked in the way you have them. Now take another one and do the same thing. . . .

        OK, do you have several up there? Do you have your screen pretty much full?

        Bruce: I’m still filling in a few more examples.

        OK, take a couple of minutes, or whatever time it takes, to get a few more, until it’s the same as your positive template. Initially there may be more counterexamples than you’d like, but at least the form will be the same, with the larger screens for examples, and the smaller ones for counterexamples. . . .

        Now, I want you to examine the counterexamples to find out what’s similar about them. Given what you said about the first one involving your father, It sounds like they might have to do with somebody else’s opinion.

        Bruce: I think that the common central theme is disappointment. I disappointed myself by disappointing somebody else. Having squashed those counterexamples down, it sort of changed the meaning of those pictures. Now it’s more about, “Why did I put so much pressure on myself to do these things?”

        OK. Now take the worst one, and think about out what you would have liked to do in that situation, and what resource would allow you to transform it into what you want. From what you’ve said, it sounds like a little bit of evaluation might be helpful. Perhaps taking time to step back out of the situation for a moment to consider, “Is this something I want, or is this something somebody else wants?” Consider what resource would be useful, and then transform the worst one, and check to see if the rest are also transformed. . . .

        Bruce: Yep.

        Are there any counterexamples left?

        Bruce: The counterexamples are now more just feedback opportunities that I can use, instead of straightaway going to the pain, the “beating myself up.” If I can have it as an image, then I can look at it and I can go, “What can I dismiss from this particular opinion that’s coming at me, and what can I take as something valuable to use.”

        OK. That sounds great to me. Unless you want to go straight for the bad feeling?

        Bruce: No, I don’t think so. No.

        Making a little joke like this can actually be quite useful. When I say, “Well, you can always do the old thing,” and they go, “Well, I don’t think I want to do that,” it kind of locks in the change a little bit. “No way! No, I don’t want to do that.”

        Bruce: This works a lot better.

        Are there any other remaining counterexamples?

        Bruce: No. The ones that really sort of stuck out are all taken care of.

        OK, great. Is your name for this quality still appropriate? Given that you’ve made some changes and some transformations, it could be that the name is a little archaic and needs a little update.

        Bruce: Well, the word is still fine, but the meaning of the quality has changed for me. Before it was a very digital representation, and now there’s a whole range of other ways to demonstrate this quality that I never even thought of before.

        Interesting. How did you get all these other ways of demonstrating the quality?

        Bruce: Well, now that it is a way of being, I can just behave, rather than have to do it so intensely.

        I see. Before you had this need to have it intensely because of the ambiguity? (Yes.) OK. Now I want you to imagine going into the future. Think of a time that you might encounter one of these situations where this quality would be particularly useful, and just step into that and find out what it’s like. . .

        That looks pretty satisfactory; you’re nodding your head. Do you have any objections to that? . . .

        Bruce: No, it’s fine.

        From your present position, looking back on when you were ambiguous about this quality, what do you notice about the difference between those two experiences?

        Bruce: Well the first thing that comes to mind is that sense in my body, that I have had to battle a lot of the time–I’m not going to have to do that any more. That heaviness that I had in the past is not there. And the tension through the shoulders that I usually have is gone. Instead I’ve got a nice energetic movement, a slight swirling through the middle of my back,.

        Do you notice anything in the auditory system?

        Bruce: I’m neither having to “coach” myself one way or the other–either talk myself into demonstrating this quality, or talk myself out of it.

        OK. Do you have this quality?

        Bruce: (quickly) Yes. Yes.

        That looks good to me–a nice quick and congruent response.

        OK, do you have any questions of Bruce? Keep any questions for me for later.

        Sally: Do you feel confident of that?

        Bruce: Yeah. I am confident. What lets me know that is the lack of auditory. I don’t feel the need to talk myself into one way or the other. I just will be that way. It’s not like “trumpets” or anything like that going on inside, because there’s no need for that kind of intensity. It’s just quite quiet, and very matter-of-fact.

        That’s a very nice answer, and that’s exactly what you want to hear at this point. If you do hear “trumpets,” that means that they still feel ambiguous about the quality. For example, what if you went up to a door and as you opened it, you announced to everybody, “I can open the door!” That might be appropriate for a small child who has just learned how to do it, but it would be pretty ridiculous for an adult. When people are uncertain about something, they typically have that quality of being too strong, too much, too conscious of it. When you presuppose an ability, you don’t even think about it, you just do it.

        A lot of people think that confidence is like the “trumpets” that Bruce mentioned, and a lot of politicians and motivational speakers talk like that. For a lot of people that is very convincing, because they don’t realize that overconfidence is actually a sign of uncertainty. Bruce’s answer is great. “I don’t have to talk myself into it, I don’t have to talk myself out of it. I just do it. That tells you that now it is simply and solidly a part of his identity.

        Thanks very much, Bruce. Now do you have any questions for me?

        Stan: I really like the idea of testing your work by looking back and comparing after making a change. Can you say a little more about that?

        Sure. That accomplishes several things simultaneously, and some of them aren’t obvious. The overt question is to gather information about what is different, to be sure that the changes are in line with what we’re trying to accomplish. However, I’m also presupposing that there will be differences; if there weren’t any, of course that would be clear evidence that we need to do more. Bruce was very eloquent about the shifts in his physiology. The internal auditory battle and the heaviness and tension in his shoulders is gone, and now he has a nice energetic movement in his back.

        But asking him to look back is also a way to consolidate the change, because it presupposes that he fully associates into the present and dissociates from how he was. I’m also expecting that the present state is more satisfying than the old one, and listening for any possible indication to the contrary. So there is quite a lot going on in that simple instruction–so much that it’s pretty unlikely that someone could track it all and consciously fake a response that they’d like to have, but don’t really feel.

        Lois: When you transform an ambiguous quality into a positive one, how can you be sure that it will fit in with all the other qualities of the person?

        Remember that I specified at the beginning that your values were clear–that you know that you want to be like the positive side of the ambiguity. That presupposes that you have already gone through a process of thinking about it, and have concluded that’s how you want to be.

        However, just because I asked you to choose a quality for which your values are clear, that doesn’t mean that they necessarily are. When you examine the examples and the counterexamples carefully, you might discover that your values actually aren’t clear. If you’re not clear about what you want, it’s totally appropriate to feel ambiguous about a quality. You would have to clarify your values first, and decide what you want to do. Earlier I made a few suggestions about how to do that. Usually the most useful thing you can do is to experience specific situations to find out what you value, rather than trying to figure it out intellectually.

        Andy: It seems to me that what we have been calling an ambiguity is the same as what has often been called a “polarity,” so I keep thinking of other ways that I have learned for working with polarities, like internal negotiation between the two sides, or the “Visual Squash,” in which the two representations are moved together into the same space with the hands, and I’d like you to comment on those methods.

        Yes, polarity and ambiguity are two names for the same thing, as far as I’m concerned. We could speak of “one part of you” that believes that you have the quality, while “another part” believes the opposite. I agree that there are older NLP methods that can be used to integrate them, and one example is the Visual Squash. Although these methods are quite powerful and effective, they are also very crude, because we don’t have much chance to gather detailed information about either side, and that makes it difficult to make detailed predictions about the results of the integration.

        Another problem with simply integrating the two sides of a polarity is that it all happens at once–all the examples and counterexamples of both sides are slammed together at a moment in time–rather like instantly moving two very different households full of furniture together into one house. That is why most people require a good deal of time for integration afterwards. It take a while to sort out the mess and make it livable–to decide what furniture goes where, what to store in the attic, and what to sell or give to a thrift store, etc.

        When you transform and integrate counterexamples one at a time, or in groups of similar ones, you have much better information about the content of your examples and counterexamples. That allows you to carefully consider the best kind of resource and transformation, and your internal ecology. Rather than just anchoring the two polarities and slamming them together, you take one counterexample at a time (or a group of similar ones) transform it first, and then cautiously integrate it.

        If there is some objection, we back up and find out what we need to do first in order to make it easy. This makes the process much more detailed, elegant, and less disruptive, and it requires very little time for integration and sorting things out later. Doing this kind of process is a lot less dramatic than the visual squash, but it is also a lot gentler and thorough, and much more respectful of all parts of the person.

        Follow-up Report

        Now I want to offer you a follow-up that I got from a participant a week after she had worked on being healthy, which had been ambiguous for her:

        (indent quote)

        “There would be pockets of time when I would be healthy, when I would eat really well and exercise regularly. But more often I wouldn’t eat properly and I wouldn’t get enough sleep, and I wouldn’t be healthy. I tended to sit down at my computer and just work until I was absolutely starving and then I’d have to grab from whatever was in the fridge that only took five minutes to prepare. And then I wouldn’t do any of the exercise either, because I’d be busy doing work, and I also wasn’t sleeping enough.

        “So I revised those counterexamples to what I wanted instead. I took your advice of looking at the entire scope of the day. Instead of just the moment when ‘I’m starving what do I about it?’ looking at replanning my whole day. ‘A healthy person eats regular meals, they make time for exercise, and preparing food.’ And then I also looked at a span of a whole week and thought, ‘Well, whether I do all the work in one hit, or whether or do it over a week, it’s exactly the same. The work gets done, the outcome is the same, so why don’t I just pepper in all these other things?’ I also added in other resources of creativity and sensuality, so that cooking can be creative and sensual and more fun for me.

        “So all those counterexamples became healthy examples, and since then it’s been fabulous! I’m on automatic pilot now with being healthier. Now when I hit 9:00, I realize I need to have breakfast. And then when I’m at the computer or doing something else, I now say to myself, ‘OK, well I’ve done this for a couple of hours,’ so I’ll stop and say, ‘OK, well I’ve gotta go prepare something.’ Or I’ll say ‘OK, well let’s go for a walk,’ or I’ll go play in the garden. It’s just all automatic; it just happens. I don’t have to really think about it. It’s just like a clock goes on in me and says, ‘OK, time to switch.’ That never happened before, and it’s lovely. I really like the idea of doing change work using that larger scope of time, rather than a single experience. That was incredibly helpful for me.”

        I want to point out that previously she had imposed a rigid hierarchy on herself by continuing to work at the computer while ignoring her need for food–until she was “starving” and had to pay attention to it. Her resolution respects the natural heterarchy of her various different needs.

        Now I want you to pair up and take turns practicing this process with each other. An ambiguous quality will usually have a fairly large number of counterexamples, so it is likely that there are some other important outcomes that have to be respected. That makes it more likely that there may be objections to transforming the counterexamples, and it may take a bit more change work to make it congruent.

        I want you to work primarily by yourselves, but I still want you to be in pairs, in case one of you needs some assistance, and also to share experiences afterward. Those of you who are therapists might prefer to guide each other through this process: one of you can be a client with a troubling ambiguous quality, and one of you to be the change agent, and then switch.

        * * * * *

        _______________(Exercise outline on a separate page)

        Exercise 10 Transforming an Ambiguous Quality into a Positive One. (pairs, 20 minutes each)

        Pick an aspect of yourself that is ambiguous–sometimes you think you’re “X,” sometimes you think you’re not “X,” and you know how you’d like to be–your values are clear. The steps below are a suggested sequence. A different sequence may work better for a given person. Keep the eventual outcome in mind, while respecting the individual’s needs.

        1. Positive template. Elicit the structure/process that you use to represent a positive quality that you like. (What you have already been doing.)

        2. 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 modalities, future examples, other perceptual positions, processing counterexamples, etc. (Again, you have already been doing this.)

        3. Elicit the structure/process of the ambiguous quality. How do you represent the examples and counterexamples of this quality?

        4. Congruence check. “Does any part of you have any objection to having this quality as an unambiguous positive part of your self-concept?” Satisfy any/all objections, through reframing, redefining the quality, accessing resources, building behavioral competence, etc. before proceeding.

        5. Represent examples in the form of the positive template. If your positive examples are not already in the form of the positive template, shift them into that form.

        6. Examine counterexamples (or a group of them), to find if they actually represent a different quality that can be named appropriately, and separated from the original quality.

        7. Group and transform any remaining counterexamples into examples of the quality, and place them into the database with the other examples.

        8. Check summary. Review your name for this quality to be sure it is appropriate for the modified database.

        9. Looking back. Looking back at your previous experience, what differences do you notice between what you are experiencing now and what you experienced before?

        10. Testing. “Are you____?” Observe nonverbal responses.

        11. Congruence check. Again check for congruence with the work that has been done. “Does any part of you have any objection to the changes that you have made?” Satisfy any/all objections.

        Do you have any questions or comments?

        Frank: I’d like to report what mine was like. My positive template is represented here in front of me at eye level, and a little to my left, about a foot away. There’s a big picture here, almost in front of me, and then a couple of small ones to the left of that one, that are sort of “backups,” ready to take the place of the big one whenever I need it. The rest of my database is in a vertical arc that passes between the big one and the two smaller ones. When I focus on any image in the database, it moves up here where the big image is, and then when I’m done with it, it moves back, and then one of the smaller ones moves over to take its place. My ambiguous quality had the same kind of structure, but the two backup images were blank, and when I searched for examples in the database, there were also a lot of blanks. There were a few positive examples, and a few negatives, but mostly it was just a lot of empty frames where examples ought to be. So I just searched for positive examples and put them into those empty frames until they were all full, and then transformed the counterexamples.

        Great. So that was actually very similar to building a quality–assembling positive examples in the form of the positive template.

        Demie: My positive template is a collage of slides, about a foot away, about six rows and six columns, with bright light behind, and they are all positive examples. If I bring in a counterexample, it always goes right into the middle, where it’s surrounded by positives. The slides go out of the display on my left side, and circle around behind me into a storage bank, and then they come in again on my right side when I need them. But in my ambiguous quality, all the slides in the three rows on my left side were negative, and all the ones on the right were positive. I felt so awful looking at it, I didn’t have a clue what to do. My partner looked at the way the slides in my positive template rotated around behind me, and suggested that I move the whole collage to my left, so that all the negatives could go into storage, while more positives could come in on the right. I couldn’t believe how simple that was, and how relieved I felt. Then I could bring one negative at a time into the center and transform it. When I was done with that, I was crying, because it was so nice to know that I had that quality.

        In these two examples the ambiguous quality was organized in a way that was very similar to the positive template, and that made it much easier to transform it into a positive quality. It’s not always that easy, but sometimes it is. What you can say about the experience of having had an ambiguous quality from this new perspective.

        Demie: It’s like looking at a stranger. I don’t know how I could have felt so bad.

        Frank: The main thing I noticed was very similar to what Bruce said. I feel much more comfortable now that the ambiguity is resolved, because I don’t have that back-and-forth doubt. I don’t feel any need to tell anyone about the positive side of it, whereas before I did. And because I wanted to cover up my own uncertainty, I came across too strong.

        I talked about this before, but it is so important that I want to say even more about it. When I described the criteria for an effective self-concept earlier, one of them was that it be free of the self-importance, egotism, and superiority that results from consciously comparing yourself with others.

        I want you all to think of some situation in which you felt uncertain about your ability to meet some important challenge, like a job interview, or a date with an awesome person. Most of us tend to tense up, and struggle to look more confident and capable than we actually feel, and our behavior is likely to have this too much quality.

        It takes a lot of time and effort to maintain a false self, particularly when you include all it takes to buy and maintain the fancy car, big house, etc. that someone needs to have to support their self-importance, even when they weren’t inherently enjoyable. And this is often true of social “rebels” as well. I knew one guru “wanna be” who spent hours making sure that his hair had the Baba Ram Dass look, and a punker once told me that it took a couple of hours to color and set his spiked hair each day. If someone truly enjoys any of those activities, I have no argument, but if it is primarily to announce their identity to the world, I think that they could probably spend that time in ways that they enjoy more.

        A false self is usually created in response to accepting some sort of social demand or ideal. Thinking that you “should” be a certain way, rather than how you are, is a good way to make your life “Shoulddy.” Some people create a false self out of social expedience, while retaining a strong sense of who they really are. Others may get so involved in maintaining their false self that they lose awareness of who they are, and it’s all too easy to slip from expedience to denial.

        Curiously, many spiritual paths or self-improvement programs often become yet another set of “shoulds” to be imitated in the competition for status within those groups. Back in the ’60’s, with its emphasis on being in the “here and now,” there was a syndrome that could be described as “Nower than thou,” which actually put people clearly in the “there and then,”of self-importance. Social and political groups are often led by egotists who bolster their own uncertainty by by becoming expert leaders or gurus, and many of their followers do the same by identifying with the guru’s charisma and success.

        At some level, someone with a false self–and we all have some of it–realizes that it isn’t real, and that creates yet another trap. When someone responds to a false self, that means that the response isn’t really to the person, but only to the false image, so you can’t enjoy it. That is the source of a lot of loneliness, which is most obvious in movie stars, politicians, or other famous people who work at creating an image, and then find it hard to believe that anyone could love the person behind the image.

        Many people think pride is a good thing, despite what the Bible and many other spiritual sources clearly say. Like its opposite, shame, pride always involves comparing yourself to someone else, and being either better than, or worse than them. Pride and self-importance are signs of a shaky self-concept, one that can easily flip to its opposite, shame and unimportance. When things go well, an egotist is glad to take responsibility for it, but when things go badly, suddenly it’s someone else’s fault. “Scratch a braggart and find a complainer.” Curiously, even humility can be a source of pride, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge pointed out a couple of hundred years ago:

        (indented quote)

        “. . . the devil did grin, for his darling sin

        Is pride that apes humility.”

        When someone feels insecure about a quality, they take any challenge to it very seriously, and will respond defensively and do almost anything to restore their sense of importance. One example of this is a “macho” male who struts and brags about his manhood, and who will take offense at the slightest word or action that appears to challenge it, and has to respond, often with violence, sometimes even to the point of killing the offender. What a trap!

        Men in trouble with the law are often in this situation, though not many are willing to admit to it, since admitting to it would also be a challenge to their image or status. Many prisoners have such an inflated and unrealistic way of thinking about themselves that they completely believe that the only reason they are in prison is that someone made a clerical error. “It’s all a terrible mistake.” It’s no accident that pride and envy are among the seven deadly sins in Christianity. In the old Greek version they were understood to be the worst, and the ones from which all the others spring.. Anger, another of the deadly sins, is seldom in response to actual physical harm or danger. Most anger and violence is in response to criticism, insult, disrespect, or some other challenge to someone’s self-importance, or what is often called ego.

        Many people believe that anger is in response to hurt, and at one level, that’s true. But hurt is usually in response to some kind of disrespect, an injury to how someone thinks of themselves. In the 60’s movie The Russians are coming, as Alan Arkin (a Russian) climbs out of a bullet-riddled Volkswagen, he says, “My dignity only is injured.”

        When our expectations are not met, there is always a loss, and the first response to loss is disappointment and sadness. This feeling is often so immediately and completely overshadowed by anger and other attempts to avenge or repair the pride of the damaged ego, that the sadness is not noticed. Sir Walter Scott said it well over 200 years ago:

        “Vengeance, deep brooding o’er the slain,

        Had lock’d the source of softer woe;

        And burning pride and high disdain

        Forbade the rising tear to flow.”

        When something terrible happens, sadness is a more basic feeling, and usually a much better place to start problem solving than pride, anger, and vengeance.

        There are many other much subtler signs of self-importance and egotism. A friend of mine often used to comment on food by saying things like, “That was such a good steak.” It took me a while to realize that she was not really talking about the steak! The steak was just a convenient way to brag about herself and her exquisitely superior taste discrimination. Often people are talking much more about themselves than they are about the apparent topic of conversation, so you can gather a lot of useful information without asking any questions.

        Whenever you observe pride or self-importance, that is an opportunity to resolve an ambiguity using this process. A stable self-concept can only be based on who you are, and the satisfactions of living a life that exemplifies your values, without comparing yourself to others. When your self-concept is solidly based on your own experience, then no one can take it away, and you are safe from disrespect, humiliation, anger and hurt–and all the turmoil and suffering that results from it. When Buddhism and many other spiritual traditions advocate eliminating the self, I think what they really mean is eliminating the egotism that results from ambiguity. By transforming an ambiguous quality into a positive one, this egotism is eliminated.

        Sarah: When you talk about the macho male, and others who aren’t willing to acknowledge tenderness and tears, etc., I think of the approaches that advocate accepting your “dark side” or “shadow” self, as a way to become a more whole and complete human being.

        Yes, when someone consciously identifies with one side of an ambiguity, often because of rigid and absolute social or religious beliefs, they often disidentify with the opposite, which becomes a kind of hidden “shadow”self. Because of our society’s sex-role stereotypes, the shadow self for a male in our society is likely to include the things that you mention, while for a woman it is likely to be things like assertiveness, anger, power, etc. Some people think of the shadow self as being evil or dangerous, and it does often include unacknowledged anger, aggression, and other natural, though troublesome, responses. But often it also includes very wonderful and valuable qualities that are unacknowledged because they don’t fit the social stereotypes. I will have more to say about the shadow self soon, but I want to wait until some other understandings are in place.


        You have learned how to transform an ambiguous quality of self-concept into a positive one, using two major processes. One is to place the positive examples into the form of the positive template, which may require changing the modality of the examples. The other is to transform counterexamples, so that they become examples of how you want to be, and then add them into the positive template. There are several steps in this process of transformation. You group counterexamples, transform the worst one of the group, check the rest of the group to be sure that they are also transformed, and then place them into the positive template.

        The very same process can be used to transform a negatively-valued quality into a positive one. Although this is often the most difficult kind of self-concept intervention, it is also the one with the most profound benefits.

        But before we do that, I want to explore a different and much simpler kind of negative self-concept, in which the representations of the summary and the database are negated. In what I have called the “not-self,” someone defines themselves by what they are not, rather than by what they are. This is very different from the negation of not liking how they think of themselves. The “not-self” can be either the easiest, or the most difficult to change, depending on how extensively someone has become embedded in it.

This is an excerpt from Real People Press’ book “Transforming Your Self: becoming who you want to be“.

Return to the Transforming Your Self workshop description