Using NLP to Help a Panicked Client
“People don’t come to therapy for explanations; they come for experience.”
We’ve all seen clients who suffer from debilitating and obstructive feelings of uncertainty: “I don’t know what to do with my life,” “I don’t know whether to stay or go,” “I can’t motivate myself.” But sometimes the problem is that people are so certain of a particularly paralyzing perception of themselves or the world—“I can’t make it on my own,” “No one else will ever love me,” “My life is over”—that they can’t take productive action to improve the quality of their life. In such cases, reducing certainty can be an essential first step in working effectively with a presenting problem, or even defusing it completely.
I view certainty, like all our feelings, as an internal experience composed of images, sounds, feelings, and thoughts. The principal element in creating certainty is the vividness and clarity of that internal experience. An experience that’s remembered as a large, close, colorful, panoramic image with intense sound will feel much more certain than one that’s remembered as a small, distant, colorless, flat picture with no sound. The link between the intensity of the emotional and visual imagery and the resulting certainty is true of both lasting traumatic memories and positive imprints—those special life-changing memories that sustain us through difficult times.
If you’ve ever tried to change someone’s mind when they’re certain about something, you’ve probably discovered how futile that can be, even when they’re consciously agreeing with you. Someone who’s phobic of water may agree with you that the water in a bathtub isn’t dangerous, but her vivid memory of a near-drowning experience reinforces her fear, and all your logic won’t change that. A phobic client must be able to change her image of nearly drowning into something less intense and scary to lose her certainty that water is dangerous.
One way to accomplish this is, literally, to move the image to a location far behind her, as reflected in the common advice, “Just put it behind you,” which most people think of as a metaphoric suggestion. Another way is to change the client’s point of view from being inside the traumatic memory—as if it were really happening again—to seeing it as a more distant image on a movie screen, so that it looks as if it’s happening to someone else.
Another key component of certainty is the number of examples that support it. Since I’ve driven many different cars and trucks over a long period of time, on a variety of roads and in almost all weather, I have hundreds of thousands of memories that demonstrate to me that I can do this. When someone has numerous experiences of failing at something or being disappointed, he’s likely to have the same degree of certainty about that. Decreasing the number of problematic examples, and/or adding positive counterexamples can be another useful way to weaken the certainty of a limiting belief or generalization.
A third important factor in certainty is the authority behind the information. When the source is a parent, expert, or other authority figure, we’re usually more certain about the information. If the source appears to have little knowledge or expertise, we’re less certain about the information presented.
In the session reported below, my primary task was to reduce the certainty of a client’s fear response resulting from an experience of receiving bad news. Rather than work directly with her memory of the images and emotions related to the experience, I tracked changes in them as a way of evaluating the effectiveness of our work together.