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Using Neuro-Linguistic Programming to Help a Panicked Client : From Certainty to Uncertainty

By Steve Andreas

“People don’t come to therapy for explanations; they come for experience.”

Frieda Fromm-Reichmann

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.

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  • Comment Link Wednesday, 25 July 2012 02:52 posted by Jason D. West

    Great stuff as usual Steve. I'm looking forward to training with you soon in CO.


    Jason West

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 11 July 2012 15:18 posted by S. Andreas

    Reply to Steve Green:
    Firstly, what I did with the client was not hard work at all. It was an easy and enjoyable exchange that was delightful.

    Secondly, yes, it certainly would have been "simpler and much more straightforward" to do what you suggest.

    There is only one small problem with a direct approach--no matter how true that might be—and I do agree with what you write. Actually creating that realization takes more than just telling someone that "that they are just thoughts, stories, fantasies, and not true. They are just made up." That is conscious mind talk, and rarely effective. (When I worked in the oilfields in the 1950's this was described as "pissing into the wind.")

    Creating that realization requires changing the internal images, sounds and feelings that a client uses to determine what is real and what is not. This can be done directly ("Make that image transparent; hear that voice as if it is coming from an old tape recorder" etc.) or conversationally by telling and acting out relevant stories behaviorally so that they are processed as real, which is what I did in the session.

    Daniel Kahneman's excellent book, Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow presents a huge variety of experiments that his "Dual system" theory is based on:
    -System 1 is fast, relatively primitive and prone to error, and is what many people have called the "unconscious," or "right brain."
    -System 2 is slower, and more work, using logic, mathematics, language, often described as "left brain."

    Most clients are troubled by feelings, addictions, and behaviors that are generated unconsciously by system 1 thinking.

    System 2 thinking has little effect on this UNLESS it utilizes images, metaphors, narratives, etc. to communicate in a way that system 1 can respond, which is what I did in the session described.

    One of the main points in my article was the difference between just talking logically to someone about their problem which unfortunately is what most therapists do, and communicating appropriately with the client's system 1 that is creating the problem.

    I think every therapist (and anyone else who wants to understand how our minds function) would benefit enormously from reading Kahneman's book.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 11 July 2012 09:33 posted by Maria

    Great article, thank you!

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 11 July 2012 09:33 posted by Maria

    Great article, thank you!

  • Comment Link Thursday, 05 July 2012 06:52 posted by Neil

    Brilliant, thankyou for this, there are so many applications of NLP, and self management certainly is the big one for me!

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 15 May 2012 06:13 posted by Dr. Michael of Grantham Therapy

    Well worth reading Steve and thank you. When our perception shifts, it immediately provides a new vision of the world. Regards, Michael

  • Comment Link Monday, 14 May 2012 17:07 posted by John D Lentz

    How wonderful to read the work of a master, weaving so elegantly words, emotions, and associations so that the client feels better and has more options.

  • Comment Link Friday, 20 April 2012 22:10 posted by Eugenie

    What elegant, skilled work! I especially appreciate the step-by-step explanation and rationale for each strategy used; so useful for us learners out there. You are a great
    ego-free teacher. Thank you for ministering to Sarah!

  • Comment Link Thursday, 19 April 2012 14:43 posted by Ron Klein

    As usual, Steve, you are a wizard!!

  • Comment Link Thursday, 19 April 2012 08:08 posted by Larry Iverson PhD

    Steve, Your weaving through the situation is beautiful. Thanks for sharing in a way that assists me in being ever more effective.
    Best to you, Larry Iverson

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