My Mind Over Me
“Firstly, I have been involved in counseling of one sort or another for over 30 years,” said the NLP trainer matter-of-factly. “Second, I have worked hard to acquire the neutrality needed when dealing with people. This is simple, good professionalism. And, I removed the conscious/unconscious kinaesthetics around each of the values levels and destroyed all strategies for running any negative emotions relating to them.” In his mind, this vindicated him and provided the rationale for not completing a critical assignment. Since he had cleared all emotion, he should be exempt from an emotion-oriented task.
We had asked for internal associations and representations of the Levels of Existence; he was the only participant in the group who couldn’t complete the task. We queried: “After seven days of training, you don’t have a single internal representation or association to any of the systems? None at all?” – not to mention that these biopsychosocial systems are far more than mere “values levels.”
The emotional flatness in which our friend took such pride reflected one of the most intense cases of affect muting we’ve ever seen – affect phobia causing a person to decrease their personal feeling awareness and dissociate from them. This experience led us to ask: Is state management sometimes a modern head-in-the-sand technique whereby we fool ourselves in the short term, while doing damage in the long term?
Every NLP trainee learns about state control, state management, and changing internal processes early on. They are taught that submodalities can be changed, as can beliefs and values. “You don’t like those internal representations? Swap them out for new, more empowering ones.” It can be a truly liberating experience.
If people are uncomfortable with emotions – if you are uncomfortable with what you’re feeling or with what someone else is expressing – an immediate, well-meaning, and typical NLP-based reaction is likely to be: “Well, then, change your state” – as if an emotional switch can be flicked at will, with will. With practice, you probably got pretty good at it; and you probably felt you could switch many things on and off, thereby lowering your reactivity. It’s likely the skill made you feel proud, more in control in charge of your self – a rational mind and focused will mastering the idinous primitive within by wrangling it into submission, then hog tying it when faced with pesky irrationality and emotions.
“Distance yourself from your emotions” has long been a familiar message, a cultural norm, an interpersonal suggestion, and a powerful undercurrent in some NLP approaches. It is based on outdated social realities. Internal negative states and discomfort with unpleasant emotional expressions in others have led to some unhelpful beliefs. NLP’s beliefs in state control and social norms to mask emotions run together. Because they tend to be mutually reinforcing, these widely accepted, ultimately limiting beliefs often go unexamined: emotional expression is evidence of lack of control; negative emotion can be damaging; the rational is superior to the unconscious/emotional/childlike self; negative emotions get bottled up and need to be released carefully lest they cause dis-ease, etc. Such attitudes set the stage for the need to believe that “a good NLP practitioner can control their state anytime, anywhere, with anyone, always. Otherwise, you’re not a professional.”
Logical extensions to these beliefs include the ideas that one can reprogram the body at will, reshape the DNA through consciousness, or exercise self-control at superhuman levels. Some go so far as to believe they ‘create the whole of their reality’ – a validation for our E-R (Orange) mind – while others condemn themselves for inability to effectively manage their states 100% of the time – “loser!!” Carry that belief a little further: if negative emotions cause disease, then it is imperative to manage one’s state lest you create your own illness. “Don’t let yourself give yourself cancer, or leukemia, or arthritis, etc. It’s all your call, and your doing if you get it.” Thus, fear of feelings can cause a downward spiral and, over time, a slide into affect phobia. Some beliefs around state management can create profound difficulties.
For example, there is some evidence to suggest that PTSD may be related to a person dissociating from a traumatic event at the time of that event. Not feeling their feelings or working to deny them seems related to PTSD symptoms appearing later. Over-managing your state can lead to well-practiced ignoring of the self which can, in turn, lead to affect muting as with our example.
Getting Back in Touch with Self
It’s quite difficult to get people back in touch with themselves once they’ve programmed disconnection into their reactions. Habits in our thinking, reactions, and associations create stronger neural network connections over time while less practiced ones atrophy. For example, women who push through the overworked, overtired, stressed reactions sometimes push themselves beyond their limits while they think they’re managing their states effectively – they’re holding it together and have maybe mastered denial. Then they find they have ignored themselves into symptoms of adrenal fatigue and thyroid problems which often go undetected. Once this effect kicks in, it can knock them out of commission for months and often years. Stubborn weight gain might kick into the mix with self condemnation for not being in better control, while the body cries out “please stop” in its tailspin.
A great strength many NLP modules and processes offer is greater self- and other-awareness. The journey through the spiral involves increasing awareness of self and others looking through a different lens. The two can work well together when the appropriate approach is used at the right time to generate follow-up action to the awareness. Understanding where someone might be centralized on the spiral allows the practitioner to know just how in touch a client can become with others, with the self and their internal process.
Affects teach us about ourselves
As in our example, those most intent on eliminating negative emotions, mastering state control and managing their states tend to react uncomfortably to feelings. In most cases, a more beneficial approach would be to learn how to acknowledge, accept, and be with those emotions instead of hiding from them. Take this simple step next time you experience a feeling:
- Accept it, lean into it, embrace it, feel it fully.
- Ask yourself: What are you trying to tell me, emotion?
- Listen for the message; if it doesn’t come, keep listening (sometimes you need to be present and patient).
- Thank yourself for having the feeling and thank the feeling for teaching you something.
Affect itself does not automatically translate into reactions; it is the follow-on behaviour that people tend to fear, believing that emotion is the inevitable conduit to action. If we assume emotions are transitory and informative, then we can take a more constructive approach: we can notice them, turn them around like a diamond and appreciate the clarity and sparkle, and appreciate the informative messages they are communicating. To transform the approach, try to accept and focus on the emotion with interest, curiosity, and welcome. Once we’ve acknowledged, accepted, and embraced what is there, for the client and ourselves, then we can move on with greater awareness. Then you can follow up with the intervention or technique of best fit for the existing levels of psychosocial development.
Sometimes, when working with a client who has become emotional and can’t seem to get past that process, what you could be witnessing is a different form of affect phobia, one where feelings are felt about feelings and seem to swirl out of control. While a pattern interrupt might stop it, making you feel better, and sometimes the client, the reaction remains. So instead, ask:
- Are you feeling a feeling about your feelings? (It’s more effective to reflect the feeling they are feeling about the feeling, though not always easy: e.g., “You’re feeling angry about the hurt reaction you experienced.”
- Follow the path back to the initial emotion that set off the uncomfortable string.
- Then get your client to lean into and be with the first emotion, then the next, then the next. Remind them, “You are not your feelings; however they are there to help you.”
- Then ask for and listen for the message the feelings are trying to communicate.
- Thank the feeling and appreciate the message.
Affect is the Connective Glue in Life
Remember, too, that the body moves at a different pace than the mind. It has a rhythm of its own. While the mind can fool itself and disconnect from the body, the body will continue with its own biological processes unfolding in their own time. It will take in the stress, process it, and eventually break down if that stress continues. All the while the mind thinks, “I’ve got it all handled” – until something pops. You can choose to notice this and allow it to inform you, or you can manage away your reactions – at your peril.
One of the models we cover in our Spiral Dynamics training addresses the common beliefs and attitudes, ways of conceptualizing and working with feelings, and then offers a more congruent approach to working with emotion whereby affects become informative and instructive, not something to deny. Emotions are not something to fear; they are there to make us aware.