Looking Backwards (at a few of the bends and dips in the road) by Steve Andreas

“I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning the day difficult.”
– E.B. White

From a very early age I have been blessed (and cursed) with a penchant for seeing what could be improved in the world. Usually unwilling to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” I have more often than not been willing to “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.”

In high school I was a “science brain,” what is now called a “nerd” on this side of the pond, and I went on to college at Caltech, studying chemistry in order to better humanity by unravelling the secrets of the genetic code – at that time something far beyond our reach, but now frighteningly close at hand. I have often been grateful for the rigorous foundation in the hard sciences and mathematics that I learned there.

One of these understandings is the philosophy of “radical empiricism” described by Karl Popper and Hans Vaihinger that is the basis of all the sciences. Briefly put, it is the understanding that there is no “truth,” or how things “really are,” only “useful lies,” descriptions of the world that are more or less useful to us most of the time. If we are clever enough, or lucky enough, we will discover understandings that fit with each other reasonably well for a while – until better, or more comprehensive, or more detailed, understandings are developed.

About halfway through college I began exploring psychology and literature as more promising ways to learn more about humanity. In 1958 I went to graduate school at Brandeis, where Abe Maslow had a little island of pseudo-sanity in the swamp of psychology. It is hard to remember what a wasteland the field was forty years ago. Essentially there was either behaviourism or Freud, and about the only thing they agreed upon was that if you loved someone, it was because they resembled your mother or father. At that time there were a few other pioneering voices besides Maslow crying out in the wilderness (Angyal, Barron, Frankl, Fromm, Kubie, Perls, Rogers, Satir, Schachtel). They are now dead and all but forgotten, but their legacy lives on in the wide variety of broader and more human approaches that are being explored and experimented with today.

After two years of graduate school, the only way I could avoid doing research on rats was to drop out. After a year working as a chemist, I taught psychology in Junior college for the next seven years – very badly at first, but over the years I learned a bit about teaching. While I was teaching, my mother, Barry Stevens, wrote Person to Person, adding her own unprofessional commentary to professional psychology papers that she thought were particularly interesting, by Carl Rogers and students of Rogers. After a number of rejections from publishers, I decided to publish the book myself in 1967, and Real People Press was born. I found myself with several thousand books in my garage, and a hobby job that eventually became my major source of support, as other books followed.

The next year I chanced upon the Gestalt Therapy work of Fritz Perls, whose willingness and ability to demonstrate change work blew my mind out of the water. Here was someone who could actually DO something, even if it had a bit much of the angry Buddhist! For the next ten years I spent most of my free time learning and practising his ways of utilizing live behaviour and all aspects of awareness – dreams and other unconscious communications, including non-verbal gestures, postures, voice tone, dialoguing between parts of a person, etc.

During this time I edited and published two Fritz Perls books, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, and his autobiography, In and Out the Garbage Pail. Under my former name, John O. Stevens I wrote and published Awareness: exploring, experimenting, experiencing, a handbook of gestalt awareness exercises for individuals and groups (many of which were “road-tested” in my junior college psychology classes). Ten years ago, when I was asked to write a new forward to the British edition, I found it still as useful as when I had written it twenty years before. I would not delete anything; only add the presupposition of positive intention, a very important piece missing from the Gestalt model. Gestalt dialogues are often much longer and noisier than they need to be. Adding the presupposition of positive intent makes them a hundred times shorter, quieter and more useful – and saves a lot of pillows and furniture from unnecessary violence.

And then a friend introduced us to NLP in summer of 1977. Here was an approach that sounded outrageously unlikely, but that had many very specific, small-chunk predictions about observable behaviour and change that were easily tested – which my wife Connirae and I proceeded to do. I cancelled a scheduled Gestalt workshop tour of South America, and became a beginner again, happily stumbling along in unfamiliar, but very interesting territory.

At first it was a major challenge just to understand and become passably competent in what had already been developed by Bandler, Grinder, and the other early co-developers. It was some years before we began to explore new territory and develop some additional NLP patterns.

In the early 1980’s Connirae and I were introduced to the world of submodalities, and like small kids with a new hammer, we began to apply it to everything we could think of. Submodalities became both a tool for deeper and more detailed understanding of existing methods and distinctions, and also a basis for new modelling of other abilities, developing methods for helping people make useful changes that were not previously possible. Besides exploring the submodality structure of existing patterns, we explored the structure of time (discovering timelines), presuppositions, internal / external reference, and values/criteria, and used these understandings to develop ways of changing these processes.

About a dozen years ago we turned our attention to the experience of Grief, and modeled people who felt joyful and resourceful (not just “OK”) about a loving relationship that had ended in death or divorce, etc. We discovered that these people still had vivid associated representations of the lost person, so they continued to feel a glad sense of the presence of the person who was actually lost in the “real world.” Most of us experience the same thing when we are temporarily separated from someone we love. Even though the person is physically absent (and could have died in the interim) we continue to feel connected, because we still represent him/her as if s/he were physically present.

Understanding this made it relatively easy to teach this useful skill to others who were still stuck in feelings of emptiness, sadness, and despair. Only after the method was thoroughly tested did we realize that the same process could also be used for losses in the other four meta-program content sorting categories: things, activities, locations, and even information. And in fact these other categories are often overlooked aspects of the loss of a person. When a relationship ends, often things, activities, locations or information are also lost. Next we realized that a loss in the external world often entails a loss of the sense of self as well. Loss of a spouse often results in a loss of self as a lovable person, and loss of a job may take a heavy toll on a person’s self-worth. Although the same process works on both kinds of loss, it is respectful to realize and acknowledge the self dimension of a loss.

Later still, we found that the same process can be used with the loss of a dream – something that the person never actually had, except in their vivid imagination, perhaps for decades. This loss of a dream is often a major aspect of an actual loss. Someone who loses a child also loses their dream of the child’s future growing up and maturing, etc.

This loss of a dream is at the core of what is often called a “mid-life” crisis, and the same process can also be used for this form of grief. What began as a search for a solution for a particular problem became a process with much wider applications, as well as a demonstration of the interrelatedness of many different distinctions that had already been made in the field.

About ten years ago we focused on anger and forgiveness in an advanced modelling seminar, and we and the participants together developed a pattern for helping people stuck in anger, resentment and desire for revenge.

We found a way for people to move forward into an experience of congruent forgiveness that is consistent with taking positive action to maintain and support the values that were violated in the experience that led to anger.

After developing this process, we realized that the few failures that we had experienced when using the grief process had resulted from unresolved anger and resentment toward the lost person, pointing out yet another interrelatedness.

Connirae’s development of the process grew slowly out of her work with clients with whom the existing patterns were not very effective. One vital element in this process is to use the chunking-up of a part’s behaviour to outcome that is the essence of six-step reframing. However, rather than experience this meta-outcome as a dissociated outcome of a separate part, this process has the person identify with, associate into, and fully experience the meta-outcome as if they were the part and had already gotten the outcome. Core Transformation also continues the chunking-up process to yet higher levels of generality until it becomes a universal feeling embracing the whole world of experience – a felt sense of universal “oneness,” “beingness,” “love;” a “core state” that connects with, and is a part of, and in harmony with, all creation.

Growing up a part of the person, so that it makes use of all the person’s knowledge, maturity and personal history, and allowing the part to become whole-body are integrative processes that support the new experience of wholeness by extending the core state in both time and space. Parental Timeline reimprinting instils this core state throughout the person’s representation of his / her personal history, as well as in the personal history of the parents, further supporting the universal experience of the core state by spreading it through time even more.

Direct access to these universal core states becomes a profound avenue of change at the broadest level of generalization. We have known for a long time that a single “conversion” experience can change much of a person’s behavior at once. Now it is possible to do so quickly and efficiently, without religious doctrine, and congruent with all of the person’s values, aspects and potential.

During this same time, Connirae re-examined the three basic perceptual positions “self,” “observer,” and “other,” because she noticed that people kept having experiences that didn’t fit these three simple categories. By chunking down to the smaller elements, she discovered that people often mixed together elements of the three positions. This results in confusion, inability to fully utilize each position, and in people making life choices that have unpleasant consequences. By teaching someone how to separate these different elements and then how to rearrange them by location, they can experience each position fully, uncontaminated by elements of the other two positions, and gain useful understandings and perspectives that had not been available to them before this aligning process. Once the positions are sorted in this way, each one informs and enriches the others, but without interfering with each other.

In hindsight, what Connirae did was to chunk down the perceptual positions into their smaller elements, and use the single submodality of location to sort these elements and put them where they belong. However, that understanding only emerged after a long process of exploration and trial and error. Things always appear so much simpler and obvious when looking backward. “Oh, Of course!”

Over and over again we have found the usefulness of this process of reexamining older patterns and understandings and “researching” deeper into the finer structure of them, using newer understandings to explore them more thoroughly and characterize them in more useful ways.

In the mid-1980’s we developed a simple way to create a piece of self-concept when the person simply did not have a useful way to generalize about a category of their own behaviour. We recognized clearly at the time that if the person already had a negative self-concept about the same class of behaviours, creating a new structure would either be very difficult, or plunge the person into conflict. Nevertheless, what we had developed worked very nicely, as long as the person did not already have a negative belief about themselves.

In recent years I have returned to explore the overall functioning of self-concept (and the much simpler and much misunderstood “self-esteem”) and modelled the entire process that people use to generalize about themselves. Since the self-concept is a “through time” recursive process that describes itself, and is also at a high level of generalization, changes in it are particularly pervasive and powerful. Rather than just adding to the self-concept by using a specific step-by-step pattern, this resulted in much broader and deeper understandings, out of which specific applications can be easily be developed as needed. A number of very interesting discoveries emerged from this modelling.

One discovery was that there are several processes that do two things simultaneously: They make the self-concept more durable and resilient, and 2. They make it more open and responsive to ongoing feedback and correction when behaviour does not match the self-concept. I had expected that there would probably have to be two processes in balance – one to provide durability, and another to make it open to corrective feedback. I cannot tell you how pleased I was to discover that my expectations were wrong, and that the same processes have dual functions that accomplish both objectives simultaneously.

One of these processes (which was very surprising to me) is the value of including counterexamples in the self-concept database. Rather than weakening the self-concept, appropriately represented counterexamples actually make it stronger, like the effect of impurities that make steel much stronger than pure iron. These same counterexamples also function as templates that sensitize us to the kind of mistakes that we have made in the past, making it more likely that we will notice if we repeat mistakes in the future. This is just one example of the dual nature of these mechanisms that simultaneously make the self-concept stronger and at the same time more open to corrective feedback.

A serendipitous discovery that emerged from this is an understanding of the basic self-concept structure of “projection” and its more severe form, paranoia, a process that was recognized a hundred years ago, but without a satisfactory understanding of how it worked, or how to change it.

Another valuable understanding that emerged from these investigations, is the fundamental structure of what has been called “ego” or “self-importance.” Self-conscious preoccupation separates us both from others and from aspects of our own experience, and this results in defensiveness and being closed to feedback and useful change. Again this is something that has been recognized for thousands of years, particularly by spiritual traditions. But with the new understanding of how it works, it becomes possible to work with it directly and change it quickly. Unfortunately, the people who most need this kind of change are the least likely to want it or seek it out; usually a spouse, or someone else, comes in because they are suffering from its consequences.

More recently I have returned to the Grief and Forgiveness patterns because they have such wide application to the inescapable problems of everyday living. All of us experience losses (of both world and self), and frustration of our outcomes and values on a daily basis. The value of learning to deal with losses, and forgiving those who have harmed us, is something that has been a major concern of many spiritual traditions, and one that has been exemplified by many saints and sages over thousands of years. Because of this, I have called this area of exploration “practical spirituality.” Learning how to deal with these inevitable events easily and graciously, as a through-time capability of the self, seems to me to be a goal well worth pursuing, even for an atheist or agnostic like myself.

Judgement of our experience as being “good” or ‘bad” is another element that has been a basic concern of many spiritual traditions. (In English, there is another quite different use of the word judgement that simply means “understanding,” or “good sense,” as in “She has good judgement”) Generally speaking, mystics have advised against judgement, while the religions that followed have usually been very judgemental. Judging our experiences (and ourselves) as being “good” or “bad” (in contrast to simply noticing our response of liking or disliking, etc.) takes us to a meta-level, adding another layer of complexity that makes it harder, rather than easier, to find solutions.

It is one thing to notice that we don’t like something, but judging it draws our attention from the problem itself to its goodness or badness, separating us from our experience, and creating a very information-poor context in which to attempt to solve problems. Judgement is the first step down a road that is paved with intolerance and rejection, and its ultimate destination is violence and killing. Look around you; wherever you find violence and killing, there you will also find judgement.

Preference is a useful counterexample to judgement, because preferring also expresses our values, but in a much more useful way. Unlike the absolute, universal, digital generalization of judgement, a preference is a sensory distinction made by a specific individual in a specific state and context, time frame, etc., making it rich with information that can be used to find solutions. In a recent modelling seminar I guided the participants in characterizing the differences between judgement and preference and in designing a transition from judgement to preference. I invite the interested reader to explore this area for yourself, to find out what you can discover on your own.

Sometimes I am asked to speculate on the next developments in the field, but that would be as foolish as trying to predict such things as optical fibre communication or the Internet. Instead, I would like to point out what I believe are a few of the potentially valuable areas to model (and where, and when I find the time, you will find me toiling in the hot sun). There are still plenty of things that NLP cannot accomplish, or Cannot accomplish efficiently, despite the hyperbole of the ads and brochures (some of which I have been personally responsible for). Look around and you will see plenty of problems crying for solution. And lest I be accused of being “problem-oriented,” there are also plenty of models of excellence who could be studied so that their useful skills could be taught to others.

Depression and manic-depression is a promising area. Some years ago (in a fit of optimism about having a block of spare time) I saw several clients, one of whom is no longer manic-depressive (and she was certified, had been on lithium for years, etc.). I learned a lot about the structure of very high expectations of self and universal generalizations, and how it can be easy to flip from “Everything is great” to “Everything is terrible” (both judgements), but I did not get enough data to formulate a specific pattern that I could begin to test. There are plenty of other “mental illnesses” that we have no effective way of helping as yet.

Complaining is another activity that, like judgement, impoverishes our experience and adds another layer of complication to our troubles, distracting our attention from the task at hand to “the injustice of it all!” An attitude of gratitude for what we have been given is certainly a lot more enjoyable! And with this frame, we can more easily focus our attention and energy on how to make something better. So gratitude is yet another useful piece in the puzzle, and one that has also had an honoured place in a wide variety of ancient spiritual traditions, particularly the mystic ones. What is the structure of this resourceful experience of grateful thanks for what one has been given?

Most NLP patterns presuppose that a client comes in and asks for help. Of course many people don’t know what they need, but at least they come in with a description of a problem and ask for something. But there are many problems, like depression, abuse, and other “powerless” conditions that usually include the assumption that “Nothing will do any good, so why try?” We need to find ways to reach out to people with this presupposition of hopelessness, because many could be helped with methods that already exist.

There are many other situations in which a person does not perceive what they do as a problem, but others around them do. I have never yet had a client say, “I’d like some help with my arrogance; I’m really obnoxious, and I’d like to learn how to relate better with others,” but I have seen plenty of people who could use that kind of help, and some of them have been well-known NLP trainers! Virginia Satir showed some ways of working with people who act in an arrogant or superior manner, and blame others for problems, but that is not one of the skills that the original developers were successful in modelling from her. Superiority and blaming are two promising areas for future modelling, because, like judgement, they occur as a complicating and distracting overlay to a wide range of problems.

I have seen very little written on the patterns of implication, despite the fact that this was one of Milton Erickson’s main covert patterns. Implications are weaker than presuppositions, but they are also much subtler, and much less likely to be noticed and challenged.

I think that we have only scratched the surface in developing NLP applications to learning and education, and my guess is that successful and deep application in this area would probably require a wholesale dismantling of our current western educational system.

What would I put in its place? Probably a system with two parts. The first and more basic part would teach children about themselves and about communicating with others, about the destructive consequences of our tendency to compare ourselves with others and then act in superior, judgemental., or scornful ways, etc. Part of this would include discovering how to “immunize” kids mentally with certain presuppositions, thinking skills, appreciation of diversity, maintenance of resource feeling states, etc., so that they would be forever safe from the variety of individual and social madnesses that now repeatedly ravage both the neighbourhood and the globe.

In addition, there would be lots of exposure to the full range of human excellence that all cultures all over the world have accumulated over the centuries – all the arts and sciences (very loosely defined), and all other expressions of our diverse humanity. This would be provided to nurture kids’ natural sensitivity, curiosity and inventiveness, a non-verbal message of the wide range of possible human expression. Finally, an enormous learning facility full of resources would nurture children’s curiosity, with guides to teach kids how to find the resources that they need in order to learn whatever it is that interests them.

Like any field, NLP is growing by fits and starts, sometimes exploring blind alleys, and at other times stumbling out of the wilderness into a wide expanse of understanding. Some new developments are like “cold fusion,” which burst into the limelight, promising much and delivering little, while other less flashy but more substantial developments linger in the shadows, waiting for recognition.

Much of the development of any field is taking a small part of it and simply documenting it in greater detail, as a zoologist might spend years describing and categorizing all the molluscs on the bed of a small estuary. No one has yet listed all the ways that a person can have a phobia. Some people make the threat very large, while others make themselves very small – and some do both! Others do it by stopping all motion, resulting in a very unpleasant “freeze-frame.” Some run a very short movie over and over again in an endless loop. Who knows what new understandings might emerge from such a list? Of course, perhaps no new understanding might emerge. That is the way with research; if you knew ahead of time what you would find, there would be no need to do it!

As in any field, some are perceived as leaders and others as followers (whether or not either deserve it). Some take credit for the work of others, while other hard workers get little or none. Some in the field are motivated by success, or money, or the thrill of manipulating others, while others are just intensely curious, or want to serve the human enterprise.

The field of NLP is substantial enough that there is now a significant danger that we will blindly accept without question the presuppositions, metaphors, and understandings of those who have participated in the earlier development of the field. I have done this myself, and seen many other examples in intelligent people. Typically these errors could have been avoided by a simple testing in our own experience. However, it is much easier to find answers than it is to learn how to ask useful questions – and it is so much easier to just take someone else’s word for it! Someone once spoke about being able to see farther because he was standing on the shoulders of giants. But it is also possible to see less because one is standing in the giant’s footprints!

Every artist’s work is enriched by all the other styles and techniques that have already been developed, even if s/he dislikes some (or even most) of it. This variety does not necessarily produce masterpieces, but it does widen the range of possible resources from which we can choose, and may suggest additional possibilities not yet tried. All of us are enriched by the work of all the rest, and the possibilities that they find – even when it only suggests clearly what we do not want to do. I have learned so much from so many; it pleases me greatly to think that, in some small measure, I can return the favor.

As one of my favourite sayings goes: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

First Published in Rapport the UK newsletter of the Association for NLP Summer 2000

© 2000 Steve Andreas

Related articles

Learn more about NLP by reading our Ultimate Compendium of NLP

If you found this article useful, please share.

Subscribe Now!

Stay Up-to-Date with Our Latest Courses and Special Offers

Stay in the loop with new course releases and opportunities by completing our form. Never miss out!

What would you like to be updated on?