It seems to me there is an important misunderstanding at the centre of NLP. I can only guess it comes from a cultural perspective, a blindness, really. I’m reading the classic text shown in the image above. (And I chopped up the book cover a bit so you could see it all in the wide format image.) “NLP, the new art and science of getting what you want,” by Dr. Harry Alder.
‘Round about page 91 the book gets to a key issue that was pointed out to me by a friend who swears NLP is the reason for his success and happiness: That every action fits a belief. But what is a belief? Dictionary definition says there is conviction attached to a belief. It’s not just observations and conclusions, something I as a scientist can hold for now and change tomorrow when I have new observations. I understand it’s tentative, not a conviction. Or more to the point, it’s a logical expression, an inference, a bit of truth given a certain set of facts. I try to avoid having beliefs. Maybe my belief is that beliefs are dangerous. Certainly many of them are limiting, and that limit can be protective or harmful, depending on the situation.
The woo factor kicks when people turn that around and claim that beliefs can free you from limits, can open you up to abundance in substantial elements of your life. You can choose what to believe. It starts to sound like “The Secret” or “Law of Attraction” and magical thinking like if you write things down they’ll come true. Wouldn’t have thought of that myself, but was recently told that by someone I know. No, you silly bunny, it wasn’t the magic of writing that did it. You set down the problem in an email and sent it to people with the power to do something about it. That’s not magic, even if the relief of a solution feels wonderful and delightful, almost like a magic trick.
I suspect that even tentative opinions or predictions can trigger emotional reactions. If I think this noise is going to go on all day, I will be more stressed than if I know it is temporary. But just telling myself, “All things must pass” isn’t enough. I don’t need a mantra or a soothing lie. I need to know I’m going to get relief from this torture of constant interruption or jarring bodily sensation, or both, from noise. No matter what I think, a day without noise and interruptions is going to be superior peace-wise, than one without.
It seems to me that logic and probability are much more exciting and useful ideas than the idea that you can limitlessly change your beliefs. Positive affirmations only make sense if they are logical and probable. My friend telling himself repeatedly, “I’m attractive to girls,” a sort of brainwashing attempt, doesn’t help him as much as smiling and improving his hairstyle would. It’s logically possible that doing those two things could make a difference over the long term. “Every day I am getting better and better,” as explained by Robertson Davies in his lovely book, “Fifth Business,” is just silly.
So, where does this idea that beliefs determine actions come from? Well, back on page 89, right before the aforementioned important pronouncement on page 91, Seligmann’s famous learned helplessness research is described. This rendition includes an interpretation I hadn’t heard before when my intro psych text covered this concept. The horrible experiment torturing dogs made them give up in terror, but this book actually describes the dogs’ belief process:
He saw that the dogs had learned helpness. Their interpretation of the situation was that it was hopeless to try further, so they stopped trying.
To say that the dogs had an interpretation seems a tad abstract. Sure, maybe dogs have thoughts and ideas like we do. Would it be better to call that an expectation, akin to a prediction? I think so. That is more in line with the problems we have, as well. It’s not that we necessarily have a definite belief, a conviction. It’s that we have an expectation. We don’t expect things to change…and yet that’s exactly what we logically should expect. Habits don’t tend to change, ruts don’t tend to change, and then suddenly they do. More importantly, they can if we work at it.
NLP says to work at changing beliefs, which I would call expectations. Probability – 70-90 percent? That’s pretty high, but it’s not a conviction, a certainty, a belief. The sales cliche is that you get nine no’s out of 10 queries, and maybe you get a yes. Playing the numbers. Expecting the worst, but keep trying for that nugget of gold. You don’t need much gold to make all the sand worth it. Kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, that kind of thing. (Yes, I realize the first NLP book wsa called “Frogs into Princes,” way back in the day.)
Alder’s book talks about the patterns within the belief of helpnessness: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. (Same section, page 89.) These are useful concepts that align with the ideas of probability and scientific thinking.
We cannot know that things are permanent. We want to feel secure, but the world is not secure. We are surrounded by ambiguity and cognitive dissonance and uncertainty. But corrolaries are the power of probability as well as the opportunities of choice. Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule – 80 percent of value will be in 20 percent of the volume. You could say everything is 80 percent crap! And you can then go looking for the 20 percent.
Pervasiveness is similar to permanence, an idea that whatever is at this moment extends throughout time or our lives. Similarly, personalizing or identity attributes character to an entity, oneself. I do not have much sense of self. I feel we change a lot. What is permanent? Neither I nor many meditators can find something permanent. We are Heraclitus’ river. We rise and fall.
A few pages later the book says there are degrees of belief. I feel this would have been a much more useful approach than focusing on beliefs as entities and rather black and white thinking.
In a way, it comes down to what Bertrand Russell said in his book “On Happiness,” that if you can’t bear to think about certain things, then think about something else. The power of focus and all that.
So, there are some useful scientific and logical ideas in NLP, but they tend to get lost in a simplistic barrage of claims about belief, which wander into woo territory when they are used by everyone I’ve met so far. These ideas are popular and silly. The best part of NLP is the next part, about somatic responses.
This NLP book goes into a lot of practical detail on how to identify your own somatic response preferences, i.e. , how your body reacts to different situations, memories, thoughts, and so on. We’ve crossed the body-mind dualism into the rich territory of the body, now. The body is easier to pin down, doesn’t require tricky word and concepts. The body gives direct experience. Seems to me that it is more economical to explain the helpless dogs’ behaviour this way, also. Their bodies learned to expect a trap, just as ours do. No words are needed. I’ve felt trapped and in a panic when I seemed to be locked in a room at one point. The panic made me unable to see a sign that pointed to exit stairs.
Most importantly, the body is an important source of healing and doesn’t get the respect it deserves in our culture. I think this cultural blindness is quite pervasive. I find rare pockets of freedom from it. Our world is dominated by body oppression, I suddenly conclude as I am writing this. Our bodies are far more important than words and beliefs, given that most of us are primitive and ignorant with words and ideas. Let’s at least go down to the bottom, “where all the ladders start,” to the body, the apparent locus of emotion.