Many people are able to make changes and resolve problems with NLP interventions. But in working with people, I became fascinated by those people who were not able to change and had been struggling with the same problems for years (or a lifetime). I kept wondering what it was that made the difference between problems that were easily solved and those that seemed resistant to efforts to change.
I kept asking myself:
• What makes problems stick?
• What keeps someone from solving a problem?
• What keeps a problem in place?
I began to find commonalities and patterns in people who were not able to change and differences from people who were. The SCRIPTS model outlines the pieces of the psychological puzzle that keeps problems in place and make them resistant to change.
When someone is dealing with a complex problem such as depression, anxiety, addiction, self-sabotage etc. there is a tendency to focus on the symptoms. The symptoms are the part of the problem we are aware of and really are our evidence procedure for a problem: the symptoms are how we know we have a problem, but not the real problem. Because symptoms are painful and unpleasant, they seduce us into overfocusing on them and mistaking them for the totality of the problem.
A problem is like an iceberg. We are aware of the tip sticking out of the water, but the real substance is hiding beneath the surface. To resolve a problem, we’ve got to be able to see past the symptoms and uncover the causes, the invisible forces that are creating the symptoms.
The family therapist Virginia Satir said that the greatest human need is to stick with what is familiar. Indeed, we all have a need for certainty in some form. When we have had a problem for a while, we get used to it – it becomes the known and the familiar. Sometimes it can become all we know. Change means taking a risk and stepping into the unknown, which can be a threat to our sense of certainty.
Associated to the need for certainty is fearfulness of the opposite, change or uncertainty. The status quo can become equated with safety, meaning that change is dangerous. Clinging to certainty, we may unconsciously feel that making changes will have negative consequences, in which case we will resist change with full force. The result is that the only certainty we really have is that we’ll continue to have the same problem/experience.
When concerns of safety or certainty come up in therapy or coaching, we can ask someone, “What has to happen for you to feel certain/safe/secure?” With the way people tend to get wired up, often we will find that certainty depends on external circumstances that are out of one’s control and only when those circumstances are a certain way, can they feel certain or safe. What people do is link the feelings they want to experience most to things they cannot control, thus leaving them highly uncertain and afraid.
Working with certainty takes several forms:
First, we must redefine what certainty or safety means to us and change our rules about what will give us certainty. We must learn to derive our sense of certainty from things we can control. This is the only way to really have certainty anyway since leaving certainty up to things we cannot control will leave us fragile, volatile and at the mercy of circumstances.
Next, if maintaining the status quo is giving us certainty and change seems threatening, we must look at the impact of keeping things the same and where it will lead in the future. We may see that the only certainty we’re really getting is more suffering, which is not the kind of certainty we want. Problems can give us a sense of psychological safety when they are actually destroying our lives or leaving us in danger.
It is also important to clarify what changes you would like to make and what things will be like if you do. What will be different? How will you be feeling? What will you be doing? What will that be like? By betting clear in this way we can be certain that the change is what we want, is much better than what we are currently experiencing, and then we can get a sense of certainty from that. If we do this and the changes are what we want and are in our best interests, safety concerns diminish and we become more open to change.
Few people desire pain; we want to feel good. Since this desire is so strong, when we feel pain, discomfort or experience problems, the natural tendency is to resist. Because we don’t want any discomfort, we resist and try to “get rid” of the problem. Most of the time, we are resisting the symptoms which actually makes the problem worse. What we resist persists and we get stuck in a downward spiral.
Many problems that people get stuck in are negative self-reinforcing cycles in which trying to resist, avoid or prevent a certain experience actually causes it. For example, people struggling with anxiety consistently try to avoid being anxious, which causes them to be anxious. The fear of anxiety drives the problem. Someone who stutters is afraid of stuttering and tries to avoid it, which causes him to stutter.
Often the experience one is trying to avoid has been tabooed; there is a higher level belief about the experience as being bad, wrong, not OK, or dangerous. If it’s not OK to feel fear, each time you feel fear or something you interpret as fear, you will fight, resist and push it away. This causes an emotional or psychological experience to increase in magnitude.
When we have a certain experience for a long period of time, it can become so familiar that we start to think “this is who I am.” We mistake aspects of our experience for who we are as a person. Identifying with an experience in this way has a solidifying effect; it crystalized it in place. In essence, when you think an experience, behaviour or an emotion is who you are, it becomes frozen in place and you become enslaved to it. If it is who you are, change becomes very tricky, as it would require you to change who you are.
One of the presuppositions of NLP is that people are not their behaviour, and it is this idea of identification that is being addressed. Someone who sees themself as a smoker will have a harder time to change than someone who thinks of smoking as something they do.
For change to be possible, we must disidentify from the problem, separating it from our sense of self, and seeing it as an aspect of our experience- a behaviour, state, emotion, pattern etc. that is temporary, transient and changeable.
Many people have made efforts to change and failed, and some have failed repeatedly. Others have succeeded, but the problem has come back. Having had such experiences it is only natural to conclude such things as, “I can’t change this.” “This is just who I am.” The problem becomes something that is fixed, permanent, unchangeable.
The belief “I can’t change this” has a solidifying effect on consciousness, locking a problem or pattern into place. A conviction like this acts as a powerful signal to the mind and body that will negate any efforts to change. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many people believe that they can’t change, but still go to therapies and try different approaches that never address this belief. It’s amazing how many people have this belief unconsciously but still look for ways to change. What happens is that they end up collecting evidence that they are right: they can’t change.
Believing the problem is permanent will cause one to discount possible solutions and find reasons why various solutions won’t work. When we have a belief, we seek evidence to confirm it and delete, distort and generalize everything else to fit with our belief.
If someone believes this very strongly, they won’t take the action necessary for change either. After, why put in the effort if you can’t change anyway?
Also, having a painful or uncomfortable problem and feeling that it’s permanent leads to major resistance. The idea that it might never go away is frightening, so we push and fight and force and the symptoms get worse.
If we want to change, we have to change our beliefs about the problem. The belief systems about the permanence of problems must be addressed, dealt with and removed, and then replaced with a belief and expectation that change is possible.
Nearly every psychological model recognizes in some manner the existence of different “parts” of people. Freud proposed that personality is made up of three parts, the ide, ego and superego, each in conflict. Transactional Analysis, a popular method of psychotherapist developed in the 1960’s by Eric Berne, teaches that in each of us is a child, adult and parent. More recently, Ego-State Therapy has developed as a method to work with different parts of people in conflict or stuck at various levels of development and is used with more serious conditions such as eating disorders, personality disorders and dissociative identity disorder, or DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder or MPD). And of course, NLP acknowledged the existence of parts and developed several ways to work with part of resolve parts conflicts (Six-Step Reframing, Parts Integration, Core Transformation).
What prevents people from simply changing their behaviour and resolving problems? Often, it’s what is called in NLP “sequential incongruity,” one part of them wants to stop the problem or symptom, while another produces it for some purpose. In the case of an addiction, one part of the person wants to use while another wants to stop. This is why they can’t just stop. There is an inner conflict inside, and it turns out that for some reason the part that is producing the problem or the symptom has become the more powerful one. People are usually not aware of the conflict or the parts of them. The parts are out of awareness and all the person is aware of is the symptoms or result of the conflict such as anxiety or uncontrollable behaviour.
Ever heard someone say things like, “Part of me wants it but part of me doesn’t?” or “Part of me stops me.” I have heard people say, “It’s like a force inside me,” “There’s another person inside of me.” When I present this to a group, most people can identify with this and say, “Me too!”
What happens when we are victim to an unconscious conflict like this? While something in us is trying to do something of value for us, yet it appears on the surface like something we don’t want, we try to get rid of it. Then what happens? The problem gets worse. This then leads to a vicious circle and downward spiral.
To resolve the problem we must resolve the conflict.
Often people who find themselves stuck with a recurring or persistent problem are extremely devoted to finding a solution; they try to think themselves out of the problem, wanting to “figure it out” or “analyze” it to find the solution. But thinking never seems to solve much – it seems to make things worse.
Thinking, thinking, thinking to solve a problem becomes ruminating and obsessing, a “hyperintentionality” which actually makes the problem worse. This type of thinking becomes thinking too hard, trying too hard, and compulsively trying to solve a problem, usally hyperfocused on the symptoms. It’s driven by a feeling of necessity and urgency; “I’ve got to solve this now.” But change rarely happens because of conscious, logical, rational thinking, and especially not from excessive thinking and effort.
Although it will, at first, be contrary to their perception of what is needed to solve the problem, people stuck in obsessing need to be able to break the pattern of overthinking. They need to be able to let go at times, step back from their experience, and learn to “be with” their experience instead of compulsively trying to fix it. Hyperintentionality is a state of tension and pressure, the opposite of what leads to increased creativity and problem solving.
When faced with uncomfortable and unwanted symptoms, people want to “get rid of them.” We want a quick fix so we can be back to comfort and pleasure; this is how we’re wired. As a result, we try to rush change and don’t actually give ourselves the time to change. The time pressure feeds the resistance and makes things worse. Often, when in pain, time seems to disappear. All that exists is the present moment. Stuck in this “eternal present” we try to push away what we’re really experiencing because now has become forever.
To be able to change we need to be able to have an experience now, to allow it to be as it is, even when it is painful, and set an objective for the future, even in the short-term. We need a concept of now (problem) and a later. If pain and suffering has made our later disappear, we need to recreate it (which can be done with NLP timeline procedures). This gives us somewhere to get to so we don’t have to fight our experience.
Pain and problems easily leave us in urgency, demandingness and fearfulness. But these states are not conducive to problem solving. Trying to solve problems or “figure things out” from states of suffering, demandingness or fear just makes them worse, feeds resistance, and the frustration and discomfort increase.
The impact of these states can be summed up by the famous phrase of one of my teachers: When you get serious, you get stupid. The first intervention if these states are present is to interrupt them and access more empowering states. The entire NLP model is based on eliciting in clients as sense of curiosity about their experience, which is a very different state than demandingness or fear.
These states, demandingness, urgency, fearfulness etc. are all associated with heightened tension and the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or the stress response. To solve problems, we need to opposite kinds of states; we need to be able to relax and let go, which is the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Many approaches involve relaxation of some sort, helping someone access states conducive to change and heightened creativity and imagination. Mindfulness meditation and hypnotherapy are excellent examples.
Everyone has a need for a sense of significance. We each need to feel valued, important and worthwhile as human beings. When our sense of significance is threatened or when we feel highly insignificant, we will look for significance anywhere we can get it. People who have suffered greatly in life have often felt so powerless, insignificant and humiliated that they find significance in their problems. They feel different, unique and important because they have such serious problems. In problems they find a sense of identity. This is identification combined with certainty. As a result, change becomes undesirable as it’s seen as a threat to that sense of significance.
For change to be possible, someone must see change as leading to greater significance than having the problem. The end state resulting from change must meet their need for significance better than the problem did.
Since the above is a model of what keeps problems in place, based on each of these elements I designed the CAUSE model as a model of what needs to occur to resolve complex problems.