How do you change your life?
One of the key questions that the fields of personal development and psychology asks itself is: ‘How do you change your life?’ People go to personal development courses to improve themselves, to learn, to achieve outcomes they don’t know how to achieve themselves. They also go there to solve problems they have been experiencing. Problems in relationships, communication issues, work related questions, wealth challenges and even health issues. Ultimately people go to psychologists and personal development courses to improve how they feel. To feel less anxious or stressful, more self-confident, less down and more optimistic and so on.
Every field of change has their own ideas about how change ‘works’. How you can really make the change you have been looking for. Some assumption that are made about effective change are useful and some are very effective. Other ideas seem rigged, build on debunked ideas and assumptions, and some ideas are guidelines for how you should be able to change your life for the better. New developments in neuroscience should update some of these ideas we hold on too, because when you examine the neurology you start to realize that some ideas actually cause problems. If that is so, then how do you really change your life?
“My experience has shown that certain assumptions about self-development can delay development for years.”
The article below is published in the winter edition 2023 of INZICHT, the Dutch magazine for NLP as, ‘Pitfalls of NLP. Presuppositions examined critically’. In this series, a NLP presupposition is critically examined in each episode. Is the presupposition or ‘way it works’ correct, does it only have advantages and how can we guard against an interpretation that can also have a negative effect?
In this episode: You have all the resources you need within you. Do you?
By Wassili Zafiris
How effective change works
There are ideas that you learn during, for example, an NLP training, which can be described as a ‘rule’. A rule (or myth) about the foundations of personal development and how it would work and what it would take to support change. But what if some of those myths are wrong and ultimately even problematic? This has consequences for how we deal with change and how we develop change models. NLP is the science and art of language, but what do we tell clients and students about how their problems arise and how they should be solved? New developments in neuroscience show that the ‘worlds’ of coaching, NLP and personal development, among others, are making some critical mistakes in assuming how effective change works.
I want to share a myth with you that has emerged from self-development theories such as NLP, the work of Tony Robbins, positive psychology, etc. The NLP presuppositions form the framework of NLP. A kind of general framework within which NLP practitioners conduct research, apply coaching and therapy and from which they develop new models. The assumptions are cited in almost every self-help and management book, although not always stated in those words. Some of these pillars are flawed.
New neuroscientific insights, such as those of Lisa Barrett Feldman, show that the emotional brain does not function as some personal development assumptions lead us to believe. And to add insult to injury: my experience has shown that certain assumptions about self-development can delay development for years! Some ‘NLP rules’ simply do not work in practice. Let me illustrate this using the premise that you have all the resources you need to make any change you want.
Aside from the fact that this is an uplifting presupposition (as most are) and can help you look beyond your limitations for solutions, this is to some extent a false myth. It assumes that we have to look for internal resources, and that this will solve ‘all’ our problems. Although it is true that we can find solutions within ourselves, this assumption contains a dangerous element. We cannot find all the resources within ourselves! Let me explain what I mean.
“New neuroscientific insights show that the emotional brain does not function as assumptions would lead us to believe.”
From the outside
Many life experiences do not come from within. They come from outside us. For example, I have a dog. When I wake up, she is extremely playful. Excited to see me, running around the room to find a gift to give to me. When she finally finds this, she brings the gift to me and after I accept it, she wants to be cuddled extensively. The joy her behavior brings to the home, to me and to everyone she encounters, is very consistant and extremely enjoyable. In fact, when she’s not home, I often find myself missing her enthusiastic behavior.
Now I understand that the feelings I get from her behavior are my feelings. That’s absolutely true. But there are three important things at play here:
- It is her specific behavior that affects not only me, but also many around me.
- I can hardly reproduce those feelings when she is not there.
- And even if I can reproduce them in myself when she’s not there, I miss the actual aspect of having her physically around. Which means it doesn’t feel quite like it does when she greets me in person in the morning.
We all already know this. Love, for example, is a feeling that you and I experience inside. But if it were a resource within us that we could turn on and continue to turn on, we would not experience the need for a partner. However, most of us do feel that desire.
The point is, some of the feelings we get come from outside of ourselves and arise from interactions with our environment. It is my experience with RETaC (a new method based on new neuroscientific ideas about how our nervous system makes emotions) that most feelings originally ‘come’ from outside of us. And because many experiences we have come from outside of ourselves, we tend to look for them outside of ourselves. And we must look for them outside ourselves, because in that interaction they arise! Problems only arise when we can’t find them or get them, no matter what we do.
Origin of emotions
Intuitively we are born blank, we have no emotions. This means that ALL our feelings arise in relation to and with our environment. This is a radically different idea than previously accepted in neuroscience. The origins of our emotional world took place in constant interaction with our environment. This means that we experience feelings in relation to our environment! It is a neurological mistake to insinuate that we must find feelings within ourselves. Developmentally, we experience (!) that our feelings are largely created by and in relation to our environment.
The problem with this myth
The problem this presupposition creates is that we think (driven by therapists, coaches and self-help methods) that needing something from outside yourself is ‘wrong’. Because it keeps you dependent, even helpless. And that solving that need can only happen by digging within yourself to find a resource. This creates an undeniable problem, one that cannot be solved no matter how many internal resources you find and apply. Why? The emotional brain doesn’t work that way. How we have learned to feel is, as it were, from the outside in, and not from the inside out!
“It is a neurological mistake to insinuate that we must find feelings within ourselves.”
I need understanding
For example, suppose you have a deep need to feel understood in a particular relationship or perhaps in general. Then another person is involved. Namely the person who does or does not do his best to understand you. But what if someone is not understanding? According to the myth, there are several ways to go about this. You find ‘all’ the sources within yourself and, for example, learn to communicate better. You’ll learn ways to be more empathetic or set boundaries to demand understanding. You can also seek resources to help you ignore the need for understanding. Perhaps you can tap into more self-confidence to be less affected when you feel misunderstood, etc. But none of these resources will ultimately solve the ultimate desire for understanding.
Self-help as a cause of problems
Why is that? The emotional brain needs to ‘feel understood’ from someone outside yourself. It makes sense for us to recognize that our emotional brain processes information in the same way it did when we were children. And that a concept such as ‘being understood’ is built up in the interaction with our environment. When as a child you felt understood by the people around you, the need for understanding is calmed. If this was not possible in the past, the need remains. As if you experience an empty well that needs to be filled with water. And that well can only be filled if it is filled by the action of someone else.
In the world of self-help, coaching and therapy, when we continue to cling to the myth that “all resources are within ourselves,” we cause more problems than solutions for our clients. Many resources come from outside us, and that is how it should be.
Wassili Zafiris is the developer of the RETaC method, Relationship Emotion Therapy and Coaching, based on the work of neuroscientist Lisa Barrett Feldman. RETaC is an intervention method modeled on the functioning of the emotional brain in which, among other things, dilemmas as described above are elegantly solved. The above article comes from his forthcoming book: RELIEF (OPLUCHTING, Dutch).