Your Non-Adaptive Behavior Serves an Important Purpose
Why understanding your ecology is crucial to personal development.
I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, which means that I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to sit with people and support them in self-awareness and self-directed-change. Since completing my Ph.D., one of the most valuable and comprehensive training programs I’ve come across is that provided by NLP Marin.
NLP Marin delivers a massively powerful training in change-work, a sophisticated toolkit for working with others and for working with oneself. I’m receiving no kick-back for telling you this. I’m writing this simply because I love it, and I want you to know about it too.
“NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is the study of the structure of human experience. It is a communication toolkit that provides the ability to discover, utilize, and change our programmed thoughts and behaviors, assisting us in having new experiences in life that are more satisfying, fulfilling, and enjoyable.” — NLP Marin
A while back, I went through their core training program, which lasts for about six months, and it enabled me to become a much more effective coach. Right now, I’m in their master level certification training program, which lasts about eight months. A big part of what makes NLP Marin’s training so awesome is the amount of monitored and supervised practice you do, which means a ton of actually doing the work with witnesses who provide feedback. Come to think of it, this was one of the most valuable aspects of my Ph.D. program too.
In both the core and the master training programs, there are three solid days of in-person training every three weeks, but between those sessions, there are also regular groups where students get together with teaching assistants to practice the skills that were covered (and also practiced) on the weekends. There are several of these practice sessions per week, some in-person and some via Zoom video conferencing. Students can attend as many practice sessions as they would like and are able to.
A few days ago, during a practice session via Zoom, I was what is called “the subject” in NLP, which means that someone else, “the programmer,” was practicing working with me as a client. I was focused on re-patterning an experience of worrying into a state of feeling calm and confident. At one point during the practice session, the programmer decided to explore what we call the “ecology” of the problem.
“What might you lose, that you value, when you’re feeling calm and confident?’ she asked me.
As with many of the carefully-crafted questions in the NLP Marin toolkit, this question led me to think, “Great question!” I then started to consider what intended positive outcome the worrying might have had. One of the things we learn, and practice, with NLP Marin is that every behaviour has an intended positive outcome and that there’s always a sensible reason for our apparently dysfunctional behaviour. Only by skillfully building deep rapport with the parts of ourselves that have been forgotten, and that have continued to operate autonomously on important, yet out-of-date, programs, can we hope to galvanize lasting change.
“It’s something to do with my mum,” I said. “I can feel the connection, but I don’t quite know exactly what it is.”
After the programmer gave me some reflection and space, clarity bubbled to the surface, and I blurted out, “Oh shit! I have to worry for my mum! It’s how I take care of her!” As my eyes widened, I remembered my mother, apparently overwhelmed, trying to care for four children whilst fending-off a terrifyingly violent partner, a partner, I might add, who not only didn’t provide financial support but actively drained resources to feed his drug habits. My mum never seemed to me to be worried enough about what was happening. Someone had to worry and I took on that job and I excelled at it.
In light of that dynamic, it made total sense that I needed to be worrying a lot, even though that reality is now in the past, and the things I worry about seem to be, at least on the surface, unrelated.
I continued, “But I don’t worry for Cindy [my wife].” I said, confidently, thinking that I must have transcended such childish things.
My programmer, having built rapport with my adult self and also with this worrying child part, simply reflected back what I was communicating and allowed space for further realization.
“Oh Shit!” I blurted out again. “I totally worry for Cindy. I do it all the time,” I said, while images of various different example scenarios flashed through my mind. I looked over at the sofa, where Cindy was sitting. She was laughing and had her hands raised high in the hair above her head, confirming the veracity of my exclamation.
I can now take this nugget of increased self-awareness and potentially apply it the next time worrying arises, to notice that I’m worrying for someone else and to recognize that that the worry served an important purpose in my distant past even if now it’s merely an inconvenient irritation. In the context of a larger change-work session, the realization of this ecological stumbling-block would have formed part of a process leading to an integration of knowledge between sub-parts, particularly a rich resourcing of that little boy who had been worrying unnecessarily (it turns out) all alone in the past, deep inside my current psyche.
However, the focus of the particular practice session that we were engaged in was to allow the “meta,” the third student who was watching along with the teaching assistant, to practice noticing what we call “meta-program sorts” in the subject, things like source (internal vs external), orientation (proactive vs reactive), and attention (self vs other).
The purpose of that focus was for the meta to become a more effective programmer. So after only twenty minutes, the session was brought to a gentle pause and we rotated once more: subject became meta, meta became programmer, and programmer became subject.
“With regard to the past, let’s operate and relate with ourselves and each other as if we had no choice. With regard to the future, let’s operate and relate with ourselves and each other as if we have nothing but choice.”– Carl Buchheit (co-founder of NLP Marin)
I wanted to write this article to highlight the importance of ecology in change-work. The ecology of a problem often acts as the invisible braking mechanism that cannot be released until it is brought into awareness.
It’s understandable that coaches and therapists can seem to collude with the unconscious of the client in keeping non-adaptive behaviours in place, since those behaviours serve what feels like critical functions for the client (even though it might seem counter-intuitive or illogical).
I’m grateful for the NLP Marin framework and training, for how it has empowered me to bring the ecology of “problem” states to light in myself and in others so that I can more effortlessly facilitate change.