A couple of months ago, I made a new friend here in Missoula who happens to be a master practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming, otherwise known as NLP.
NLP is a type of therapy based on the idea that we all create our own limited little “maps” of the world using our five senses. The maps are drawn with all our memories.
Our memory maps can be distorted by traumatic experiences. According to NLP practitioners, those distortions can lead to problems like chronic anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and eating disorders.
NLP practitioners can guide a client through memories of trauma to help them redraw the “map” of their life to be less personal. NLP has been said to help people disconnect from even their worst experiences so that they remember those moments as an outside observer instead of a participant.
Prior to meeting my friend, I’d heard of NLP but I’d never met anyone who practiced it. She was as curious about my work as I was about hers, so we did a professional trade.
So that’s how I ended up trying NLP and — literally — stepping outside myself.
My NLP Experience
In my first NLP session, my practitioner had me remember the most traumatic moments of my life. She said that we could trace back my anxiety to those experiences and, if we could re-code them in my mind, they wouldn’t cause me stress anymore.
So, sitting in a leather chair in her office, I lived one more time through the assault I’ve written about here before.
If you’ve ever done this sort of thing, you may know how emotionally exhausting reliving trauma is.
But the next part is what fascinates me:
I imagined that my worst memory was being projected on a movie screen in a dark theater. Everything that happened to me was playing out in front of me.
But I was instructed to step outside my body, climb out of the screen, and sit myself down in the front row of the theater.
I was to watch myself — my memory — like it was any B-list indie flick. Then, I was to imagine stepping outside of my body again and becoming a second version of myself. That second me got up and sat down one row behind the first version of me, directly behind the first version. I put my hand on the shoulder of front-row me.
So I watched the memory-movie with myself. Like I wasn’t alone.
For the next few minutes, I did this again and again until many versions of me were sitting rows and rows behind myself and I could fast-forward and rewind the movie and play a version of it in which nothing bad happened at all.
Eventually, many versions of me were holding my shoulders and watching a story that was no longer so scary.
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This probably sounds very strange as you read it. It felt very strange to imagine it, too. But now, in hindsight, I get it. It was a step-by-step way to remove me from my own worst memory and to give me power over it.
This was just one part of my first NLP session, but I was amazed that two weeks later, I read a book with assault scenes in it that might have triggered me in the past but didn’t. My husband, who sat next to me and watched me while I read, was shocked that I didn’t have a hard time reading it.
NLP has received less-than mixed support from the scientific community because there isn’t substantial evidence that our brains work in the way NLP describes. But the latter part of my NLP session was also very similar to mindfulness training, which has been scientifically supported.
Now, I’m a devotee to hard science, but at the same time, I’ve got to tell you that I’m kind of fascinated by my NLP experience.
In fact, I’ve written and talked a lot about self-persuasion, and I think that this process of dissociation — or stepping out of the self — might be an extra tool in our toolkit for persuading the self when we need it most.
The Short & Sweet Version (TL;DR)
Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is a therapy program that can help clients re-code their memories and dissociate from trauma. My experience was positive and helpful and I would recommend trying it with a good practitioner.
Micah Larsen is a persuasion specialist and the queen bee at Apis Communication Science.
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