Why do Perceptual Positions Work?

I was conducting a research study on strategies for behavioural change. In the process of this study, I accidentally stumbled into syntax of thinking during perceptual positions (PP) that facilitated breakthrough in some subjects. This article details my findings.

What is Perceptual Positions? In Neuro Linguistic Programming, it is a technique where a client occupies different positions (as her/himself, as the Other the client is having an issue with, as a third-party entity, and fourth as current observer) through spatially anchoring, associating and interacting with these various entities. I have witnessed that it is a powerful breakthrough technique for some clients and some of my fellow NLP enthusiasts agree. More on the technique here.

I wondered what makes the technique work. This oft-used quote “To be in other’s shoes” does not get to the workings of the brain. What is it about being in someone else’s shoes that causes the shift?

There are other questions too. Like why is it that in first position, when client is facing the Other, s/he is not triggered? What is the third position about? Why do some clients easily work through their issues via perceptual positions and for others, this technique is least efficacious?

Why Is First position in PP Empowering?

In our everyday lives, we at times express our anger/jealousy/disgust/sadness and other emotions (basic and mixed) in words to the person concerned. Yet, such an expression does not lead to resolution nor does it decrease the emotion permanently. We seem to loop into such moments (angry words, yelling and crying). What is different in the first position in PP?

What is different is this:

1. The Other is visually constructed, however, the image is not clear. Especially the face of the Other is not clear.

2. The Other is static and unresponsive. In the personification of the Other, only some visual features are given (they exist as a presence) but the Other does not talk nor express emotions on their face or physically move.

3. The client controls the Other and is aware they have controlled the Other. This sense of power helps the first position expression to become ‘cathartic’.

4. The expression of words and the accompanying sounds produced which is heard by subject allows them to be gradually dissociated from the emotions. This is similar to when a person writes. Further, if the subject is able to label emotions, the dissociation is greater.

5. Facilitator encourages complete expression of emotions which helps subject work through till full dissociation from the emotions happens.

Why is Second Position in PP a Breakthrough Point?

This goes to the root of self-concept development. From the moment of birth, when we become kinaesthetically aware of ourselves and discern stimuli from others, our self-concept begins to develop (Lakoff, 1999, 2003; Derks, 2005). Our personification of Others emerges and is built on this developing self-concept.

Neurologically, Medial Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) in the cranial brain is responsible for sense of self and self-evaluation. This is associated with other parts of brain like Cingulate cortex (which is responsible for attention) and Hippocampus (autobiographical memory). A self-concept has a history. This history is based on selected memories (which are themselves selected twice over, first by limited range of our faculties and then by selective perception). This history is what gives our self-concept stability and integrity.

When a client associates into the Second Position, two events happen. First, the client in the process of creating the bodily awareness of the other (through trance identification), is forced to give up personal self-concept and create the self-concept of the Other anew. This creation automatically requires a new storyline activating medial PFC and associated parts.

Now here is the interesting second event of this position. No matter how much we associate into the Other consciously, our unconscious self-awareness continues in the background. Along with that self-awareness is the already existing storyline with its default response. This is the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain.

At a certain point in the Second Position, both self-concepts become active, both the storylines and differing responses exist, disrupting the DMN and breaking an old pattern. This is why resolution begins (and in some cases, completes) in this position.

In my study, I found the existence of two parallel states. And a shift in the narrative from second position talk to first person awareness of a previous narrative. Each subject subsequently processed it differently but the disruption was common.

Further resolution may not be of the issue at hand, rather either an underlying issue or a connected issue emerges and is resolved.

What is the Third Position?

In the technique, the Position is held by the personification of someone respected by both people (in first and second position or considered as wise person). Why do we admire some people and not others? Because in our minds, they are closest to our idealized self-image. In our idealized self-image, we are aligned and congruent. There is no struggle, no inner conflicts.

When we enter into third position, we enter into our observer self-image and thereby become automatically congruent. In absence of inner conflict and accepted superior position, it is easy to give feedback/advice to the first position.

However, associating fully into this position is sometimes not possible for clients. This is because 1) Self-awareness runs in the background unconsciously 2) The disruption that happened in second position causes the brain to be active and quickly seek positions of stability which is usually in the form of old beliefs and values.

In such cases, moving into clean third eases the process.

What is the role of Fourth Position?

The fourth position is the location where client runs his/her reassurance strategy after deciding to/resolving the issue (forgiveness, letting go, moving on, leaving etc.)

What the client sees/hears/feels in this position is broken on timeline (do you want the past to continue or does the resolution appear to hold ‘good’ for future pacing?). This taking ownership of the process at meta position and then writing it down, is solidifying the new pattern. The exact syntax of thinking differs with each client (depending on their Motivation traits).

Why is the specific Sequence of PP important?

The first position is for emotions to be released. What happens when the client expresses and dissociates from the emotions, is the guilt/shame of holding onto them ends. Some of us hold in our minds that we should not be angry/sad/disgusted/bitter. Being able to legitimize the emotions with a witness (I think witnessing is key in PP; witnessing gives the expression social legitimacy and becomes a public ritual), allows client to process it. Further dissociation from the emotions decreases association into that storyline. This helps client to enter second position easily. Which is why dissolving emotions completely in first position is important.

The second position is where disruption occurs and the pattern in broken. If the client returns to first position immediately, then the chances of picking up old patterns (not exactly the same but thereabouts), is high. The movement to third position (the idealized self-image) deepens and legitimizes the pattern break. The fourth position is where resolution is evaluated in the brain and client is reassured and plans a different outcome for future.

Why is PP not Effective with some Clients?

I think there are several reasons (my conclusions based on both what my subjects revealed as well as observations from other PP sessions; it is also appropriate to state PP did not work for me):

1.      The main condition of PP is safety and trust between client and facilitator (as well as others witnessing in workshops or programs). The facilitator has to ensure this exists before client enters first position as there is self-disclosure.

2.      For some clients, auditory dissociation works wonderfully (as in hearing the words they utter). However, for others, dissociation strategy is through kinaesthetic or visual methods. I suggest creative adjustments to PP technique. A letter-writing process that begins with first position may help some. Having clients kick/box/break a physical image representative may help others. In second position, having clients hold appropriate physiology may support the process. (Please look through Aligned Perceptual Positions by Connirae Andreas for improving the way PP can be facilitated). 

3.      For those who have a strong idealized self-image and an authority figure who sculpted much of that image, the shame of being anything less than ideal is intense. Thus occupying first position and expressing negative emotions is highly incongruent. (I have developed a technique to resolve this incongruence). It might help moving the person directly to third position and getting them to advice the first position to express/resolve hesitation. And then move them back to first position. (In fact, this is the method used by Connirae in her aligned perceptual positions. Participants change positions via third position)

4.      Some folks are dissociated from their selves and exist naturally most of the time in second position. This is due to significant emotional event/s in their lives. Such folks have difficulty in entering first position and expressing. This becomes worse when they enter second position with an accompanying physical awareness. This distorts existing concept of second position and the new emerging awareness of the Other. This can be a powerful breakthrough point when an expert facilitator guides the process. Else the technique collapses.

This insight was possible thanks to participants who allowed me to model their breakthrough decisions. I think NLP modelling can help not only in eliciting excellent strategies of individuals but also to gain insights that can improve therapeutic/coaching/training processes.

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