It’s pretty much the party line in NLP to express the view that people are responsible for their own states, and that can lead to larger claims about the extent to which we create our own realities. The intention behind that perspective is a useful one, in that it encourages people to take responsibility for themselves, which is without doubt a good thing. Whether it represents reality is quite another, and in the battle between dogma and actuality I know which I’m inclined to side with.
Let’s look first at the notion of entrainment. Put simply, human organisms are designed to synch up with one another. We’re a social species, and can only get round to the business of making more of us, or embarking in collective endeavours, by joining in activities together. And that has a biological element which is at odds with the ‘me me’ meme prevalent in the world of personal development. Sleep patterns are easily changed by environmental factors such as light, a phenomenon utilised by interrogators worldwide. There’s a whole science of crowd dynamics predicated on the basis of groups responding in ways that owe more to physics than psychology. And while NLP trainers preach the doctrine of individual responsibility, they use methods designed to get groups functioning as one, music typically being used to shape the state of trainees.
So focused is NLP on individualism, that it overlooks the simple truth that we are members of any number of communities, and that this has organic aspects. It goes further. There’s been research into health that shows an increase in visits to GPs when the local team loses. And there’s correlation between football results and domestic violence too. Another angle on this comes from human response to electromagnetic influences — there’s a whole spectrum of radiations we’re subject to that affects us. Longest lived profession? Orchestra conductor. The shorter life spans have something in common: they’re people who all work with sound concentrated in a narrow band, eg pneumatic drill operators. And you don’t need to be doing something that extreme to experience stress from noise.
Feeling stressed from these toxic ideas? That’s fine. Recite yourself some mantra to the effect that you are at cause in your own personal universe. Only…wouldn’t that mean you’re subject to the influence of memes too? Hmm. For fuck’s sake, NLP is a meme! (Or, more specifically, a memeplex.) Where would you have got the idea that only you can influence what goes on in you if you hadn’t been introduced to it in a book, on a training, or by someone you consider…influential. And why do many people take up NLP in the first place? So that they can affect others.
Now, I’m all in favour of people being able to take a mature considered view of their actions, and behaving in ways that indicate a moral dimension to their lives, rather than merely lashing out whenever they’re aggrieved. And it’s characteristic of people who’ve done NLP training or other forms of personal development that they have such a capacity. But think back to before you acquired that ability. The world was a very different place, wasn’t it? More emotionally chaotic, fraught with unreasonable people, and intolerable difficulties.
Point being: that’s how things are for a lot of people. And it can sound pretty fucking glib for someone with a shelf full of Paul McKenna books to be lecturing a friend about pulling their life together and taking responsibility. Especially given, as we know from Mr Johari and his windows, that we all have blindspots in which we’re not in control of our own lives. I’m very taken with what little I know of Byron Katie, and have watched videos of her doing incredible work that’s helped turn peoples’ lives around. But Byron Katie, and everyone else at the front of a room full of people who’ve paid good money to see them, is in a privileged position: she only gets audiences who are pretty much sold on her paradigm even before the seminar starts. People can’t get enough of whooping and hugging and crying in a group, and if they get a certificate and some useful tools for their lives after the hype has subsided, so much the better.
When I worked with mentally ill people, there was one particular homeless woman who helped me realise how facile a lot of the happy happy NLP groupthink is. She’d come to the attention of services when she was found, beaten up by a partner, in one of those big bins they have at hospitals. By then, she was in her forties, and had come through sexual abuse as a child and substance abuse from her teens. She’d worked on the streets, been attacked a few times leaving her with lingering damage, and started off each day by knocking back a litre of White Lightning, one of those industrial-strength ciders that’s never been anywhere near an apple. Her time would be spent scavenging for something to smoke and drink, until she reached some form of oblivion and would, more often than not, be hoiked away by an ambulance or police van at great expense to the tax payer. I got to know and like her a great deal. She was sharp and funny, and had a real warmth and concern for — get this — those she considered less fortunate than her.
I’m willing to bet someone’s reading this and wondering what I did to turn her life round with NLP. Or coming up with examples of people in even worse situations who came out on top and wrote a tear-stained memoir about it. Thing being, contra to the spirit of NLP, what’s possible for one person is not always possible for another. The woman I wrote about couldn’t have been cared for more, and she couldn’t have cared for herself less. I’ve worked with some people in that kind of environment where I’ve helped them accept some degree of responsibility for the issues they face, but — again, contra to NLP, people don’t always have the resources they need. Any number of homeless people I’ve worked with can’t hold a tenancy down because they find it impossible to turn away visitors, and their flats soon become home to miscellaneous people who use the place as somewhere to obliterate their consciousnesses indoors together: we all need company, and we’re all affected by the company we keep, whether we recognise their influence or not.
Peer support is the buzzword that’s used for this effect. Birds of a feather and all that. You’ll find some of them in training rooms, beaming with confidence and recycling the new personal enhancement mantras they’ve been loaded with. You’ll find others loaded on cheap amphetamine sharing conspiracy theories about Rastafarians being aliens. The process is much the same. And the more social worlds you pass through, the more you realise how much we have in common, and how consensual reality is maintained.