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Oatmeal into Art: The Perception of structure

Anne' Linden & Susan James

The Perception of Structure


How do you know the difference between your dreams, fantasies and waking reality? Between what you picture in your imagination and what you perceive in the outside world? Between a memory and a hope? Between your feelings and your lover's feelings? How do you know whether the sadness you're feeling originates with your child or you? What is appropriate behavior when interacting with your boss at a cocktail party vs. at work? How do you teach your children appropriate sexual behavior?

NLP enables us to make these kinds of finer distinctions and to notice the patterns within the distinctions. For instance, NLP defines context as pertaining to who, when, where, what and how long, with regard to a particular change. But how do we experience context, and how is 'context' even possible? The multi-level distinctions which we call context are created and defined by the phenomena of boundaries.

A boundary can be described as a rule that defines and determines differences between internal and external reality (me/not-rne), self and other, and context, in order to evaluate what behavior is appropriate, safe, useful and desirable. Boundaries, in order to be useful, are permeable and bi-directional (allowing exchange from both sides in the same manner that skin is a membrane, separating, protecting and allowing exchange between internal physiology and the external environment). Without permeability there is a wall instead of a boundary. Flexibility permits expansion and contraction to accommodate new information (the ability to tolerate counter examples). In this article, the word boundary implies permeability.

Boundaries are comprised of filters through which we process and interpret information. They occur at different levels of "reality", i.e. physiology, sensation, perception and cognition. Boundaries in NLP can be made up of filters such as: representational systems, primary sorts (person, place, information, activity, thing), criteria, chunk size, time operators, referential index, etc. When the control (or the perception thereof) over which filter(s) are used is internal, the existence of a boundary is more likely, whereas when the use of a particular filter(s) is externally imposed the existence of a 'wall' is more likely. Walls (separation without exchange of information) can be useful initially in creating distinctions and providing protection; however, they also can result in the isolation of useful resources. This can produce, over time, an imbalance and lack of integration in the human system.

All therapeutic work involves issues of boundaries: the creation, expansion, contraction, changing permeability, reorganization and restructuring thereof. The establishment of boundaries is dependent upon the physical and psychological development of the human being. The most fundamental boundary necessary for physical and psychological functioning is established earliest, while the more sophisticated and refined boundaries develop later through the process of more complex interactions with the environment. A perceived problem and the type of boundary involved determines how a therapist might approach the change process. There are those clients who are able to make profound changes in one, two or three sessions, and others who need the therapeutic process chunked over time - over time being the more important aspect.

In this article we are exploring the creation of a way to think about doing NLP psychotherapy. We are using the concept of boundaries and the developmental process as the basis upon which to build an NLP frame for psychotherapy. We recognize that this is a by-product of our individual models of the world and certainly does not represent the only possibility. We believe it is crucial for the well-being of the therapist and the client that there be some way in which the therapist can begin to determine whether a client is an appropriate candidate for brief therapy or extended therapy. That is, should therapy focus more on a change of behavior involving a contextual/situational boundary, thus taking several sessions using discrete techniques, or should the focus be more on issues of self, which may be better dealt with by chunking smaller, over time and with added weight give to the relationship between therapist and client (eg. the process of creating and strengthening an internal frame of reference, by definition, occurs over time).

This distinction is extremely important since it affects the expectations of both client and therapist. It can be destructive for both if there are unrealistic assumptions about the length of time involved in the change process. It is important for both to be aware that while an intervention affecting a specific behavior may be effective for that behavior, wider implications for the cybernetic self-system must be considered.

To date we have explored three viable, "working" types of boundaries. The first of these is "internal/external" boundaries, exemplified by D.W. Winnicott's statement about the skin and the boundaries of the body "... the limiting membrane that allows the human being to distinguish the difference between me and not me. That is, the distinction between external reality and internal reality (including perception of external reality)..." This type of boundary begins to be established soon after birth and is critical to the development of all other types of boundaries. This boundary enables us to know the difference between dreams, fantasy and waking reality, between our internal images and external visual stimuli, between what has already occurred in our past and what has yet to occur in our future. Having this boundary also allows useful distinctions to be made among internal parts. Without this type of boundary development of a more sophisticated internal frame of reference is limited.

The second type of boundary is "self and other". This boundary is what allows us to simultaneously identify with others and maintain a separate sense of self, that is, to maintain a balance between merger (fusion) and differentiation. This type of boundary begins to take form around 4-6 months after birth, and allows for finer distinctions to be made within the larger category of "not-rne". It is this boundary which enables us to know the difference between our feelings and another's feelings in a relationship.

The third type of boundary is "context/situation". These boundaries allow distinctions about people, place, activity, information and thing which facilitate the evaluation of appropriate behavior. These boundaries start forming around age 5 and continue developing throughout life. This boundary enables us to know when we can swear or tell a dirty joke and when this behavior would be unacceptable or dangerous. It also enables us to recognize the environmental cues that determine behavior, such as place (home, church, office, nightclub), objects (your car or someone else's car), people (authority figures or peers, old people or babies) and information (selecting courses to take in college in order to fulfill the requirements for a major).

The NLP patterns that are necessarily operative in the creation and maintenance of boundaries are: 1) an internal frame of reference, such that the criteria used to determine whether something is useful, safe or desirable are internal; 2) the ability to notice differences, that is mismatching. This can be in relation to chunk size, criteria, primary sorts, representational systems, submodalities, etc.; "... it is by difference that we grow. "(D.W. Winnicott); 3) the ability to change referential index, which enables us to change our point of view or perspective so that we can both identify with, and be separate from, others; 4) the ability to be in meta-position, or the choice to be associated or dissociated. This permits us self-awareness, self-observation and awareness of 'self-in- relationship'; 5) the ability to be through time, or the experience of time as a continuous, ongoing process that effect change, no matter how slight or small, and the experience of self as a dynamic process rather than a static (in time) object.

While the concept of boundaries may be new in the NLP framework, the application of NLP techniques to boundary issues is not. A number of current NLP techniques can be considered from the point of view of their impact on boundaries. Submodality work and the development of representational systems creates and refines internal/external boundaries. Anchoring and future pacing change walls into boundaries by taking a resource (part) and connecting it to other contexts (or self system). The V-K dissociation affects time boundaries by moving from in time toward through time and refines distinctions between internal and external reality via emphasizing different representation systems, and, in some cases, self/other distinctions.

The Change History Technique affects time boundaries, e.g. learning that a single trauma is not the end of the world, and self/other distinctions, e.g. the abandoned child who assumes he/she was abandoned because of something wrong with him/her. Reframing can create boundaries where there are none by refining and strengthening the distinctions among internal parts. Refraining also transforms walls into boundaries by defining and acknowledging the positive intention or function of that walled off, isolated part and generating a cybernetic communication system which promotes integration within the system. Reframing expands flexibility of referential index and separates intention (internal reality) from behavior (external reality). When a part is walled off there is no access to that potential resource and the resulting isolation inhibits the ongoing integration of the system and the development of the full potential of the person.

As this organizing framework emerges from our preliminary explorations, applications to therapy are becoming more apparent. Utilizations inherent within this frame include: 1) selection, chunking and organization of intervention; 2) evaluations of result; 3) the determination of whether to contract for brief or extended therapy based on the level of boundary development at which the client has difficulty.

As our research continues, we hope to develop a clarified and more easily implemented structure of boundaries that will facilitate effective NLP psychotherapy. We welcome any comments, questions and examples of the above from our readers so that we may do a more thorough piece of work. We will be presenting our findings in more depth (including clinical experience) in subsequent articles to appear over the next year. Please send your feedback and information to: NY Training Institute for NLP, 20 Hawks View Lane, Accord, NY 12404, c/o Boundaries Group. We wish to acknowledge the members of this group for their important contributions to the formulation of the ideas that we have presented in this article.

Susan James, M.A., is a psychotherapist and NLP Master Practitioner. Anne' Linden, M.A., is a psychotherapist, NLP Trainer and Director of the NY Training Institute for NLP and the NLP Center for Psychotherapy.