Introduction to Submodalities (+ how they are useful)

visual submodalities - color black and white
Visual submodalities – black and white or colour?

One of the great discoveries of NLP, and one of the things that sets it apart from any other kind of changework, is Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s realisation that process is more important than content.

To put it another way, the way you think about something is more important than what you’re thinking about. Of course, we’ve known for a long time that we filter our experience, as if we have mental spin doctors reinterpreting what happens to us before we even become aware of it. Way back in the 1st Century AD, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:

“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”

We all know this is true in principle, but most people still act as if it is the content of what we think about that determines how we feel about it. If someone thinks about car crashes a lot, they would probably feel anxious if their husband is late coming home.

What NLP gives us is a practical way of changing how we think about things, so we can change our emotional response to those thoughts.

Would it be useful to defuse bad memories, so they don’t trip you up if something reminds you of them? If you sometimes get a critical inner voice that holds you back or affects your performance, wouldn’t it be great to be able to ignore it effortlessly? And would it be useful to make the mental images of your goals so compelling that it feels like you are pulled towards them, so you just take action without having to motivate yourself?

This is what we can do, and the best way to do this is using submodalities. Yes, a bit more jargon, but it makes sense. In the previous programme we talked about sensory modalities – visual, auditory, kinesthetic and so on. The sub-modalities are the qualities of each of these modalities.

Try out this submodality exercise
Before we get into the details of what submodalities are, would you like to have an undeniable experience of how you can change how you feel just by varying the qualities of how you’re thinking about something, rather than having to change the content of what you’re thinking about?

Let’s try this thought experiment. As ever with exercises in a book or a blog post, you will probably get better results when you get someone to guide you through the exercise rather than trying to read it yourself at the same time as trying to experience it.

Think of a good memory. Choose one that you feel good when you think about it – you know the kind of memories I mean. Got one? OK, notice how you feel when you look at that memory. Maybe mark the intensity of the good feeling out of 10, where zero is ‘meh’ and 10 is ecstatic.

As you look at that memory, how big is the picture? Is it life-size or smaller? If it’s smaller, notice what happens to how you feel about it when you expand the picture up to life-size. How was that? For most people, the good feeling grows stronger as you make the picture bigger. All the changes we’re trying out are designed to maximise the good feeling. At the same time, everyone’s experience is different, so feel free to make the changes that work for you.

Now, is that picture near or far away? If it’s far away, what happens as you move it closer, to the location that feels best for you?

If it’s a bit blurry, bring it into focus and notice what happens to your response.

Is the picture in colour or black and white? If it’s black and white, what happens when you add some colour? And what happens if you make those colours brighter? You’ll find the ideal levels of brightness and that feel best for you.

Is the picture moving or still? If it’s still, you might want to try putting a bit of movement in – people move a little bit when they’re breathing, for example.

Is it 3D or flat? If it’s flat, notice what happens when you add some depth and make it 3D.

Notice how you feel about the picture: what kind of feeling is it (a good one, if you’ve chosen the right memory), and how intense is the feeling?

Now, here’s a distinction which can make a huge difference. As you look at the picture, are you looking at it from the outside like a camera in a reality TV show, so you can see your own face or the back of your own head in the picture; or is your viewpoint within it, looking through your own eyes, as you did when it actually happened?

If you’ve been looking at it from the outside – dissociated – notice what happens when you step into the memory, so you’re seeing it from the inside. Most people find that when you’re associated into the memory, the good feeling becomes more intense – and you can turn it up even higher. And just make any other tweaks or changes to the way you’re experiencing that memory to make that good feeling as strong as you want it to be.

And come back.

What did you learn from doing that? Most people find that their emotional response is stronger when the picture is lifesize, rather than small; in colour, rather than black and white; and moving rather than still. It’s just more realistic; this is why people would rather watch widescreen plasma TVs to small black and white portables.

What’s going on in that exercise? Just this: we’ve evolved to pay more attention to things that are close than things that are far away; things that are moving rather than still; and things that are brightly coloured rather than grey. You can see how that would have helped our ancestors to survive.

These qualities – these ‘submodalities’ – are like codes that tell your brain how much importance to attach to incoming sensory information. So we were enhancing the submodalities of a good memory to intensify the good feeling you get from it. Of course, you could equally well reduce the submodalities of a bad memory to make your emotional response less intense, and a number of NLP techniques work by doing exactly that.

You can use submodalities to enhance future imagined images as well as memories. So you could take the image of a future goal and make it bigger, brighter, and more vivid to make it a more compelling and motivating image. We’ll be finding out how to do that expertly in a later article.

If you tried the exercise, leave a comment to let me know how you got on! Also, you may want to read the follow-up article NLP: Submodalities And Your Personal Effectiveness.

Recommended book: An Insider’s Guide To Submodalities by Richard Bandler and Will MacDonald


© 2013 – 2019, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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