Article Categories
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
Clean Language
Article Selections
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
First published in Personal Success magazine - November 1993

Change Your Thinking … Change Your Life
Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

Think about the following question:
    What stops you from having the things in life you want...or want more of?

Did you answer money?... time?... my boss, mother, father, partner?... fate?... bad luck? What is interesting about these answers is that the cause is external to you and outside of your direct control.

In order to understand how you can influence your external world, you need to understand how your thinking affects your internal world. NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) is the most useful approach we know for doing this. For additional information about NLP and how it is used in business, education, health, sports, etc., refer to the September issue of "Personal Success" magazine and our article entitled NLP: The Science of Excellence...The Art of Change.


Why should we bother to "think positively?" Based on much published information, many people have benefited from positive thinking. And those of us who have consciously tried it have found it to be worthwhile. But how does it work--and how much of the success of positive thinking is a result of the Conscious mind?

You may already know your conscious awareness has a restricted capacity for retaining information. Research has shown we can hold 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of information in awareness at any one time. Techniques for helping people with their memory often vary the size of the chunks, or find ways to link small chunks into one larger chunk to allow more memory capacity. This is why telephone numbers are broken into three and four digit sections.


So what else is happening behind the 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of information in our conscious thinking? What organises our heartbeat, our digestion, our response to outside temperature? What allows us to drive our car without having to think about it? What receives literally billions of pieces of external information, and processes them with no effort?

Psychologists refer to this part of the mind as the Unconscious, or more accurately, the Other-Than-Conscious, because it is far from unconscious. It is awake and active even when we are asleep. Doctors were surprised to discover that, under hypnosis, patients who had been anaesthetised were able to recall every word said in the operating theatre. One part of their mind was obviously fully aware of what was going on!

The brain looks after thousands of functions in the body every moment, and can handle astronomic amounts of information. What is most impressive is it can do all of these things at the same time without any need for conscious control. And fortunately, it never forgets how.

The Unconscious responds to every external stimuli, and every thought. Each response sets off a chemical reaction which is sent to the rest of the body. Therefore WHAT we think takes on a vital significance. The Unconscious is like a good assistant, and basically it will do what you tell it. But what exactly are you telling it to do?

You may say, "I deserve the very best," but if in your Unconscious the message is being countered with,"You?...You'll never amount to anything," what is going to be the result?

Unless you stop and think about it, you will be unaware of the Unconscious thought. All that you will probably be aware of is a slight sense of unease or something not being quite right An internal conflict may result and this will lead to incongruent behaviour. This explains why saying an affirmation, or positive statement about yourself, sometimes does not work.

NLP has techniques and strategies to help you become fully congruent. Congruence is when you align your mind and behaviour behind positive thoughts so there is total commitment to achieving an outcome. This is important because as Anthony Robbins says, "It is in your moments of decision that your destiny is shaped." A good way to experience congruence is to utilise past positive experiences and incorporate these into present behaviour. The result is new and empowered ways of thinking.

We each have ten billion neurons (brain cells). And there are more potential simultaneous connections between neurons than there are atoms in the known universe. Yes, you may need to read that again! This means we have an almost infinite capacity for creativity and problem solving. As Einstein pointed out, the ONLY way we limit ourselves is by not fully utilising this amazing gift. NLP is designed to help us access more neurological pathways and thereby create more choice in our life.

To experience NLP and find your own states of congruence, try the "Circles of Excellence" exercise in the panel accompanying this article.


We continually use negative ideas to express ourselves -- Don't turn right. Stop Smoking. Don't think negatively. These statements make our point consciously, but how are these innocent messages being received at the Unconscious level?

Try this little experiment: Don't think of blue dancing frogs.

What happened? You had to think of blue dancing frogs, and THEN use your own personal strategy to somehow negate the thought. In other words, every time you use a negative your brain is first registering the exact opposite of what you mean.

We met a friend the other day with a broken toe and asked her what happened. She replied, "I was shopping and had just picked up a tin of paint when a salesperson said, 'Careful, don't drop it on your foot.' A few moments later, the paint slipped out of my hands." The Unconscious processed the helpful salesperson's message as "Drop it on your foot -- Don't," and she followed the initial command to the letter!

Think how often children are disciplined with negatives. Don't fall. Don't touch that. Don't ...Don't...Don't. Sometimes what may seem like disobeying could just be their Unconscious processing the experience of falling or touching. Have you ever thought, "I don't want to fail," "I don't want to be in this job all my life," "I must not miss this sale"? Think about the time your brain has got to the "don't" or "must not," your whole body has already received the message: fail, stay in the job, miss the sale.

So if you want to think positively, the key question to ask yourself is: "If I don't want "X", what do I want in its place?"


Answering this question precisely gives your brain something to work toward. The more you can specify what you will see, hear and feel the more the brain is given a map to create new solutions and guide it to its outcome.

So, if you find yourself thinking something like, "I don't want to be nervous in front of a group," ask yourself, "what would I be doing instead?" You might answer "I will have steady hands, breathe easily, feel relaxed in my stomach, make eye contact, have a clear voice, be humorous, etc. etc." The more detail, and the more specific you are, the better.

More information about how you can use NLP to be specific in your thinking is available in Sue Harley's article "Achieving That Change You Really Want" in last month's issue of "Personal Success."


In order for you to be effective, your brain not only needs a specific goal, it also needs a DIRECTION to achieve that goal. If it does not have a direction it wanders randomly, avoiding what you don't want, but not going anywhere in particular. You can aim in a specified direction and maintain that course, or you can say, 'Que c'est ra, c'est ra' -- and indeed, whatever will be will be--but it will be outside of your control.

One way to get used to moving in a desired direction is to continually ask yourself "What do I have to do NEXT to achieve my goal?" As far as the Unconscious mind is concerned, the goal is like a map. The direction is like a compass. You need both to navigate successfully. Strategies for motivation use the mind's ability to move you toward what you want, and move you away from what you don't want.


Away from Failure -------------------- Toward Success

How do you motivate yourself? Are you moving away from failure, and thinking how much you don't want poverty, boredom, or embarrassment? Or are you motivated by, and moving toward success and thinking of healthy relationships, accomplishment, financial security?

Keep in mind moving away from and moving toward are both useful motivation strategies. For example, moving away from a dangerous situation is a very healthy thing to do. However, if this is the ONLY way you motivate yourself, then you are likely to be suffering from an abundance of anxiety and stress.

Given your understanding now of how the Unconscious works, you will realise the value of having a strong towards motivator. Studies of highly effective people show that, in fact, they utilise BOTH moving away from and moving towards simultaneously. Not only does this double the motivation power, it is also setting a very clear direction.

Thirty years ago Martin Luther King wanted to strongly move away from oppression and toward his dream of a society where all people are treated equal. By setting a very clear direction he motivated millions to change the course of American history.

In our experience most people have had plenty of practice moving away from what they don't want with little or no direction to their life. This article has given you an opportunity to use NLP to change your thinking so that you can have want you want... or want more of. It worked for Anthony Robbins...and it can work for you!


Here's how you can have a really resourceful state of mind and body at any time you really need it: For that job interview, for that big presentation, for that infuriating customer, for that important date tonight!

Choose the state, feelings and behaviour you want to have BEFORE you go into any situation by following this simple procedure.

You can do this exercise on your own; however, it can be useful to have a friend talk you through the steps the first time.

Stand, with about 6 feet of floor space in front of you.

1a. Imagine a circle on the floor immediately in front of you. Give the circle a colour. Make it bright, shining or whatever makes it visually attractive.

1b. Pick a word or short phrase that symbolises an appropriately powerful state for you. It might be "Go For It", or "Relaxed" or "Yes!", or "Success" etc.

2. Now, recall a time when you felt "on top of the world," or "firing on all cylinders," or some other empowered state. Go for a really good memory--perhaps one of those times when you exceeded even your own expectations!

3. Imagine yourself back at that time. See what you were seeing then, hear what you were hearing, feel what you were feeling. If there were any smells or tastes, imagine those as well. Notice what you were doing and what you were thinking at the time.

4. As your sense of being in this excellent state begins to build - Take a deep breath, say your code word and step into the circle in front of you.

5. Stand in the circle and INTENSIFY the memory, re-living those moments and enjoying those feelings that come naturally from doing something really well.

6. Now, imagine another circle with the same characteristics as the first and repeat Steps 2 to 5 with a different empowering memory. TAKE ALL OF THE FEELINGS FROM THE FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH YOU as you step into the second circle.

7. Repeat with a third circle and another resourceful memory.

8. Now think of a future situation where you want to be at your best and imagine yourself performing in the state you are experiencing now.

Modified from Charlotte Bretto "A Framework For Excellence" (1988)

One way the Unconscious learns is by repetition. So the more you practice this with memories from a variety of situations, the more it will become fixed in your neurology, and therefore automatic - like tying your shoe-lace. Very soon just taking a deep breath and thinking of your circle, or saying the code word to yourself will bring that state of excellence flooding back.

And now when you are getting ready to go to the interview, or out on that date, just take a few seconds to step into your circle, re-create those feelings, and take them with you!

Penny Tompkins & James Lawley
Penny and James are supervising neurolinguistic psychotherapists – first registered with the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy in 1993 – coaches in business, certified NLP trainers, and founders of The Developing Company.

They have provided consultancy to organisations as diverse as GlaxoSmithKline, Yale University Child Study Center, NASA Goddard Space Center and the Findhorn Spiritual Community in Northern Scotland.

Their book,
Metaphors in Mind
was the first comprehensive guide to Symbolic Modelling using the Clean Language of David Grove. An annotated training DVD, A Strange and Strong Sensation demonstrates their work in a live session. James has also written (with Marian Way) the first book dedicated to Clean Space: Insights in Space. Between them Penny and James have published over 200 articles and blogs freely available on their website:
Article Series
This article is part 2 of a 4 part series. Other articles in this series are shown below:
  1. What is NLP?
  2. Change Your Thinking - Change Your Life
  3. Rapport: The Magic Ingredient
  4. I See, Hear, and Feel What You Mean
 »  Home  »  NLP  »  Introductory NLP  »  Change Your Thinking - Change Your Life
Article Options

InsideClean Series 4

Four live workshops
online in 20

Penny Tompkins
James Lawley
Marian Way

Join us live
or view the
recordings later

enrol at

view all featured events