One of the most famous NLP techniques is the Phobia Cure, a manipulation of the sequence and perspective of imagined events that cause the body to react as if there is immediate danger. It has been a staple of my psychotherapy/coaching practice for 30 years.
And I have seen it fail! Let me give you an example: I was working with a young man who was about to be married in a few days and was terrified of giving a speech in front of the families and friends who were to attend. Clearly, there was no immediate or future threat to his safety. Everyone who was to attend cared about him. No matter how many times I used the technique with him, the level of fear stayed the same. What went wrong?
I had a few suspicions: was this marriage the best thing for him, was there a self-image issue, or a commitment problem? I gently circled those questions, but it was clear that at this late date he was not open to exploring these issues.
Over the years I have learned to search for additional information when someone comes to me to get over a phobia I look for answers to questions such as:
- Is this the only “phobia” or are there clusters of them?
- Did this fear have a trigger event or has is been a life-long issue?
- What submodalities (images, sounds, or feelings) drive the fear strategy?
- Is there a compelling motivation for the person to overcome the fear?
- Is the fear a component of a larger issue, such as a limiting self-concept?
What I learned has made a huge difference in the level of success I have had in helping people. An exciting case in point happened recently.
A dear, long-time friend was recently visiting from the mid-west. As I drove us up into the foothills I noticed she fidgeted and occasionally gasped as we came to a curve that had a drop-off. I’ve been told I am a good driver so I suspected she had acrophobia. When we encountered 12-foot high bridges that led us to the elephant enclosures at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, she really panicked. Even though she loved animals and wanted to get closer, she resisted the ramps. She then admitted that she had been afraid of heights as long as she could remember.
I offered to do a phobia cure with her but she shook her head. “It won’t work with me,” she said, so I backed off. (Remember, we always need an invitation to intervene.)
The next day I discovered that the Wildlife Sanctuary we planned to visit was on 720 acres and the only way to see the animals was to walk a mile-long, 22-foot high ramp. I showed her the website and suggested we skip the trip. “No, I have to see the animals.” Now she was motivated!
I asked her to tell me more about the acrophobia. Her fear wasn’t so much about getting too close to the edge, but of the supporting structures failing. It also became clear that she was hyper-vigilant about many situations – being a passenger in another driver’s car, flying in airplanes – anything that involved depending on others for her safety. I guessed, from what I knew of her childhood, that the larger issue stemmed from the fact that she really couldn’t rely on her parents to provide a safe, dependable environment when she was growing up. I asked about her strategy for deciding whether or not to attempt anything novel and she said, “It has to be within my control.” So I knew I had to provide a compelling vision of her future-self being alert, in control, and safe.
I could also hear a strong auditory component in response to her fear: “I can’t do this; I am a failure.” We would need a verbal replacement.
Once I had uncovered the larger scope of the phobia, I proceeded with the standard phobia cure which involves making a double dissociated, black and white movie of her being on a high ramp and returning to the ground safely, then having her step into the movie at the final frame and running it backward in color. We did this several times until her knees no longer got weak and her stomach no longer lurched. Then I suggested she watch a new movie of her future-self walking to a high place and being alert and safe. We imagined her doing this in several contexts and also had her say to herself: “I relax, I do my best; I am alert and safe.” Once I saw her face and body relax, I felt that the process was fitting her criteria for control, her auditory supporting statements, and her ability to be confident, we were ready to test it.
The following day we visited the Sanctuary. The difference was amazing. She was surprised and delighted when she walked the mile long ramp out and back with ease.Â There were two places that were a bit scary – when the ramp went over a road and when ½ of it was blocked for repairs making the 4-foot-wide ramp only 2 feet wide. Since she was very auditory, I suggested we sing as we walked back over the same territory as we returned to the entrance. And it worked! She was fine.
As we toasted her success that evening with a glass of wine, she gloated. “Now that I know I can overcome that, I think I can do anything!” Quite a powerful change.
Too often phobia cures are done without exploring the larger scope of a fear’s impact and context. If it doesn’t work, look for the driving submodality (it’s not always images), the motivating criteria for changing it, the scope of the fear (is it about capabilities or identity?), and the impact of making the change on the person’s safety and self-image.
In the NLP of the Rockies Master Training we explore such anomalies that exist when using NLP processes. Check out the topics we will cover in the spring!