Part 6: Linguistic Reality

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The painting on the left is René Magritte’s “La trahison des images” (“The Treachery of Images”). The picture presents us with a pipe and beneath the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). When asked about the painting and what it meant, Magritte simply replied: “of course it’s not a pipe, just try filling it with tobacco.” (I’m paraphrasing but you get the gist!).

So, what does Magritte’s painting have to do with the Anatomy Of Problems and Linguistic Reality that our heading suggests? Quite a lot, actually!

In this section, we’ll be discovering how the mind creates Meaning and how we construct our Reality. A lot of what we think is “real”, really depends on how we think. And how we think can have a dramatic effect on the nature of our Problems.

We’ll be exploring the notion of Reality and discovering how to manipulate it by our use of language (the “Linguistic” part of NLP). By the end of this section, we’ll also find out how changing our internal reality can also affect changes in our external reality.

This is going to be some journey – we’ll be taking a quick dip in a philosophical pool, playing with some thought experiments and I’ll generally be messing with your head. 

A Starting Point For Reality

What can we say is Real?

This is a topic of discussion that’s been going on for eons. There’s lots of different views on what reality is (and isn’t) and there are questions like: “is there an external reality?“, “when a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it make a sound?” to “do unicorns exist?“, all of which aren’t particularly helpful to our discussion.

So let us begin by finding a starting point…

René Descartes

Let us use as the basis of our discussion a saying from a really smart cookie – French Philosopher, René Descartes:

“Cogito ergo sum”

(French: “Je pense, donc je suis”; English: “I think, therefore I am”).

Without getting into the major philosophical debates about this statement and the use of the word “I”, let us just assume that from this: “Something is thinking, therefore something exists”.

Now, I can’t prove You exist and vice versa (let’s not go down this road unless you want a major mental malfunction!) but I think we can agree that we all experience some form of reality.

We can’t prove that anything external really exists – there may be things out there although it’s impossible to fully know precisely what they are. We have sense perceptions – we taste, touch, hear and see things – although these can sometimes be fallible and play tricks on us. What is certain is that we have “Thoughts”.

So, using Thoughts as our starting point, let us play and see what we come up with!

Thought Experiment: Are We Perceiving The Same Thing?

If you were to put 2 people into a room and show them an object, would they be seeing the same thing? In “normal” conversation, we would say “Yes” (if we didn’t we’d probably be sent to see a psychiatrist and probably be labelled as having some form of mental problem!).

Just like the Magritte picture we assume that, when we communicate, we’re all talking about the same thing and have the same mental image. But is this true?

Think about it for a moment. Each person occupies a different space and so what they see will be different: the perspective they have will differ; the colours and shades will be different and even what they notice, or think is important, about the object when they report back what they saw will all be different.

What we can be sure of is that everyone’s perception of an external reality is unique. Understanding that our no 2 people will ever experience things in the same way, is very important when it comes to dealing with any emotional problem.

For the moment, keep in the back of your mind the idea that:

Your experience any problem is unique.

In fact, all Thoughts are unique. This uniqueness of your experience – how you interpret the outside world – happens after our senses have received the data.

So what’s going on internally?

The Illusion Of Reality

After our senses have taken in all the information, what happens then?

Well, our minds are wonderful at sorting out the information – we use various systems to filter, distort, delete, generalise and basically change what we’ve perceived into something else.

For example, if you were to look around the room you’re in now, what do you notice and what will you remember? If you were to try and remember this moment in a day or two, then you’ll find that a great deal of what you’ve experienced has been filtered. The information of this moment will be stored somewhere in your brain but access to it is restricted simply because (for whatever reason) your mind doesn’t think it’s important enough to recall.

Similarly, we can generalise things to make sense of them. A cup on your desk is put into a mental category of “cups”, even though they may be different shapes; have different patterns; be made of different materials and have different sizes.

If you were to ask: “What really is a cup?”, is it simply about how the object functions? Asserting that “An object is a cup because it can be used to hold liquids” doesn’t quite… er, hold water (pardon the pun) because a bucket can hold liquids too! Does that mean that a bucket nothing more than a bigger version of a cup?

These are just a few examples and you get the point that, on the whole, we distort what’s “externally real” and put in place a version of it an internal representation which our minds manipulate in order to make sense of it.

A Subjective Reality

As we’ve now discovered, everyone’s reality must be completely subjective. What you consider real isn’t necessarily what I would consider real.

For example, if I were to ask You about whether Santa Claus is real, you may say “No”… but ask a 4 year old and you’d get a completely different picture of their reality! (Note: It’s okay if you answered “Yes” – he is actually real! :) ).

Again, it could be said that what we perceive of the external world is nothing more than an illusion. We have no access to the external reality and, when we do perceive it, we change how we make sense of it! We then go on to try and communicate this sense of our internal reality with other people and, collectively, it’s normally assumed we’re all talking about the same thing/object with a shared reality… when really, we aren’t!

So even though we may appear to be talking the same language, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we mean the same thing when we use certain words.

What’s important to realise is that we make massive assumptions asserting things are real when we communicate with each other. Like the Magritte picture, we assume that we have a shared understanding of ideas when we say “It’s a pipe”.

These “shared ideas” are useful because they are shorthands for conveying ideas. Unfortunately, they can also be problematic if we don’t share the same ideas.

…And this is where it gets interesting!

Subjective Reality Over Time

Even, internally, the meaning of words change as we develop. The more we experience and learn, the more the way we think about things change.

However, we rarely take the time to stop and consider the power of words and what they mean in the context of our lives (and Problems). A word that you may have used 5 or 10 years ago may have a completely different meaning to you now. For example: think of a word that you used as a child that you use differently now (Like “Santa”) – how is it different Now to back then?

If we’re not careful to update our internal experience and change what we mean by things (e.g. repeating an emotional problem internally), then it’s very easy to end up confused!

And if it’s easy for us to change our own internal meaning and reference point when we use certain words then, if you expand this idea out to include other people, you can start to see where problems in communications can begin to happen.

So, let’s have a look at what meaning of things and how this affects our internal reality. (and later we’ll see how this fits in with understanding Problems).

Same Word, Different Meaning

I was once attending a conference in a hotel in Atlanta and decided to order a meal. I called room service and asked for “steak, chips and a fizzy cola beverage”. You can imagine what happened when they brought my food up – yup… I received what we could call in the UK a “packet of crisps”. I had forgotten that over in the US, “chips” meant something else and so had to re-order a bowl of “fries”!

Different Words, Same Meaning

If you were to count to ten in English, then it would be: “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten”. In German, it’s: “eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht, neun, zehn”. In Swedish: “ett, två, tre, fyra, fem, sex, sju, åtta, nio, tio”. And in Cantonese: “yap, yi, sum, say, mm, lok, tat, baat, gow, sup” (as I recall). Okay… I could show off and do it French and Malay too although I think you get my point.

Okay, so you get the point – we can have the same idea of a thing but use different words for them.

In the context of problems – you may have the same idea of a problem as someone else (like fear or anger) but they may use different words for it. What makes resolving problems difficult is that, sometimes, we’re actually talking about the same thing but we’re using different words.

And the more words we have to describe things, the more complex things can get (if we’re not careful)!

A Linguistic Reality

There are different ways that we come to understand things. Predominantly, for most people, our Conscious Mind tends to understand things through the use of Language.

That’s not to say that Language is the only way we come to know things – for example, children seem to have some form grasp on reality even before they start using language. For our Unconscious Minds, we often find ourselves dreaming - signs and symbols work equally as well language, when we’re asleep. These symbolic representations when we dream is the way that our Unconscious minds organise and make sense of things.

Language is simply the way in which we can come to make sense and communicate what we understand to each other, when we’re awake.

Philosophical Side Note:
Language a tool for communication. For language to work, it requires more than 1 person to use the tools. If there were no other people externally, then why would we need to develop language to talk to ourselves?

If I were to ask you how you know something is real, then you’d probably tell me that you can feel it, hear it, touch it or smell it. There’s a representation of reality which you have coded internally. This internal coding is learned. You would then express this internal coding using words. Words transform the internal experience into something that another person (external) can make sense of.

Now, here’s the interesting thing – the words that we choose to use can change the experience of them.

The Power Of Words

Words are extremely powerful.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough for someone to look at you in a special way and they’ve then said “I love you”, you’ll know how that feels. The warmth, tenderness and passion. If you have, then go back to that time and notice what you’re experiencing NOW. (In a previous section, we discussed how our memories of an event is actually experienced right Now).

Contrast this example to something like a negative situation when someone said “I’m leaving you”. If you’re unlucky enough to experience this, then your mind will probaby go back to that experience and the hurt that it brings. If you’re there right now, then just remember that it’s an experience – step outside of yourself and put some distance between subjective You and the event. Look at it like an outside observer and notice what happens if you increase the distance…

If you’ve done this experiement (especially the negative experience), you’ll notice that, simply by changing the words used, a massive emotion was uncovered.

What did I use to get you to those experiences? Words.

This demonstrates the power that Words have on our emotional reactions… so, what if there way a way of using words to control our emotional experience?

Well, you’re in luck. Because there is.

The Reality Of Problems

The Reality Of Problems is that they can be controlled, simply by altering the way in which we perceive them.

The way that we perceive them are, on the whole (not entirely), affected by the use of our language.

Therefore, simply by changing the way in which you use your language, you can change the subjective nature of your experience (past, present and future).

If you’ve been following all of the sections closely, then you may have reached this conclusion:

You express “Problem” is express your problem using language. Through the choice of your words, you replay the situations, scenarios and events out again and again and effectively tell yourself a story of “the problem”. Quite simply, You create your own “Problem”.

Changing the words and, more importantly, the meaning, can have a powerful impact in resolving your problem. Your “Problem” can only have a meaning because of the language you use.

If you’ve understood the implications of this section, you’ll now know that YOU can change your Reality!

If nothing else existed, this also makes you responsible for the choices and, ultimately, the reality You create using your language.

Linguistic Reality Summary

So, what have we discovered in this section?

  • The Use of Language assumes a common and shared understanding of ideas.
  • Language can become a problem if a shared understanding does not exist.
  • For the most part, we use Words and Language to form this “Reality”.
  • Your internal Reality can change over time.
  • Your internal Reality can change by using different words and language.
  • You create your own Reality (and therefore your own Problems!).
  • Only You can create the lasting changes required to resolve Problems in your reality.

The Anatomy Of A Problem Index:

One Response to Part 6: Linguistic Reality

  1. Jim says:


    Very timely realization for me. Today i picked up an old habit out of frustration and i went down the exact path that you shared with us. Yes it temporally protects me from the feelings of frustration, but after wards i feel the negative emotions tied to the escape. Of course that is when i know that i will never do that again, and that is how i move past it. I do this a lot less then i used to, but the fact is that i still do it and wanna stop. I will reread the piece again and see of i can develop an escape ahead of time by using new words and rearranging thoughts. I will also try this on smaller problems now, and see if it starts to feel like second nature. Looking forward to the next chapter. Thanks Jim

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