The Structure of Change: A Response to Steve Andreas

Sep 01, 2016

I truly enjoy and appreciate intelligent discussion of NLP. Such discussions can make us all think more deeply about the principles that underlie this amazing discipline. I am therefore thrilled to have the opportunity to share ideas with Steve Andreas, one of the giants of early NLP development, regarding the Swish pattern.

Steve wrote a blog article regarding the Swish, I responded with my own article, and Steve commented in detail on my article. I guess this is now round 4! Steve made some great points in his last article, although on some matters we will have to agree to disagree. As Steve says, we will have to wait till there is serious scientific research into NLP to resolve these matters, something that seems unlikely in the near future!

To Read the Previous Exchanges Please Click the Links Below 

Steve's Original Article 

Shawn's Response 

Steve's Response to Shawn

I would like to use this post to explain in detail the HNLP Meta Pattern, which Steve takes some objection to. But before I do that, I will make a few responses where Steve specifically requested.

Lifetime of a State

The first is the ‘life-time’ of a state (absent throwing logs on the fire). The estimated lifetime of around a minute first came to prominence (I believe) following the publication of Jill Bolt Taylor’s remarkable book, My Stroke of Insight. Dr. Taylor is a neuroanatomist and carried out her postdoctoral at Harvard Medical School. She talks about a state lasting 90 seconds (and who am I to argue?), which generated the famous ’90 second rule’ for state life-times. This is not a definitive rule as far as I can tell from consulting the Goddess Google, but the shortest time I could find anyone argue for is 6 seconds. Whatever the lifetime of a state is, it’s much longer than the time offered to a client to run the Swish, which casts doubt on Steve’s lap/butt joint theory.

Steve uses a metaphor of anger-to-fear to argue that states can change quickly. Unfortunately anger and fear significantly overlap in terms of state; one of the major differences is blood-flow to the hands (higher in anger than in fear). Anyone who has been in a street fight knows that fight and flight are coded to allow smooth transition from one to the other; most street fights end when this anger-to-fear switch happens. Try less compatible states like ‘anger-to-forgiveness’ and you’ll feel the states battling it out over a longer period!

Resource to End-State Pathway

The second specific point Steve asked about is the idea of end state energy, and how that takes place. I have a fantastic reference experience involving a great friend Bella Rabinowitz (now passed), who had a fear of public speaking. She could only speak to a small group, and had to sit down to do so (because she then felt she was talking to friends). She worked through this with John Overdurf (the session was recorded and is offered for sale on John’s website, hence my freedom to discuss it) and Bella went through some big state changes. I saw Bella at an NLP practice group perhaps a month afterward, and she told me she had just spoken to 200 people at a prominent New York women’s group, and when I made some comment about how much she’d changed she made a characteristic gesture like she was brushing dust off her hands, her way of saying “no big deal”.

So how does a problem become a powerful resource, then change to lower-energy ‘end state energy’? Well, to learn a new way of behaving you have to lock the new information into the hippocampus (which encodes most memories) long enough and powerfully enough for the new memories to form. This requires the release of dopamine to ‘lock’ the hippocampus and instruct it to begin forming long-term memories. Dopamine is typically released through strong emotionally-charged experiences. Hence (this is now my explanation) big resource states tend to release dopamine, lay down long-term learnings, and create change. However, once the change (the new state and new behavior) is wired into the brain, the brain seeks energy efficiency, by 'dialing down' the required state. That’s how Bells’a ‘big change’ became “no big deal” over the course of a couple of weeks.

Finally the Meta Pattern…

In my blog post on the Swish (which itself was in response to Steve’s original blog post), I explain that the second step of the HNLP (Humanistic Neuro Linguistic Psychology) ‘Meta Pattern’ (not the Meta Model!) dissociates the client from their problem state. And because all human change is based on the Meta Pattern, all NLP patterns follow the Meta Pattern, and therefore all contain a ‘break-state’. Steve argues this is not true, citing a number of examples, the most intriguing of which is the Compulsion Blowout that clearly doesn’t contain a break-state...

…or does it?

Origination of the Meta Pattern (edited)

The Meta Pattern was observed and formulated by John Overdurf. Note that it was not 'created' by John, any more than relativity was created by Einstein; it was 'discovered'.

Steve says that he learned the Meta Pattern from Bandler. This may be the case, but I doubt it for a couple of reasons. Firstly John Overdurf told me he developed it and strictly attributes to others where appropriate; so John Overdurf did not learn it from Dr. Bandler despite being a Master Trainer under Dr. Bandler, Tad James and Wyatt Woodsmall (note that John Overdurf was not certified by John Grinder as mis-stated in a prior version of this post – this was my bad, thanks to Steve Andreas for this correction).

It appears that Steve doesn’t understand the Meta Pattern because he believes it represents ‘steps’ in the sense of the Steve’s version of the Swish (it doesn’t as we will explain below). Obviously Bandler taught applications of the Meta Pattern (because all NLP patterns follow the Meta Pattern), for example ‘The Structure of Magic’ is a clear application of the Meta Pattern. So I suspect Steve may be seeing the Meta Pattern in something Bandler taught and thinking that was the Meta Pattern.

Meta Pattern Overview

Overdurf noticed that all human change follows four basic steps. These steps are associating into the ‘P/S’ (think of P/S as the 'problem-state' for now), dissociating from the P/S, associating into the R/S (think ‘resource-state’ for now), then ‘collapse’ (think ‘collapsing anchors’ for now). Overdurf called these four steps the ‘Meta Pattern’ of change. Note that Steve said I was over-generalizing by saying all NLP patterns follow the Meta Pattern, here I’m over-generalizing even more by saying all human change follows the meta-pattern!

Let’s represent this pictorially in the case of the Collapsing Anchors pattern:


However, the Meta Pattern is not a pattern in the sense of the Swish or the Compulsion Blowout. Rather it represents the structure of all change work, so Steve’s comment that I am introducing “steps” is not really correct. What is important are the transitions contained within the Meta Pattern, i.e. moving from one step to another. Let’s take a look at a typical client session:


Perhaps first I build rapport with the client, and perform an intake that asks about their hobbies, interest and favorite places (among other information). This is accessing resources, so I am starting on ‘step 3’ of the Meta Pattern.

Now at some stage, I am going to have to ask the client what they want to work through. You can think of this as a mini ‘collapse’ if I have succeeded in making them feel secure (say) with me, Step 4 of the Meta Pattern. I am then going to begin associating my client into the problem, perhaps by saying “Tell me about the last time this happened, where are you…”. We have finally reached Step 1 of the Meta Pattern.

We then begin some change work, which itself will follow the Meta Pattern through any number of iterations.

So the meta Pattern is not a fixed sequence of steps like in Steve’s interpretation of the Swish, it is the ‘dance’. It simply indicates to the coach or hypnotist what the next step in that dance ought to be, but does not spell out how to take that step. As an example, if you have your client feeling good, perhaps laughing (Step 3: R/S) and you as the coach don’t use that opportunity to go to Step 4: Collapse by saying “Hey, what was that problem you used to have” with a twinkle in your eye, then you as the coach have wasted an opportunity to shift the problem. If you want to see this approach in action watch Nick Kemp do provocative therapy!

Why Does the Meta Pattern Work?

To understand why the Meta Pattern underlies all change work, you need to first understand the nature of a typical client problem. In HNLP we say there are four types of problem: something a person feels, which they don’t want to feel; something they don’t feel, which they would like to feel; something they do, which they don’t want to do; or something they don’t do, which they would like to do.

Now, a ‘state’ only lasts (let’s say) about a minute if left to its own devices; that is the amount of time it takes for the chemicals that wash through the body. So if I can only feel bad about my problem for longer than a minute if I ‘throw logs on the fire’, meaning by thinking about the problem, making pictures of the problem, saying nasty things to myself and so on. Otherwise my bad feeling is pretty much over in one minute; not much of a problem, right? This is how most of us deal with most of our problems:


But I could use the negative feeling to mess my life up, by assuming the feeling is just going to get worse and worse and last forever. I might therefore avoid the context of the feeling (“I can’t speak in public because I get scared”). There is no change because the Meta Pattern is not complete.


Alternatively, I give in to the feeling by doing something I know I shouldn’t (as in a compulsion). Again either the Meta Pattern is not complete, or even worse I install a meta-problem by feeling bad about my addiction...

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz and Compulsions

There is plenty of research showing change follows the Meta Pattern. For example Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz successfully treated OCD simply by getting his clients to say “that’s not me, that’s my OCD” whenever they experienced their compulsion, and then go and do something else, perhaps gardening say. They would then be asked to notice how much better it is for them to be gardening than compulsively checking that the front door is locked.

By the way, this is an example of the Meta Pattern. Take a look and you’ll begin to see how the Meta Pattern does indeed underlie all human change.


Ultimately both feelings and behaviors are driven by ‘states’, these problems boil down to the client going into an inappropriate state in a particular context, and this state lasts one minute left to its own devices. I have been talking about ‘states’, so what is a state? A state is a combination of emotional biochemistry, thoughts, behaviors (including physiological behaviors), and sense-use (what I focus on when I’m in that state, and how I focus).

How to Install a Compulsion

Dr. Schwartz explains how a compulsion is installed in the first place. I’m writing this at Hypnothoughts Live in Vegas so let’s use gambling. I think “Vegas Baby!” and I go into a state, including a desire to play some Blackjack. Then I ‘add logs to the fire’, I say, “I’ll have so much fun”, and I make a picture of flashing lights and pretty waitresses so I go to the tables. I win a hand, I get a shot of dopamine, “This is awesome”. Then I lose a hand, that’s no fun and I get a dopamine crash. So I picture myself winning again and get a shot of anticipatory dopamine. I bet again and win, more dopamine… Ultimately I become addicted to my compulsion, because my brain gets addicted to the dopamine rush.

Note that installing a compulsion cause me to change (obviously); I didn’t have the compulsion before and now I do. As I said above, all human change involves the Meta Pattern. The dopamine crash following my loss becomes the ‘P/S’, putting that loss behind me to see myself win the next hand becomes the ‘Dissociation from the P/S’, the dopamine rush I get when I win is the ‘R/S’, which is ‘collapsed’ onto the idea of Blackjack. 


Compulsion Blowout

Now we are ready to explore the Compulsion Blowout. For those unfamiliar with the pattern it involves taking a compulsion and actually making it worse. Make it bad enough, and it ‘blows-out’, it essentially disappears. How do you make a compulsion worse? Well, the easiest way is to get your client to see a therapist for 10 years to talk about it (just joking), alternatively you can amp up the submodalities of the compulsion; that’s a little quicker!

Obviously this compulsion blow-out does not contain a ‘break-state’, a dissociation, right?

Well actually, it does. Remember a state will last one minute unless I throw logs on the fire. My brain may make a picture big, for example, as part of its ‘log throwing’, but not too big. By asking a client to crank up the submodalities of a problem beyond this threshold, the client’s thoughts are taken out of the pattern normally associated with the problem, and are distracted from running other parts of the problem pattern. This is a mental dissociation; the client is dissociated from their usual thought patterns. Starved of further fuel, the state runs for another minute then disappears. The disappearance of the feelings associated with the compulsion (the ‘blow-out’), is the second part of the dissociation; dissociation from the feelings.

Now, you may argue that we are doing more than just breaking the client's normal thoughts patterns when we super-amp the submodalities, and that may be true. But either way we’re now at step two of the Meta Pattern.



If that was all the coach did, I very much doubt the change would take. Any good coach will associate their client into how they will be without the problem e.g., “How will you be as a person when this is no longer an issue?” (remember this can be done at the start of the session – the Meta Pattern is not restrictive). And will collapse the outcome state (at least in the testing phase) into the trigger, “Now as you’re feeling free, see those losers around that blackjack table and realize what that freedom means to you and your family”.



The problem with thinking too strictly in terms of NLP ‘patterns’ without understanding how the patterns are working (e.g. within the Meta pattern of change) leads to inflexible thinking (in my opinion). Keeping the Meta Pattern in mind (or some other frame that is larger than just the NLP pattern being used), facilitates the coach-client 'dance', leading to greater flexibility (i.e. the Law of Requisite Variety).

Thank you Steve for continuing this dialogue.  It is a pleasure to engage in such thought provoking discussions.  Exchanges like this benefit all of us, including the greater NLP community.  



If you would like to discover how other NLP patterns fit into the Meta Pattern then please click below and access a free chapter from The Meta Pattern by Sarah and Shawn Carson 


Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Cras sed sapien quam. Sed dapibus est id enim facilisis, at posuere turpis adipiscing. Quisque sit amet dui dui.

Call To Action

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.