Is NLP useful for a cancer patient to re-build their “map of the world”?

One of the most important assumptions of NLP states, “the map is not the territory.” This sentence is part of an original paper by Alford Korzybski who wrote in 1931 and then in 1933, “A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.” (Farrow, B., 07/03/13)

The use of this assumption at the core of the NLP practice, helps to understand that every individual has a unique “map” which is useful for “finding your way around.” Some maps are better than others, but none of them is exactly “the truth”, as they are only representations that depend on the accuracy of many different perceptions. These perceptions of the truth are influenced by the use of our different senses, our metaprogrammes, and the filters we use to process the information we receive. Therefore, our beliefs about reality (the map), are subjective in nature, and these are always context dependent.

During their training NLP practitioners learn that the combination of the preferred senses, filters, metaprogrammes and perceptual positioning, help each human being to build their map based on experiences they have in the external world. The interpretation of these experiences transforms into internal representations and memories. These interpretations subsequently, manifest themselves in a specific use of language, individual attitudes, states, physiology, and automatic behaviour/reaction interconnected with the map, dwelling in each person’s unconscious mind.

The role of an NLP practitioner when working with a client, is to support the exploration, disclosure and characterisation of the client’s map, so the client can choose what he/she wants to change in order to engage in a learning process which can facilitate achieving identifiable goals.

One of the more profound features of the above framework is how the map of the world also has a significant impact in the values held by the individual, and in the rationalisation of its neurological level. What is important to an individual is closely related to their interpretation of the external/public world (Environment, Behaviour and Capabilities) and their internal self (Beliefs/Values, Identity and Purpose). What we consider “our place in the world” is influenced by our personality map and the map of the world we carry with us, at all times.

We may have decided to be a business person, a technician, an artist or a coach because of our interpretation of what the world around is about, of how we see ourselves, and what we value. It could be that the decision has to do with our family history, other people’s expectations, or our specific capabilities. Thus, at some point in our lives we made a decision, we focused on this vision of ourselves in our world, and we invested all our energy in trying to deliver it.

Life rarely goes exactly as planned. Good and bad times may perhaps succeed each other in the journey of our existence. We may even change tactics and move a little bit further in one direction or another. However, the core of our personality and our world are still there, almost intact. We can feel an ability to improve or be better positioned. We may learn how to become more efficient at what we do or become a better public speaker. We may be capable of enhancing our relationships with others and learn how to handle difficulties in a better way.

NLP can support clients to perform a positive learning by looking and the personality map and their map of the world. The principles of success (including a positive mental attitude, being attentive of our own preferences, and becoming more flexible), are there for helping anyone who wants to become more aware, and wants to take control of their own destiny.

However, when a person faces a life-changing trauma like cancer, many of the tools and techniques used for a day-to-day coaching practice must be tested under a different light.

The first thing a person loses when they receive the diagnosis of cancer is their map of the world. That world in which the person was living a few days ago does not look quite the same anymore. What was previously taken as certain and normal is not there anymore. The physical person is facing something that has not been caused on purpose or consciously. The person faces new magnified emotions as a consequence of the many thoughts inundating their mind, every minute of the day. Decisions have to be taken without any preparation or desire to do so. The sense of control that was core to the person before cancer has been taken away without warning or possible negotiation. They have become a cancer patient in a long list held by the hospitals and different medical teams.

Going through treatment for cancer does not make things better. The body is experiencing urgent surgeries, chemotherapies, radiotherapies, lists of medications. Appointments are frequent and following a hospital’s schedule rather than the patient’s personal organisation. The job of the patient and their caregivers are affected. The resulting physical, cognitive and emotional consequences of cancer and its treatment are very varied and unpredictable. Relationships are under pressure. The short and long-term impact of the treatment on the patient may not be foreseeable.

Some patients get through the treatment with an improved prognosis. Less lucky patients must prepare for shorter periods of life. Families struggle. Employers debate what to do.

Even for survivors, the after-treatment is just the beginning of a challenging time. Their normality has completely disappeared, even when they hoped it would be there at the end of the journey. The map of the world they had looks now less alike in structure to the territory, and the patient cannot rely on this map as they used to. Their own personality map may be altered. The process may have dramatically changed their body, way of thinking and emotional responses.

How can a patient (and their carers) rebuild their life in a positive, fruitful manner? How can the NLP framework and techniques, be useful to help these cancer patients to get through the illness, to face it constructively, to learn about themselves and the world, and to focus on what they can attain?

If you're curious to know more about how NLP can be used to support cancer patients, you may wish to join Carolina Valiente's session at the NLP International Conference on Sunday 19th May 2019.