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Your Life Sentence

It never ceases to amaze me just how much the spoken word, not only informs our worldview but in fact creates it. Added to this most individuals have certain phrases that they use so often and so recklessly that they may not even be aware that they are using them. E.g.

  • I’m the unluckiest person I know
  • I’ll never amount to anything
  • The world is a dangerous place.

These are referred to in NLP World as “life-sentences”.                      

I recall my first time hearing the term life sentence I was attending an NLP Practitioner training with NLP World and Terry Elston. I was immediately struck by the gravity of this phrase as it conjured up visions of maximum security prisons and trash TV depicting the harsh gang driven penitentiaries.

Could it really be that I was creating a prison for myself and grossly limiting my own potential, or worse still, my belief in my ability? The short answer to this question is, yes! Soon I became the life sentence police force. In my practice, I often hear clients repeat many key phrases, however, I had never before begun to think about how the linguistic construction of these phrases not only shaped the past but also served to create the future.

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More recently I worked with a client that was perpetually focused on “doing the right thing”. Initially was I struck by the dogged belief that accompanied this statement. Sure, we all at times think we know what the right thing to do is. I believe that doing the right thing can very often be the wrong thing. That being said I must highlight that good and bad do not really exist in my worldview, however, they are needed, to highlight how they do not exist. The fact is that all too often (in the moment and emotively charged) we may incorrectly perceive certain events as devastation only to see the value of that event later in life.

Life is neither good nor bad, it is just highly competitive.

~Tai Lopez~

We, as human beings, are not the best at being objective regarding who we are and what we need, not to mention knowing what we want! In fact, in more cases than not we actively indulge in self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviours with great ease. I’m always amused by the phrase “I’m going to drop it like a bad habit” because as you well know if we could just drop these bad habits that easily they would not fulfil the criteria of a habit.

As this particular client and I began discussing their life sentences, it became apparent that my client formed a belief that they “must act when I can solve a problem”. On the surface this may not seem doomed to devastation, however, it soon manifested in potentially life compromising situations like:

  • Believing that I must stop and help people that have a broken-down car
  • If I see people fighting next to the road I must stop and help them
  • If somebody is struggling with their work I must intervene and help

It became more evident that my client was growing ever more frustrated with those that they were helping because they were doing less and less and growing ever needier. This lead to my client doing even more because they grew ever-more certain about the perceived helplessness of those that they “must help”. By now, a pattern of learned helplessness was firmly instilled. Soon my client was depleted, resentful and quickly burning out!

Despite all of this, my client refused to believe that they were not ‘doing the right thing’. It was only when we began engaging with the perceptual position exercises, that my client started to understand that by doing everything for people, they were growing ever more helpless and dependent, because they knew they would just have to delay their efforts and my client would swoop in and save the day.

“Before you heal someone you must ask them if they are willing to let go of what is making them sick”


The fact of the matter is that my client needed to understand that their efforts were part of the problem and that they could, in fact, not control everything. As they attempted to limit and eliminate all and any suffering from those closest to them, they were just trying to alleviate their own life sentence of “must act when I can solve a problem”.

As my client began to be more mindful of their language and how the words they use, create the worlds they interact with, they began to feel more peace. As they began believe that those around them were capable and competent, those around them began to become more capable and competent (after the usual and predictable kicking and screaming of course). Because as you know: when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change as W. Dyer reminds us.

When you consider this, it comes to pass that:

“whenever you visit a memory, that memory must, in fact be altered, by the process or re-membering.

Terry Elston

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