Faced with a situation, each of us reacts differently. Nor are we motivated by the same things. A problem can become an impossible obstacle for some or an incentive to keep going for others. The way in which we respond to reality, our behavior and even the way in which we process the information we receive depends fundamentally on what in NLP is known as metaprograms.
What are metaprograms in NLP?
Neuro-Linguistic Programming maintains that there is a connection between neurological processes, language and behavior patterns that we have learned through experience, which they call “programming”.
Programs, like our attitudes, are determined by metaprograms, which are mental structures that determine the way we analyze our experiences and the information we receive, so they end up conditioning our behavior.
A program is a kind of map that guides our actions in a direction to achieve a result. On the other hand, a metaprogram is a “program of programs” since it encompasses and coordinates different programs with similar characteristics, although we are not normally aware of their existence. Those metaprograms end up acting as filters through which we see the world and react to what happens to us.
Something as mundane as a complaint, for example, can expose our metaprograms. This complaint will reveal the mental map in which we live, the way in which we perceive reality and how we communicate with the world and with ourselves. That means that a lot of our problems stem from our metaprograms, and if we want to achieve something important, we’d better make sure we have a good mind map to guide and motivate us along the way.
How do metaprograms work?
From a practical point of view, metaprograms determine the information we select from among the myriad of stimuli to which we are exposed. They act as a first filter that selects the sensory data to later process it since, on average, our conscious mind can only process 7 +/- 2 representations at a time. Those metaprograms decide what is important to us and classify that information; which means we make a mental note of it.
Later, those same metaprograms intervene in the way we process and interpret that information. Thus, metaprograms function both as “attention programs” and as “thought habits.” They are preferences created over time and based on our experiences on how to select and process information.
For example, in the image below, what do you see?
If you have an equalizing metaprogram you will probably see 3 rectangles, but if you have a differentiating metaprogram you will look at the differences.
Since we are exposed to an infinite number of sensory stimuli each moment, metaprograms help us choose which ones to pay attention to and then allow us to make sense of that information. However, sometimes those habits are not adaptive and end up selecting information that is not relevant, or gives it the wrong meaning or that does not help us achieve our goals or feel better.
What types of metaprograms do we use in our day to day?
Metaprograms vary depending on each person and the context. Although we usually have a dominant metaprogram, sometimes we can also use a combination of them. That explains why two people with the same dominant metaprogram can react differently to a situation.
There are different classifications of metaprograms, but in general you can refer to 7 pairs of opposites:
1. Internal-external. The person who uses an “internal” metaprogram makes his/her own decisions and is not easily influenced. He/she searches within himself/herself and motivates himself/herself. On the other hand, those who follow an external metaprogram seek the approval or consensus of others and need external motivation to continue.
2. General-specific. The persons with a general metaprogram will have a more generic vision of things, they will tend to carry out more global analyses that give them a broader perspective. In contrast, whoever has a more specific metaprogram will focus on the details. These people feel more comfortable putting together small pieces to build a more global vision.
3. Equalizer-differentiator. In the face of a conflict, the person who has an equalizing metaprogram will focus more on the similarities while the differentiator will look at the discordant and dissimilar aspects. An equalizer person has a more traditional vision while the differentiator will look for the new and original in situations.
4. Proactive-reactive. People with a proactive style they tend to take on challenges and try to solve problems quickly. Those who have a reactive metaprogram, on the other hand, focus more on difficulties and tend to postpone solutions or avoid difficulties. They just act when they have to.
5. Needs-possibilities. Those who have a metaprogram activated by needs usually take action in the face of deficiencies. In contrast, those who use a possibility-driven metaprogram tend to analyze the options and act accordingly when they spot an opportunity. They do not wait for a shortage to occur.
6. Independence-cooperation. These metaprograms focus on the way we make decisions. Some people may show a more egocentric tendency, always prioritizing what is best for them, while others may make decisions always taking others into account, from a more empathetic and social position.
7. Optimism-pessimism. People with an optimistic metaprogram will be more likely to see the positive side of life, even in the midst of adversity. In contrast, those with a pessimistic metaprogram tend to focus on problems and difficulties, even when everything is going well.
There is also a metaprogram that determines our orientation in time. In that case, there are people who tend to be almost always oriented to the past. They look back with longing, they think that “everything in the past was better”, they are conservative and show resistance to change.
Instead, there are people who are fundamentally future-oriented. They are progressive people who are enthusiastic about changes, if only for the transformation itself, without stopping to think about its usefulness. They love novelty and get bored with repetition. They are not lovers of traditions, they find it difficult to establish habits and they say that “you always have to look forward”.
There are also people who are very focused on the present, although they are the least. They live in the here and now because they are aware that the past has already been and the future has not arrived yet. They tend to have a more hedonic vision of life, they like to enjoy the present and think that “you have to live in the moment.” With mottos like “now or never”, they tend to undertake without much planning, so they often encounter unexpected problems on their way.
Is it possible to change our metaprograms?
Viewing the world through an overly rigid metaprogram rarely leads to good decisions. Sometimes to solve a problem you need a global vision but other times you have to look at the details. Sometimes an excess of optimism can lead us to make hasty and too risky decisions, while being too reactive will prevent us from taking advantage of the opportunities that life presents us and taking others into account can end up harming our interests, causing us to nullify ourselves as persons.
Initially, it was thought that metaprograms could not be changed since they were “programmed” features that varied from a person’s brain to another. However, in the mid-1990s, research by Robert Dilts revealed that metaprograms could be modified, nuanced, or even replaced with relatively simple NLP techniques.
Cognitive metaprogramming allows us to better understand our thought, behavior and communication patterns in order to balance the imbalances, so that we can make smarter decisions, relate better and, ultimately, achieve our goals and improve our well-being.
When we understand the underlying structures of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we can create new ways of responding to situations that produce the desired results. Thus we can respond in a more adaptive way, reduce stress and use metaprograms as a useful psychological tool, instead of simply letting ourselves be carried away by the “codes” already created.
Alwan, F. (2012) Individual Differences: A Question of Meta Program Variety. New Perspectives on Individual Differences in Language Learning and Teaching. In: Second Language Learning and Teaching.