How to change your self-image

What Diana Vreeland and NLP taught me about curating life

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Introduction

Friday night, I stayed up until dawn glued to a biography of Diana Vreeland, a woman who shaped 20th century fashion and style more than any other. Though eccentric and controversial- Coco Chanel called her wildly self-absorbed and Truman Capote called her a genius- it’s indisputable that she was highly influential. I wasn’t drawn to Diana Vreeland out of any personal interest in fashion, but because of another gift she possessed: Diana Vreeland shaped her personal and collective reality through words and images. As I approached the end of the book, a certain quote hit me:

“ Her real interest was in the woman who wanted to close a gap: the gap between the way she was and the way she wanted to be. The question that interested Diana was: how do you do it? The answer, according to Diana, did not lie in transforming or reinventing one’s persona in a forced and unnatural way. Rather, it was about becoming the “best” version of oneself; and to do that, one had to become one’s own editor, one’s own curator (Stuart, 327).”

Over the past few months while working for a mental health company and trying to improve my own life, I have tried to answer this exact same question. One of the most powerful tools I’ve found to help me has been neurolinguistic programming (NLP). For those who are new to the term, NLP is “not of the brain- but of how the mind, using the brain, expresses itself in your life creates what you call your experience.” It is a psychological approach dedicated to understanding how the mind creates a map of reality in words and images, and how that map can be altered to help a person achieve his or her goals.

In reading Diana’s biography, I was exploring the life of a woman who created her persona through words and images- and then went on to redefine how generations of American women saw themselves. Here was a woman who obsessed over color (whether it was the blue of the Duke of Windsor’s eyes or of Turkish donkey beads) and considered the bikini “the most important thing since the atom bomb”- because she knew the power of images and words to affect people. Simply put, understanding how Diana Vreeland was able to shape the American psyche from her editorial desk helped me appreciate the power of words and images to take us from who we are to who we want to be. If it can be done through a magazine, it can be done consciously in our own minds.

Inspired by Diana and my own experiments, I put together some of the NLP ideas and tools that have helped me change myself over the past few months. Some are exercises to be practiced over months and others reveal their power within a few minutes. What they all have in common is that they involve consciously changing the language, filters, and images we use in our minds. In essence, they require us to act not just as spectators, but as editors and curators of experience.

Idea 1: Attention moves before belief

“The eye has to travel” — Diana Vreeland

A few weeks ago, I spoke with NLP expert and therapist Kim Vincent by phone to better understand how to help people change themselves. During the conversation, Kim made a profound point about why traditional positive affirmations don’t tend to work: if a person already has limiting beliefs in place, a phrase such as “I am beautiful” or “I am powerful” will not only seem false, it will cause a strong cognitive dissonance. What NLP practitioners recommend instead are modified affirmations such as “Each day, I am noticing all of the ways in which I am beautiful/powerful.” This small shift primes the brain to search for examples of the desired behavior in daily life. Moreover, it represents a larger truth about the human mind: we cannot change our beliefs or self-image until we switch our attention to focus on a new reality consistent with those beliefs.

A key pre-supposition of NLP is that what we call “reality” is really just our experience based on how we choose to filter the information entering our senses. This insight has been confirmed by researchers in other fields of psychology. As self-esteem expert Nathaniel Branden puts it, ‘ The tragedy of many people’s lives is that, given a choice between being “right” and having an opportunity to be happy, they invariably choose being “right.”’ In order to overcome this trade-off, it is the mental map that must be consciously changed first so that attention confirms the reality we desire. Interestingly, this was one of the key tenets that Diana Vreeland held: “The eye has to travel.” Meaning, it is the senses that have to explore and perceive something new- either through conscious effort or exposure to novelty- before we can change.

Idea 2: Metaphors create new possibilities…or limit experience

One of the greatest lessons NLP has taught me is how to detect and examine the metaphors I use in everyday life more consciously. In some cases, I’ve detected limiting metaphors that have held me back for years embedded in my language. A good example is the phrase, “get your emotions under control.” Growing up, I considered my more intense emotions- frustration, anger, grief- to be dangerous on a certain level. Before I could feel them, I would instinctively try to push them down and tame them. It wasn’t until a seminar last Summer in which a lecturer referred to emotions as “fast messengers” that I became aware of this tendency. “Emotions” she began, “are always messages from the body, condensing a great deal of unconscious information. They always have a meaning and while you may get that meaning wrong, it is always there to guide you.” She used the example of anger, a signal that boundaries are being crossed or values ignored, and I suddenly realized how valuable my anger could have been if I hadn’t ignored it.

Since then, I’ve become more conscious of the metaphors that seem to pervade daily life. “Winning the war on cancer” puts patients at odds with their bodies; “turning back the clock” puts women on a hopeless quest for beauty; “climbing the summit of success” casts achievement as a valiant struggle with a final endpoint. When I hear phrases like these, I often try on an alternative- rather than fighting an illness, I ask what my body is trying to communicate; rather than climbing the summit of success, I see myself chipping away the extra marble (e.g. negative beliefs and habits) that obscures who I would be otherwise.

When you change a metaphor, you open up possibilities that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. This is often the start of great innovations or revolutions. On a personal level, it’s the beginning of a more creative and editorial role in your own life.

Idea 3: It’s all in how you say a thing

One of the most unique insights generated from NLP is the understanding that since all human thinking is sensory-based (e.g. an image, a sound, a taste), by altering how we represent information, we alter how we feel about it. One very personal example is how NLP helped me change my relationship with my inner critic. For my whole life, it has been the voice that tells me I am not working hard enough, not attractive enough, not good enough…or worse. Following an NLP exercise, I tried modifying the voice of this critic to the silliest alternative I could think of: Elmo from Sesame Street. For the first few days after I did this, I couldn’t stop smiling as I walked down the street. It’s hard not to smile when even the worst things you can say to yourself are said in a voice that makes you giggle.

This same principle of changing internal representations can be used to achieve extremely powerful effects. By playing with the pictures and sounds our minds speak to us in- brightening and shrinking pictures, moving their locations, playing mental movies in rewind- we can change their message and impact. As NLP practitioner and author Tom Hoobyar wrote about his daughter who used NLP to overcome anorexia, “…my daughter would talk about how she pictured anorexia, how she was able to make changes in her relationship with this disease and with food by playing with the size and color of the picture…I’m convinced that without NLP, we would have lost her.”

Having tried out many of these exercises, they are amazingly effective. They also make you aware of your own tendencies of distorting information, whether for the positive or for the negative. More importantly, they demonstrate that the content alone of our thoughts is rarely traumatic, unless we give it charge and importance through how we represent it. How we frame information matters.

Conclusion

Though we can’t always change our circumstances, we can change how we interpret them. One of the most touching moments of Diana’s biography was an anecdote from one of her last hospital visits to Lennox Hill in New York City: “ There was invariably a long wait for a room with Diana on a hospital gurney in the emergency room corridor, surrounded by people handcuffed to their stretchers and blood on the floor. “It’s like the back streets of Naples,” Diana said on one occasion. “Anything could happen.” For someone with such a gift for editing and filtering reality, even the process of dying was filled with imaginative potential.

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