Second Guessing the Second Guessers

Published on August 1st, 2017

“You suck.” I bet everyone has been on the receiving end of this insult at least a half dozen times in their lifetime. I would also bet that a person’s reactions to those words varied wildly based on when it occurred, the context around why it was said, and (most importantly) who said it. After all, we might come to expect hearing something like that from someone experiencing road rage or from a drunk fan from a rival sports team. In those situations, we can find it easy to shrug this off and move on with our lives. Wouldn’t you agree that the experience would be markedly different if the person were your mom, dad, best friend, or boss?

Here's a more subtle and insidious example.

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

Again, think of the experience from different groups of people. If asked by a complete stranger, you may brush them off without a second thought. After all, what do they know about you! Things change when the person asking is your mother, father, wife, husband, friend, colleague, boss, etc. Those words now carry a different weight. Now imagine hearing the question over and over again. Now imagine hearing it from multiple people at the same time. The repetition from multiple angles may be enough to influence or change your decision. This may be a “good” thing, particularly if this helps avoid a clear and present danger. Or it could be a “bad” thing, particularly when you feel like you’re being pressured to live your life on their terms.

Why The Difference?

In both scenarios, how come the exact same words uttered with the exact same tone, volume, cadence, etc. have such vastly different effects on us? In the field of NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming), there is a concept of sub modalities. Don’t let the fancy term scare you as it’s a very easy concept to understand. It basically means there are small but VERY important distinctions in how we process information and assign meaning to it. The important part is that these differences can be VERY subtle if you’re not used to looking for them. This is why you think you heard the same words, but your mind-body responded to them in completely different ways.

Let’s revisit the example of someone saying “you suck.” If you were to visualize the experience and pay very close attention to the qualities of the sights, sounds, and feelings, you might notice that the image was either crystal clear or fuzzy. You might notice that you could imagine the scene in full color or only black and white. The image might appear close, or it might feel like it’s off in the distance. The tone of the sounds might feel like it’s coming from in front of you or it might be coming from one side.

If you were to do this exercise again with another situation, you would start to notice a different set of distinctions. Maybe this time the imagery seemed more 3D and less 2D. Maybe you could feel a tension in your upper torso instead of in your lower torso.

The individual distinctions don’t matter as much as the degree that you can notice how they change based on the type of information and experience you are having! Once you know which is which, you can become more aware of your own experience and, most important of all, change your experience.

Challenging the Challenge

Whether you decide to use a technique like NLP or just decide that enough is enough, it’s important to remember that we do not need to take the statements and opinions of others fact. We can (and should) have some degree of skepticism, particularly when what we are being told or pressured into doesn’t align with who we are, our purpose, and our values. That way when someone challenges us with “Are you sure you want to do that,” we can respond in a way that honors ourselves.

It’s also important to recognize that those that second guess us, our motivations, and our choices are not bad people. They also have their own worldview, programming, and ways that they process the world. That doesn’t make them right or wrong. It’s just different. We can still hear them out and respect that they have an opinion, a voice, and preferences without having to necessarily accept it as a fact, our voice, and our preferences.


If you would like to know more about NLP, I highly recommend Get the Life You Want by Richard Bandler. It contains many exercises that can help you learn about your own distinctions as well as change your experience by changing how you’re representing and processing the world around you.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.