I want to begin with a quotation from my old teacher Fritz Perls, who developed Gestalt Therapy:

It is obvious that an eagle’s potential will be actualized in roaming the sky, diving down on smaller animals for food, and in building nests. It is obvious that the elephant’s potential will be actualized in size, power and clumsiness.

No eagle will want to be an elephant, no elephant to be an eagle. They “accept” themselves; they accept them-“selves.” No, they don’t even accept themselves, for this would mean possible rejection.

They take themselves for granted. No, they don’t even take themselves for granted; that would imply the possibility of otherness. They are what they are what they are.

How absurd it would be if they, like humans, had fantasies, dissatisfactions and self-deceptions! How absurd it would be if the elephant, tired of walking the earth, wanted to fly, eat rabbits and lay eggs. And the eagle wanted to have the strength and thick skin of the beast.

Leave this to the human—to try to be something he is not—to have ideals that cannot be reached, to be cursed with perfectionism so as to be safe from criticism, and to open the road to unending mental torture.

—from Fritz Perls’ autobiography, In and Out the Garbage Pail.


Discovering and Understanding Hidden Self-negation

As we interact with other people, we are always responding to each other, and some of these messages will be liking and disliking aspects of what we and others do. As long as these messages are freely given and received, with no demand to be different, and with no threat to our well-being, there is no problem. That is the same as liking some food or art better than others. The expression of our preferences is one way that we come to know each other. We may even ask for this kind of feedback information in order to know someone else better, and whatever they express—positive or negative—is accepted as useful information. As Fritz Perls used to say, “Contact is the appreciation of differences.”

This free give and take becomes transformed into something very different when someone has negated themselves in some way. This inner negation is often obscure, making it hard to realize what is going on. For instance, many people are concerned with wanting to feel that they deserve to have a good life, or they want to have “self-worth.” Others seek “acceptance,” a “secure place in the world,” or “a right to be here,” and all these goals sound positive. However, underlying these desires is thinking that they don’t deserve to be happy, or feeling a lack of self-worth, that they are not accepted and don’t have a place. These are all negations, and they can negate a relatively small scope of the self, such as intelligence, beauty, or confidence, or the much larger scope of the entire self, “You are garbage.” “I wish I had never been born.”

When babies are born, they certainly aren’t concerned with “self-worth” or being “deserving,” “accepted,” or “finding a place in the world.” Like other animals, they have needs and desires, and they are very direct and emphatic about announcing their presence, and demanding satisfaction of their needs. They don’t show the slightest doubt about their “right to be here” or “deserving to have what they want.”

Then parents and other adults send them messages, first nonverbally and then verbally, about not being worthy or deserving, not being accepted, or not having a place, and the child learns to think that they don’t belong. All these have the same structure: negation of the natural functioning of the child, a negation of part, or all, of who they are. These experiences continue as memories, which can be in any or all of the different sensory modalities. Although this could be primarily an image or a perceptual feeling, for simplicity in discussing how this works, I will assume that an internal voice negates: “You don’t deserve it.”

Then when someone seeks to counter these negations with reassurances that they do belong, are deserving, are accepted, or do have a place, that is actually an attempt to negate what is already a negation. “I’m not undeserving.” “I’m not unworthy,” etc. This sets up incongruent categorical opposites within the person: “not self-worth” and “self-worth,” “not deserving” and “deserving,” etc. For simplicity, I will use the word “reassurance” to refer to any response that affirms something that someone has already negated.

If you’ve ever tried to reassure someone, you probably discovered two things. First it’s futile, and second, if you think you succeeded, it didn’t last. Reassurance feels good in the short term, but over the long term, it doesn’t solve the problem, and it actually increases the incongruence between the negation and the negation of this negation. This happens in several different ways.

First, no matter how much reassurance someone gets, this doesn’t regain what the small child began with, and what they really want: total and unquestioning being who they are, without a hint of either non-acceptance or acceptance.

Second, reassurance from others is actually “other worth” rather than the “self-worth” that they want and seek. Since people differ in what they approve of, someone will need to do very different things in order to get reassurance from different people. That usually results in a strong involvement with others, which can extend to “chameleon” behavior, attempting to satisfy different people in different ways. And since some people are almost impossible to get approval from, this may sometimes result in extreme behaviors like “acting out” or a suicide attempt.

A somewhat different way of getting reassurance from others that they are OK is to follow a particular set of social or religious teachings, so as to get reassurance from that group of people. This is more stable, since someone is always attempting to satisfy the same standards in order to get reassurance, rather than different people with different standards. However, it can lead to less contact with other people, since matching a set of abstract standards doesn’t require attending to the responses of individual human beings.

Third, when someone seeks reassurance from others, that is inevitably conditional rather than unconditional. It is conditional upon the behaviors that the person uses to ask for reassurance, and it is also conditional upon the willingness of the other person to provide it. If someone stops asking, or if other people stop responding, they will no longer receive reassurance.

Fourth, reassurance from others is temporary, because it doesn’t eliminate the underlying negation; it only opposes it and offsets it. The internal voice will continue to negate the person’s being, lovability, acceptability, or place in the world, etc., and they will need to repeatedly seek acceptance to counteract it.

Fifth, each external reassurance that “I am worthy” will tend to elicit an opposing “No you’re not” from that internal voice, escalating in the same way as an argument between two people, increasing the incongruence. If someone has an internal voice that negates who they are, and their lives seem to confirm this by being relatively unsuccessful in their job, relationships, etc., that is very unpleasant, but at least it is congruent.

But if someone has the same internal negative voice, and they are successful in work, relationships, etc. the contrast between their internal voice and the outward success will be much greater. They may have a much better life, but at the cost of greater incongruence. The more reassurance they get from others and worldly success, the larger the incongruence between the internal message about not being worthy and the external message about being worthy. Their internal voice will contradict and nullify any amount of external success.

Seeking approval from others is like using make-up or any other artificial behavior to attract someone. The more you use, the more it contrasts with what it’s covering up, and the more you know that the other person is responding to something that is not real, rather than to who you really are. This greater incongruence causes instability, and a loss of the external success may result in someone collapsing into mid-life crisis, depression, or suicide.

Sixth, there is an interesting parallel between the voice that says someone is not deserving, and the assurance that says that they are. Both are based on the opinion of other people, not the person themselves. Whichever voice someone attends to, they become slaves to someone else’s opinion, rather than attending to their own experience.


Resolving Negation

If reassurance doesn’t work to counter negative feelings of self-worth, what can someone do? The answer to this puzzle is to make the original negation clear, and find a way to eliminate it, so that someone can return to their original state in which they neither deserve, nor not deserve, they just are.

One way to do this is to listen carefully to those internal messages of negation, and realize that those messages are about the adult who said them, not about the child who heard them, a change in scope. These messages came from adults with limitations, people who couldn’t just say directly, “I’m overwhelmed; I can’t (or won’t) provide what you need and want.” Instead, they said in effect, “The only way I can deal with what you ask for is to tell you that you don’t deserve it. That way you won’t ask for it, and I won’t have to provide it.”

A slightly different way to elicit the same realization is to first collect and list all the internal rejection messages that the client has accumulated, including the emphasis, tempo, and tonality in which each statement was made. “You’re no good.” “You’re stupid,” etc. Then ask the client to visualize themselves as a newborn infant or small child, and ask them to say each of these messages to this child, including the volume emphasis, tempo and tonality. This shifts the person’s perceptual position from being the receiver of these messages to being the sender. From this position, usually it quickly becomes obvious that this is totally inappropriate and ridiculous. Their response to the rejection messages changes from taking them seriously to hearing them as messages about the parent’s limitations and inadequacies, rather than their own.

Virginia Satir’s “family reconstruction process” provided a vivid dramatization of what a client’s parents had to deal with from their parents, and how that created their limitations. In this process, the parents’ bad treatment of the client is seen as a consequence of the parents’ limitations, and had little or nothing to do with any limitations in the client. Their previous thoughts about “not deserving,” etc., were all a result of a mistaken scope.

When you realize that your understanding was a mistake, you can easily shrug it off and move on. Of course, some people will blame themselves for making the mistake, but that is also a mistake, at a more general logical level. The same kind of process can be used to elicit this realization. “See yourself as a tiny infant or young child, and scold them for making this mistake in misunderstanding their parents.”

Another way to work with internal negation is with Connirae Andreas’ Core Transformation process, in which someone is guided to a realization of what they really want, which is an experience of being, uncluttered by “not deserving” or “deserving.”

When “not deserving” disappears, there is no longer any need for “deserving” to negate the “undeserving.” Unpleasant things and pleasant things happen to each of us, and that’s a fact. We can be sad about the unpleasant events, and grateful for the pleasant ones, and realize that we didn’t deserve (or not deserve) either one. That allows us to return to simply experiencing whatever is going on—including our responses to what is going on—free of any thought or question about deserving it or not. This is something that sages and saints have described for centuries, using various terms like “enlightenment,” “waking up from the world of illusion,” or “simple acceptance of what is.”

Many people who actively seek spiritual or mystic experience are driven by an underlying negation without realizing it, seeking bliss and oneness without first neutralizing the inner negation that keeps them from returning to their original integration and oneness. This is even more likely to be true of spiritual teachers and gurus who become invested in the status and importance of their employment, and have to uphold their role of being “enlightened,” a sure sign that they are not.

Now let’s examine “deserving” in more detail, to find out how people get into this kind of mess in the first place. The meaning of the word “deserve” is a condensed version of “I think I should have/get something because I have a right to it.” Whenever a word is a condensed and shortened form of a longer communication, it is usually packed with hidden or poorly recognized meanings that can become a trap for the unwary—both speaker and listener.

There are both pleasant and unpleasant versions of deserving, as in “She deserves a medal for what she did,” or “He deserves to be hung for that.” So “deserving” is an expression of reward and punishment, established by someone’s judgment of what ought to be.

Usually the word “deserve” is used without any additional information, “He deserves it.” That kind of statement is called a “factive,” because it is stated as a fact, not to be questioned. Even when deserving is stated as someone’s personal view, “I think he deserves it,” the reason for deserving is often omitted.

When people say that they “deserve” something, usually the implication is that someone else should give it to them without their having to do anything to receive it. Their reason is usually because they are “entitled” to it, and often this is because they are special, more important than someone else who doesn’t deserve it—a version of the “divine right of kings” and the nobles that the kings “entitled” by giving them titles.

In NLP terms “deserving” something is an outcome that is “ill-formed,” because it is not under the control of the person who has the outcome—someone else should provide it. Since we have no direct control over what someone else does, this puts the person who “deserves” at the mercy of someone else’s ability and willingness to provide what they want. When someone else doesn’t provide what someone “deserves,” they usually complain, rather than taking useful action themselves.


Appropriate Deserving

If someone has made an agreement that specifies what they are to receive by that agreement, then they do deserve to receive whatever was promised—no matter how silly or ill-advised the agreement itself might have been. Like the word “fairness,” “deserve” only applies to agreements, a limited scope, and what someone deserves is specified clearly by the agreement.

However, many people go far beyond this appropriate scope, thinking that they deserve things that have nothing to do with any agreement. They often act as if they had some kind of written agreement with God, or nature, or the universe, specifying what they should receive. For instance often people say, “A child deserves a loving home,” or “I deserve an opportunity to succeed.”

I certainly prefer a world in which everyone has an opportunity to satisfy their needs, and has a loving home and opportunities to succeed, etc., and I do my best to move the world in that direction, but that is based on my desire, not an imaginary agreement.

Some people even say that something is a “God-given right.” But if it were really “God-given,” then we would all have it, and certainly no one could possibly take it away from us! Once I observed Fritz Perls smoking in a school auditorium where he had just given a demonstration of Gestalt Therapy. A woman approached him and asked, “How come you have the right to smoke when all the signs say, “No smoking”? Perls responded, “I don’t have the right, and I don’t not have the right; I just do it.”

As far as I know, life is a gift, and it comes with no agreement or guarantee except that it ends in death—usually much sooner than we would like. Making sure that all people have opportunities to satisfy their needs is a job for us all. It is not based on any kind of “deserving.” It is based on what we want to have happen because we think will work best for all of us, and it is up to us to create and maintain the kind of personal agreements, society, and government that support that.

Excerpted from Six Blind Elephants, volume II, chapter 2, “Negation,” pp. 43-49.