I woke up with a pain in my lower back. I thought I’d soon shake it off but after my shower it was still hanging around. I knew I hadn’t slept awkwardly, so I tried to remember what it was I must have done the previous day to put a strain on myself. Nothing came to mind. I hadn’t been doing any heavy lifting, hadn’t been to the gym, and couldn’t remember feeling any twinges. This pain seemed to have arrived out of the blue. So I did what I always do in this situation. I talked to myself.
More specifically, I had a conversation with the brain in my back.
Not so long ago a young man came to see me with a problem. Actually a boy of fourteen, a tennis player, ranked third best in the country for his age group. His mother had urged him to see me because for the last eighteen months he had suffered persistent shoulder pain that was preventing him from serving the ball at speed, a vital part of his game. He had seen any number of doctors and physiotherapists but with no positive results at all, and the upshot was that he had barely been on court in months.
The situation was hopeless, as he saw it. My first job was to get past that firm conviction in his mind. Belief is like a tabletop, only solid and stable because it’s supported by its ‘legs’ of external evidence, much of which evidence turns out to be imaginary. Knock just one of these ‘legs’ away and you can permanently change the belief. So I acted ‘dumb’, asking a series of questions intended to create doubt about the story he was telling himself. Did he suffer pain all the time? Did he feel pain in his sleep? When was the first time he felt this pain?
The injury had manifested during practice for an upcoming tournament, at the point where he’d set himself the grueling task of hitting 500 serves every morning. I asked him if he always put this kind of pressure on himself, and of course the answer was yes. His father was determined that he would win Wimbledon by the age of twenty, and though he felt exactly the same way, there was clearly an element in his story where he didn’t want to let his dad down.
This boy had excelled in tennis from his school days through to club level, sailing through win after win, picking up trophies left and right, but now the heat was really on. Now he was playing in top-level tournaments where the standard was getting higher and higher all the time. Result – stress and fear, with a degree of anger thrown in for good measure. And when did he start playing tournaments? Eighteen months ago, around the time he got his injury.
The unconscious mind is like a five year-old child, missing nothing, taking everything personally. That’s why we have to take great care when we ‘speak’ to it. I used some simple NLP techniques to help the boy dissociate from his pain, telling him there is no failure, only feedback. I reminded him that no matter how talented his opponent, he was only ever competing against himself. Most importantly, he should see his dad’s ambition for him for what it really was: his dad’s ambition. By the time we finished our session, the pain in his shoulder had largely gone and it did not return. He went back to the tennis court and got on with playing the game he loved.
George Pransky told me a story about the legendary tennis player Pete Sampras, winner of fourteen Grand Slam singles titles. Somebody once asked him how he always seemed to manage to keep his cool, when other players let their emotions get to them. Did he never hear those critical voices in his head, whenever he missed a vital shot? “Sure I do”, was his reply, “I just ignore them.”
So I have a brain in my back. On this occasion I asked it what was going on, in effect speaking to my unconscious. Almost instantly I got a mental picture of my father. I asked Anna about it and she said that was no surprise, it was five years to the day since my father had died. I contradicted her, saying that my father had died on the 13th of the month. It was only the 12th. She produced a calendar and I saw that I had got it wrong. I had lost a day. It was indeed the 13th. The pain immediately disappeared.
What conversations are you having with your unconscious?