Every behaviour is appropriate in some context

Every behaviour is appropriate in some context is one of the presuppositions, or operating beliefs, of NLP. One way of putting this is that: all behaviours are adopted because in some circumstances they serve some purpose for us. People sometimes get into difficulties when the behaviour that was a solution to an old problem becomes a problem itself when circumstances change.

I’ve been experiencing a good example of that in the last few days. My mother has been visiting me and we’ve been going out to eat in pubs from time to time.

My mum grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s. Like many families of that time there finances were quite tight and there wasn’t that much food to be had at mealtimes. During the war, rationing made that situation even worse. For her it would have been obligatory to clear the plate. There would have been no room for fussy eaters, if you didn’t eat what you were given, you didn’t eat. So my mum had a lot of early experience of ‘clearing’ the plate. At the time it was a useful response to a limited supply of calories.

Now the situation has completely changed. Portions are enormous and she is no longer a little girl with a healthy appetite. A 78 year old isn’t going to be burning off too many calories playing hop scotch or using a skipping rope. Unfortunately for her the old programming is very persistent.

A plate of food is greeted with “My goodness, that’s much too much for me”. Then she gives it her best shot, eating as much as she can. About half way through she’s complaining that she’s had enough and there is just too much. So I suggest, repeatedly, that she stop eating because she’s had enough. This falls on deaf ears and she continues to pick away at the meal in an attempt to get it all.

Eventually she’ll give in, but it’s interesting (and alarming) to watch the biological (I’m full) tendency and the conditioning (I must clear the plate) tendency battle it out over a plate of scampi and chips.

It’s an excellent example where behaviour that served an important role in one context is now utterly out of date. You might say that a lot of our current problems are solutions to older problems that have passed their sell by date.

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