The Map is Not the Territory
by Bob Hoffmeyer
First published in Marin Scope newspapers (2003)
A beam of white light goes out and is received by three people. Through the filter of one it appears red, for another, blue, and for the third, it is dull grey. This is not unlike what happens as we take in our experiences of life. Each new experience we have is filtered through an internal map of reality that is already there. It is what is stored on our map that determines our experience of what happens in life. And, as we shall see, it is our map that enables or limits us as we go forward in life. It is the content of their individual maps that makes something so incredibly easy for one person and so seemingly impossible for another.
We all have an internal map of reality and each of our maps is unique. It's ours and ours alone. Of course, our map is not totally different from that of others. Our maps overlap to one degree or another—enough, at least, for us to mostly understand, connect with, and relate to each other. But beyond that, our maps are unique.
We each started assembling our map at birth (some say before—but that's another story we don't need to go into here) and, over the years, we have added to them. Everything that has ever happened to us, everything we've ever decided to be true, and every belief we've ever formed is somewhere on our internal map of reality. Our maps contain our beliefs about ourselves—about our capabilities, our deservingness, and how we fit in the world. They contain our attitudes, perspectives, expectations, and general orientation toward life. Some of what is on our internal map of reality we are consciously aware of, but most of it we are not. And, like the highways and byways of a road map, everything that is on our map is somehow connected to everything else. Unlike a passive road map, however, our inner maps of reality are very active. They determine the meaning we make out of life. In fact, they determine our experience of life. Each new experience and new meaning made then gets added to the map; reinforcing, modifying, and adding to what was already there and making the whole thing ever more complex.
Our maps are pretty much automated. New input gets taken in, evaluated, interpreted, and assigned its place as best our internal mapmaker can accomplish those tasks. It's a tough gig, given that everything new has to fit in with everything that is already there. Sometimes things get misplaced or incorrectly coded. Sometimes the new can't be integrated and it gets rejected, like a compliment that bounces off because it doesn't jibe with the view we already have of ourselves.
It's a good thing that our maps are automated. We all receive far too much input, and need to do far too much internal processing, every moment of our lives to be able to handle all of it on manual. So, most of the time automation is good. It's good, even great, that all those things we do and like, and all the experiences we attract that work for us, come so easily and unthinkingly—so automatically.
Unfortunately, our maps contain mistakes and they don't always get appropriately updated. And that's where problems can come in. Mistaken or outdated or not, our maps continue in their automated way to produce our experience of life. One client arrived saying that he wanted to "not be invisible." He went on to tell story after story about how being invisible showed up in his life—like being the one who wasn't asked when sandwich orders were taken at the company meeting; or being bumped into while walking down the street; or not being considered for promotion despite an excellent work record; or being cut in front of when standing in line. Over and over when he spoke up, the response was, "I'm sorry, I didn't see you." These kinds of things happened far too often for them to have been just chance. His map was badly outdated. There was a time when he was a very small boy, that it was good and much safer to be able to become invisible when his drunken, angry dad arrived home. But that was a long time ago. His map needed an update in its equating of safety with invisibility.
While dramatic, that example is illustrative. We all have mistakes and outdatedness on our maps that limit us in life and that prevent us from experiencing all of the happiness, fulfillment, and success that we would like and deserve. Someone once said, "No life is so good that we can't imagine it being better." How would you like your life to be better? Think in terms of patterns you've noticed in your life, those things about which you wonder, "Why is this always happening to me?" or "Why doesn't that ever happen to me?" Think in terms of what you want; what you would like to have be different in your experience. Examples include a particular person at work toward whom you respond in a way that you don’t like; some area of your life where you feel stuck; difficulty you are having in a relationship; an automatic response you have in a certain situation that doesn't serve you; some new undertaking that you have been saying you would like to accomplish but have not been able to (perhaps because of fear, or lack of confidence, or for reasons unknown to you). Then you might ask, "I wonder what's on my map such that I am having (or, the flip side, not having) this experience? I wonder what new perspective, understanding, attitude, or belief would serve me here?"
Neuro-Linguistic Programming is a model for understanding and working with human behavior. NLP has the ability to get direct access to our internal maps of reality and to shift them, to reassemble the connections, to update them, and to correct the mistaken representations, so that our life experience reflects more of what we want—personally, in our relationships, and on the job. NLP begins by accepting and respecting what is and what has been. NLP honors you, as you are. But NLP also insists that what you desire is possible. If it is possible for anyone else, it is possible for you.