by Steve Andreas
Congruence is a name for that state in which every fiber of your being is in agreement. Wherever your attention is, it is undivided. Whether you are watching a sunset or changing a flat tire, no part of you is attending to something else. No part is whispering, “But you really have to start cooking dinner,” or “I should have checked the air earlier.” No part is imagining how the sunset could be improved by a little stronger orange, or thinking about getting new tires. No part is wanting to move because the position of your back is a bit uncomfortable.
If you look back at that description, you will find that congruence is characterized by an absence of “modal operators.” There are no “have to’s,” “shoulds,” “choices,” “desires,” or “possibilities” intruding into what you are doing at the moment. Another way of describing this is that all the modal operators collapse together, focused on the present moment, excluding everything else. If you are really watching a sunset or changing a tire in this way, you can, you want to, you have to, and you have chosen to, do THIS, and nothing else.
Congruence is a delightful state, because there is no conflict between alternate desires or opportunities, no decisions to be made, no alternatives to be considered, nothing else to be done. Many people describe congruent states in mystical terms of being “at one with the universe,” and a great deal of time and energy is put into achieving this charmed state of congruence, because it is so comfortable and enjoyable.
However, everyday living continually presents us with alternatives from which to choose. “Which one would I enjoy the most?” Our own manifold needs and desires provide another set of opportunities for incongruence. “Should I eat now, make that phone call, or continue reading this article?”
Congruence is particularly desired by people who are in fierce internal struggles with themselves, with disparate parts repeatedly warring over alternatives that are perceived to be important to their living. One part of a person wants to indulge in chocolates, drugs, purchases, or conversation, while another part recognizes that the future consequences are undesireable, or that other choices might be much more satisfying. People seek congruence when an incongruence is important, pervasive, and long-lasting. In situations like these, the value of achieving congruence is obvious, and NLP has a number of very effective ways of helping people reach satisfying resolutions to conflicts.
However, sometimes the search for congruence is carried too far and becomes something of a “holy grail,” not only unattainable, but both entirely undesirable, and something that occupies much too much of one’s attention. What would the consequences be if a person were always completely congruent?
Whenever we shift attention from one activity to another, there is that inevitable moment when we are attending to both the present experience and the one we contemplate shifting to. With complete congruence, this would be impossible. In the example of the sunset above, the totally congruent person would be completely at the mercy of external environmental changes, and have to sit there until the sunset changed to darkness.
Choosing between alternatives–whether between internal desires, or external opportunities–also always involves comparing two experiences to determine which is likely to be more satisfying, and this requires that the person be incongruent for at least a moment or two. With total congruence, we would never be able to choose a new alternative, move on to learn something new, look into the future or refer back to the past, have a new thought, or be able to enter someone else’s world of experience. In a real world, total congruence would result in stasis, unhappiness, and total dependence on our surroundings.
And in fact the comfort and simplicity of congruence is often so important to us that we are quite willing to delete alternatives, avoid decisions, refuse to consider new ideas,ignore disparate internal needs etc. in order to achieve it. This can only be a temporary solution, because the changing world of experience eventually intrudes and disrupts it. We may view these intrusions as foreign and dangerous, and spend a good deal of our time and effort struggling to avoid or eliminate any experience that does not already fit our small and rigidly congruent world.
What is really satisfying is to have a dynamic balance between congruence and incongruence, and a full appreciation for the importance and value of both. Congruence allows us to concentrate fully on one experience temporarily, either to appreciate it fully and learn from it, or to get something done. Incongruence allows us to consider the infinite possibilities and consequences that living continually offers us. In order to maintain this balance, we need to understand and appreciate both sides of the balance well, have ways of detecting different kinds of imbalance, and have ways of restoring our balance when imbalance is detected.
Originally published in Changes newsletter, May 2000.