Meta programs

Frame of Reference – key to confidence

Our frame of reference is one of the key Meta programs. It involves how we determine our needs and desires and how we evaluate our successes. Where do we get our authority, rights, privileges, permissions for our actions and decisions? How much, and what kind of feedback do we need to know how well we have performed?

This will vary depending on the context. We may follow the road rules to the letter, but act on our own authority when it comes to our diet.

Extremes of either frame of reference, especially if over generalized (so we use it in most contexts) will cause sometimes-extreme problems.

Internal Frame of Reference

t-rexAn internal frame involves doing what they want to do and using their own thoughts, feeling and frames as the authority. They take action without needing permission or approval from others (or even imaginary others). They don’t wonder if their parents would think it was a good idea for instance. They are the creative trailblazers who go into new territory, and can be ahead of their time.

As we get older, we usually feel surer of our own thoughts, values, beliefs, skills and tastes. We act in ways we think is appropriate, even though we might gather information from other sources first. The ability to decide for oneself is the basis of self-motivation, self-regulation and confidence.

When talking about or evaluating decisions and actions (such as whether they have done a good job), they tend to use words such as I, me, my. For example “I was happy with how the interview went, I put my best self forward”.

If you are managing a person with a strong internal frame, they need little feedback or praise and can even find it annoying. They need a clear goal, with an understanding of priorities and criteria. What is the purpose, outcome and time frame?


An extreme internal frame of reference can go beyond confidence to arrogance. It can come across as self-centered, and as a failure to listen to and use other people’s feedback. They can be closed-minded and therefore fail to notice things have changed, or they are not getting the results they expected.

We all probably know someone who happily acts without noticing others are unhappy about them. The husband who doesn’t need permission to do whatever he wants. The business who isn’t interested in what customers want. They usually go the way of the dodo and Tyrannosaurus Rex. The entrepreneur who just knows she is going to make buckets of money with an investment and doesn’t need to do the research.

External Frame of Reference

teachingAs kids, we start with external frame. We need advice and guidance from people who know more than we do. We aren’t born with the capability of knowing the consequences of eating 2 pounds of chocolate (sometimes we never learn). Whenever we learn something new, or encounter uncharted territory, an external frame is useful.

An external frame of reference involves doing what we have to do or “should do”. It uses feedback from others (real or imagined) and external sources to guide and motivate action, to evaluate decisions. It needs lots of statistics and testimonials to know what others are doing.

Someone using this frame says words like they, other people, you. For example, “They seemed impressed in the interview, I’ll have to wait and see if they give me the job.” Their favorite phrase seems to be, “what do you think”?

Have you ever had one of those frustrating talks like “I don’t know; what do you want to do? I don’t mind, what do you want to do?” This is where both are using an external frame at the time.

People with an external frame (and remember it may only be in a limited context, such as being a new employee, or learning a new skill), including children, need lots of feedback such as information, validation and praise.


Probably the biggest difficulty with an extreme external frame of reference is the inability to be self-motivated. We all know someone who starts a project or becomes self employed, but can’t get out of bed. Someone who needs to be in a formal office or with set hours and a boss to get anything done.

They can also have problems with making decisions for themselves, because they are too busy pleasing others. These are the people who end up in careers their Dad chose, partners Mum approved of, a life the culture admires, and then wonder why they seems to have a perfect life but are miserable and uninspired. They can become out of touch with what they love to do, what clothes they like, even what they want to watch on TV.

They often won’t change until everyone else has. This is a herd mentality – if enough people are using an external frame, for instance in a crisis or unpredictable environment, it can lead to a closed circular system where everyone is looking to everyone else for cues.

An extreme frame will take criticism personally. It affects them strongly. Your sense of self is one area where you really do not want an external frame. Taking other people’s biased opinions about you as valid is a recipe for low self-esteem.


A useful combination is to be mostly internal referencing and therefore self-regulating, motivating and confident particularly about identity and capabilities, while being able to gain feedback from the outside as required. For instance when learning a new skill it is useful to be open enough to be influenced by someone who knows more about it than you.


Changing this Meta program can be challenging. Often there are important values involved. Some cultures particularly family ones emphasize obedience and associate it to respect. Authoritarian cultures are not likely to encourage independent thought and self-reliance. It can be difficult for women for instance who grew up prior to the 70’s to be free of the idea that deferring to men is what reasonable women do.

A strong belief that being open to feedback is safe, that being open minded and able to be influenced doesn’t mean you can be manipulated is necessary to soften a rigid internal frame.

Making distinctions between different times when an external frame is appropriate (like learning) and not appropriate (like defining who you are, and what you love) can firm up an overly pliable view.

Useful NLP techniques include

Time Line Therapy to Create a Brighter Future

NLP Reframing, Finding the Right Spin

NLP Anchoring for changing our associations

and changing Submodalities

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