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The Wheelbarrow Test

Dr Jeff Stoker

Can you physically put your problem into a wheelbarrow? that’s what I want you to ask yourself, because if you can’t your problem may be just a nominalisation, and in a moment I’ll explain exactly what this means and why it is important if you want to get rid of that problem.  

A nominalisation is something by definition that’s not really there, a popular definition is that ‘a nominalisation is something that can’t be put in a wheelbarrow’, metaphorically this implies that a nominalisation is also something that has no real physical structure, and if it can’t go into the wheelbarrow then it either doesn’t exist or it must be something you are doing instead, bear with me because in a moment I’ll explain this a little more.

Looking at things grammatically a nominalisation is when we turn a verb into a noun, this creates what is properly known as a nominalised verb (nominalisation for short) and by the end of this chapter, you will hopefully realise how slippery and dangerous they can be, but also what you can do about them too. 

A nominalisation starts as a verb, it’s a process, if you remember from school a verb is a doing word, it’s something you do, the trouble is we have the habit of turning these processes into something more real (i.e a noun which is a name, a real thing a place or a person etc.), by nominalising the verb into something else. 

Imagine a person with lots of ‘get up and go’, and then imagine trying to find that get up and go, well that get up and go is a nominalisation, (in fact it’s two) it doesn’t exist physically. There are days when I wish I had a bit more get up and go too, but it doesn’t come in bottles, you can’t put it in a wheelbarrow, and it’s not something that I can write a prescription for. Instead, a person has more get up and go has it because they probably have a habit of ‘getting up and going’, getting up and going are verbs, they are something you do. Get up and go is something you do, not something physical.

Let’s take another example, I’m stressing over writing a daily word count to write the lessons in this course, this is something I am doing, as to stress is a process, that I am doing to myself about something. Yet to say I have ‘stress’ I am then turning that verb into a type of noun called a nominalisation, stress is real it is, however, something you are doing, you can’t really collect it and you can’t put it in a wheelbarrow in real life. 

One of the problems is that when you create a nominalisation you lose control over it, remember it’s a process of something you are doing rather than a physical entity, do the test, try to put your stress into a wheelbarrow and you can’t it fails the wheelbarrow test because stress in this context is nominalisation. You’ve turned a verb you’ve turned into a noun and here’s where the problem arises, when you nominalise your stress you give it a virtual structure, you make it more real, you give it a presence, and you mentally forget it’s something you are doing and you, therefore, lose control over it. 

It’s easy to lose control over a nominalisation because try finding that stress, it could be nowhere or everywhere, no longer does it only happens when you are doing something instead it can be there all the time as are the feelings attach to it too. To protect yourself psychologically against nominalisations you need to send them back mentally again into being verbs, and then you can practically get control over what you are doing to cause that feeling and do something different instead.

So when a patient says ‘I’m really stressed’ the first thing I ask is ‘So what are you stressing about’, and in doing so I’m making the nominalisation back into a process again, and a process is something you can do something about whereas a nominalisation distances you from taking action. 

Nominalisations are vague, they mean different things to different people, they are difficult to get rid of because they are hard to visualise even if they are easy to feel. 

Nominalisations are also difficult goals to achieve; I want more confidence, I want more happiness, are difficult goals to achieve because they are also nominalisations too, a good coach will notice this and ask that person; what do you want to do confidently? or what will you do to make you happy?  

It’s important you notice nominalisations and remember and turn them back into a process even when that nominalisation you notice is a positive one. Remember the in a previous lesson when I asked you to imagine and visualise your goals with a clear image in your head. One thing this does is it gets rid of some of the nominalisations, for example just try and imagine all of your happiness and you are probably just going to get a good feeling inside but when you de-nominalise this back into a process and imagine a picture of yourself happily doing something, you start to get an image and this is something you can work towards and make happen. We will come back to this a little later when we get on to goal setting, for now just remember that if you really want to make a goal attainable it can’t be a nominalisation it needs to be something real, tangible, or something you do to cause that emotion, it needs to be something you can visualise.

Mentally a nominalisation is a frozen process, it has permanence in your mind, it is given substance when it has no substance, and it stays present after the process causing it has gone. 

To have real change you need to learn how to reprocess your nominalisations, when working with people who have ‘nominalisations’ as a problem the first step is to de-nominalise and shift the problem back into a process, for example;

‘I’m a failure’, could be de-nominalised into something like ‘what caused you to fail’, ‘how do you do failure’‘how else could you do it’, ‘how would you do it different next time’, ‘before you failed what other options did you have’ . As you can see in this example when you de-nominalise something you can also work with it and start to make progress.

So let’s look at a few more examples, ‘I have depression’ could be de-nominalised by asking ‘what is depressing you’. ‘I have anger issue’ could be de-nominalised by asking ‘what are you doing to make yourself angry’. ‘and I want that sense of achievement’ could be de-nominalised by asking ‘what do you want to achieve and how are you going to achieve it’.

Nominalisations are difficult to get rid of just as much as they are difficult to achieve, they are slippery little things that carry real feelings, and you need to get into the habit of noticing them in your own thoughts and in the language you are using in your self talk. 

“I’m a loser” said the patient, 
“What have you lost?” I replied.

So let’s go all the way back to the stress example, the patient complains they have too much stress and anxiety (they are nominalisations you now say), yet the doctor prescribes an anti-anxiety medication. Let’s think about this a bit more, the patient is getting a pill, a physical thing to treat something that has no physical form and you wonder why they don’t work you might be thinking. But It’s not as simple as this, if it was I wouldn’t prescribe any anti-anxiety medication, but I do because that medication is also helping to re-address some of the imbalance caused by all of that anxious thinking, or it might be stopping you from overthinking in the first place. Either way a bit of work on how or what you are stressing and worrying about too can’t fail to help too, that’s the real point I’m trying to make here.

But let’s look a this another way, if you fail to believe what I’m saying, and you are still carrying all of your stress and anxiety around now, if it’s weighing you down why don’t you do some mental imagery work with it instead, if you still think it’s real not something you are doing, if despite this particularly repetitive lesson you still can’t get your head around the concept of nominalisations then lets do a short therapy technique.

So in a few minutes close your eyes and when your eyes are closed, and only when you’re ready and feeling fully relaxed, just imagine dumping all of that stress and anxiety into that wheelbarrow, make that stress real, give it a colour, give it a smell, give it a texture, and dump it all in that wheelbarrow, let it take as long as it takes. Now imagine that wheelbarrow rolling off by itself into the distance with all that stress and anxiety in it, make it go further and further until you can hardly see it, and maybe a little further, until it’s just a tiny spot on the horizon, and then even smaller still, and ask yourself how far does it then have to go before those feelings that were attached to that stress and anxiety fall away too.

What you’ve just done is a visual-kinesthetic dissociation (V/KD) technique, useful things wheelbarrows! just ask any gardener (or half-decent coach or therapist).

This article was taken straight from a lesson in the Juvenate Foundation Course, click here to find out more.

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About the author

Dr Jeff Stoker

Clinician, writer, educator, speaker, and problem expert. Helping people to think better, to solve problems, and get their lives unstuck.

Winner of the Coaching and NLP in Healthcare Award at the 2018 ANLP International Conference.

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