We are all the main characters of our own stories, living in our own reality. This experience can be both the blessing and the curse of human existence. One day we may feel on top of the world- the star of the show. We may relish the fact that we are in the spotlight. Other days, this spotlight can be blinding. We may feel stuck in our bodies or our minds. We might feel as though we can’t get past the same old barriers no matter how hard we try, yet we persist with the same interactions and responses, to no avail. In these instances, we find ourselves perpetually trapped in a feedback loop. Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) posits that we fail to realize that this feedback loop is often one of our own makings and that there is a disconnect between what we desire to change and the beliefs we hold about ourselves and our experience. NLP aims to help individuals better understand one’s own mind by recognizing thought patterns, how one perceives their reality, and how one moves about the world based on these interpretations. Then, by examining your mind through a birdseye view and seeing how you and others have been successful in the past and present, you and your specialist can find ways to replicate those patterns to achieve tangible results. In NLP, the belief is that we all have the tools inside of us to achieve what we desire; we only need to learn how to access them.
NLP was first founded in the 1970s at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Bandler was a student specializing in Psychology at the time and led a Gestalt therapy group. Gestalt therapy, founded by Fritz Perls, focuses on challenging old ways of thinking about an experience to gain control over one’s views of the world and better respond moving forward. Bandler was interested in the idea that internal views of reality can alter external experiences. At the time, Grinder, a linguistics professor at UCSC, noticed Bandler’s work within his therapy group and provided input and suggestions within the process. These suggestions were based on Grinder’s background in transformational grammar, which was first developed by Noam Chomsky. Transformational grammar explores the relationships between words and how this relationship forms sentences in different ways. This led to them creating a 3-hour therapist training group focusing specifically on language as a component of change.
Bandler and Grinder then studied the language patterns and communication styles of three experts. NLP is the combination of these analyses:
The IFS model of today has been influenced by dozens of other therapists, researchers, modalities, theories, and systems – including, but not limited to:
Family Systems Therapy | Systems Thinking | Jungian “Voice Dialog” | “Empty Chair” Technique – Gestalt Therapy | Narrative Therapy Traditional Indigenous Healing Practices/Shamanism (Soul Retrieval)
NLP studies the language of your mind and helps you to become an expert in communicating with yourself and others. One of the main goals within this modality is to alter unwanted behavior and self-limiting patterns of thinking and behaving. It is important to note that many NLP specialists do not categorize thinking into “bad and good.” Instead, they focus on whether you are getting the results you desire. If we are not getting the results we desire (i.e., sticking to a diet, mastering a skill, etc.), there is most likely a disconnect between the unconscious and conscious mind; this gap can be bridged.
NLP professionals often think of the conscious mind as the part that sets goals and the unconscious mind as the part that does the background work that puts these goals into action. How successful or unsuccessful we are in meeting our goals can be influenced by a feedback loop, as previously discussed. For example, imagine someone who has a big fear of public speaking. Every time they get up on stage, their unconscious mind sounds the anxiety alarms telling them to get off the stage and find comfort because public speaking is associated with fear. However, by stepping out of their current version of reality and developing a different pattern that disassociates public speaking with fear, they would be able to conquer this obstacle.
NLP specialists may call this your “mind map,” which is how you view the world based on your senses and previous experiences. Everybody’s mind map is different and unique to each person’s genetic predisposition, values, strengths, weaknesses, traumas, conditioning, beliefs, culture, upbringing, etc. For example, some people learn about their environment visually, whereas others may process information better auditorily or kinesthetically. Therefore, looking closely at the mind maps of experts and teaching them to clients to help them reach specific goals is an important part of NLP.
NLP contains three main components:
NLP also identifies six logical levels of change:
An NLP specialist will consider all of this while studying the client’s language patterns and body language, thereby developing mind maps.
While there is no set structure to a session, the specialist will carefully study your micromovements, body language, verbiage, and other interpersonal cues that help to pinpoint the root cause of an obstacle. They will then work towards remapping that obstacle with the client. They may use visualization, visual-kinesthetic dissociation, language correcting, failure into feedback, swish pattern, and other techniques. A process could look like the following:
NLP is lacking empirical evidence supporting its claims that it improves mental health and wellbeing. Many have concluded that while NLP is not necessarily ineffective, there is no scientific evidence supporting its efficacy.
Neuro-linguistic Programming: Cargo Cult Psychology?
After three decades, the claims made concerning NLP outcomes are still not credible, and the evidence surrounding its effectiveness is purely anecdotal.
However, it is worth noting that there are no studies on its effectiveness in commercial settings, but rather only in therapeutic settings with scientific protocols.
During the refining process of NLP, there were significant methodological errors within Bandler and Grinder’s research, which left little to no evidence supporting the significant claims they were making about NLP. The psychology community dismissed it as pseudoscience and deemed it unethical because of its unsupported claims about the treatment being a “cure-all,” even for severe disorders such as schizophrenia. There has been a lot of controversy over whether or not NLP has been monopolized to the point where it is a “get rich quick” scheme. However, many specialists assert that there are significant improvements when applying NLP practices to their clients. Therefore, a big question is: Do you need scientific evidence to prove something is effective, or can you go solely off of your practitioner’s belief that it is effective? An opinion on this topic is that even though there is no solid scientific evidence of efficacy, there are anecdotal claims of lifelong benefits of NLP in terms of valuable life skills learned in sessions.
Since NLP is unregulated, ethical questions can arise when talking about manipulating a person’s unconscious mind and reality. Although one would hope that NLP would only be used in a highly educated, ethical way, there can be drawbacks to a person having access to manipulation and persuasion tools in an unregulated environment.
NLP sessions are not unlike Gestalt Therapy sessions. Therefore, you will be asked to think and act within the present moment. The specialist will work towards a better understanding of your mind map by asking you questions about the obstacle you would like to face and the thoughts, feelings, and experiences you have at that moment. They will pay close attention to your language patterns and body language. Once they have an idea as to how you experience reality, they will use a variety of techniques (as mentioned above) to change the way you think, feel, and behave around this obstacle. You will be asked to challenge your own beliefs and consider other perspectives, so it is important to walk into your session with an open mind and be prepared to break down mental walls and defensiveness. A value within NLP is to minimize judgment; there is no right or wrong way to view the world. If sessions take place in group settings, respect for others is required.
When choosing a guide, it is important to verify that the practitioner has undergone NLP training and certification. There are numerous schools available to become certified with different levels of certification, ranging from a 4-day NLP practitioner training to a 14-day master’s training.
NLP is unregulated, so an individual can be trained and certified without being a licensed mental health practitioner. NLP can be utilized in many different ways (commercial settings, group sessions, holistic medicine, etc.), so it is up to you to decide what level of credentials you would like your therapist to have. This may depend on the obstacles you face, why you seek NLP, and past/present mental health conditions. Being aware of all of this is very important when deciding which NLP specialist to move forward with.
Regardless, it is vital that you feel comfortable and safe with your guide as it will help you succeed in your journey. Good rapport and an open, non-judgmental environment are what you are aiming for. As with many types of therapy, it may take a few different guides and a few appointments to establish this connection.
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