Developed in the 1970s by two self-help gurus, John Grinder and Richard Bandler, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is still considered an unscientific approach to improving a person’s ability to communicate, develop, and work through psychological issues. Over 30 years of clinical research into the quantifiable effectiveness of neuro-linguistic programming has fundamentally debunked NLP as pseudoscience supported by only anecdotal evidence.
However, NLP remains one of the more popular, alternative therapies sought by people suffering from depression, phobias, psychosomatic disorder, and even learning disorders. Anyone can become an NLP practitioner by completing online courses and earning a certification in NLP tenets. In fact, at least in the U.S., previous educational or clinical experience is not a requirement in order to work as an NLP practitioner.
How Does Neuro-Linguistic Programming Work?
NLP practitioners help individuals understand why they perceive reality the way they do, why they act they way they do, and why they have specific thoughts about specific things. Once an NLP client reaches their goal of fully interpreting the reasons behind their thoughts and actions, they begin the process of “reprogramming” themselves to think, speak, and act differently. The purpose of reprogramming is to improve their ability to lead a happier and more successful in life.
NLP also focuses on analyzing situations in a client’s past that resulted in positive outcomes. From these events, NLP practitioners work with clients to choose the most successful of these events and pinpoint certain words, thoughts, and behaviors that made it a favorable event. One basic principle of neuro-linguistic programming theory is that the answer to a person’s problems lies within themselves. The job of an NLP practitioner is to assist clients in finding these answers that typically lie in their unconscious mind.
The Conscious and Unconscious Mind in Neuro-Linguistic Programming
Unlike Sigmund Freud, who differentiated between the unconscious and consciousness, NLP practitioners believe that human consciousness is a single component that is divided into an unconscious and conscious component.
Grinder and Bandler claim that it is impossible for humans to experience the world objectively. Instead, they say that we experience reality as a continual series of subjective representations. Humans unconsciously use language and the five senses—taste, smell, hearing, vision and tactile sensation—to create our own, unique realities. NLP practitioners call their attempts to get clients to understand why they think and behave the way they do the “study of the structure of subjective experience.”
How Do NLP Practitioners “Reprogram” Maladaptive Behaviors?
If you were undergoing NLP, your practitioner might ask you to do one or more of the following:
Focus on a mental picture of something you want to happen in your life as the practitioner guides you through a process called visual-kinesthetic dissociation (VKD). This process is similar to the way a hypnotist guides a person into an altered state of consciousness. However, during the VKD process, you are not hypnotized. Instead, the practitioner identifies language you used that led to negative thinking and dysfunctional communication habits. Correction of negative thoughts and language is, according to NLP theory, then implemented by the client through a learning method called modeling.
Modeling and Codification
Modeling is perhaps the most unsubstantiated component of NLP. Basically, modeling involves imitating or mimicking the language, actions, and thinking habits of successful people. Codification of behaviors that have been identified by an NLP practitioner and their client as “successful” is supposed to promote the reprogramming of the client’s way of interacting with the world.
Benefits of Neuro-linguistic Programming
Peer-reviewed research studies regarding the veracity of NLP has revealed little to no empirical evidence that it should be considered a real therapeutic device. However, proponents and users of NLP claim it has significantly helped them with:
- Gaining a better understanding of themselves and why they say and do things that do not promote their overall well-being
- Improving their ability to communicate more effectively and clearly
- Improving self-esteem and self-efficacy by increasing confidence and strengthening positive “self-talk”
- Encouraging replacement of bad habits with better habits
- Reducing severity of fears, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder with use of visual-kinesthetic dissociation techniques
- Developing team, managerial and leadership skills
Can NLP help people with a substance abuse disorder? Advocates of neuro-linguisting programming for addiction claim that NLP is capable of changing thought processes that originally led to addiction. They believe that successfully treating an addiction primarily involves reprogramming conscious thoughts in a way that empowers them with the motivation to stop using drugs.
Here’s a hypothetical example of what NLP might look like for someone with a drug addiction:
After a bad car accident, hospitalization, and a doctor’s prescription for Percocet, Carol started buying more pain pills on the street to feed her developing addiction. Then a friend recommended a NLP practitioner to help Carol overcome addiction. Over the first several sessions, the practitioner “matched” Carol’s language, nonverbal behaviors, and voice to build a rapport with her.
Next, the NLP practitioner delved into Carol’s understanding of her addiction by exploring linguistic patterns she was depending on to justify her use of pain pills. The practitioner asked Carol questions like “what would happen if you didn’t take pills?” and “how would you stop taking pills?” After developing an “understanding” of Carol’s perception problems, the NLP practitioner began the “outcome specification” process that involves modeling and codification.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists from people who have used NLP to overcome addictions, improve self-esteem, resolve anxiety and achieve career goals. Meanwhile, peer-reviewed articles regarding the viability of NLP consistently conclude there is minimal evidence that NLP is effective for treating psychological conditions.
A 2015 review of NLP therapy did find 18 percent of NLP clients involved in 33 studies showed results that supported tenets of NLP. About 27 percent reported “uncertain” results while nearly 55 percent reported results “non-supportive of neuro-linguisting programming tenets.” The authors of the review concluded that these results contradicted claims for an “empirical basis” of NLP.
If NLP for a mental health issue or an addiction is something you’re considering, it’s important to choose an appropriate treatment facility that offers more than just one type of therapy. Remember also that what works for someone else won’t work for everyone.
FHE is here to provide trusted information about therapies that have the most supporting, scientific evidence to back their use. Call today to learn more about our services and comprehensive approaches to substance use disorders and mental illness.