What is… Neuro-linguistic programming

Mental Health @ Home Insights Into Psychiatry: neuro-linguistic programming

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.  This week’s term: neuro-linguistic programming

Every so often I read something that refers to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), but I really had no idea what it was, so I thought it was worth taking a closer look.

The site nlp.com likens NLP to a “user’s manual for the brain”.  It states that “Your unconscious mind is not out to get you–rather, it’s out to get for you whatever you want in life. However, if you don’t know how to communicate what you want properly, it will keep bringing steaming bowls of liver stew out of the kitchen.”  This reminded me a bit of the law of attraction, but substituting your unconscious for the universe.

According to NLP University, NLP is based on two fundamental principles: “the map is not the territory” (i.e. there is more to reality than we can perceive) and “life and ‘mind’ are systemic processes” that form an “ecology of complex systems and subsystems all of which interact.”  It was developed by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in the 1970’s in the book The Structure of Magic.  Wikipedia explains that according to these founders, challenging linguistic distortions can allow the grammatical concept of surface structure to better reflect underlying structures.

Wikipedia cites several credible references that dismiss NLP as pseudoscience with no high quality research evidence to support its effectiveness.  Citing several academic references, Wikipedia states that NLP “uses jargon words to impress readers and obfuscate ideas, whereas NLP itself does not relate any phenomena to neural structures and has nothing in common with linguistics or programming”.  It also cites several authors who have characterized NLP as a New Age psycho-religion.

Wikipedia has a page devoted specifically to NLP techniques.  Modelling is a key learning process by adopting the language and behaviours of another person.  People create and modify internal “maps”, and the Meta-model uses questions and language patterns that can affect this map.  Anchors are stimuli that can be used to connect to target emotional states.  VK/D, or visual/kinetic dissociation is used to disconnect negative emotions from past events.  “Covert hypnosis” may also be used, a technique referred to by one NLP practitioner as “slight-of-mouth”.

While it hasn’t been generally accepted in the field of psychology, it is used by some hypnotherapists and has been used in leadership training.  It also became popular in the human potential movement.  While the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy recognizes “neurolinguistic psychotherapy”, there is no standardized NLP training or professional regulation.  Erickson Coaching International offers a 3-day course to become a “certified neuro linguistic (NLP) practitioner”.  “NLP University” does not appear to be accredited as an actual university, and does not claim to grant degrees.  Contrast this to the master’s degree that is required to become a clinical counsellor.  A few years ago I did an excellent 2-day CBT workshop with Dr. Christine Padesky, co-author of Mind Over Mood.  For a bit of perspective, the current equivalent of that workshop costs 1/3 less per day than Erickson’s NLP training.

My sense from what I’ve read is that even if NLP does have some useful concepts, that’s more by accident than through sound theoretical development.  I’m always skeptical when there are no standardized credentials, because you never really know what you’re getting in a given practitioner.  I’ve never known anyone who has done any training or had some form of direct experience with NLP, and I’d be very curious to hear from someone who has.

What are your thoughts on neuro-linguistic programming?

 

Sources:

You can find the rest of my What Is series here.

 

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16 thoughts on “What is… Neuro-linguistic programming

  1. DV says:

    It sounds totally dodgy. I am very skeptical of any therapeutic approach whose model resembles that of a business or a religious sect: centred on the original developers, theoretical basis cobbled together from outmoded or implausible ideas, brand names and logos, trademarked jargon, expensive training that is often only obainable at their own training institutes, “merchandise” eg books, videos etc, only available information on the techniques sounds like advertising copy or testimonials etc. Occasionally elements of these techniques actually work, but I’ve usually found that those are very similar to established approaches with a good track record eg I think the theory behind craniosacral therapy is totally nuts, but the general principle of therapeutic touch + empathic relationship is effective, as are behavioural activation techniques or thought challenging techniques like those used in CBT

  2. Meg says:

    Huh, interesting! I used to read loads of New Age books back in the 1990s and 2000s. I kind of miss that now. I wonder if I still have any of those paperbacks! I think pseudoscience is fine, unless it’s hurtful somehow, or a major money grab (like more than buying a large paperback), or cult-like within the context of group meetings (which is a good reason to just buy aforementioned large paperback and not get more involved). Especially in today’s world, moreso than in the 1990’s, if a New Age book doesn’t work for someone, they can instantly read 1-star review on Goodreads and know they’re not alone. So my best guess is that NLP is harmless, as long as it’s just taken for what it is. Thought-provoking blog post! Just what I needed today!

      • behindapaintedsmile30 says:

        Seems to be a case of people writing something off because they don’t understand it or fear it, or think it is beneath them. Or maybe I shouldn’t try to debate with people who are more intelligent than me. 🤷🏼‍♀️

        • ashleyleia says:

          I think sometimes if one takes a particular approach as the whole package with all the ideas associated with it the picture may be quite different than a skilled pracitioner who skillfully incorporates the most useful parts of that approach along with other different approaches.

    • DV says:

      When I made the comment about sociopaths and narcissists I was thinking more in terms of the people at the top or who profit from selling the training and merchandise than therapists who simply learn and use the techniques, and there was no implication that any given therapist – including yours – has either of those traits. I have strong opinions and a high degree of skepticism about a whole range of mental health interventions, including many that are accepted as mainstream and which supposedly have a good evidence base (assuming that unfavourable studies have not been suppressed as is the case for many psychiatric drugs), because I have suffered personal harm and seen others suffer harm as a result of these – so the part of your comment about being scared is quite correct. It sounds like your experience has been very different, and I’m genuinely glad that you have a therapist you trust and whose techniques are working for you.

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