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NLP: Cult or Cure? Neither, Actually

by Nancy Blake(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 130 - December 2006

Controversy in Wikipedia

Looking up NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) on Wikipedia, I was shocked at finding violent controversy. NLP was described as a cult, [A religious, or quasi-religious group, led by a person who claims to have divinely inspired knowledge of absolute truths, and demands complete control over followers’ lives (and finances)] and edits which attempted to present an accurate account of NLP were quickly altered or rejected. This article is a response.

NLP Modelling: Discovering the Elements of What Works

NLP developed because Richard Bandler, a psychologist and computer modeller, and John Grinder, a professor of linguistics, decided to model the work of the most effective psychotherapists of their time, and see if the basic elements they uncovered could be taught to others.[1]

Since then, NLP has modelled expert performance in virtually every field. (We can also model the sequence of mental activities which produce depression, and other forms of emotional distress, finding simple ways to change them.)

Scientific progress does depend on the ability of scientists to accept new results even when they appear to contradict the currently accepted truths. The field of psycho-neuroimmunology is a recent example, in which experimental results contradicted the traditional view that the immune system operated independently of other systems, and outside of the brain. Now our much more sophisticated understanding of the systems of neurotransmitters, which are involved in regulating the continuous interactions between our thought processes, our physiological functioning and our immune system, allow us to understand how language can affect health, as well as how many of the ‘unscientific’ traditional and complementary therapies work.[2-3] These concepts are now used alongside medical technologies in many NHS treatment environments, especially in the treatment of cancer.[4]

The Meta-Model of Language
To simplify all of our sensory input, we make use of generalization, deletion and distortion. The resulting ‘model of the world’ can limit our choices in unhelpful ways. For example, the statement ‘I always get rejected’ is a generalization. A person who has often been rejected has generalized rejection into the past and the future, deleting reference to times they were accepted. The therapist can offer gentle linguistic challenges: “Always? Was there ever a time when you weren’t rejected?” And, “So up to now, you have often been rejected” – keeping the future open.

Representational Systems

We perceive the external world through our five senses. We also ‘think’ by representing our thoughts in the form of visual images, remembered or imagined sounds, words, music, or physical sensations, or taste and smell. We have preferred representational systems: one person, remembering a holiday, will remember scenery, others will remember music or conversations, the sensations of lying on the beach, or what the food was like.

Eye Accessing Cues

The direction of one’s gaze, when not looking at anything specific, provides information about whether we are engaging in visual imagery (if up and to the left, remembering; if up and to the right, imagining), auditory (words, sounds or music) recall (level left) or imagining (level right), kinaesthetic (sensations, emotions, motor activity) remembering or imagining (down right) or internal dialogue (down left).

In order to feel depressed, a client will be looking down, right and left, accessing feelings, then (self-critical) internal dialogue. If asked to keep the level of their gaze angled up, the client will be surprised to discover that it becomes almost impossible to feel depressed. Simply developing the habit of looking up as much as possible can produce an on-going improvement in mood. EMDR, a therapy used successfully with post-traumatic stress disorder, makes use of directed eye movements.


Submodalities are the details of how we make our mental representations. When we talk about our memories ‘fading’, we are referring to a mental process in which our memories are no longer in big, bright pictures, but in our minds, seem smaller farther away, less distinct, and in which our emotional responses have also faded. We don’t have to wait for this to happen: we can deliberately change the way our mind represents events. This is another way in which NLP can give us control over our subjective experience.5

Visual submodalities include colour/black and white, distance, size, bordered or panoramic, focal quality (clear or fuzzy), moving or still, and so on. Auditory submodalities include volume, pitch, tone quality, rhythm, source of sound, vocal tonality, if speech. Kinaesthetic submodalities include temperature, texture, weight, dry/wet. Association/dissociation is a special category that will be discussed below.

Submodality Work with Internal Dialogue
We know about positive affirmations, but we don’t believe them! Changing the submodalities of our critical internal dialogue is more powerful: imagining the stream of negativity being sung by one of those huge operatic sopranos, or being played on a run-away tape, beginning to sound like Mickey Mouse, then like a squeak, destroys its credibility! Bandler also suggests imagining the internal dialogue being spoken in the tones of someone who loves you. This changes the emotional impact, and often the words as well. Said in a loving tone, criticism just doesn’t make sense. And, as Bandler also says, if there is any useful advice within the criticism, it is easier to accept if said in a loving tone.[6]

Submodality Work with Memories
Sometimes a client will ask a therapist how they could find out whether a ‘memory’ they are unsure about was a genuine event, a dream, a fantasy, or family story that they have heard so often that they imagine they have remembered it.

Particularly in the context of recovered memories of abuse, and the whole ‘false memory syndrome’ controversy, it becomes very important to clients to have some way of establishing the status of what might or might not be a ‘memory’. In the context of therapists being accused of instilling ‘false memories’, it is also important to have a way of assisting clients that is free from any contamination in the opinions of the therapist.

The client can be asked to think of something he remembers which he knows did happen, at about the time in question. We then carefully list the submodalities of that memory: colour or black and white, clear focus or fuzzy focus, size, distance, boundary or panoramic, and so on.

Now we ask him to think of something that could have happened at that age, but he knows didn’t. (Aunt Gladys, who is alive and well and living in Ipswich, got knocked down by a bus.) The submodalities of this ‘memory’, again carefully listed, will be different in significant ways from those of the genuine memory.

Noting these differences, the client can then think about the event which he is questioning. The submodalities of that scenario will either be similar to those of the real memory, or of the created ‘memory’. The client can then come to his own conclusions.

Submodalities: Association/Dissociation
An important submodality is association/dissociation. We can remember an event by virtually re-living it, imagining we are right back in the situation, seeing what we were seeing, hearing what we were hearing, feeling what we were feeling at the time. This associated way of remembering will powerfully evoke the emotions of the time.

The opposite process involves keeping a strong sense of one’s self in the present situation, while imagining that you are watching the remembered event, as though you were looking at a photograph or a video recording, seeing yourself in it, re-viewing (not re-living) the experience. This dissociation is a way to keep out of the emotions of the event – but perhaps to have feelings towards the ‘you’ experiencing the event, making detached judgments about what is happening – much as we do when we are watching our favourite TV series.

Traditional approaches to psychotherapy have encouraged the client to re-live traumatic events, associating fully into those memories, re-experiencing the negative emotions and somehow ‘working through’ them.

The neurolinguistic psychotherapist will take the opposite approach, encouraging the client to remain as dissociated as possible, while re-viewing the event from the perspective of their present knowledge, experience and competence.

Two Examples

A child or young person who is physically or sexually abused will typically label it as their fault, and feel guilty about it. The abuser is likely to reinforce this belief, and as an adult the person may feel like a bad person, and engage in self-destructive activities or relationships. Re-living the experience runs the danger of simply reinforcing these feelings and beliefs. If, however, the client, now an adult, and possibly a parent, can be helped to look at these events from an adult perspective, it usually becomes evident who is responsible, and where the guilt lies. (‘How big were you when you were six? What could you have done? What would you be thinking if that were your own child?) This re-evaluation usually produces very positive changes in the client’s self-image.

A second example might be a person who is suffering from depression, having nursed a loved one through a terminal illness. Typically, they will be re-living the most painful scenes, and feeling guilty that they didn’t do enough, or imagining that the death was due to some act or neglect, even though the end was inevitable. If that person can be encouraged to look at those scenes from the perspective of an observer, this can help them to see that they did all they could, and feel some sympathy for the person that they were, in that painful situation. They can then be reminded that the person they loved would not want to be remembered only as they were in the last stages of illness. The client can be encouraged to let those painful images shrink and fade, in order to allow happier memories to come to the surface, and be re-lived.

NLP Presupposition: The Unconscious is on Our Side
NLP uses ‘the unconscious’ to refer to all of our functioning that is outside of our conscious awareness. It includes all the information stored in our brain, all the physiological events and processes which keep us alive. How long would we survive if we had to try to take conscious control of, for example, the chemical balance of our blood, our digestive processes, our immune system, the processes involved in the healing of wounds? All of this operates with the apparent ‘intention’ of maintaining our survival, and that of our species. We believe that even the things we label as ‘problems’ or ‘symptoms’ are produced as part of this overall intention for our wellbeing, and whatever ‘part’ of us has produced them needs to be respected for that intention. (When I became very ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I appreciated that it would probably prevent my following my father’s footsteps into an early fatal coronary!)

Language Patterns: The Problem Contains the Solution

Linguistically, Tamara Andreas invites us to take the statement of the problem and its cause, and turn it around. In my case (which may apply to lots of women in this era of fat phobia and age phobia, it was ‘I will never find a good relationship with a man because I am middle-aged and fat.’ Following Tamara’s instructions, I changed this to ‘I will find a good relationship because I am middle-aged and fat’. Immediately ‘because I will be loved for myself’ flashed into my mind. Coincidentally or not, a beautiful person came into my life within a few months.[8]

Core Transformation: The Problem Wants to Lead You to Bliss
Connirae Andreas, with her sister Tamara, have developed a process they call Core Transformation, on a similar principle. You start with your ‘problem’, or ‘symptom’, and ask what its positive intention is for you. Then you ask ‘so if you had that (what it wants for you), what would that give you? Following this line of questioning, one will usually arrive at what they call a ‘core state’ – some universal spiritual value – peace, love, just being, being at one with the universe. Then you invite the person to experience this state, and then bring it into all the previous states mentioned, step by step.[9]

Core Transformation: My Kinaesthetic Variation
I use a modification of this process, asking the client to access the problem state where they are, then shake it off and go to another place in the room. Then I ask how it feels to be there, and how they feel towards the ‘self’ who has been in the problem state. Then I repeat the process five or six times. Typically, the first move elicits sympathy (or sometimes criticism!), the second move elicits detachment, and subsequent moves allow the client to begin to access capabilities and strengths, finally approaching what Connirae Andreas calls a core state. Then I reverse the process, asking the client to associate fully into the core state, and bring it back to the next to last position, integrating the core state with the resources of that position, and continuing to bring the integrated states back through the sequence until they return to where they were sitting in the problem state. Here a lot of processing goes on, and when this is completed, the client usually feels very different. This powerful process often results in the client going out of the session and implementing positive changes in their life situation.

The Symptom Path to Enlightenment[10]

Ernest Rossi, a medical hypnotist who worked closely with Dr Milton Erickson and documented much of his work, uses a technique of asking the client to allow conflicting aspects of their problem to go into their hands (‘I don’t know which hand this part is going to go into’). He then closely watches small movements, skin colour changes, breathing patterns, and makes very open, but always positive comments: ‘good, very good’ ‘and there’s a lot going on there’.

This method and the research behind it is documented in his book cited above. As well as diurnal rhythms, our brains also go through ultradian cycles of about 90 minutes. For ten or 15 minutes in this cycle, our brain rhythms become more random and chaotic. Rossi believes that it is during this period that creative changes can take place. His hypnotic technique provides the mind with a framework for resolution, and encouragement, but not direction, to allow the mind to come up with its own solutions. This is evidenced by observation of the processes he is following as they reach apparent resolution, and the client returns to conscious awareness. He regards this really as starting off processes which the unconscious can continue during subsequent creative periods.

Rapport, Ericksonian Language Patterns, and Influencing with Integrity

Another whole area of NLP concerns establishing rapport. The more closely you match the posture, gestures, language patterns, rhythms of small movements, speech and breathing of the person to whom you are speaking, the more that person will experience you as understanding and appreciating them. Once ‘matching and mirroring’, it is possible, if you change what you are doing slightly, that the person you are with will follow that change. This is called ‘pacing and leading’.

A benign example of this is with a crying baby – closely matching the breathing patterns and then slowing them down can gently lead a baby into a calmer state.

A less benign example would be of the salesman getting into rapport in order to create a feeling of bondedness which will help him sell you what he wants to sell you. Some of the bad press NLP attracts is probably because of its use in selling – and even, according to the titles of some books on e-bay, the art of seduction.

Part of the linguistic subjects taught on NLP courses includes the use of language in Ericksonian hypnosis. Dr Milton Erickson was one of the most effective medical hypnotists of the time, and awareness of his use of language patterns can be a powerful tool in helping people change their behaviour.[7]

This knowledge is also studied by advertisers, in their eternal quest to influence our behaviour. In fact, this knowledge has become widely available generally, and like any form of knowledge, can be used or misused. According to Richard Bandler, every ad we see on TV is an extremely complex and sophisticated hypnotic induction. We can’t avoid it, but the more we know about these techniques, the better armed we are to resist their unwanted effects.

One of the early books on NLP in selling is called Influencing with Integrity.11 If NLP is used to discover how a person arrives at decisions which work for them, it can be used to ensure that whatever you are selling is going to be right for that person. If persuasion is used to sell something the client will regret, that will be the last sale you will ever make to that person. So, influencing with integrity makes economic sense.

NLP is based on the study of what already works. It doesn’t discover anything new – it simply offers a clearer understanding of how successful people achieve their success. As such, it is used to understand the elements of expertise in a wide range of activities – sports, musical performance, management, teaching, and, of special interest to readers of Positive Health, the achievement and maintenance of good health.

By Understanding the Elements of Persuasion, We Can Better Resist their Misuse

NLP didn’t invent the techniques used by con-men and Don Juans down the ages.

But the study of NLP offers us the chance to recognize, and when necessary, resist techniques used by anyone attempting to influence us against our best interests. (If books have been written about using NLP in the art of seduction, we should all have a copy – then at least we’ll know which page they are on!)

I can understand anger at the misuse of NLP, and perhaps this accounts for the hostility on Wikipedia. As for NLP being a cult, I hope this article makes it clear that NLP is simply a set of tools, or, as Richard Bandler puts it, an operating manual for the human brain. And, he adds, if we don’t learn to run our brain ourselves, someone else is going to be running it for us!5

Not a cult, not a cure, whether we are resisting cults, advertising, media persuasion, political propaganda, or successfully improving our health, our relationships, our practical skills, understanding the principles of NLP will help us always to be the one who is in charge in our own lives.


1.    Bandler R and Grinder J. The Structure of Magic. Vols 1 and 2. Science and Behaviour Books Inc, Palo Alto. California. ISBN 08314-0044-7. 1975.
2.    Pert C. Molecules of Emotion. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 06710-3397-2.
3.    Blake N. Psychoimmunology and NLP. Positive Health. Issue No. 78. July 2002.
4.    Hull Daily Mail. pp 1, 5,6,10,11. August 30 2006.
5.    Bandler R. Using Your Brain – For a Change. Real People Press. 1985.
6.    Bandler R. Videotape No. 1 of Seminar Recorded by NLP Comprehensive. 1987.
7.    Bandler R and Grinder J. Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H Erickson MD. Meta Publications. Cupertino. California. ISBN 0-916990-01-X. 1975.
8.    Language Patterns – Set of Audio Tapes. NLP Comprehensive. 1895 Riverbend Road Boulder. CO 80301-2640. USA.
9.    Andreas C. Core Transformation: Reaching the Wellspring Within. Real People Press. ISBN 0-911226-32-X. 1994.
10.    Rossi EL PhD. The Symptom Path to Enlightenment: The New Dynamics of Self-Organization in Hypnotherapy: An Advanced Manual for Beginners. Palisades Gateway Publishing. Pacific Palisades. California. ISBN 0-9651985-0-2. 1996.
11.    Laborde ZG. Influencing with Integrity. Crown House Publishers. ISBN 1899836012.


  1. NLP Training said..

    Fantastic! Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I like your article.
    I acquiesce with this statement: " But the study of NLP offers us the chance to recognize, and when necessary, resist techniques used by anyone attempting to influence us against our best interests. "

    NLP is really helpful in our day to day activities, isn't it?

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About Nancy Blake

Nancy Blake BA CQSW, has worked in mental health settings since 1971. She served as the Chair of the ANLP PCS (now the NLPtCA), as well as on a National Working Party developing postgraduate standards for Psychotherapy (NVQ Level 5), and contributed to the document which led to NLP being accepted as a therapeutic modality by the European Association for Psychotherapy.  She has presented workshops at UKCP Professional Conferences on an NLP approach to working with victims of abuse, and in psychoneuroimmunology.  Recovering from ME since 1986, she is the co-author, with Dr Leslie O Simpson, of the book Ramsay’s Disease (ME) about ME, as well as A Beginner's Guide to ME / CFS (ME/CFS Beginner's Guides). Both titles are available both in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Nancy was previously enrolled at Lancaster University in a PhD doctoral program; her thesis topic was Conflicting Paradigms of ME/CFS and how the Psychiatric Paradigm creates its Influence in contrast to the Medical Model. She may be contacted via Her books are available to purchase at


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