Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) is a communication and interpersonal skills training model developed in the 1970s by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Popularized by their 1975 book, “The Structure of Magic,” NLP has become fairly well known around the world.
In a nutshell, NLP suggests that changing unhelpful thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and communication patterns can:
- help shift your worldview for the better
- improve your relationships
- make it possible to influence others
- help you achieve goals
- boost self-awareness
- improve physical and mental well-being
A single approach that offers such a wide range of benefits might sound pretty great, and NLP has received plenty of positive attention and acclaim.
But the approach has also received plenty of scrutiny and criticism from experienced mental health professionals because almost no evidence supports any of its purported benefits.
Is NLP a type of therapy?
You might come across the term “NLP therapy,” but experts don’t recognize NLP as a type of psychotherapy.
Some consider it pseudoscience, at best — and at worst, a fraudulent and ineffective approach that mainly exists to make money.
A therapist trained in NLP might use the approach’s techniques as part of a combined approach to therapy, though.
Interested in learning more? Below, we’ll unpack NLP theory and principles, explain key techniques and how they’re used, and explore what research says about its suggested benefits.
The creators break down the name as follows:
- Neuro- refers to the mental, emotional, and physical aspects of your neurology.
- -linguistic refers to the language and communication patterns you use with yourself and others.
- Programming refers to the impact your emotions, thoughts, and life experiences have on your present life.
According to NLP theory, the approach can help you improve communication with your unconscious mind and modify your mental “programs,” or the models guiding your interactions.
Clearly expressing conscious needs and desires to your unconscious mind makes it possible for your mind to “get” those things for you.
The preferred representational system (PRS)
Where do you start learning the language of your own mind?
Well, you might begin by exploring your preferred representational system (PRS), or your preferred mode of sensory input.
According to NLP’s creators, everyone has a personal map, or view, of the world that guides their choices and behavior. You create this “map” with the sensory input you receive as you go about your life:
- visual (things you see)
- auditory (things you hear)
- kinaesthetic (things you feel or sense)
- olfactory (things you smell)
- gustatory (things you taste)
According to NLP theory, you’ll likely find yourself using one of these more often than the others. That’s your PRS. You can recognize the dominant PRS in two key ways.
The first is your language. A tendency to say:
- “This looks…” or “I see what…” would suggest a visual PRS.
- “I feel that…” would suggest a kinaesthetic PRS.
- “I hear you” or “I’m hearing that…” would suggest an auditory PRS.
Another way to identify your PRS relates to your eye movements:
- Visual involves upward movements to either side.
- Auditory involves horizontal movements to either side, or downward movements to the left.
- Kinaesthetic involves downward movement to the right.
NLP practitioners aim to identify your PRS to better understand your personal experiences and worldview. This insight can guide them toward the techniques best suited to your needs.
Of course, learning your own language isn’t the only aspect of NLP. Understanding how other people perceive the world through their own PRS can increase your awareness of their experiences and improve your communication.
NLP practitioners use a number of techniques and exercises.
The official NLP website doesn’t list specific techniques or clarify how many exist. But various online sources claim there are more than 100 techniques.
There’s a general lack of knowledge about these techniques, as some experts
Some techniques you might come across in NLP:
NLP theory suggests that matching or mirroring another person’s body language, including gestures, eye movements, posture shifts, and tone of voice, can help you:
- improve rapport and communication
- sidestep conflict
- become better liked
- influence the outcome of a situation
Maybe a discussion with your roommate has quickly started to approach “argument” status. Their tone has become heated, and they’re leaning back against the wall with their arms crossed over their chest.
While you wouldn’t want to use a heated tone yourself, you might try matching their posture, along with the pitch, speed, and volume of their voice. This helps strengthen your connection and show your understanding for their perspective.
Another aspect of matching involves their PRS. If they say something like, “All I hear from you is…” you could respond by saying, “I hear what you’re saying.”
Fast phobia cure
The phobia “cure,” in brief, is a visualization exercise where you watch a mental “movie” of your phobia, replaying it:
- in gray instead of full color
- while imagining music that generates positive and peaceful emotions
- backward at a more rapid speed
Mentally replaying the phobia “movie” a few times is said to banish your discomfort to the point where you no longer feel afraid of the object of your phobia.
This technique exists to help you replace an unwanted habit, thought, or behavior with one you actually want.
To use this technique to break a habit of sleeping past your alarm, you might:
- Create a mental image of yourself lying in bed, sleeping soundly, as your alarm trills on the bedside.
- Create a second mental image of yourself doing what you’d prefer to do. In other words, waking up to your alarm, turning it off, then sitting up and getting out of bed.
- Mentally “enlarging” the image of yourself sleeping in and “shrinking” the image of yourself waking up to your alarm.
- Mentally “throwing” the image of yourself sleeping past your alarm as far as you can. As it disappears, note how small it gets, how it fades until you can’t see it any longer.
- Yank the image of yourself waking up on time back rapidly. As it comes to you, imagine it growing in size and brightening in color until it feels very vivid and real.
- Repeat as needed.
NLP theory suggests it’s possible to improve your luck through a few steps:
- Pay attention to gut feelings and follow those instincts.
- Expect that positive things will happen to you.
- Find and create your own opportunities by taking chances and trying new things.
- Challenge yourself to learn from unwanted or negative experiences instead of letting them get you down. In this way, you transform your “unluckiness” into a better experience.
Dissolving bad memories
This exercise aims to help you get rid of unpleasant or unwanted memories. Here’s how it works:
- Think about the memory you want to “dissolve” — a recent breakup fight, for example.
- Take a moment to fully fixate on the memory, noting everything you can see and hear in it. These sensory details might include things like colors and light, voices, other people around you, the room you’re in, or your clothing.
- Begin to “wash away” the sensory details. Dim the colors, mute or muffle the voices and sounds, darken the room, push everything away into the distance.
- Ask yourself what you learned from the experience. You’ll want to hold on to those things you learned, so if it helps, you might imagine yourself tucking that knowledge into a drawer for safekeeping.
- Visualize yourself taking a deep breath, or calling up a gust of wind, to send the memory sailing away into the distance.
Of course, it’s not actually possible to completely erase an unpleasant memory. Rather, you might use this technique to push away the memory whenever it pops up, until it naturally dulls with time.
Six logical levels
This exercise aims to help you create change across six different levels of thought and behavior.
An NLP practitioner might offer guidance to help you better understand your actions at these levels and work through any places where you tend to get stuck.
If you’d like to make more friends, you might explore the six levels to determine where you could make changes:
- Environment. When you have free time, you like to stay home or ride your bike to the beach.
- Behavior. You have a hard time talking with people you don’t know, so you tend to stay quiet in social situations.
- Capabilities. You always feel uncertain of what you should say to others and consider yourself bad at small talk.
- Values and beliefs. You believe you should have more friends and find social interactions easier.
- Identity. You think not having many friends suggests you’re somehow flawed as a person.
- Life purpose. Strong, close friendships make your life more meaningful.
You might already know changing your environment or behavior might help, so you might consider other levels.
Maybe you explore the (false) notion that your lack of friends means you’re flawed or unlikeable, or challenge the belief that you need a lot of friends.
Once you realize the number of friends you have doesn’t say anything about you as a person, you might feel less driven to make friends simply because you feel you should. As this pressure eases, you might find yourself opening up to new people more comfortably and naturally venturing toward new habits.
In short, making changes at one level often leads to additional changes at the other levels.
Proponents of NLP claim the approach can help improve:
- anxiety disorders, including phobias, panic disorder, and social anxiety
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- eating disorders
- substance use disorders
- dyslexia and other learning disorders
- weight maintenance
- communication skills
- interpersonal relationships
- emotional distress
- overall life outlook and self-image
But does it actually work?
Support for NLP’s benefits remains largely anecdotal. Plus, many of these anecdotes come from NLP coaches and practitioners, who have a financial interest in promoting the approach.
After nearly 50 years of research, unbiased experts — in other words, people not making any money from the approach — have yet to find empirical support for NLP:
- In a
2012 reviewof 10 experimental studies, researchers determined there wasn’t enough evidence supporting NLP’s benefits to recommend its use for any mental or physical health concern.
2014 reviewof NLP’s benefits for treating PTSD, general anxiety disorder, and depression found “no clinical evidence” to support NLP as a treatment for these conditions. The review authors also note that other reviews have consistently failed to find any support for NLP as a treatment for anxiety conditions and PTSD. Research from 2018notes that the only publication supporting the benefits of NLP, a “review” article published in 2010, did not follow the most basic elements of review protocol. What’s more, the publication included articles that hadn’t been peer-reviewed — but it didn’t refer to any actual scientific findings.
Some limited evidence does support a few benefits of NLP:
- A 2021 study compared the effectiveness of guided imagery with an unnamed NLP behavior technique for relieving pain and discomfort after open-heart surgery. The 44 people who used the NLP technique reported less pain after surgery, while the 44 people who used guided imagery reported greater comfort.
2021 studyinvolving 180 nurses suggests NLP techniques appeared to help promote organizational citizenship behavior among nurses. According to the study authors, these techniques also appear to help promote conscientiousness, job satisfaction, and quality of care.
small 2021 studyof 41 nurses and nurse managers suggests that NLP techniques may help promote flexibility, a more positive mood, motivation, and improved planning abilities. Study authors also note that NLP training appears beneficial for boosting conflict resolution and problem-solving skills.
Experts have found plenty to question about NLP’s supposed effectiveness.
The truth is, anyone can create an approach and claim it treats just about anything. But those claims aren’t the same as proof, of course.
To gather support for an approach’s effectiveness, unbiased researchers conduct randomized controlled trials and other scientific studies. When it comes to NLP, this support simply
Take the preferred representational system (PRS), for one. This system appears to form the backbone of the approach, but no research supports its existence.
Researchers have also called into question the lack of requirements necessary to become trained as an NLP practitioner or coach. You don’t actually need to have a mental health background, or any credentials whatsoever, to earn an Integrative NLP Practitioner Certification — a training process that only takes 4 days.
To contrast, it takes several years to become a licensed mental health professional, not to mention hundreds of hours of practical experience.
True change typically requires time and dedicated effort
NLP supposedly works very quickly. According to some coaches, you’ll notice improvement in just a session or two.
It’s always wise to use caution with approaches that offer a quick fix for mental health concerns and behavioral changes. Most evidence-backed therapy approaches require several weeks of treatment, at the very least.
Perhaps the most telling critique of NLP: You won’t find it listed with evidence-backed psychological treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure and response prevention (ERP), and interpersonal therapy, among others.
If NLP techniques seem like a helpful way to improve communication, self-image, and emotional well-being, it may not hurt to give them a try.
Just know this approach will likely have little benefit for any mental health concerns. If you have symptoms of any mental health condition, it may be more helpful to seek support from a licensed therapist.
A trained therapist can help you take steps to practice new communication patterns, challenge unhelpful and unwanted thoughts, and improve overall emotional health. But they’ll typically use approaches backed by scientific evidence and rigorous research.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.