A few years back I used neuro-linguistic programming to change my inner narrative. I learned a new way to talk to myself. I re-molded my self-talk to be much less demanding and stressful, relieving myself of huge loads of inner tension.

Neuro-linguistic programming, NLP for short, is an array of tools for personal development and therapy. Richard Bandler and John Grinder compiled these tools in the 1970s after studying successful therapists such as Virginia Satir and Milton Erickson.

The concepts and practices of NLP are wide-ranging, and opinions on NLP vary. Many practitioners of the method have expanded it since its conception, while many scientists and therapeutic professionals have dismissed it as pseudoscience. Some even claim that Bandler was a manipulative sociopath!

The personal development tools I discovered in NLP did awesome things for me. But there are valid reasons to be skeptical of NLP and the culture built by its founders. In his book Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown gives NLP a critical look:

“Indeed, their approach was more pragmatic: to start with observed phenomena that seemed reliable, and then to set out teachable ideas based on what was useful or seemed to work best, rather than trying to understand why or how something might work. The pragmatic approach of the originators has now been swamped in a huge industry of daft theories and hyperbole, evangelical mind-sets and endless self-perpetuating courses, to the point where it resembles something of a pyramid scheme, with Bandler sat cheerily at the top.”

You can check out Tricks of the Mind for a more in-depth examination of NLP.

Although I never delved too deeply into the world of NLP, I do owe NLP thanks for the tools that helped me change my inner narrative.

Speaking for myself, the few techniques I used worked.

Discovering NLP

I first learned of NLP from an old article on HighExistence. It seemed interesting as a concept, but I didn’t do any more research on it.

Fast forward a couple years to college. I’m in a class called Holistic Approaches to Healing. This class had a unique format: one week a speaker would present a topic to the class, and the next week we would discuss the presentation. Each speaker was a wellness professional with a particular specialization.

We hosted a yoga instructor, a therapist, a meditation teacher, a nutritionist, etc.

My interest in NLP was re-ignited when a life coach specializing in the use of NLP gave us a presentation on her work. She explained how patterns in the way we talk to ourselves form our beliefs about ourselves and our beliefs about life, and how it was possible to change our patterns of self-talk, thereby changing our beliefs.

If we change our beliefs, we can change our lives.

How Does It Work?

I’m going to share my understanding of what she taught us, as well as the 3-step method I used to change a pattern that was weighing me down and stressing me out.

The way we talk to ourselves is important. What we say to ourselves all day long shapes what we believe about who we are, what we’re capable of, and how life works.

These critical beliefs are part of the bedrock of how you feel on a daily basis. If you believe that you’re a bad person with no capabilities in a hostile world, you’ll feel like shit a lot of the time. If you change some of those beliefs you’ll feel better more often. A change in what you believe can catalyze a change in how you feel.

A change in what you believe can also catalyze a change in how you act. If you believe that you can accomplish a goal then you are much more likely to try your hardest, and to persevere when things get tough. Encouraging beliefs support courageous action.

So we want to reinforce helpful beliefs and stop energizing beliefs that dis-empower us. The NLP angle is to change the way we talk to ourselves so that the conversation in our head is more friendly, productive, and encouraging.

How do we do that?

We change a pattern of self-talk.

The stuff your mind talks about over and over again, or the phrases you use habitually, have the most influence over you. Something you thought about once isn’t a big deal, but something you think about once an hour is quite significant. So we tackle those repetitive, habitual, thematic elements of your inner conversation.

Step 1: Choose What To Change

Step number one is to hone in on one pattern. Trying to change your whole inner dialogue at once is overwhelming, unrealistic, and will lead to discouragement when you aren’t successful.

Identify one pattern to work on.

An example the NLP coach discussed in our class resonated with me. She highlighted how often we tell ourselves that we “need to” or “should” do something, and how these phrases are prone to cause us stress.

The irony of these phrases is that it’s almost always unnecessary to think them. I would be thinking “I need to do homework” at the grocery store. I wasn’t going to drop shopping and start my paper in the middle of the store. Worrying about it there was useless.

I recognized that I was telling myself that I need to do or should do so many things, all the time. And it was stressing me out.

It’s not that “should” and “need” are evil words, and have to be totally cast out from the mind for the sake of inner peace. But after she gave the example, I began to see how these words were associated with stress. Every time I found myself thinking “I need to write that paper” or “I really should leave early tomorrow”, I could feel my mind and body tensing up.

These words were always associated with a responsibility that I would fulfill in the future. They never had to do with the present moment. So I was unnecessarily worrying about stuff that wasn’t happening yet.

I was always on top of my responsibilities. I always got my homework done and arrived places on time. But I also always managed to add layers of unhelpful worry to my day, despite having my life well put together.

I identified my pattern: I wanted to stop using the words “need” and “should” in a way that caused unneeded inner tension.

Step 2: Catch Your Pattern In Action

Step number two is becoming mindful of your pattern. You want to make a tangible note every time you catch the pattern occurring.

I began by pinching myself every time I found my mind thinking a “need”-based or “should”-based phrase. After doing this for a while I found pinching to feel too much like self-punishment, so I switched to poking.

Every time a phrase including “need” or “should” ran through my mind, I poked myself.

It took about a week to see that these phrases were all over the place in my mind. I was poking myself at least two or three times per hour.

Don’t punish yourself for “thinking something bad.” That will make you resent the mindfulness process. Just make a concrete acknowledgement, such as a poke, that the pattern is occurring.

A mental note does not suffice. Purposefully taking an action every time the pattern occurs will force you to realize just how often the pattern is actually playing out. It will bring the pattern to the forefront of your consciousness.

So poke yourself, do 3 jumping jacks, or pick your nose every time you catch the pattern. Soon enough it will be very clear how powerful, prevalent, and persistent these patterns really are.

Step 3: Choose New Words

Step number three is to rephrase the narrative. You want to find new words that communicate a meaning which is more positive and empowering.

After poking myself, I would find a new phrase which was more helpful and realistic.

After thinking: “I really need to get that paper done”, I would say to myself: “I will do that paper tomorrow after lunch. I will have time to do it then, and it will get done”.

After thinking: “I should buy more toothpaste soon”, I would say to myself: “I can buy toothpaste on my way back from class today”. Or, depending on the situation, maybe I would rephrase to: “I’m at a party right now; go have fun and stop worrying about toothpaste”.

Consciously choosing to converse with yourself in a different way disrupts the target pattern. Your intervention within your inner dialogue puts you in control. This is where you’re really taking action.

Identifying a pattern to change, and cultivating mindfulness of that pattern, are the preparatory steps. They are extremely important. With them you lay a critical foundation. But rephrasing is the real agent of transformation.

Perhaps after identifying your pattern, you could prepare a few go-to rephrasing responses to use as you encounter your pattern.

Write them down. “If I catch myself thinking ______, I will rephrase to ______”.

That way, you know the kind of dialogue you’d like to create beforehand. This will help you enact your intended changes in a strong way.

Bringing It Together

To recap:

Step 1: Identify a pattern. Make it specific. Zoom in, don’t try to overhaul your whole inner narrative. This will give you a firm direction to move in.

Step 2: Practice mindfulness of your pattern. Take a concrete action every time the pattern occurs. The more familiar you become with your pattern the more effectively you will be able to intervene when it occurs.

Step 3: Rephrase. Find a better way to talk to yourself. Actually say it to yourself — out loud if possible.

My challenge to you is to take step one right now. What part of that conversation in your head would you like to change?

Further Study:

nlp neuro linguistic programming frogs into princesFrogs into Princes: Neuro-Linguistic Programming by Richard Bandler and John Grinder

This book is a transcript of many of Richard Bandler and John Grinder’s original introductory NLP workshops. It is widely considered to be one of the best introductions to NLP and an absolute staple in the NLP canon.