Dissociation and Association in the Treatment of Addiction

Two popular Neurolinguistic Programming strategies used in the treatment of addiction include Association and Dissociation. Each strategy is effective by itself. Yet, when used in conjunction with other strategies, these key modalities can create a more complex intervention.

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The Relationship Between States of Being

In Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), “state” refers to a person’s subjective experience of self and the world at a certain time. Positive states include happiness and relaxation; negative states include anger, sadness, and guilt.

A person’s state elicits different behaviors and reactions to the same situation. For example, the person in a happy state who missed an appointment might apologize and request another meeting. A person in a depressed state who missed an appointment might blame the traffic. A person in a depressed state who missed the appointment might be self-critical.

States are associated or dissociated. In an associated state, a person experiences self and the world from a feeling of happiness. In a disassociated state, the person sees the self being happy as if watching a movie. There are times when each state is appropriate. The challenge is to choose wisely.

NLP Strategies in the Treatment of Addiction

There are many NLP strategies to use when managing a person’s state. We will discuss four: Dissociation, The New Behavior Generator, Association, and Anchoring.


A person uses dissociation to see the “big picture,” to see the self in relation to others, and to step out of negative feelings. The following actions can be used to dissociate:

  1. Imagine seeing the self as standing across the room, and observe the behavior.
  2. Watch the self as if watching a movie.
  3. Refer to self in the third person while describing the state.
  4. Listen to the self, discussing the state as if the self were across the room.
  5. Ask the following questions

a. What is this about?
b. What is the big picture here?
c. How would this appear from an objective point of view?

New Behavior Generator

Dissociation is used with the New Behavior Generator, as well. Steps of the strategy are as follows:

  1. Identify a stuck state in which the person has limited choices.
  2. Consider the stuck state from a disassociated viewpoint; as if watching from afar.
  3. Identify several more beneficial behaviors.
  4. While in the disassociated state, watch what happens as new behaviors are tried.
  5. Step into the image to see if the stuck state is managed more effectively.
  6. Future pace by practicing the new behavior in situations which may occur.


Association is used to experience positive feelings or to amplify an experience using other submodalities. The following three questions can be asked to facilitate association:

a. How do I feel in this situation?
b. How does this move me?
c. What is my passion?


I use association to anchor a client. Anchors trigger specific physiological or emotional states or behaviors – in other words, they are an automatic reaction. Anchors happen unintentionally, like the way a song evokes the memory of an old friend, or they are created intentionally. For instance, a person can pinch his or her ear while recalling a feeling of confidence and apply that feeling in a new situation.

Hypothetical Case – Client Excessively Smoking Weed

Tonya sought counseling with me for her marijuana use. She has a prescription for medical marijuana and smoking does alleviate her chronic anxiety. Even so, she wants to learn strategies for lessening the anxiety without using drugs. She is concerned about the long-term effects of smoking and becoming addicted.

Because Tonya’s anxiety seems to trigger pot smoking, I focused on her anxiety in an initial attempt to resolve the presenting issue.

After building rapport, I completed an assessment based on NLP strategies, identified the positive intent of the marijuana use, and asked specific questions.

Initially, I taught Tonya ways to dissociate. She decided to:

  1. View herself smoking a joint as if she were watching a movie and change the submodalities of the image.
  2. Refer to herself in the third person while describing the problem. For example, she was to talk about “Tonya’s anxiety” rather than saying “my anxiety” or” when I am anxious.”
  3. Explore “what this is really about.” In doing so, Tonya realized that a lack of confidence was causing the anxiousness.
  • I then led Tonya through the steps of the New Behavior Generator
  • Her stuck state was anxiety, which she alleviated by smoking weed.
  • She saw herself being anxious and smoking as if watching a movie.
  • She identified behaviors she could use to resolve the anxiety rather than smoking.

– Talk to someone.
– Go for a walk or exercise.
– Make a list of the anxieties.
– Dissociate from the anxieties by seeing them in the distance or changing their submodalities.
– Find a hobby.

  • She considered each option and decided a hobby or walking would not be effective. However, talking to someone, writing down her anxieties, or dissociating would be helpful.
  • She stepped into the image of herself being anxious and pictured herself talking with a friend, writing down the anxieties, and dissociating. Each strategy seemed to lessen the anxiety and reduce the need to smoke.
  • Tonya found the best solution was to record her worries, put them in a bottle, and dissociate by making the bottle smaller and seeing it on a shelf far away.
  • The final step was to test the new behavior by having her picture times in the future when she might be anxious, such as when she had to submit a class assignment or was overwhelmed with work. I encouraged her to picture the new strategy. She seemed to feel calmer and had little desire to smoke.

To help Tonya strengthen her new behavior and remain motivated, I taught her about association. We explored the following questions regarding positive events in her life.

a. How did she feel in the situation?
b. How did they move her?
c. What was her passion?

I then taught Tonya how to create an empowering anchor.

  • The feeling/state Tonya chose to work on was her lack of self-confidence.
  • She recalled feeling confident the day she graduated from college. So, she focused on her pride and confidence at graduating and starting a new career.
  • I guided her to physically anchor the feeling of confidence she felt by rubbing her hands together.
  • We tested the anchor to make sure the feeling of confidence occurred.
  • The feeling was weak initially. However, Tonya repeated the process several times until she felt strong confidence.

There was more work to do but this was a start.

About the author
Dr. Walton has a doctorate in Psychology and is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist. After following traditional counseling approaches for years, she became interested in neurolinguistic programming and how those techniques can be used with individuals whose lives are affected by addiction. To this end, she joined the staff of the iNLP Center and has recently developed a course for professionals entitled "NLP for Addictions". All courses offered by the Center can be viewed at: http://inlpcenter.org/; the link to Dr. Walton's website is: http://www.tlcorner.com/.
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