How can NLP help clients develop the motivation to quit an addiction?

An exploration into the basics of motivation and how Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) can be applied in counseling settings to addiction treatment.

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Motivation plays and incredibly important role in breaking the cycle of addiction. The following article will offer strategies based on Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) which can move a person toward healthy choices and away from unhealthy ones. Then, we invite your questions about overcoming addiction using NLP at the end.

What is “motivation”?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, motivation is:

“the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.”

In other words, it is not about something a person has … but about something he or she does!

Similarly, Richard Bandler, co-creator of NLP, said :“When people have trouble motivating themselves, that’s a description but it is not the facts of what’s going on.”

So, let’s take a look at what’s really going on when a person is addicted to drugs or alcohol. What is stopping them from quitting? But first, a quick review on the basics of NLP and how it’s used in helping treat addiction.

What is Neuro Linguistic Programming?

NLP examines the fundamental dynamics between the mind (neuro) and language (linguistic); as well as, how their interaction affects the body and behavior (programming).

How can beliefs influence addictive behavior 3

It targets how people

  • communicate externally and internally
  • process, store, and recall information
  • can alter their communication to achieve the results and goals they want – in this case, overcoming an addiction

Practitioners believe human beings have an extraordinary capacity for flexibility and that there is nothing which happens on a mental or spiritual level they cannot learn to handle. So, the focus is on how an individual formulates thoughts – in this discussion, thoughts which lead to addiction, as well as, to ones that lead to more healthy choices.

What does NLP say about motivation?

According to NLP, motivational strategies are either “moving away from” a negative outcome or “moving toward” a positive one. Both approaches are effective and both have weaknesses.
Someone “moving away from” patterns of substance abuse can avoid difficulties but may never stop to consider what he or she really wants. Conversely, someone who is “moving toward” addiction recovery notices what’s desirable but may ignore potential problems and fail to prepare properly.
Richard Bandler proposed that a person can be motivated not to do something, as well. In that case, the goal would be to shift his or her thinking from the current state of “moving away from” to a state of “moving toward” a more desirable option. An example would be a person deciding to move toward healthy living rather than moving away from using meth.

What we focus on will expand

It is well-known that:

a) whatever a person focuses on expands and
b) the brain doesn’t know the difference between a vividly imagined memory and reality

So, for optimal results in addiction recovery, a person must imagine and focus on what he or she wants. Further, we need to understand that beliefs influence addictive behaviors.  Typical reasons which keep a person from feeling motivated to quit using drugs or alcohol are:

  • being overwhelmed
  • using only “away from” motivations
  • resistance

More specifically, Steve and Connirae Andreas, experts in the field of NLP and authors of the book Heart of the Mind, identified four types of ineffective motivation:
1. A Negative Motivator is prompted to act only after imagining the horrible consequences of waiting any longer.
2. A Dictator gives orders in a stern, commanding voice which may contain words like must, have to, and should.
3. An Imaginer pictures himself doing an unpleasant task and hating it, rather than imagining the task as completed and feeling good about his or her accomplishment.
4. A person who is “Overwhelmed” imagines the entire task as one global mass of work rather than chunking it down into manageable steps.
Finally, according to Tony Robbins, well-known speaker and NLP trainer, there are six basic human needs:

  • certainty
  • variety
  • significance
  • connection
  • growth
  • contribution

It makes sense that when an individual’s addiction is meeting one or more need, resolving that addiction can be more difficult.

What NLP strategies apply to addiction treatment?

To begin with, Practioners know that effective motivational strategies include:

1. Using an engaging tone and including a theme of possibility rather than necessity.
2. Focusing on an image of what is desirable about a task rather than on the process of doing it.
3. Chunking a task into appropriate pieces.
4. Using a combination of strategies.
5. Incorporating the elements of association and dissociation.
6. Checking possible consequences before removing negative feelings or anxiety; they may provide important information.
7. Adjusting submodalities of a task image in order to get a strongly motivated response.

NLP can be used by a counselor working with a client experiencing addiction issues, by families with a loved one overly involved with substances, or by an individual who is abusing drugs. For this article, we will explore four effective strategies: Positive Intent, The Swish Pattern, The As-If Frame, and the Strategies Model. However, there are many others.
POSITIVE INTENT – In NLP, it is assumed there is a positive intention behind every behavior. A person has a need and uses a substance or activity to meet it. When the positive intent is understood, then, alternative, healthier choices can be identified.
THE SWISH PATTERN – Allows a person to replace a negative image with a more positive, motivating one. The process is as follows:

  • Identify an unwanted behavior or habit.
  • Recognize the cue image present immediately before the unwanted behavior occurs.
  • Recall a more compelling self-image than the one triggering the unwanted behavior.
  • Check to see if any part of the mind objects to becoming like the new image.
  • Set-up a “swish” by remembering the problem behavior cue image and locating a small dark picture of the desired self-image in a corner of the mind.
  • Swish by rapidly make the cue image smaller and the darker desired self-image larger and brighter.
  • Test for effectiveness by thinking of the cue image for the problem behavior and noticing what happens. When the switch is effective, the new self-image will immediately replace the old one, resulting in a change of state and loss of desire for the old one. Yes, this may take more than one attempt.

THE STRATEGIES MODEL suggests that thoughts are sequential in nature, a person thinks about one thing, and then another leading to an outcome. Thoughts are formulated based on visual (V), auditory (A), kinesthetic (K), olfactory (O), or gustatory (G) information. When eliciting someone’s strategy, the goal is to discover how the VAKOP phenomenon is composed as he or she moves toward the results they experience. So, the goal is to determine what sensory processes are involved in a decision and in what sequence they occur. Once that is known, changes can be made to elicit more adaptive patterns.

As an example, if a person feels stress, pictures smoking weed, smells the smoke, and chooses to smoke, the pattern is K-V-O. If, instead, the person feels stress, pictures smoking, hears someone saying how harmful weed can be, and pictures two tickets for the movie, Star Wars, the pattern would be K-V-A-V and might lead to a different choice.

AS – IF FRAME – Pseudo orientation in time is a technique often used by Milton Erickson to help people solve problems from a future perspective; guiding them into the future where they can learn how they overcame the problems, then reorienting them to the present with new insights.

Case study of nicotine cessation using NLP

Henry requested counseling because of continued cigarette smoking. He began at age 12 and continued 20 years later despite severe asthma. Although, he made numerous unsuccessful attempts to stop, even managing to quit for a day or two, he always found an excuse to start again. His father, also a long time smoker, recently died of emphysema.

As his counselor, I began by BUILDING RAPPORT with Henry. We explored the positive intent of his smoking and the needs which were being met. He thought the positive intent was to relax and to share quality time with friends as they smoked and discussed politics. According to the Robbins model, the needs were:

a) connecting with others and
b) certainty – he could count on the fact that, like a good friend, smoking always made him feel better

A basic strategy that I include with all clients is the OUTCOME SPECIFICATION EXERCISE. I used it to assess Henry’s desire to quit and to identify factors which may sabotage the effort. His answers were as follows:

  • He wants to quit smoking within the next 6 months.
  • Evidence of success would be his refusal to buy or use tobacco in any form.
  • The goal was relevant in every area of his life: his family, his work, and his health.
  • What stops him from quitting is the relaxation and comfort he feels when smoking.
  • Personal resources he currently possesses include his desire to quit, his concern about the asthma which is worsening, and the memory of his father’s dying.
  • Additional resources he needs include learning healthy ways to relax and friends who won’t smoke in his presence.
  • Henry’s wife and children would be very happy if he quit. They are concerned about his health and hate the smell of smoke permeating through the house. Potential risks include gaining weight and becoming more anxious.
  • Daily actions he considered taking were a) smoking less each day and cutting back slowly, b) quitting cold turkey, and c) looking for new aids to help him quit. The first steps he wanted to take were to make a doctor’s appointment regarding asthma medication and to develop a reasonable plan for cutting back.
  • Henry heartily agreed that it would be worth the effort to give this plan a try.

So, we decided to proceed.

One strategy that I used with Henry was the SWISH PATTERN:

  • He identified smoking, in any form, as the unwanted behavior.
  • The cue image was him sitting with friends and smoking cigarettes.
  • The desired self-image was one of him stomping on the packs of cigarettes.
  • However, Henry found that a part of him objected because he could still pick up the crumpled cigarettes and smoke them. So, we changed the image to one of not being interested in cigarettes at all – like he had no desire to eat Brussel sprouts which made him sick when he smelled them cooking. This was a more compelling for him.
  • I instructed Henry to remember the picture of him smoking and to locate the small dark picture in the corner of his mind – seeing and smelling the Brussel sprouts and experiencing the sick feeling.
  • Swish – in his mind, he made the cue image smaller; and the darker desired self-image larger and brighter.
  • We tested the swish by having him think of the cue image and notice what happened. If the swish was effective, the desired self-image would immediately replace the old one, resulting in a change of state and loss of desire for smoking.
  • We went through the process a couple of times until he accessed the new picture easily.

I then used the AS IF FRAME guiding Henry in picturing himself six months from now, looking back to see what steps were taken during that time.

1. He saw himself in August of 2016 having achieved his goal and knowing all was well.
2. He looked back to today and noticed what he did, how he resolved arising issues, what worked, what didn’t, and what he learned.
3. He also pictured himself one year and five years later looking back at his life – from the viewpoint of a healthy, non-smoker.
4. Then, he returned to the present with this new perspective in mind.
5. Finally, I had Henry “future-pace” – guiding him to think of times in the future when he might want a cigarette and using his new skills to resist the impulse.

Henry felt very confident that he would be able to achieve his goal this time and was motivated to get started.

If I had used THE STRATEGIES MODEL, I would have determined what internal thinking pattern Henry used as he decided to smoke a cigarette. If he said that when a stressful situation arose, he heard an internal voice saying “I could use a cigarette,” pictured smoking, smelled the smoke, and exclaimed “then, I will be relaxed, that would be using a K-A-V-O-A pattern. However, if we changed the pattern to after feeling stressed and hearing the internal voice, he pictured his father’s damaged lungs and said “No, I don’t want to be die like my father”– that would be a K-A-V-A pattern, which might lead to a different outcome.

While Henry had a couple of effective strategies in place, there were many more to explore. So, I suggested continued counseling. In addition to exploring other techniques, I wanted to make sure that the new images remained effective over time and that we resolved the underlying needs so he didn’t find another substance or process to replace smoking.

As an NLP practitioner, this is one way I can motivate a client to work towards his or her goal of overcoming an addiction with NLP; however, there are many other possibilities.

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:; the link to Dr. Walton's website is:
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