NLP techniques for treating an addicted client

In this article, Dr. Janice Walton introduces three NLP strategies which can be effective when counseling a severely addicted client.

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I begin by offering my preferred definition of “addiction.” This is followed by a brief explanation of the NLP philosophy, the Stages of Change process and how NPL can change addictive behavior. Lastly, I introduce three relevant strategies for working with a hypothetical client experiencing compulsive gambling.

If you have any additional questions or would like to learn more, we invite you to post them in the comments section at the bottom of the page. We try to answer them in a personal and prompt manner. So, let’s begin…

What is addiction?

The word “addiction” initially referred to the abuse of alcohol and other substances. However, the term has been expanded to include behaviors such as compulsive gambling or pornography and obsessive internet use.

These activities create feelings of pleasure and euphoria in the brain similar to the feelings of pleasure created by substances. Some people crave the substance or activity hoping to re-live those feelings. Other people use substances and activities to escape or cope with anxieties and problems. As you know, use can sometimes lead to misuse and misuse can lead to dependence and addiction.

The following explanation defines addiction well:

“a condition that results when a person ingests a substance or engages in an activity that can be pleasurable, but the continued use or act becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health.”

What is Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP)?

How can beliefs influence addictive behavior 3

NLP targets how people:

  • communicate externally and internally
  • process, store, and recall information
  • 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 there is nothing that happens mentally or spiritually they cannot learn to handle. The focus is on how an individual formulates the thoughts and beliefs that help effect and maintain change.

The Stages of Change Model and willingness

I believe counselors must assess and understand a client’s willingness to change, and the Stages of Change Model assesses willingness. This model applies to a broad range of behaviors such as weight loss, injury prevention, and addiction. As you may recall the model is as follows.

Three key NLP strategies

The three strategies I want to introduce are:

  1. Build rapport
  2. Core transformations
  3. Psychological attachments

1. Build rapport
An addicted client can be particularly distrusting and unwilling to commit to counseling. So, creating the client-counselor relationship can be challenging, but this relationship is critical to future success. Although rapport occurs when people naturally share common interests and mannerisms, there are two effective NLP strategies you can use to build rapport, as well.

They are:

1.1. Identifying eye accessing cues and predicate phrases
1.2. Matching and mirror the person’s actions

1.1. Eye accessing cues and predicate phrases
Accessing cues typically refers to eye movement and indicate the sensory representational system a person uses to acquire information. In other words, we are talking about how a human mind processes and stores information.

The primary representational systems are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. If a person’s primary representational system is visual, a phrase such as “I see what you mean” tends to make him feel heard. Similarly, if a person’s primary representational system is auditory, a phrase such as “I hear what you say” tends to make her feel understood. Voice tone, breathing patterns, and posture also provide cues.

Visual, kinesthetic, and auditory words are known as “predicate phrases”. Predicate phrases offer hints to a person’s preferred representational system. Comments such as,“I pictured something different,” or, “his words didn’t sound very encouraging,” provide information.

When eye accessing and verbal cues are observed and duplicated, a subconscious message is conveyed that “we” are alike. In addition to connecting with a person’s primary representational system, rapport can be built in other ways such as matching and mirroring.

1.2. Matching and mirroring
According to NLP, when people are similar to each other, they are more apt to like each other. So, matching and mirroring can be an effective tool in building rapport.

Matching is doing exactly what another person does.
Mirroring is doing what the other person does in reverse.

Five ways to match or mirror are as follows:

1. Physical actions – If a person crosses his or her legs, cross your legs.
2. Speaking tone, volume, and tempo – If a person speaks softly and quickly; speak softly and quickly.
3. Breathing – Matching another person’s breathing allows you to create an internal experience of what the person is feeling.
4. Chunk size – If a person discusses specific details or is vague, do the same.
5. Common experience – A common interest tends to create a feeling of closeness.

Two other powerful NLP strategies that can be effective when working with addicted clients are core transformations and psychological attachments. I will briefly introduce each strategy as it is beyond the scope of this article to completely describe and demonstrate their implementation. The first strategy is core transformation. It is one of the most sophisticated of all the NLP processes.

2. Core transformations

A core state is the deepest level of what a person wants for him or herself. ConnieRae Andreas, author of the book Core Transformations, proposes there are five primary core states:

  • Wholeness
  • Being
  • “OKness”
  • Inner Peace
  • Love

NLP practitioners believe emotional experiences throughout life create “parts” in the unconscious mind. For example:

“Part of me believes I deserve success and part of me doesn’t.”
”Part of me wants security and part of me wants freedom.”
“Part of me is angry and part of me is depressed.”

Each part generates its own values or beliefs and each part is responsible for certain behaviors. Moreover, these behaviors may conflict or act in ways that cause problems.
A part always has good intentions regardless of the resulting feelings or behaviors according to NLP principles. The goal, then, is to identify the positive intent of the offending part and to determine the underlying need.

3. Psychological attachments
A third key concept is psychological attachments. Whether an addiction involves substances or activities, understanding why the behavior is perpetuated at a deep level is key. Many therapeutic approaches are less than effective because they don’t access the root of the problem. If you think of a presenting problem as a weed, limiting beliefs, behaviors, and emotions can be thought of as the stem and leaves. If the root is not pulled out, the weed returns. NLP practitioners address the root of the problem, which they refer to as psychological attachments. Like strong habits psychological attachments are:

  • consistent
  • expected
  • related to childhood
  • definitive
  • safe and satisfying
  • familiar
  • unconscious

There are three primary attachments although there can be others. These three attachments are to control deprivation, and rejection.

1. With an attachment to control – Individuals have a tendency to feel controlled even though they resent being controlled and unwittingly behave in ways that encourage others to correct and monitor their behavior.

……………….a. Subcategories include The Rebel and The Helpless Child

2. With an attachment to deprivation – Individuals have a tendency to feel unfulfilled in life. They fill the void with unfulfilling behaviors such as an addiction.

……………….a. Subcategories include The Craver and The Worrier.

3. With an attachment to rejection – Individuals have a tendency to feel hurt, rejected or criticized while unconsciously or unwittingly doing things that invite rejection or criticism.

……………….a. Subcategories include the Perfectionist and The People Pleaser.

Attachments can be interactive. A People Pleaser may give others control and deprive the self as a means of seeking approval.

Hypothetical case study of a client addicted to gambling

Jake is a 53-year-old man who made an appointment with a counselor because his teenage daughter begged him to seek help. Jake is deeply in debt and about to lose his job. His wife recently moved out of the house with their teenage children and has filed for divorce. Jake does not equate these events with his gambling even though he gambles daily. He says he is just going through a rough patch, his wife doesn’t understand, and things will change. He agrees to see me for three sessions because his daughter asked him to and he is willing to do anything for her.

During the first session, my goals are to:

  • Build rapport – I observe Jake’s eye accessing cues and listen to his predicate phrases. His primary representational system is visual. So, I ask visual questions such as “What do you see yourself doing a year from now?” and “Can you imagine life without your family?” We both belong to a gym, so, we share a common interest, which makes building rapport fairly easy.
  • Assess his willingness to change based on the Stages of Change Model – Jake is in the pre-contemplation stage. He is unwilling to consider that his gambling is problematic even though by his own admission he gambles daily.
  • Identify the positive intent of the behavior – Jake says gambling takes his mind off his “crummy life” and is a quick way to pay off his debts.
  • Complete the Logical Levels exercise –The information gained during the exercise provides a clear understanding of what Jake wants to achieve and where best to intervene. His answers are as follows:


…………………..JAKE: I gamble online, buy lottery tickets, and go to casinos or card rooms.


…………………..JAKE: I gamble every chance I get. I’ll get all of my money back soon – no doubt about it.


…………………..JAKE: I am really good at Black Jack and Roulette. I can win a lot of money, as I have done before. Besides, I love the thrill of gambling.


…………………..JAKE: Gambling is the only way to get away from my problems and have some fun in life. My wife just doesn’t understand.


…………………JAKE: I am a middle-aged man, who acts like everything is fine. If I am really honest, though, I have an unsuccessful marriage, I am deeply in debt, and I miss my kids. Life “sucks.”

  • Ask Meta Model questions to transform problematic vagueness – I decide to intervene at the Beliefs level and ask Meta model questions, such as, “You should be able to win, why?” “Gambling is the only way to get away from your problems?” “Gambling is the only way to have fun?” and “What doesn’t your wife understand?”

I use several NLP strategies with Jake. One strategy is called Perceptual Positions. I ask him to consider how his wife might be feeling about the situation. A second strategy is called the As-If Frame. I ask Jake to mentally travel six months into the future and imagine his problems as solved. I then encourage him to look back to today and analyze how those solutions occurred. Given the insights gained from those strategies, he moves to the pre-contemplation stage and his thinking is now, “Well, maybe there is a connection between my gambling and my current problems.” However, additional work needs to be done.

In exploring attachment issues, I determine that Jake is attached to deprivation. He feels unfulfilled in life and tries to fill the void with compulsive gambling. He is more specifically a Craver. He represses his feelings, escapes from reality, and acts as if everything is okay when it is not. He is also prone to other compulsive behaviors such as running and exercising.

Based on that information, I decide to use the core transformation process. Jake said that he represses his feelings; so, I focus on his comment “life sucks” and his feelings about life. Jake identifies several feelings, which include anger at his wife for leaving, embarrassment that his daughter thinks he needs counseling, and depression at his current situation.

We decide to explore his anger at his wife for leaving because he mentioned that feeling first. I ask him what the angry part wants.

JAKE: The angry part says, “I want to be understood.”

This is the first step in what is known as an Intended Outcome Chain. An outcome chain is a process of going deeper with each answer to get to the core state a person would like to achieve.

SECOND STEP: I ask “If you were understood fully and completely, what is it you want that’s even more important?”

JAKE: “I want to be appreciated.”

THIRD STEP: I ask “If you were appreciated fully and completely, what is it you want that is even more important?”

JAKE: “I want to accept myself.”

FOURTH STEP: I ask “If you accepted yourself fully and completely, what is it you want that is even more important?”

JAKE: “I want Peace of Mind.”

FIFTH STEP: I ask “If you had peace of mind fully and completely, what is it you want that is even more important.”

JAKE: “I can think of nothing more.”

Because peace of mind is the last step Jake can identify, I determine it to be his core state – the deepest level of what he wants for himself. I ask him to experience peace of mind and then ask him to invite his “angry part” into his core state.

I then ask: “When you have peace of mind as a way of being, how does having it make things different?”

JAKE: “If I have peace of mind, I can accept myself. If I accept myself, I don’t need to feel appreciated or understood – I can appreciate myself. I also wouldn’t need to be angry because I didn’t think people, like my wife, understood me.

Certainly, Jake has additional issues to resolve, but we have identified two major contributors to his addiction: his psychological attachment to deprivation and his desire for peace of mind. In terms of the Stages of Change Model, he is ready to consider taking action.

NLP for addicted clients: Please send us your questions

In this article, I introduced three powerful NLP strategies: Building Rapport, Psychological Attachments, and Core Transformation. These strategies can be effective when working with a client experiencing a strong addiction. However, each strategy involves additional steps and practice.

Would you like to learn more? Then, feel free to post your questions or share your experiences with NLP treatment in the comments section below. We try to answer all legitimate inquiries as quickly as possible. In case we don’t know the answer to your question, we will gladly refer you to someone who can help.

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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