Your brain is an amazing thing. It functions similarly to a computer, running on internal programmes in the subconscious mind. When you learn how to do something, such as how to ride a bicycle, the information is stored as a programme in your subconscious mind. When you are first learning, you have to consciously think about what you are doing, but after enough practice it becomes second nature. This means when you next go to ride a bicycle, the internal programme runs, and you can do it without having to relearn the whole process. Even for simple things such as walking, brushing your teeth, or opening a door, you have a set of internal programmes that run in your subconscious mind. This is absolutely a good thing. Can you imagine how chaotic life would be if every time you went to boil a kettle, wash your hands, or speak, you had to stop and think about how to do it? Navigating the world would be incredibly confusing and logistically difficult without these internal programmes running in the background.

Self-limiting beliefs

However, while we have programmes running in our brains that help us, we also have programmes that aren’t particularly good for us. We often hold self-limiting beliefs which have become programmed into our subconscious and can hold us back in many ways. They may also create problems such as anxiety, phobias, and low self-esteem. These self-limiting beliefs are often picked up during childhood when we are not as able to process things that happen to us. For example, maybe a teacher at school made an unkind remark such as “you’re no good at art.” Most people believe things they are told about themselves to be true, so this remark becomes internalised as a belief, resulting in unhelpful programmes such as “I can’t draw” or “I’m not a creative person”. These beliefs can hold you back later in life. Maybe as an adult you think you’d like to take a life drawing class, but the belief you hold about not being any good at drawing creates anxiety or fear about giving it a try.

Self-limiting beliefs can also stem from self-doubt. Everyone experiences doubts about their own abilities at some stage in life but sometimes our doubts become assumptions about ourselves that we internalise as unhelpful programmes. Perhaps you didn’t get a job you really wanted, and you assume it was because you didn’t interview very well. This assumption may become a self-limiting belief that you are no good at interviews and so you avoid applying for new jobs or looking for new opportunities in the future.

Changing self-limiting beliefs

The question is what can we do about these unhelpful internal programmes? Fortunately, we are not stuck with them. Returning to the computer analogy, if you had malicious data that was affecting the whole system’s performance, you would delete it. Likewise, it is absolutely possible to reprogramme your subconscious mind to rid yourself of self-limiting beliefs which hold you back.

Developed in the 1970s at the University of California, Santa Cruz, by linguist John Grinder and information scientist Richard Bandler, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) can be thought of as an approach to learning the language of the mind. ‘Neuro’ refers to the patterns of our neurological thought processes, or in other words, our mind. ‘Linguistic’ refers to the way that language affects our minds. ‘Programming’ refers to the way in which the dynamic between our minds and the use of language affects our bodies and our behaviours.

NLP allows you to break free of the way you have been programmed to think and organise your ideas and actions as you wish. By reprogramming your thoughts and language, you can remove old self-limiting beliefs, and replace them with new helpful ones which will contribute to your success. Although difficult to define due to varying interpretations, NLP is founded on the idea that we all have internal neuro-linguistic ‘maps’ of the world that we learn through our experiences. These maps, however, are not objective reality, they are merely our perception of it. NLP detects and modifies unconscious beliefs and limitations found on these internal maps. Unlike hypnotherapy, NLP operates through the conscious use of language in order to bring about change in an individual’s thoughts and behaviour.

Psychology for success

The people who are most effective and successful have internal maps of the world which allow them to perceive the greatest number of available choices and perspectives. As a psychological approach, NLP involves analysing strategies used by successful people and applying them to reach a personal goal. If an individual can understand how another person accomplishes a task, they can model the process. NLP is therefore a way of increasing the number of choices you perceive to be available to you.

We are generally not limited by objective reality, but by the beliefs we hold based on our perception of it. To illustrate the power of belief, consider the placebo effect, which is well documented in clinical trials. This is where a patient who believes that a treatment will make them better shows improvement in their condition, despite being administered with a treatment that is clinically ineffective. It is through this power of the mind that self-limiting beliefs can be challenged.

NLP as therapy

As a therapy, NLP has been used to treat fears and phobias, low self-esteem, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, and various other psychological problems resulting in a reduced overall quality of life. It incorporates a variety of language and sensory-based interventions and behaviour modification techniques intended to improve an individual’s self-awareness, confidence, communication skills and social actions through a shift in their worldview.

NLP teaches us that although we can’t control the world, we can control how we respond to it. When faced with a thought of “I can’t do that”, we can ask ourselves “how do I know I can’t do that?” We are able to consider whether a thought is objectively true, or just a belief held in our perception of reality. More often than not, it is the latter.