NLP Core Beliefs

NLP Core Beliefs


NLP Core Beliefs have us. They drive our behaviour. They are intangible and frequently unconscious. They are often confused with facts. But while a fact is what happened, a belief is a generalization about what will happen. It is a guiding principle.

We share certain beliefs about the physical world based on facts. For example, fire burns and we are subject to the laws of gravity, so we do not tempt fate by walking off cliffs or by holding live electric cables. However, we have many beliefs about ourselves and other people that control our behaviour just as effectively as the belief that fire burns, and these may or may not be true. It is these beliefs that NLP Core Beliefs are interested in.

When people tell you they believe something, they are either telling you of a value they hold dear or their best guess in the absence of knowledge. Beliefs answer the question ‘Why?’ The generalizations which form beliefs which are justified as part of the NLP Four Pillars in one of two ways. The first is by linking cause and effect, the second comes from making meaning.

Cause and Effect

‘I don’t understand computers because  I have never been taught.’

‘I am insecure because my family moved around a lot when I was young.’

‘I am creative because I am a Leo.’

These examples link an experience in the present with a presumed cause in the past. However, causal connections are tricky when you are dealing with complex events, as we have to take so much for granted, and fallacies abound. A connection is not a cause. For example, statistics show video rentals have increased in line with the population increase, but they are somehow unlikely to have caused it.

Such cause-effect links cannot be proven, but they give a reason and it is important for us to have reasons to make sense of our experience. Some belief is better than no belief and this is why people can take grim satisfaction out of anxiety mindfulness, provided they had predicted it. Beliefs make sense of the world, they give coherence to our experience. This is so whether the belief is supportive or undermining. Beliefs help us navigate the future and protect the present.


Secondly, beliefs give meaning to experiences by connecting them. For example:

‘If you are ill it means you have not taken care of yourself.’

‘If you cannot give up smoking it means you have no will-power.’

‘If someone loves me this means I am a lovable person.’

Again these connections can be argued but not proven. They came from the speaker’s map of the world.

What we believe about others determines how we treat them and so, in turn, their response to us. For example, a person who believes other people are basically untrustworthy will be suspicious of others and their motives. This will make others wary of them, which will reinforce their original belief. Beliefs act as self-fulfilling prophecies.

When we treat someone as if they are capable and intelligent, they are likely to become so. What we believe filters our experience. We take notice of instances that confirm our beliefs and delete counterexamples, unless they are particularly striking. Reason does not form our beliefs, so you cannot argue a person out of them with conventional logic.

Sub modalities and Beliefs

Beliefs have a sub modality structure. A belief is coded with one set of sub modalities, doubt with another.

Think of something you believe implicitly. For example, the sun will rise tomorrow. Make a picture that expresses that belief and include sounds and feelings. Do not confuse the feeling about the picture (that it is convincing and you believe it) with any feelings that are part of the picture. The convincing feeling is your response to the visual and auditory sub modalities.

Now think of something you doubt. Make a picture to express that doubt. Look at your two pictures – one of belief, one of doubt.

The content of the pictures will be different, of course, and the sub modalities of the two pictures will be different too. We each have a personal sub modality structure of what we believe.

Belief Formation

Beliefs are formed haphazardly throughout life from the meaning we give to our experience. They are formed during our upbringing from modelling significant others, especially our parents. They can be formed from a sudden unexpected conflict, our struggle switch, trauma or confusion, and the younger we are, the more likely this is to happen.

Sometimes beliefs are formed by repetition – the experience has no emotional intensity, but it just keeps happening, like water dripping on a stone.

Because children do not have the experience and knowledge that come from living, they can make some unexpected connections. Joseph’s five-year-old daughter once asked him if she had to break an arm or leg to become an adult. This seemed a strange question until he realized that she actually knew a number of people who had broken a bone in their teens. A friend had broken a leg in a car accident that week and the preceding day Joseph had told her how he had broken his arm when he was 14.

Empowering and Limiting Beliefs

Some of our beliefs give us freedom, choice and open possibilities. Others might just be comparison and judgement.  Others may be disempowering, closing down choice. Acting as if they were true makes you and others miserable.

Beliefs are often expressed in the form:

‘I can..:

‘I can’t ..’,

‘I shouldn’t ..:

‘I must..:

Take a moment to write down some examples you have of each of those four. Do you get the sense that those that start ‘I can’t. ..’ and ‘I shouldn’t.” limit your choices? Examine them using the Meta Model. Ask yourself, ‘What prevents me?’ and ‘What would happen if I did?’ Even beliefs that begin ‘I must. ..’ may be problematic if you feel that this is so under all circumstances.

Belief Change

Do you believe that it is possible to change your beliefs? Would you like to change some? After all, it makes sense to have some empowering ones that make life a pleasure.

You have already changed beliefs in the past. You do not believe now what you did when you were five years old. As we grow and gain experience, our beliefs change, although we do not always notice. Sometimes a belief can be destroyed by one powerful exception. This leaves a vacuum into which any belief may fall, however strange, and this can be the basis of dramatic conversions.

When you change a belief we suggest you replace it with another belief that keeps the positive intention of the old one. The new one must also be congruent with your sense of self.

To change a negative belief you need to ask yourself, ‘What is this belief doing for me?’ and ‘What belief would I rather have?’

There are some good questions you can ask yourself before you consider changing any belief you have:

‘How will my life be better with the new belief?’

‘How might my life be worse with the new belief?’

‘What is the best thing that could happen if I kept the old belief?’

‘What is the best thing that could happen with the new belief?’

Belief changes may not last if you give up too soon. For example, someone wants to play a better game of tennis. They find a good coach and start to believe they will improve with a new technique. They stop using their old technique and begin to learn a new way, but because it is unfamiliar, paradoxically, their results are worse. It helps to know the difference between Values and Goals.  With a better technique, they will improve in time, but they may become discouraged too soon, revert to the old method and then believe that they cannot improve.

NLP Core Beliefs has a number of techniques for changing limiting beliefs. Some work by changing the sub modality structures of the old and new beliefs. Another involves going back to the imprint experience that generated the belief and re-evaluating it from a resourceful position. Whatever the technique, it is important that the new belief fits with the person’s values and sense of self.

Beliefs and Health

The influence of our beliefs on our health is one of the clearest examples of the mind and body being one system. The medical profession and caregivers in general has tremendous credibility. We believe what doctors tell us. A drastic one sentence belief change would be a doctor’s diagnosis of cancer. Such a sentence (in both senses of the word) is an example of the power of belief and some people will literally die of the diagnosis.

Deepak Chopra, in his book Quantum Healing (Bantam, 1989), gives many examples of the effect of both life enhancing and life-denying beliefs and their effects on health. Beliefs and health is a really important and fascinating area where there is tremendous scope for useful practical applications. An NLP and health training is now available.

Another example of belief and health is the ‘placebo effect’ – a significant minority of patients cure themselves if they believe they are being given an effective drug, even when they are being given an inert substance with no curative effect. Drugs will not always work, while belief in recovery is always useful and sometimes essential.

Belief and Action

As already mentioned, beliefs drive behaviour. Sometimes we hold conflicting beliefs and then we will be incongruent. Sometimes people profess to believe in a particular value, but their behaviour contradicts it. Behaviour is belief in action, whatever we may consciously say we believe.

We generalize most of our beliefs, making them true or false in all contexts. It is particulary useful to see in your own journal writing experience.  Need this be so? As we have already seen, in NLP you can choose your beliefs. They are maps of reality. When we believe something we act as if it were true, but that does not make it true. Nor does it make it false. It will be true for you in that moment.

To understand the effect of beliefs, choose the ones you want carefully. Choose those that give you the life you wish for.

The final principle of NLP we want to address is one that makes all the others real:

If you want to understand – act.

Because the learning is in the doing. Principles make a difference in action.

For example, we hold core beliefs about our identity that have profound effects. ‘I am basically a good person who makes mistakes sometimes’ and ‘I am a stupid person who sometimes gets it right by luck’ will give very different experiences.

We also have beliefs about what lies beyond our identity. When Albert Einstein was asked what was the most important question for mankind to ask, he replied, ‘The most important question facing humanity is: Is the Universe a friendly place?’

How we answer that question brings us to what it means to be a person and that takes us into the spiritual realm.

NLP and Spirituality

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! Inform and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!


Throughout history people have searched, driven by the feeling that ‘we see through a glass darkly’, and that there is more to life than body and mind. We are constantly reaching out beyond ourselves to know by experience our connection and unity with that which is more than ourselves. What can NLP contribute?

NLP deals with the structure of human experience and so these major issues are very much in its province. We are also personally drawn to exploring them with NLP. Were NLP to be silent about spiritual experience, then it could give the message that spiritual experience is somehow different and removed from life. This is not so.

NLP itself makes no claim on reality, truth, morality or ethics. It treats these as subjective experiences. It does not acknowledge or deny an external reality, but simply suggests you act as if the presuppositions are true and notice the results you get. NLP asks not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Is it useful?’

How you decide what you want and how you will achieve it are ethical and moral questions. How can we use the utility of NLP in the service of ethics and aesthetics? These are necessarily the responsibility of the NLP practitioner: we each apply our own morality and ethics to both our outcomes and the means we choose to achieve them. The basis for the ethics is our common humanity and our deepest essence as human beings.

Spirituality could be said to be about finding our basic humanity – the same essence we share with every person. And in discovering that, we are finding still more. Words fall short of spiritual experience like stones thrown at the stars. One way of thinking of it is as a feeling of being most truly ourselves and in the process discovering and becoming most deeply connected with others in their full magnificence. There are moments like this in most people’s lives.

You do not have to spend a lifetime of prayer, mortification and self-denial to have them. Some religious traditions hold that spiritual experiences are hard to come by, but they are all around – those splashes of joy and insight that can happen at any time, those peak experiences when you feel most fully alive. Giving birth and becoming a parent, feeling your connection with life, looking into the eyes of a newborn child, these can all be spiritual experiences.

What has been your spiritual experience? Take a moment to remember those times in your life when you felt most fully yourself and most fully connected with others. Keep those experiences in mind as you read on.

A universal metaphor for spiritual experience is a search, quest or journey and the end of our search, in the words of T. S. Eliot in ‘The Four Quartets’, will be to ‘arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. The answers on the outside are mirrored within us. Or, as Gertrude Stein put it, ‘There never has been an answer, there never will be an answer – that’s the answer.’

Modelling Spiritual Experience

NLP can be used to model spiritual experience both in self and others. We have models, we have writings and we have experience. NLP approaches spirituality through individual experience, not organized religion. It looks for a similar structure to spiritual experiences, regardless of whether they are Christian, Jewish, Taoist, Buddhist or any other.

How can we start to look at spiritual experience, how can we model it? Human life is a series of separations followed by integration – we are continually knowing ourselves more fully by knowing what we are not … A child is born and separates from the mother, and with growing self-awareness begins to separate their identity from the world and other people. There is a growing realization of individuality. The child establishes a first position: ‘I am me. You are you. We are not the same.’

The adolescent has a further task: to separate from the confines of the family and participate in the wider world. Then as adults we need to develop a strong sense of self, to know and value ourselves as unique individuals, for without this step, we cannot continue the spiritual journey.

Having achieved independence, we are ready to explore interdependence. You cannot go beyond the ego unless you have developed one in the first place. A spiritual journey is paradoxical in the sense you are continually developing aspects of yourself in order to go beyond them. Unless you develop them, you cannot transcend them. We come to know ourselves by constantly finding out what we are not. We are not our behaviour, we are not our capabilities, we are not our beliefs. We are not even our identity. What are we?

What practical help is NLP in this quest?

Acting on the principles of NLP builds a strong sense of self. You become more self-aware by paying attention and becoming curious about your own experience in a non-judgmental way. Personal change and development become a natural process rather than a hard struggle, something you only do at special times and places. Where you are right now is exactly the right place and what you have are exactly the right resources to move on. What you do at any one time may not seem important, but it is very important that you do it.

Setting outcomes gives congruence and clarity about what you want. As you begin to pace yourself, you become less divided, more relaxed and intuitive, more congruent and in harmony. Many spiritual writings speak of the world and the self as a process. NLP suggests that ‘I’ is a nominalization. The ego is not a fixed thing, but a dynamic process, a principle of action. Even the body that seems so permanent is in a state of flux. We are a river, not a statue. The skin renews itself every month. We have a new liver every six weeks, a new skeleton every three months. Ninety eight percent of the atoms in your body were not there one year ago.

The Meta Model can show the deletions, distortions and generalizations that limit our world. When we use it on our internal dialogue, we can begin to know what sort of inner conversationalist we are. Internal dialogue is one of the principal ways we limit ourselves by continually reinforcing our identification with our behaviour, likes, dislikes, even with the dialogue itself.

The Meta Model, together with choosing our anchors, can begin to break the cause-effect triggers between action and reaction and lead to an experience of real choice about our emotional state. It also clarifies how our language is shaping our experience. How we talk about something does not define it. It is particularly difficult to talk about the spiritual. It has to be through metaphor. Language separates this from that, light from darkness. It deals in opposites. The spiritual is about connection, where it is possible to be both at once, or neither.

NLP alerts us to our presuppositions and beliefs. It helps by bringing us to our senses, by giving the tools and opportunities to come out of any life-debilitating trances we may be caught in. NLP looks both ways: outside to the world of the senses and inside to our subjective experience. It can bring us into the present moment by directing our attention to what we actually see, hear and feel rather than our interpretations.

We do have to engage in the world – spiritual experience is found by engaging fully in life, fully committing, even in the face of adversity and impermanence.

There has also to be a balance between the conscious and unconscious mind. In Western culture, there is a danger of too much reliance on the conscious mind. But we cannot consciously predict what will happen nor control the world. This need not lead to giving up, but to knowing our conscious limits. The only thing to give up is the illusion of control, where the conscious mind takes responsibility and credit for everything that happens. In fact, the conscious mind sets the direction and the unconscious moves. The conscious mind is like the rider who sets the course but should not try to tell the horse exactly where to put its feet. The horse needs guidance. So building rapport, a resourceful relationship, with your unconscious is a profound thing to do. It has great spiritual importance. NLP provides the means for doing this.

The separation of behaviour from intention is another crucial principle. It goes naturally with the realization that we are not our behaviour and enables us to sense our common humanity. This does not excuse nor condone the dreadful actions that humanity is capable of: recognition is not justification.

NLP alerts us to our beliefs and presuppositions. What is our normal state? Is it one of suffering, of trying, of struggle against desire? Is our life metaphor one of struggle? What do we presuppose about human beings? Are they basically flawed and not to be trusted? Are they alright sometimes? Or are they incredible, magnificent and acting with purpose driven by a positive intention, even when behaving destructively, mistakenly and unconsciously?

Positive intention cannot be proved. Neither can the opposite. But we do have a choice about the presuppositions we operate from. Some will make for a fulfilling life.

The last part of the spiritual journey is going beyond oneself to what we really are, in our deepest nature. Whatever reality is, our maps will only give us knowledge about it. To know it directly we have to experience it.

The metaphor of the spiritual quest very often ends with the person finding within what they were looking for outside. They thought they did not have it, but then they realize that they had it all along without knowing. Whatever reality is, it cannot be external or internal, it just is. Both. We must be part of reality. We are so much part of it that we cannot see it, it is like trying to see inside our own eyes. The conscious mind tends to be dualistic – things are either this or that – so it has a hard time grasping this point. The moment it tries to do so, it separates from the experience and there is nothing to grasp. Our conscious mind cannot see the whole picture unless it is engaged with all of us, including that which is other-than-conscious.

Our representational systems and our senses make only maps and the map is not the territory. However, that does not mean we have to give them up. Our senses connect us with the world outside our skin. What are their equivalents that connect us directly with the world within? One answer could be meditation.

Certain kinds of meditation have measurable effects on the nervous system, giving a paradoxical state of restful alertness. By modelling spiritual experience, NLP helps you track its footprints down to the river. Once you are there you can decide whether you want to pause or take the plunge. A final story from the Chinese master Chuang Tzu.

Someone had told him his words were useless. Chuang Tzu said,

 A man has to understand the useless before you can talk to him about the useful. The earth is certainly vast and broad, though a man uses no more of it than the area he puts his feet on. If, however, you were to dig away all the earth he was not standing on, then would the man still be able to make use of it?’ ‘No, it would be useless: was the reply. ‘It is obvious then: said Chuang Tzu, ‘that the useless has its uses.’

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