Published in NLP WORLD, 1997
An Almost Inventor of NLP

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Suppose we made a correlation between Adlerian Psychology (theory and methods) with the model and technology of NLP.  Suppose further that we explore the psychological jargon of “Individual Psychology” of the 1920s and translate it into the NLP jargon of the 1990s.  Would we find few or many correlations?  Would we find the systems compatible or conflictual?  Would Alfred Adler have liked NLP?  Would he have become a practitioner?  After you think about the following correlations, see what you think.

Though packaged in different language, Adlerian psychology and the Neuro-Linguistic Programming model consist of an impressive number of similarities.  Many of the factors, presuppositions, and orientations within each system highly correlate.  Obviously, the Adlerian model represents a much older theory of personality (1920) and traces its roots to Freudian psychoanalysis.  NLP (1975) traces its immediate roots to Gestalt psychology, Information Processing theories, and Family Systems.  It expresses an outgrowth of Phenomenology, Constructivism, and Humanistic Psychology.

Gilliland, James and Bowman (1989) present the following overview of the general personality theory to whicih Adlerian psychology gave birth.  The following features and characteristics provide some broad strokes about this theory.

  • Humanistic —it values the well-being of individual and society over that of organizations.
  • Holistic—it views the person as an indivisible entity.
  • Phenomenological—it sees each person’s world from his or her viewpoint.
  • Teleological—it views the person as pulled by the subjective future rather than pushed by the objective past, as creatively striving for goal attainment rather than reacting automatically to external events.
  • Field-theoretical—it considers the individual’s feelings, thoughts, and actions as transactions with the social and physical environment.
  • Socially oriented— it views the person as actively responding to and contributing to society.
  • Operational— in its methodology (p. 40).

Adlerian psychology became a major “school” of psychology during the 1920s after Alfred Alder left Sigmund Freud.  Adlerian psychology, in fact, represented a major shift from psychoanalysis. Over the years it has continued to manifest a flexible adaptability which has allowed it to become quite eclectic.

Adlerian psychology has also directly and indirectly influenced other “schools” of psychological thought.  It has informed the Existential approach, the person-centered approach, Gestalt, Transactional analysis, Behaviorist, Reality theory, and Rational-Emotive Therapy (RET) (Corey, 1991) as well as the whole field of Cognitive Psychology.  Albert Ellis specifically detailed the relationship between Adler and RET (Ellis, 1971).


The Adlerian views personhood, as does NLP, from the phenomenological perspective. Both begin with an understanding of the importance of a person’s unique perspective.  In this sense, both systems accept the philosophical point-of-view of constructionism— the people construct their own private version of reality for their own weal or woe.

Consequently, this leads practitioners in both fields to recognize and deal with each person by respecting their unique perceptions.  Adlerians call this, the person’s “private logic,” NLP practitioners describe it as that person’s unique “model of the world.”

For Adlerians, clients develop their own “style of life,” with both fictional and realistic goals.  NLP says that people have their unique strategies and programs for functioning.  Adlerians focus on people “striving for superiority” as they fulfill their “social interest.”  NLP takes a broader perspective, believing that any given person’s drives and values depends on the maps they have constructed about what matters most.

Style of Life

Adler concluded that the most central formative factors to understand in someone concerned their individual “style of life.” In fact, Adler invented the now-commonplace term “lifestyle.”  This facet of lifestyle consisted of two sub-pieces, each that dealt with the person’s early history.  First, their place in the family constellation and second, the nature and quality of the family atmosphere (rejecting, suppressing, over-protecting, disparaging, affirming, etc.).

NLP practitioners talk about “lifestyle” in terms of those component pieces that make up one’s style of life, namely, his or her strategies, states, orientations, beliefs, etc.  Adler’s identification of the contexts out of which a person develops and learns his or her lifestyle describes a facet that NLP has played down and gives less attention.  NLP does not deny that family constellation place and nature/quality of family context plays a crucial role in the formation of personality.  NLP simply focuses on what mental maps a person draws about such.

Adlerians understand the importance of the family constellation and early recollections and so use these system-oriented factors in understanding early decisions, goals, understandings, and life-style.  NLP puts even less stress on the facts of early childhood and more on the client’s decisions and beliefs about those facts.  Using Time-Line therapy, a hypnotic process for age-regression, NLP provides techniques for re-processing those facts and creating more useful “models of the world.”

Private Logic

Adler invented a special phrase for the way children and adults think.  He called it the person’s “private logic.” By “private logic” he meant the individual’s hidden reasons (agendas) in life (their fictional goals), their fictional conceptualizations about how to reach those goals (their life-style), and their understandings about their own identity, and the identity of the world.  In speaking about “private logic” Adler spoke about the irrational ideas, beliefs, goals, life-styles, etc. that arise from it and which cause maladjustment.

Such finds correspondence in NLP as the person’s unique “model of the world.” This contains limiting and enhancing beliefs, strategies, states, resources, etc.  This refers to a person’s individual “model or map of the world” which then creates his or her “frame” (as in, frame-of-reference).

Major Life Tasks

It might surprise some to know that “Individual Psychotherapy” (Adlerian) put a significant emphasis on the social role.  Yet beyond the irony of the name “Individual Psychotherapy,” Alder believed that the goals of belonging, connecting, relating, etc. played centrally to the formation and expression of personality.  Accordingly, he spoke about the importance of the major life tasks of friendship, occupation, loving relations with family, sex and intimacy, self-acceptance, and making a contribution.  How one does in these areas of competence determines one’s adjustment or maladjustment to life.

Adler spoke about the life tasks of work, vocation, friends, family, self, and love.  In NLP we speak about how each person generates a mental map that resourcefully fits one’s station in life in order to function productively.  NLP speaks about modeling excellence in those who already can accomplish behaviors and can generate experiences worth repeating.

Similarly, NLP assumes that we learn our models of the world from our social contexts.  As a communication model, in fact, NLP recognizes that meaning itself critically depends on context.  Accordingly, the first applications that people sought for NLP concerned relationships, communications, business relations, therapy, etc.

Adler considered the life task of friendship as probably the best indicator of a person’s “social interest.” Relationships with significant friends expresses one’s general attitude toward society.  Because people can freely enter into friendships, how they enter, to what extent they take that risk, how they adapt themselves to others and create cooperative relationships, whether they put more value on solitude and detachment or alliances and connection–all of these factors provide psychological insight about the person’s “style of life.”

Work provides another important road of insight.  This makes sense when you consider that work consumes the greatest portion of our waking hours.  In like manner, our attitude toward work, how we work, the way we adapt to the work environment and to people in the work environment, etc. again underscores our style of life, level of happiness and adjustment.  NLP speaks to these concerns not by making similar statements, but by addressing specific strategies, states, and resources for more effectively achieving, producing, becoming creative, etc.

Adler defined the life task of loving relationships as concerning family relations and opposite sex relations.  The ability to enter and maintain significant connection powerfully impacts our capacity for intimacy and happiness.

Adler looked upon these life tasks as a meta-communication about a person.  He viewed them as describing the person’s basic adaptation to “reality.”  For him, successful adaptation depends upon striving toward appropriate goals with others, with cooperating, adapting, etc. rather than inappropriate goals, conquering, win over, defeating, being superior, etc.  NLP talks about such things in terms of “the ecology check/question” about whether any particular set of behaviors work and enhance life or not.  Our adaptation to life depends upon the accuracy and usefulness of the maps that we bring to life.

Fictional Goals

Adlerian psychology talks a lot about “fictional goals.” For him this referred to those fictional ideas, beliefs, and understandings that people inappropriately adopt as children and which have no reference in the objective world.  In NLP, we speak about the same as limiting and unproductive maps/models.   Dinkmeyer, Dinkmeyer, and Speery (1987) write,

“Fictions start early in life.  A newborn child enters an environment that is by no means neutral.  That environment is represented by the family constellation.  Through observation, exploration, trial and error, and feedback from this primary environment, the child quickly learns what will and will not work.” (p. 34)

This shows the cognitive nature of both Adlerian psychology and NLP.  Because children strive to “make sense” of their world, they operate in their early home environment as active and passionate “learners.”  They do so by creating mental understandings and perspectives in order to navigate through life.  Yet because their rational skills do not express the best logic or reasoning skills and because their ego-strength has not become well developed, they make many illogical and sometimes stupid judgments about themselves, the world, how to cope, etc. This leads to illogical thinking and erroneous judgments–ill-formed belief statements (NLP).

Both systems see change, transformation, healing in terms of a psycho-educational model.  Both reject the notion that people exist as broken or sick in nature.  Both assume people have become mis-in-formed (how inwardly “formed” by information based on error and mistakes in logic.  Both primarily focus on providing individuals with more accurate or useful information for adjusting themselves to the realities outside their skins.  Adlerians ferret out mistaken goals, fictional objectives, erroneous ideas; NLP meta-models linguistic statements that we evaluate as structurally and semantically ill-formed.

Teleological Orientation

Adlerians speaks about behavior as purposeful and goal oriented.  One’s teleological orientation arises from the existential concerns of “where are we going?” and “what are we striving for?”  Adler called the imagined central goal that guides a person’s behavior “fictional finalism.”  The philosopher Hans Veihinger influenced Adler that people live by fictions (views of how the world should function).  “Only when I am perfect can I be secure.”  “Only when I am important can I be accepted.”

NLP speaks about desired outcomes and have developed a criteria for well-formedness in desired outcomes that enable a person to generate realistic, achievable, measurable, and empowering outcomes.  The well-formedness criteria enable one to update ill-formed and maladaptive goals.

Striving for Significance

Adler further said that the central fictional goal for people involved becoming a “somebody” by striving for significance in the eyes of others.  Ironically, such striving for significance and superiority first arises from a realistic recognition in the child–his or her inferiority as a child.  Adler used the term “superiority” not to mean being superior to others, but rather attaining a greater degree of one’s own potential.  For him, striving for superiority involved a striving from a lower to a higher state.

For moving from some unresourceful present state to some more empowering state (NLP).  Human beings cope with feelings of helplessness by striving for competence and mastery according to Adler.

If striving for superiority, in the sense of attaining a greater degree of one’s own potential and overcoming feelings of inferiority and helplessness, summarizes the Adlerian approach, then NLP speaks about moving from unresourceful present states to more enhancing resourceful and empowering states.

Adlerians address a client’s assets and strengths to encourage them to take risks and develop social interest.  NLPers speak about accessing one’s resources to find the internal empowerment that allows them to experience more excellence in life.  Modeling provides a great source of encouragement in NLP inasmuch as the key to human subjectivity involves the strategy that a person has for achieving various experiences and responses.

Only when a person seeks to become a somebody exclusively “in the eyes of others” does this become the heart of maladjustment.  Dinkmeyer (1987):

“Neurotics vacillate between inferiority and superiority.  They are highly ambitious but lack courage.  Avoidance, displacement, projection, retreat, helplessness, and detouring all describe how they save face when confronted with the ultimate threat— being seen as a failure.” (Ibid. 41)

Here the “other-referent” meta-program of NLP describes someone over-doing a resource.

The Therapeutic Relationship

Adlerians consider a good client/therapist relationship as one between equals based upon cooperation, mutual trust, respect, confidence, and alignment of goals.  NLP speaks about the same in terms of pacing or matching the client’s model of the world.  NLP teaches pacing as a hypnotic process on both the verbal (linguistic) and non-verbal (neurological) levels.  This enables them to “enter into the client’s world.”

Adlerians “explore the individual’s dynamics by seeking to understand their lifestyle, see how it affects their current functioning in all the tasks of life.”

“They operate on the assumption that it is the interpretation that people develop about themselves, others, the world, and life that governs what they do.  Lifestyle assessment aims at uncovering the private interpretations and private logical of the individual.” (Corey, p.148)

NLP practitioners meta-model and pace clients in order to understand their particular model of the world.  By listening for their language patterns, watching eye-accessing cues, noticing non-verbal analogue responses, etc. they identify the client’s strategies for generating whatever experiences and behaviors that they do.  This then enables them to specify what and how the person can make changes to enrich their lives.

Adler said that to engage in therapeutic interventions, the therapist must first make the client feel comfortable (pace their reality, NLP) since they will undoubtedly use their current inferiority/superiority perceptions to interpret the counseling process itself.  Here Adlerians talk most about “encouragement” as a therapeutic technique to enable the client to face themselves, their goals, their life-style, etc.  NLP speaks about facilitating the client’s resourcefulness.

Because Adler saw discouragement as the basic condition that prevents people from functioning at their best, he recommended the antidote of encouragement.  To “induce a state of encouragement” (NLP) can take many forms: highlighting the client’s strengths and assets, providing more appropriate and useful goals, taking courage to act on one’s dreams, etc.  Again, the process of facilitating resourcefulness!

Coming to understand and identify the client’s beliefs, perceptions, and feelings and the movement and pattern of his/her life then describes task one of therapy.  The counselor “reads” the client by noticing and observing every expression, word, thought, feeling, verbal and non-verbal presented.  (Sounds like noticing various Meta-Programs, NLP).  The counselor uses early memories, birth order, family constellation, family atmosphere, dreams, current life-tasks, priorities, behaviors, style of approach/avoidance, etc. to determine the client’s overall life-pattern.

At the point of therapeutic communication, the Adlerian begins with basic listening and supportive skills (pacing), then moves on to restatements, empathetic listening, reflections, and interpretations.  From there the Adlerian will make meta-comments on non-verbal behaviors, here-and-now experiences, discrepancies between what the clients says and does, confrontation of mistaken beliefs, perspectives, private logic, and destructive behavior.  In their repertoire also reside paradoxical recommendations (prescribing the symptom, NLP), creating images to assist clients in seeing the absurdity their goals or styles (submodality exaggerations! NLP).


Adler identified several factors that contributed to maladjustment.  He specified the “parenting errors” like abuse and spoiling, mistaken opinions about oneself and the world, over-coping with distorted response styles, etc.  For Adler, the obsessive-compulsive person stands as the prototype of all neurosis.  The obsessive-compulsive person’s indecisiveness and doubt, deprecation of others, godlike strivings, and focus on minutiae represent routine safeguards that exclude him or her from the social mainstream.

Adlerian psychology has little use of personality, aptitude, achievement, interest, or intelligence tests per se.  The most important diagnostic issue involves the client’s life-style (one’s overall pattern that influences and controls thinking, feeling, and behaving).  This lifestyle arises from the person’s private logic and expresses their life-plan of realistic and fictional goals.


Adler (1956) fully accepted what has become the basic tenet of the cognitive psychologies, namely, “Behavior is clearly a function of perception.  We tend to behave according to how things appear to us, and when our perception changes, our behavior changes accordingly.  Thus, perception (“frame” or “map” NLP) of the situation often determines behavior and belief more than the reality of the situation.

“Individual psychology, then, draws its conclusions not from a person’s possessions but from his or her use of those possessions.  These applications and, more important, the manner in which the individual ‘experiences’ them are the bricks and mortar with which an attitude toward life is builtl.” (pp. 250-256)

In writing that, one expects Adler to quote Korzybski’s “map/territory” distinction at any minute and then to suggest the reframing principle that when one changes the frame-of-reference within which an idea, thought, or belief lies, one changes its meanings which then leads to a transformation in our thinking, feeling, and behaving.

Therapy and therapeutic inventions, for Adlerians, focus on ferreting out the client’s goals and fault beliefs about life tasks and providing re-education about the reality of social life, self-concept and definition, life-style goals and methods, etc.  Sounds like NLP, does it not?  First the information gathering about the person’s psychological world, some map-adjustment information, and some shifting of maps to those that allow one to reach their desired outcomes.

Therapeutic Interventions

The therapeutic interventions which seem fairly unique to Adlerian psychology include the following.

1) Asking “The Question,” i.e. “If I can a pill that would make this symptom go away, how would things be different in your life?”  The “as if” frame in NLP.

2) Catching oneself. This involves catching oneself in some irrational behavior and designating it a “mental stop sign” that thereafter will signal the person to “Stop!”  Ah, a Pattern Interrupt!

3) Acting “as if.” The therapist provides instructions for a client to act out the role that they want to learn.  By trying out the role they discover new things and become a different person in the process.

4) Spitting in the Soup. This involves identifying a self-defeating behavior and then spoiling it by making it extremely unpalatable (“spitting in the soup”).  This changes the behavior so that it takes the relish out of it.  Another Pattern Interrupt.

5) Pushing the Button. This involves “having the client alternatively picture pleasant and unpleasant experiences and noting the feelings that accompany the experiences.  By alternating experiences and feelings the clients become aware that they control their emotions, and not vice-versa” (Ibid. p. 53).

6) Encouragement. The primary technique based upon the assumption that clients do not exist as sick individuals, but suffer from feeling discouragement.

7) Midas Technique. This involves exaggerating a client’s neurotic demands based on the King Midas story of giving someone precisely what they wanted and helping them see how it can become a curse!

8) Pleasing Someone. Getting a client to re-enter the social environment by going out and doing something nice for someone.

9) Avoiding the Tar Baby.  The “Tar Baby” refers to the perceptions on life which the client carries into counseling and attempts to fit onto the counselor.  By responding in ways contrary to the expectations, it upsets the system.

10) Early Recollections.  Adler used this as a means for assessing the person’s life-style.

Overall, Adlerian psychology focuses on educating clients about themselves, their style of life, their fictional goals versus their realistic ones, social interest, perceptions, etc.  It operates from the underlying belief is that people can learn better and adopt more healthy and appropriate coping styles.  It does not see people as sick, as victims, or as fated for dysfunction.


What do you think?  Alfred Adler— a NLPer?  Would he have appreciated the NLP model?  I think so.  My own studies in Adlerian psychology certainly prepared me for, and made me received to, the NLP model.


Adler, Alfred. (1927/ 1954).  Understanding human nature. (Trans. by W. Beran Wolfe).  NY: Fawcett.

Adler, Aflred. (1931/ 1958).  What life should mean to you. NY: Capricorn Books.  Ed. by Alan Porter.

Dinkmeyer, D.D., Dinkmeyer D.C. Jr., & Speery, L. (1987).  Adlerian counseling and psychotherapy (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Chas. E. Merrill.

Dreikurs, Rudolf, R. (1953).  Fundamentals of Adlerian psychology. Chicago: Alfred Adler Institute.

Ellis, Albert. (1971).  The Journal of Individual Psychology.   (May, 1971).

Gilliland, Burl E., James, Richard K., and Bowman, James T. (1998).  Theories and strategies in counseling and psychotherapy. (second ed.).  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Orgler, Hertha (1963).  Alfred Adler: The man and his work. New York: New American Library.

Porter, Alan (1958) (Ed.).  Alfred Adler: What life should mean to you.  New York: Capricorn.

Veihinger, Hans. (1924).  The philosophy of ‘as if.’ London: Routledge, Kegan and Paul. Ltd.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.  Psychologist, researcher, modeler, prolific author.