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Compare CBT with NLP

Let’s compare CBT with NLP and see the sameness or differences.

What came first the chicken of the egg? We may not have time to return the whole philosophy of Genesis, yet we can look at CBT vs NLP!

nlp perceptual positions

Recently, I was confronted by a statement that almost had me veer from my NOW State and had me thinking that the map was, in fact, the territory. I was having what I thought was a pleasant conversation with a psychologist colleague. As I was regaling them with tales of my new found passion and venture into the exciting world of NLP. They bluntly looked at me and said “…isn’t NLP just CBT?” For a moment I was stripped of my NOW and I felt the warm rise of retaliation springing forth. They smiled, looked at me paused and said, “tell me more”. Rarely, if ever, do I think of interactions as a competition, but if I did it would be NLP 1 – 0, but who is counting? Thus I felt moved to put forth an article in which I try and briefly highlight some of the similarities, origins and differences of NLP and CBT, so buckle up.


CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) was birthed and informed by the BT (Behavioural Therapy) movement, which in itself was a departure from the more traditional Freudian Psychoanalysis.

spelling strategy

Many went as far as labelling BT as a radical shift and a rebellion against prevalent accepted Psychoanalytic therapy of the day. In essence BT focuses on specific learned behaviours (predominantly in animals) and how the environment influenced these behaviours. This concept of pure associative learning was abandoned as the argument arose that conditioning in humans was neither direct nor automatic. Animal conditioning models (like Pavlov’s dogs) were informative but inadequate in explaining human learning. In fact it was created by many factors like verbal and cognitive abilities, attention and how linguistic representations were constructed.

This new fusion of behavioural and cognitive approaches gave rise to CBT. Albert Bandura highlighted that CBT underlined that humans are thinking beings that are capable of organizing their behaviours and adapting to various circumstances. Notwithstanding this, BT and CBT still position themselves as clinical and empirical approaches that can be replicated in laboratory environments.

This desire to label CBT as an empirical and reproducible science adds to its rather cold and harsh feel at times and remains my most recurring critique. That being said, CBT is also a short-term solution focused model, focusing on changing patterns of thinking or the behaviour that perpetuates the client’s difficulties.


self control dial

Enter NLP, as it is somewhat based on CBT’s solution focused outcomes. NLP and CBT focus on clearly highlighting desired outcomes and goals, amplifying strengths and resources, possible solutions, highlighting feedback, strengthening what works, if something does not work change it, etc. Added to this, NLP highlights the value of being in a resourceful state both physiologically, emotionally and neurologically and makes use of all sensory representation systems. This reduces the bias of using predominantly verbal processing as found in solution-focused therapies.

Then came the cognitive theorists highlighting that thoughts are primary in driving the human experience. Going on to state that thoughts are experienced as words, self-talk and beliefs. This in turn will impact how we feel/experiences the world which in turn will effect how we behave/interact with our environment. This use of cognitive re-framing and challenging clients internal dialogue is central to NLP.

It is here that NLP begins to depart from CBT oriented approaches and finds its home closer to the more philosophically located approaches. In fact some theorists posit that NLP has been influenced by many disciplines but none as much as the cybernetic epistemology. In short, cybernetic epistemology is the use of calibrating behaviour and then getting feedback from the client.

As we move swiftly on to the 1990’s neuroscience began providing detailed evidence of the complex neural feedback loops highlighting the partnerships between so-called cognitive process and the process labelled emotional experiences. Ultimately bringing to light what many already knew and called the mind-body-emotion connection. Giving more and more credence to NLP’s use of all sensory representational systems.

Now as you know NLP does not stop there, however, its interplay and comparison with its CBT origins do.

nlp assistants

As I draw to a close I shall again state that NLP is a relationship-based approach. I have come to learn that healing can only occur in a relationship and NLP has all the tools needed to facilitate and foster the healing relationship. Added to this NLP draws on many well-established approaches that have stood the test of time, as it lives by its own presupposition of requisite variety.

In closing what I truly enjoy most about NLP is its reluctance to have to prove to the scientific world and community that it brings about lasting change. This of course is built upon the client’s authentic desire to bring about change and a practitioner willing to walk the journey alongside them. But mostly it has facilitated me in my own journey of growth and deeper introspection and for that alone I shall be eternally grateful.

As Ghandi reminds me daily

“be the change you want to see in the world”

 I trust that through my actions and vibration I shall highlight to the world that everyone has all the resources they need to achieve anything they dedicate their time too.

Thanks for reading

Wesley Kew
Clinical Psychologist and Master NLP practitioner

Further reading and resources used: 



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