History of NLP Series #1: NLP History and Self-Actualization

[This article is adapted from the International Society of Neuro-Semantics (ISNS). Originally written by the co-developer of Neuro-Semantics NLP, Dr. L. Michael Hall, in Meta Reflections #31 (2010) in July 12, 2010.]

Exploring NLP Pre-history

As you probably know, I began exploring some of the pre-history of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) a few years ago and discovered The Secret History of NLP in 2005. And at various conferences I have playfully said, “It is a secret history that Richard Bandler and John Grinder don’t want you to know about.” At other times I teased saying, “And they don’t even know about this secret history.” What I didn’t know was how true that has turned out to be.

Recently I went back to re-read John Grinder’s Whispering in the Wind to look for any indication that he knew or had any awareness of the relationship between Maslow, Rogers, the Human Potential Movement, Esalen, etc. to NLP. And what I found not only confirmed what I’ve been saying, but goes further. Even today John Grinder does not know about this history!

The Human Potential Movement

What is the evidence? From his own words, here is some:

On page 2 of Whispering he makes a list of therapies and he lists “self-actualization” which he keeps separate from what he and Bandler were doing in NLP. He also mentioned Aldous Huxley (p. 26) without indicating that he had any awareness of his role in the Human Potential Movement (HPM). He mentioned that Bateson was at Esalen and refers to “a lecture taped at Esalen Institute just before Bateson’s death, available through Esalen” (p. 115)

Then he distanced himself from Maslow, the HPM, and Self-Actualization Psychology when he wrote the following which like his jabs about myself and Robert Dilts, he here does to Maslow:

“Relax, Maslow, there is no full realization of human potential, only an ascending spiral of differences and change.” (315)

So while Grinder knows about Esalen and Maslow and Self-Actualization, and even that Bateson was at Esalen, and speaks about them in a general way, he does not, even to this day, demonstrates any awareness of their historical significance to NLP. He does not seem to know that Bateson, Perls, and Satir worked together at Esalen and that it was from the context of the Human Potential Movement that NLP arose. Perhaps he was, and is, too close to things to have that expanded historical perspective.

In fact, here’s my analysis of all of this. I think that at the beginning Bandler and Grinder was so close to the idea of picking up the linguistic distinctions of Perls and Satir (and later Erickson) that they never really stepped back to ask, “What’s this all about? What is the larger frame? What unites Perls and Satir?”

Historically they simply stumbled upon the strange “effectiveness” that resulted when Richard was mimicking Perls in his “Gestalt Class,” which surprisingly led people in the class to change and transform. Richard simply thought it was funny getting people to hallucinate a mom or dad into a chair and yell at them. So they began trying to figure out what was the structure of this “magic.” Their focus was on the details, and since both were reductionists, or as Grinder admits, “minimalists,” they looked down to the tiniest of distinctions like eye-accessing cues and sensory- specific linguistic distinctions. They never looked up.

And without looking up, they didn’t even ask “What is Perls and Satir doing that’s similar?” They only asked for differences, “What are they doing that’s different from everyone else?” This was their original genius—mismatching for differences. And by focusing on such,they found some very unique distinctions that now make up the foundations of NLP. Yet without the balance, they also missed something that was right in their face — the Human Potential Movement which could have given them a big why and tie them (and hence NLP) to the HPM.

The Mismatch Differences that Disconnect NLP from Its History

Yet the result of their mismatching was that they pushed away from everything and everybody else working in the field of psychology and psychotherapy as this sought to create their own unique field. You can see this pushing away from everyone else in all of the original NLP books. And it is still starkly evident in Whispering where John has to mismatch his earlier self, Bandler, and a great many leading NLP trainers in the field today. Several unfortunate things resulted from this— one being the inability to define what NLP is. Of course, it is most fundamentally a Communication Model, yet it is also a form of psychology, and a field of modeling.

Yet because Bandler and Grinder were so driven by mismatching for differences, they could not, and would not, connect with all of the sources that define and position NLP: Gestalt (Perls), Family Systems (Satir), Cognitive (George Miller, Noam Chomsky), General Semantics (Alfred Korzybski), Anthropology (Bateson) or the Human Potential Movement (Maslow, Rogers, Huxley). So that left NLP out in the cold, alone, disconnected, and without a history.

NLP does have a history

A history that goes back many, many years prior to Bandler and Grinder. As with every movement, it grew out of the ideas and passions of the time and “on the people on whose shoulders they stand” (even if Grinder has expressed dislike for that phrase!). NLP’s history goes back to the very fields and people listed above and most of all, it goes to the movement that Maslow initiated as he pioneered a paradigm shift in psychology from the sick side to the healthy side. And that’s why we have made Self-Actualization Psychology the foundation of Neuro-Semantics and to that extent, re-discovered the fuller history of NLP.


CY Soh
CY Soh

CY Soh is a Certified NLP Master Trainer (NLPU), Licensed Neuro-Semantics NLP Trainer (ISNS), a speaker, and performance coach who works with leaders and executives to create personal breakthroughs, performance improvement, and achieve high-impact results. He is also a trader and a CMT charterholder.