• Posted in June 2012
  • Article written by Michael Carroll

Habits, Habits, Habits and the Unconscious Mind

Many people ask how to change a habit, be it smoking, drinking too much, overeating or losing one’s temper.  Even some relatively harmless habits can be a challenge to overcome.  The unconscious mind (the larger part of your mind) is said to be habitual. Different timescales are quoted for how long it takes to learn a habit for that habit to become unconscious.  It does seem that so-called ‘bad’ habits are easier to pick up than the good ones. The unconscious is a mass of information, offline resources, somatic processing and habits.  The unconscious is hugely paradoxical, whilst having your highest interests at heart it somehow maintains habits that do not support you….... or maybe these unwanted habits do support you in their own unusual way.

Habits and Intentions

What if unwanted habits were there for a positive reason? What if there was (once) a benefit to them and your unconscious is sticking with the habit because it has yet to learn a new way of achieving the benefit.  If you accept this premise, the habit is there to satisfy a positive intention. So the smoker is relaxed, the drinker is confident, the overeater feels comfortable and the person with temper tantrums remains in control.

Intention: Relaxation   Confidence   Comfort           Control

Habit:       Smoking   Drinking       Over Eating   Temper Tantrums

The problem an individual faces is they have over generalised a single habit with the unconscious desire of satisfying the positive intention. The reality is that the individual has created what Gregory Bateson referred to as redundancy in the system, and in doing so has deleted other choices and created a generalisation.  As Bateson says ‘all that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints - is noise, the only possible source of new patterns.’ (Bateson, 2000: p 416).  If you look at the intentions above, there are many choices embedded in the noise surrounding the redundancy of the habits that are in the system to achieve relaxation, confidence, comfort, and control without smoking, drinking, overeating or having temper tantrums. What has occurred in the system is that the unconscious had limited its choices as result of the generalisation.

The paradox is that the habits mentioned above do not actually satisfy the intentions; they may have done once, usually for the short term. The nicotine makes an individual restless until the next fix, alcohol over the long term severely damages confidence and overeating does not create any form of long term comfort. The unconscious learns quickly and in the cases of the habits mentioned the unconscious learned one way to achieve the intentions and thus redundancy exists. The question is how you move on from limiting habits.
In the classic code of NLP (Bandler Grinder 1973 - 1979) the client with a limiting habit or behaviour would consciously select a new behaviour to replace the old one. This was the ‘programming’ element of NLP; a practitioner would reprogramme a client to have a new behavioural output. The underlying theory of programming was built on Automata theory. This whole notion of consciously selecting a new choice and programming the behaviour can be successful but also has severe limitations.  John Grinder says this method, even when successful, is like changing people from unhappy robots to happy robots.

Following on from Grinder’s comment, a case comes to mind when at an NLP Practitioner class, I did a swish pattern demonstration on a lady who was a persistent knuckle cracker. I did the classic Swish, was very clear about the trigger and also created a new outcome picture with a different choice at the trigger. The new choice was to be flexing her fingers rather than cracking her knuckles. The idea would be that the flexing would occur at the trigger for cracking and flexing would become the new behaviour.  I tested rigorously and calibrated all afternoon that this lady was free of the old behaviour and the new choice seemed to be unconscious.  Job done…  or so I thought…....
The following morning the lady arrived at the course looking very tired, I asked how she was and how the knuckle cracking was going, she told me that he had absolutely no desire to crack her knuckles at all, but had been up all night cracking every crackable bone in her body. She cracked her ankles, elbows knees etc. This piece of work shows two clear things:

a. That it’s quite easy to programme a new behaviour using the classic code of NLP
b. That unless the new behaviour satisfies the positive intention of the old behaviour, the unconscious will find another way of satisfying it or revert back to the old behaviour.

Saying it another way the ecology of the change is in the unconscious

When John Grinder reviewed the classic code of NLP in the post Grinder/Bandler years, he recognised the above coding flaw with the classic code of NLP and sought to correct it in the New Code of NLP. Two major premises in the New Code are:

a. The unconscious is assigned responsibility for the change
b. That the Practitioner works at the level of intention when doing change work with an individual.

This type of NLP work is highly effective and has more ecology built in than the classic code of NLP. Originally the unconscious created the habit to satisfy an intention, so you are using the same process but in a way that can access many more choices that now exist within the noise of the system.  The way you access the unconscious is through any New Code process, all of which have the ecology of the unconscious built in and work at the level of the intention.

If you read the transcriptions of Milton Erickson’s work you will see he fully engaged the unconscious of a client by creating a state of hypnotic trance whereby the client could access multiple resources to solve their problems. Hypnotic trance is superb way of working with the unconscious to break habits.  This month’s practice group on 4th July is on Habit Busting with Hypnosis. Attend the session and learn how to utilise trance states to breakthrough habits, work with signals, establish intention and discover new choices that are currently hidden in the noise. Click this link for more information

About The Author

Michael Carroll is the founder and course director of the NLP Academy and co-founder with John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair of the International Trainers Academy of NLP.

He is the only NLP Master Trainer in the world certified by John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair and he works closely with them in developing and delivering high quality NLP training.



  • The quality of training was outstanding, the depth of human understanding was awe inspiring, and to meet and learn from Carmen Bostic St Clair and the co-creator of NLP John Grinder was utterly mesmerising.

    John Phelan
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