top of page
Sunset Over Manhattan

Blog Post

IS SELF-CONTROL A SKILL? By Rachel Hott, PhD Co-director of The NLP Center of New York

Many clients and NLP students work on issues of self-control. They want to exercise more, choose healthy foods, have clean lungs (stop smoking), drink reasonably, keep their fingernails out of their mouth, keep their anger in check etc. In our NLP sessions and classes we work with the basic presupposition that we have all the resources we need to help ourselves create new habits- thoughts, behaviors and feelings.

In the book, by Walter Mischel, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, he described the research studies he began in the 1960’s and then continued as a longitudinal study to explore self-control. The research project basically offered 4-6 year olds the chance to wait and receive two treats (Kit Kats, chocolate kisses and marshmallows, it is called “The Marshmallow Test,” but the treats were varied.) or one treat if they did not wait. The subjects who demonstrated self-control over time also did better on the standardized tests, had better health and more money in the long run.

Mischel explained that these children had many strategies to help them control their desires. He explained that many children would imagine putting a frame around the treat so it would not look real. Or they would imagine it farther away and smaller. These strategies would help them wait and receive the reward of two treats.

In our NLP sessions and courses we teach similar strategies by using “submodality” distinctions found in our sensory experience. For example when we work with a client who wants to stop eating junk food, we have them practice seeing the food getting smaller and farther away. Another strategy that is useful to maintain distance and therefor self-control, is being able to gain (or change) perspective. There are many NLP techniques in which we teach people how to “step out of” a situation and observe it rather than be lost in it.

Mischel explained that since the 60’s he has improved neuroscience technology to understand what part of the brain the strategies are employing. He explained that the cerebral cortex, which is in charge of executive function, located in the front of the brain helps us make rational decisions. He says it is like a cooling system and helps the person who is developing their skill of self-control to be more rational and reasonable. The opposite response, the immediate, “I want the treat,” response, is relying on the amygdala, the emotional part of the brain, which is located at the back of the brain and is the hot response. (For those of you who have read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, the cool system is the slow thinking and the hot system is the fast thinking).

Interestingly Mischel says that there are times you want to utilize the “hot, ” response. For example, you make a decision to choose healthy food, and perhaps you have put a frame around it to help cool down the system, thus employing your executive function, however it is also important to heat up your desire for the reward. It is important to have a compelling future that you want so that you will be rewarded. Again in NLP we would encourage someone to make the reward that is healthy, up close and bright, something that would be exciting to the amygdala, to the emotional charge, and maintain the motivation of maintaining the work to achieve the outcome.

This is another aspect of NLP that we employ. We work with desired outcomes that are exciting and help someone maintain awareness of future rewards. In our time line work we explore how each of us represents the present and future so that we can make the future more important. We also do what Mischel, describes as If-Then thinking. We label it future pacing, which means that our clients and students plan out strategies to deal with trigger situations. For example, “If my parent is critical, I will remember to breathe and count to ten.” Being able to count to ten, may be relying on patience, which we would label as an inner resource. We would then teach our clients/students how to access patience. In addition to planning the future situation and how to think, act or feel, we also agree with Mischel, that identifying the trigger situations themselves is useful. This would be excellent use of your executive function to start tracking when you get triggered. Once you track your triggers you can go back to creating your “If -Then” plans. If you do get triggered either by eating what you don’t want to, staying in bed instead of getting out to exercise, etc. it would be helpful to write down what triggered your thoughts and moods. For one of my clients they were triggered by authority figures. She wanted to use self-control around her defensiveness and her first step was identifying when, where, what and who triggered her.

In NLP one of our basic presuppositions, (influenced by Dr. Milton Erickson), is that we have all the resources we need at any given developmental stage. Mischel lists some specific resources that he has deemed as strategies that help individuals continue to be successful with their self-control and ultimately their goals. Think about these resources that are mentioned and begin to collect memories of when you have utilized them

Resources to Maintain Self-Control 1. Self-Control itself 2. Grit 3. Zest 4. Curiosity 5. Optimism 6. Social intelligence 7. Gratitude

8. Awareness of the Future (I added this one).

The next time you want to use self-control, remind yourself of one or more of these resources and discover how these will help you succeed to achieving what you want. It is your ability to develop your skills that will allow you to be successful in your life.

Invariably, there will be times when you want to reward yourself in the present. This makes sense and it will be okay to do so. However if you only live for today you may be missing out on a bright tomorrow. Find the balance and you will have tapped into your own Marshmallow test.

“Do not do what you want, and then you may do what you like.” -Swami Sri Sadasivendra Saraswati (18th Century)

Recent Posts

See All


NLP 4 TH GENERATION: Reported by Rachel Hott, PhD with additional commentary from Colette Normandeau. Rachel Hott wrote this article after she and Steven Leeds attended the NLP Leadership Summit in A


bottom of page