Managing Emotional Responses with NLP

Contrary to popular belief, NLP is not a therapy, although therapy practitioners who use it get spectacular results. It is not a sales training programme, yet salespeople who use it also get spectacular results. It is not a personal development medium, yet personal developers who use it get spectacular results too. And it is not a suitable subject for home study. It works too well to be safe in the hands of the untrained, and it is best learned with experienced and qualified NLP trainers. Would you attempt to learn scuba diving from a book or from your neighbour who did a weekend course in the local swimming pool? This article offers insight into one of our cultural assumptions and ways, using NLP information, to learn to manage it ourselves.

NLP studies how we put our thoughts together, how we know what we know and how we construct our own experiences. And yes, our own subjective experiences are different from everyone else’s. And everyone else’s experiences are different from each others’. All of our thoughts, emotions, memories and imaginings are made from pictures, sounds and sensations. The differences between our common experiences come from the myriad sequences and placings we can make with sounds and pictures and sensations, and in the choice of subject matter that attracts our attention.


Many people in the West find it easy to see their mental pictures, and the rest can be taught quite easily. Everyone makes mental pictures; it is just that some people have not yet learned to notice them. Think about your own mental pictures of something you enjoy for a moment. Are they coloured or black and white, still or moving, are they close to you or far away, large or small, portrait, landscape, or wraparound? Which parts are in focus? Are you watching the scene as if it were live, or are you watching yourself in it, as if on video?

These are examples of how we can do the same thing differently from each other. You can change the meaning of an experience by changing one of these options. If you have chosen something you enjoy, find out what happens if you bring the picture closer to you or make it bigger. You can move mental pictures simply by intending to do so. If you like the result, keep it. Otherwise, put it back as it was and find out what happens if you intensify the colour. Make one change at a time. And remember to put it back the way it was between each change. If you find one or more changes that you like better than the original, keep them. Be careful to keep track of the changes you make to your pictures. If you do anything that you do not like, reverse it immediately. Ensure you finish with an experience at least as pleasant as when you began.

Auditory and Kinaesthetic representation

For most westerners, pictures are the easiest sensory representation to notice and alter deliberately. You can learn to make similar alterations to the sounds you hear and the sensations you feel just as easily. Move sounds from where they are to another location, changing the speed, the tones, and the volume as if you had a sophisticated mixing desk. You can increase or decrease the intensity of sensations, change the texture, heat them up or cool them down, slow the rhythm or speed it up, move them around, make them bigger or smaller, or disappear completely.

You may have noticed that if you change a picture in one specific way, the sound and feeling change too, or if you change a particular aspect of the sound, the picture and feeling shift simultaneously. These are known as ‘drivers’. You will also have found that other elements change alone. Finding your particular driver differences is a quick way into your least easily accessed system (sight, hearing, or feeling). For example, if your picture is moderately exciting, and it felt more exciting when you made it bigger, you changed the sensations by changing the picture. If your picture were fuzzy and it had distorted sound and scratchy sensations, would the picture come into focus if you clarified the sound and could the sensations become smooth through changing the sound?

Sensory representations and Emotions

There is a commonly held belief in western society that sensation cannot be changed at will, and neither can emotion. There is a related myth that anyone who can change their emotions is faking, shallow, uncaring, untrustworthy, unenlightened, repressed, or ‘not ready’ to be ‘authentic’. Most cultures believe that one system (sight, hearing and feeling) is outside their control, but not all find feeling the most difficult. For example, Native American culture has a reputation for changing feelings and sensations with facility.

For Native Americans, visible mental pictures are equated with visions from their gods and therefore given religious significance. The Sun Dance and Vision Quest rituals are specifically designed to heighten the chance of mental pictures becoming visible. Both rituals involve the initiate in extreme discomfort to a level that most westerners would find unacceptable. For Native Americans, the pain control they practise during these rituals shifts their attention and alters their mental state sufficiently for them to see pictures. It works by overloading their preferred system (feeling) for normal purposes so that they have to do something else; in this case, see. As the ritual is framed as religious or spiritual, it is culturally encouraged for them to see mental pictures in that context.

The western equivalent is the personal development market, bungy jumping, adventure training, drug use and religious ritual. Westerners rate peak experiences by the intensity of sensation they experience at the time, whether the vehicle is secular or religious. Some call it emotion, but the structure of emotion is … pictures, sounds and sensations, and the most convincing of these in the West is sensation.

Managing Emotions

The ability to feel what we want to, when we want to is a very useful skill. It frees us from the expense of seeking repeated peak experiences. One exposure is sufficient to use as the beginning of a personal library. After that, you can alter it, intensify it, and customise it in any number of ways by playing with the pictures, sounds, and feelings that first went with it. Or you can build your library from scratch, using attractive bits of ordinary pleasure and enhancing and mixing them to your liking. The way in, as described above, is through pictures and sounds. Simply remember a pleasing occasion and make it big, bright, life-like, and maybe slightly slower. Step into it and turn up the sensations. Through practise, you can increase your facility with sensation and learn to turn it up and down directly.

The next stage is literally managing emotion. There are two immediate ways of doing this. The first is good for neutralising unwanted emotional responses. If you are laughing at a funeral, crying at work, or angry with an innocent person, to neutralise any of them, move the picture a long way from you, or shrink it down to the size of a postage stamp. You can always come back to it later if you want to regardless of what is in it. Make it small enough or distant enough, and for most people, it will become less intense.

To invoke a particular emotion you want to display, remember or imagine a time when you would do that and make a big, bright, close picture. Then step into it. This is great for thanking a special person for an awful present or for producing remorse when you break someone’s favourite ornament that you have hated for years. Have you ever wished you could be more patient when training a child or an animal? Do you want to say ‘No’ to someone and mean it? Find a picture in your memory that has the quality of emotion you want. Make it big, close, bright, and lifelike, and a suitable state will follow.

The second way to manage emotion involves the feeling more directly. Leslie Cameron Bandler lists seven changeable parts to any emotion in her book ‘The Emotional Hostage’. These include rhythm, tempo, intensity, time frame, and personal involvement. Like the changes we made to pictures at the beginning of this article, Cameron-Bandler suggests making similar changes to the feeling of emotions to change them directly. For example, anxiety commonly has a fast, uneven rhythm and is always concerned with the future. If you slow down the rhythm to an even 120 beats per minute, the feeling changes to something more comfortable. If you imagine being in a time after the event, anxiety vanishes. Remember a previous occasion when you were anxious about something and how much less alarming the event was in retrospect?

Guilt and shame require personal involvement. Guilt happens if you offend someone else’s values, and it matters to you. Shame happens if you offend your own values without recognising the more important value that you kept. If you imagine you are back before the event, there is no guilt or shame because you have not done the deed yet. Alternatively, you can reduce the intensity and change the rhythm. You may discover that you acted on another value of your own or that you made a mistake. Mistakes are feedback to learn from. The consequences may be sad or irreversible, but they can become acceptable if you can consider them. For any emotion that you want to change, take the most obvious feature and alter it. Find out what happens. To enhance an emotion, take a feature and increase it. You may build a peak experience all by yourself. Wouldn’t that be something?

Learn more

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(Note: If you would like to learn more about the New Code of NLP, you can get a copy of our latest Kindle book, ‘AEGIS: Patterns for extending your reach in life, work & leisure’ by Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer. For only $4.99 here).

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