Developing Choices about the Emotions we Experience with NLP

What is an emotion?

Most people, if asked, would identify a noticeable set of sensations (feeling) that they experience in response to a sight, sound and or touch from the world, or in response to something they were thinking about (internal representations). They would not necessarily take ownership of their response, nor would they necessarily recognize it as part of their own thinking process, which in fact, it is.

In NLP, we propose that thinking and emoting are accomplished using sequences of sensory representations to carry and frame the content of our thoughts and emotions. These representations include images, sounds and sensations carrying content gleaned from memory as well as our new creations. This assumes that all our life experience is stored in long term memory, otherwise known as the cognitive unconscious, and that links and relationships between units of knowledge or other material already exist along with the represented knowledge itself.

As we progress through the world, we respond to information, other people, our environment, our work and anything else we find. We also have the choice of attending to our internal world to think about whatever we choose, including but not limited to developing ideas, reviewing past events, creating new work and planning future moves. We attend to our internal world to experience emotions, too. These normally constitute thoughts in response to other thoughts or external experiences, but they still require us to access internal representations of units of content and the relationships between these units.

The difference, subjectively, is that emotions include a kinaesthetic component that is strong enough to be detected by us unequivocally. It is clearly present and far more conscious than the pictures, sounds and sensations that gave rise to it, whether they came from the world or from our own internal representations. Hence the common name of ‘feelings’ for emotions. Feelings are the obvious parts of emotional responses.

If we disregard the pictures, sounds and other sensations that contribute to an emotion, and attend exclusively to the strong feeling, it makes perfect sense to identify the strong feeling, name it and attribute its presence to anything that attracts our attention.

So if we have been generating our own emotional responses unconsciously and then noticing just the feeling component, now we can learn to generate emotions to order, changing the representations we find limiting and creating more of the states that serve and please us. This might raise a few eyebrows in mainstream culture, where the belief is that emotions happen to people and anyone who claims to have choice about their states is viewed with suspicion. However, there is no need to make a public spectacle of our choices. Simply enjoy the liberation of discovering that emotional choice is much more comfortable than living on an arbitrary emotional big dipper.

The Meta Model

The Meta Model of language is a set of questions used in NLP to clarify and specify distorted and over generalised thinking and restore missing information. Part of it provides a linguistic frame for identifying our beliefs about who is responsible for our emotions. Remember a common cultural belief that we can be held responsible for other people’s states; ‘Don’t say that, you will upset your aunt’, or ‘You are making your father angry’, ‘You frightened me’.

This presupposes that it is possible for one person to force an emotional state on another and that we live emotionally at the mercy of other people’s conduct. What is really going on is one person says or does something. Another person responds from their own internal resources and model of the world. The response may be habitual or novel, but it is generated by the respondent, not the other person.

To cloud the issue, there is cultural habituation and a level of influence from the previous conversation or relationship. We may believe there will be adverse consequences to ourselves resulting from someone else’s behaviour. The interaction could be construed as a larger system that includes both people. However, these are possible sources of influence only, not requirements or forcing. They are simply circumstances that could mitigate our developing emotional independence if we allow them to stop us. The bottom line remains, we can each learn to have choice in our own emotions if we want to and we can free ourselves from taking responsibility for other people’s emotional responses.

Describing our emotional responses 

Describing our emotional responses in sensory-based terms gives us ready access to changing them. When we become conscious of the images, sounds and sensations we are using, we can identify specific subcomponents. Useful subcomponents include size, brightness, shape, location, clarity of focus, rate and direction of movement, volume, bandwidth, amplitude, texture, temperature, rhythm and intensity. If we use these instead of attributing a name like ‘happiness’, ‘anger’, ‘mortification’, ‘pleasure’, we have something we can change. If we change one of the sensory aspects, we will find which ones lead any others to change simultaneously. When we identify our own specific sensory aspects that change more than just themselves, we have a way into shifting our emotional states quickly and effectively.

The Chain of Excellence

John Grinder proposes a four-step process for changing state, called the ‘Chain of Excellence’. Briefly, if we alter the way we are breathing, our physiology (posture and movement) changes, if we alter our physiology, our state, including emotions, changes and if we alter our state, our performance changes. This does not require any verbal description of a state and can be used in the moment. Most people have experiences of stopping a difficult activity and going for a walk. When they come back, in a different state, the difficulty has resolved itself. This is using physiology to change state.

While physiology can be used to change state, state also influences physiology, but not necessarily in the same way in all of us. Subject to the activity at hand, a resourceful physiology usually shows symmetry between left and right sides, even distribution of weight, an even rhythm in the body, an upright, balanced and symmetrical carriage and the minimal muscle tension required for the task. Alterations in attention, emotion and thought show to an observer as minimal changes in the physiology, but we do not know what the person is thinking, only how they are thinking and that changes are occurring.

Non-verbal communication and ‘body language’

This is non-verbal communication and is differentiated from the so-called study of ‘body language’. The exponents of body language try to put meaning to certain gestures and movements, regardless of differences between every person’s models of the world. One of the most crass is the notion that someone whose foot is pointing at another person is sexually attracted to that person. Another, equally inaccurate, is that sitting or standing with crossed arms means that person is ‘closed’. What happened to ‘cold’, ‘comfortable’, ‘habituated’, ‘resting’, ‘waiting’, and any other purpose that may be served by such a gesture?

Non-verbal communication provides us with ‘news of difference’ or information. Our attention is drawn to changes in posture, movement, rhythm, breathing, skin tone, and other minimal cues during interactions, and if we need to know what the other person is experiencing, we can ask them. It is a great way of discovering that other people really do have different models of the world from us and from each other.

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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).

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

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Attention and Performance: How you attend to the world can transform your performance in it

Attention, State and Performance

In article 4 in the Attention series Jules the relationship between how we use our attention, our state and performance.


The set of specific values in a person’s physiology, neurology and biochemistry that gives rise to their behavioural expression and their subjective experience of themselves and the world in any given moment. Some states recur in each culture with sufficient frequency to have acquired labels in the appropriate language. Examples include joy, depression, happiness, angst, and joie de vivre. Naming states implies a commonality of experience, which is not necessarily the case. Naming states does not describe the differences in individual subjective experience which actually exist within any particular named state: I.e. one person’s generation and experience of elation, misery or anxiety will be different from someone else’s and two people deliberately generating the same conditions within their bodies may call the resulting state by different names.

Our states influence the quality and direction of our attention and our attention influences our states. States act as frames for how we use our attention, what we attend to and what we delete from our attention. States influence the perceptual filters we apply and simultaneously our more pervasive perceptual filters influence our access to different states.

“Our states influence the quality and direction of our attention and our attention influences our states.”

States give rise to mood frames such as happy, sad, optimistic and pessimistic. They also influence the likelihood or absence of choice and opinion based responses such as willingness, co-operation, participation and trust.

States are not fixed. They shift continually, sometimes imperceptibly in small increments, yet they can also shift radically. This may be in response to receiving new information or to a sudden recognition of a change of meaning of existing information, though it can also occur when an activity starts or ends. Receiving important exam results, making a large purchase and even having a meal often precipitates a change of state.

Some people experience states which are notably different from most of their other states. Certain frames and information which are normally accessible to them are not found while in these radically different states. If these states also require special circumstances to enter and leave, they are known as Dissociated States. Dissociated states often carry framing and meaning that is only accessible to a person when they are in that state. Examples include the sudden state changes associated with experiencing road accidents and chemically induced altered states such as exposure to mind altering drugs or alcohol. The alcoholic Black out is a case in point, where a person cannot remember what happened at a party until they are that drunk again, when it all comes back to them.

“There is anecdotal evidence that it is very hard to maintain a depressed state while doing a headstand.”

Chronically depressed states often have characteristics of dissociated states. When someone is experiencing depression, they are likely to express a belief that it is pervasive and continuous. In depression, they may not have access to the moments in their day when their attention has elicited a different state. They have difficulty imagining life being more rewarding, and often they cannot access their memories of pre-depression life or the moments, hours and days where their attention is on something other than being depressed.

Where You Place Your Attention Can Affect Your State

What we attend to and how we attend to it can elicit changes in our state. We can learn to enter and leave any state by shifting our attention. If the process we use to shift our attention is sufficiently compelling, even the most subjectively difficult states will shift for long enough to provide a reference experience, unless they are chemically induced. Yet most of us have heard anecdotes relating to people in chemical hazes who seem to snap out of it for a brief period to present a straight or sober countenance to the world.

There is anecdotal evidence that it is very hard to maintain a depressed state while doing a headstand. Certainly this is not a long term option, but giving someone live evidence of a state change, even for a minute or two, can shift a belief that feeling depressed is all-pervasive. If someone can change that belief enough to consider other options, they may be open to learning more user friendly attention shifting skills. Then they can discover, through live experience, that changing state by choice is a skill which they can learn.

John Grinder’s ‘Chain of Excellence’

For our purposes, learning to change state is predicated on a person’s natural and habitual states, more than those involving artificial aids. John Grinder, the co-originator of NLP, proposes a ‘Chain of Excellence’ leading to enhanced performance in any context:





The Chain of Excellence has three points of leverage to shift attention and create a better quality of action in the world. They are:

  1. Change your breathing pattern and your physiology (posture, movement, carriage) will change.
  2. Change your physiology and your state will change.
  3. Change your state and your performance will change. (Performance includes natural interactions, reading, sleeping and eating as well prepared activities and working).

If you act on any one of the three, the categories below will shift in response. To test this, consider an issue in your life and note your state. Then go for a ten minute brisk walk with an even, balanced posture and your head up comfortably. You will find your breathing will deepen, your physiology will be nicely shaken up and your thinking will become clearer.

You can attend to any matter on your agenda as you walk, or you can think about it before you walk, then shift your attention to enjoy the walk and return to the matter afterwards. Your take on it will be different. This is an example of a model known as ‘Personal Editing’, created by Judith DeLozier and is the simplest and most natural way to do it. You can see it unfolding in daily life if you attend gym, exercise or dance classes. The class members come in after work in a work state. They attend to class, move, exercise and perform routines. Then they leave in a different state.

When you engage the Chain of Excellence, your attention goes to the element you want to shift. When you follow through, your body function supports resourceful states that promote high quality attention. Personal editing can provide you with a generic resource state which you can take anywhere. Then, when you enter a specific context, the state will enable you to access appropriate resources for performing well in that context.

A ‘Four Step Change Process’

In the New Code of NLP, John Grinder has developed a ‘Four Step Change Process’. It applies leverage through the Chain of Excellence to create generic, content-free (go anywhere) resource states. Step 3 requires an activity that applies the leverage of the Chain of Excellence. In this case I recommend the Personal Editing brisk walk as you can do this by yourself and I have described it already.

  1. Identify a context where you want to perform with excellence and currently do not.
  2. Step briefly into the context and experience it.
  3. Step out of the context and start a Personal Editing brisk walk immediately, attending only to the sensory experience of walking and seeing and hearing your environment in real time.
  4. At the end of 10-15 minutes brisk walking, step into the context you chose in the state you are in now. Let the state blend into the context and enjoy the result. Now you experience the difference.

By Jules Collingwood, NLP Trainer at INSPIRITIVE Pty Ltd.

Attention Training Articles

  1. Apply leverage to your attention for productivity by choice
    by Jules Collingwood
  2. 5 elements to enhance the quality of your attention and further your outcomes
    by Jules Collingwood
  3. Creating meaningful change and altering the way you represent the world
    by Jules Collingwood
  4. How you attend to the world can transform your performance in it
    by Jules Collingwood
  5. How using your attention can change the quality of your states (and vice versa)
    by Jules Collingwood

(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).

Related articles

Learn more about NLP, read our Ultimate NLP Compendium of NLP

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