Article Categories
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
Clean Language
Article Selections
[ Show ] All [ Hide ]
First published in Rapport, journal of the Assocition for NLP (UK), Issue 57, Autumn 2002
Emotion and Cognition in Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy
Part 2 of a 5-part paper by Philip Harland
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Let my heart be wise. It is the god's best gift. EURIPIDES

Cartoon: I am, therefore we feel.


Time after time as I listen to people talk about feelings I am struck by the wholly subjective and frequently overwhelming nature of their experience. As a therapist I have seen too many clients at the mercy of their emotions, believing they had no choice but to give in to them. As a trainer I have seen too many trainees who were emotionally just not ready to learn because their employers had only the foggiest awareness of their emotional needs.

Yet emotion is a kind of cognition as knowable as any other construct of the human mind.

This 5-part paper mimics the 5-stage structure of emotion. In Part 1 ('Arousal', Rapport 56) I wrote about what happens before a feeling is felt, and invited the reader to begin to deconstruct this sequence of near-simultaneous events:

1. AROUSAL [external or internal input]
leading to
2. SENSATION [unconscious physiological response and representation]
leading to
3. CONSTRUCTION [unconscious connection to other body/brain events: associative memory, past experience, present needs and values, etc]
leading to
4. APPRAISAL [(un)conscious cognitive assessment of events 1 - 3]
leading to
5. VOLITION [(un)conscious impulse to act]

Five events that happen in an instant. Emotions are notoriously quick to move us.1 It's no wonder that many people confuse their experience of one part with their experience of the whole, and this gets them into all sorts of trouble. Part 2 of this paper is about distinguishing the initial physiological events [sensation ] from the mind-body associations [construction ] and cognitions [appraisal ] that follow, in order to better understand and deal with the whole schemozzle.


Why might we want to do this? Some people believe that feelings are best left felt rather than analysed, and this makes for a richer experience of life. If however you believe that knowledge activates intelligence, and emotional intelligence is vital not just for survival but for the continued evolution of the species, please read on.

I invite you first to distinguish between sensation and feeling. Sensation can be defined as our mental representation of our physiological signalling systems, and feeling as our mental cognizance, or processing, of the experience.2

If I stray from this sensation~feeling distinction it's because like many people I tend to use feeling words interchangeably. There's not a lot of choice. Our feeling-related experiences far outnumber our vocabulary for them, and this means that our capacity for deconstructing emotional experience in order to better enjoy and employ it (one definition of 'emotional intelligence' ) is, shall we say, unpractised. We are still learning the language. 3


Emotions or feelings have been variously described as:

bio-regulatory responses
carriers of multiple messages
pointers to a judgment
remembered associations
a powerful manifestation of drives and instincts
positive or negative preferences
beliefs not based on reason
a core component of our capacity for rational thought
pleasurable or painful consciousness

Recognizing and describing our emotions helps shape the brain. Not recognizing and describing them, I believe, stunts the brain. Many of us find it very difficult to describe how we feel. We experience a confusion of internal events: sensations, associations and evaluations jumbled up. Or we experience a mix of emotions -- a medley of feelings -- at the same time. Separating out and naming these is an essential skill in the building of identity. Parents who talk about feelings help their children learn who they are. Anger consultant Mike Fisher says, "To know who I am, I need to know what I feel. When I know what I feel, I know who I am."

Unfortunately our brains have the greatest difficulty separating what we feel from how we feel. The evidence for this comes from the last half-century of neuropsychological research, which has produced a large number of scientific models describing how:

  • We misremember events with an emotional component, yet because our 'memories' have produced specific pictures or sounds we are certain these events happened exactly that way.
  • We imagine stimuli that are not present, yet because our emotion-influenced beliefs are based on them, we employ 'reason' to argue that they are present.
  • We focus our attention on a limited number of stimuli, yet like to believe we have considered the whole event.
  • We make decisions on the basis of incomplete information, yet readily assert that they are 'correct'.
  • We make wild rushes to judgment about the motivation and behaviour of others, only to find later that we were - sometimes tragically - wrong.


As I'm not particularly emotionally articulate I asked my emotionally highly articulate partner to distinguish, locate, name and describe some of the strong sensations she feels. Here is her verbatim account ('C'), along with descriptions of similar feelings by others ('K', 'Q' and 'S'). The exercise is in two parts. You are invited to:

  1. Compare your experience of these emotions with the subjects' descriptions.
  2. Try to separate the original sensations and their location from the associations and interpretations the subjects make around them.



A tightening in my solar plexus. Fire. Power that needs to lash out. If it doesn't lash out it boils away or knots. My jaw gets a restricting kind of feeling, constriction of the muscles before the lash out, tension that grabs in my stomach and jaw, even in my eyes, I can feel them grow, they're not relaxed. And it's very basic, primitive, it's got to do with protection, you're under threat, your ideas are being sabotaged, your will is undermined, there's an obstacle in your way and you have to sort that out, and if you don't it has to be sublimated and just festers.


My voice gets louder, harder, sharper. My jaw becomes more fixed. Clenching. My internal organs are being squeezed. A sense of wanting to attack.


I feel neanderthal. I feel like my forehead and neck get smaller and shorter. My face gets rigid. I inflate my chest and don't let it go.

'Excitement' or 'Joy'


('Excitement') A bubbling feeling in the solar plexus, a fast feeling. It's got energy, it's dynamic, it moves so I want to take action, to be involved. It's a whole body thing. A sacral, sexual, faster, lighter feeling that includes all of myself, and I can feel my pulse get faster, and my heart beats faster. I breathe faster. There's a lifting up of my eyebrows and my mouth. I'm ready to engage. And I want to move my whole body with excitement.


('Excitement') Constant waves, it's an all over thing. Almost a colour - yellow or red. A warm, rosy glow.


('Joy') Being able to breathe very clearly. A sort of tingling on the outside of my body. My muscles feel ready -- I could spring up in the air. A sense inside like a gentle bubbling, and as the bubbles rise and break -- ting -- I want to skip.



Is in my chest. Like a restricting. You breathe in and hold your breath. It's a suspension. When I'm afraid I stop, I don't breathe, in order to gauge the action I should take. This is survival stuff. You reduce your movement, reduce your sound. I can feel my eyes getting bigger to see the threat. I can feel my pupils getting bigger in order to assess it, and I'm ready to take action.


A tightening like a muscular tensing in my ribcage. I start to breathe higher in my chest, I have a sense of being stuck in the moment, and as my attention comes into my head I start thinking, "Oh god, what shall I do?" and I freeze and wait.


My fear is of not being listened to and taken seriously, of not being valued. I feel it in my eyes. It's an observation of others' reactions. A thoughtfulness that distracts me from being confident. A sense of sinking in my chest. Breathlessness. Heaviness.


There are similarities in this sample. Although subjects were asked to identify the sensations they experienced, they found it a challenge to distinguish these from the constructions and appraisals they related to their sensations (eg "This is survival stuff" ). All identified the chest as the seat of 'Fear', and the whole body as the location of 'Joy'. Other similarities highlight anomalies: a 'tightening' sensation, and 'faster' or 'higher' breathing, were linked to both 'Joy' and 'Fear', two quite different emotions. And although K's 'clench' may sound much the same as C's 'grab', it's apparent that the words represented quite different experiences of the 'Anger' both felt.

I asked subjects to identify the emotions they experienced commonly, and I presupposed that a collective list of six or seven would emerge. I had to change my mind when the first set of people I interviewed came up with varying lists of between five and twelve, and between them identified twenty-six different, diverse and distinguishable feelings:

'Acceptance', 'Annoyance', 'Anger', 'Appreciation', 'Compassion', 'Confidence', 'Contentment', 'Creativity', 'Curiosity', 'Depression', 'Excitement', 'Fear', 'Frustration', 'Gratitude', 'Guilt', 'Happiness', 'Helplessness', 'Interest', 'Jealousy', 'Joy', 'Love', 'OK-ness', 'Pleasure', 'Resentment', 'Sadness', 'Shame'.

I'm sure you'll be able to add your own to the list. You can argue the toss about which of these may be 'basic' emotions, and which may be variants or compounds, but it's clear to me now that however you separate out your feelings, it doesn't matter a jot what you call them or how many you have. The important thing is that they are uniquely yours. As you identify them, so they identify you.


Since Darwin ('The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals', 1872) first propounded a theory of universal emotions finding their expression in overt behaviour, academic researchers have attempted to generalize this area of subjective experience and reduce it to universal patterns.

Tompkins (1962) and Izard (1977) proposed 8 basic emotions, or 'innate patterned responses controlled by hardwired brain systems'. These were Suprise, Interest, Joy, Rage, Fear, Disgust, Shame, Anguish. Izard described anxiety as the combination of fear with any two from guilt, interest, shame, anger and distress.

Plutchik (1980) came up with a different 8: Sadness, Disgust, Anger, Anticipation, Joy, Acceptance, Fear, Surprise, which he arranged in eighths of a circle, proposing that further 'non-basic, psychosocially derived, cognitively constructed, uniquely human' emotions would derive from a mix of adjacent eighths (eg joy + acceptance = friendliness or love, fear + surprise = alarm).

Panksepp (1982) used the behavioural consequences of the electrical stimulation of areas of rat brain to identify 4 basic emotions or 'response patterns': Panic, Rage, Fear, Expectancy . Expectancy is an interesting one, although in laboratory animals anticipating another application of electricity that had previously produced Panic, Rage and Fear it's much as you might expect.

Damasio (1994) proposed three varieties of feeling: 5 universal emotions (Happiness, Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust) , which he called our 'combined perception of certain bodily states with whatever thoughts they are juxtaposed to'; a number of variations fine-tuned by our individual experience of these 5, which are 'subtler shades of cognitive states connected to subtler variations of emotional body states' (eg Euphoria and Ecstasy as variations on Happiness ); and minimal background feelings originating in the body alone - eg the feeling of life , or a sense of just being - states neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

Of course there can be advantage in an ability to extrapolate the general from the specific, as these researchers have done. Once upon a time it helped us avoid any large creature with sharp teeth that was making its way towards us. But when it comes to individuals, generalizing has its limitations. From a therapeutic point of view, it is the idiosyncrasy of the clients' subjective experience that defines them uniquely, and is the key to them changing their subjective experience.

Figure 3 compares the findings of the 5 researchers above with the subjective experience of 4 volunteers.

Identifying Emotions table

One thing my (limited) research confirms is the point about identity: the sum of our emotions is a summary of ourselves. You can check this by compiling your own list. To what extent does it mirror who you are?

If emotions are person-specific, and no-one agrees a collective list, what most modern theories have in common is agreement on the underlying structure of emotion, and this forms the core of this paper: instigating stimuli (AROUSAL); physiological correlates (SENSATION); physical coherence (CONSTRUCTION); cognitive evaluation (APPRAISAL); and motivational impulse (VOLITION).


  1. What sensations are you aware of at the moment? Try not to interpret what you are experiencing. Locate and label the direct physiological stimuli you sense, and do your best to describe them in sensory-specific language. What is your body awareness?
  2. Consider what associations you have to these sensations.
  3. What do these sensations and their associations 'mean' to you?

I can, with some difficulty, distinguish these three levels of internal event. 4

(1) Physical sensations. A sense of the weight of my body in the chair, of my hands moving as I type, some kind of slight gnawing in my stomach, a crick in one side of the neck, and an unsettled sense, difficult to locate and describe, that's probably in my head, heart and gut. (Not all in sensory-specific language, you will note, but I'm doing my best.)

(2) Body-mind associations and constructions. I'm convinced that the 'gnawing' is the onset of 'hunger', a familiar association. The 'crick' I link to poor posture. The 'unsettled' to some kind of feeling of restlessness and uncertainty.

(3) Mind evaluations and appraisals. The idea of hunger induces 'anxiety': when am I going to eat? The idea of poor posture brings further anxiety, this time about fitness, so I experience the crick as an 'ache'. I evaluate restlessness and uncertainty in terms of the 'curiosity' and 'excitement' I feel about what I am writing about. And also to what I recognize as 'annoyance' at the noises other people around me are making as they prepare to go out. This prompts feelings of 'guilt', followed by 'love' and 'appreciation' as I am reminded of the needs of those making the noises (my wife and son), and of the benefits that accrue to me from my relationships with them.

Even in my relatively neutral emotional state it is evident there is a lot going on in there. No wonder it can feel like a confusion of internal events when things are really shaken or stirred.


My anxiety, curiosity and guilt are thoughts as much as feelings. We shall say more about how the mind does construction and appraisal in Parts 3 and 4. Meanwhile how can I be certain that my feelings are constructs of the mind? Even my neck-ache? Isn't pain a purely physical phenomenon?

If I compare the ache in my neck with a similar ache in my legs after a long walk, I am aware of an entirely different experience. I evaluate one as 'unhealthy', because I associate it with poor posture, and the other as 'healthy', because I associate it with good exercise. So I experience the unhealthy sensation in my neck as 'painful' (prompting an emotion of 'anxiety'), and the healthy sensation in my legs as 'pleasurable' (prompting an emotion of 'happiness').

If similar sensations can engender emotions as radically dissimilar as 'anxiety' and 'happiness', it can only be because my associations with and appraisals of the sensations - my unconscious and conscious thoughts about them - have become the sensations themselves. 'Anxiety' is - characterizes - is indelibly associated with - my aching neck; 'happiness' with my aching legs. Emotions, after all, are "just another form of cognition".5

In the examples earlier you may have noticed something about the language subjects used to describe their sensations. Similes, analogies and figures of speech cropped up/popped up/came crawling out of the woodwork everywhere. In describing my own body awareness I tried to keep to neutral language, but couldn't help using words like gnawing, crick, unsettled . Metaphors like these - and the bubbling, boils, waves and knots of other people's descriptions - are signposts to the larger landscape of unconscious experience. Less obvious but just as metaphorical were C's restricting; an obstacle in your way; it moves so I want to take action . We have even seen that the simple words we use for emotions themselves - 'Sadness', 'Anger', 'Joy' - are not simple at all, but 'omnibus' concepts that carry a variety of individual experience.

"I was literally beside myself with joy."
Cartoon 3.
Emotion as Metaphor

Metaphor (Greek meta = beyond + phora = carrier) is a higher order container with the capacity for holding a great deal more emotional experience than an impartial description of their related sensations. Indeed it may be impossible to talk about feelings in any depth without moving into metaphor. As we sort through the internal confusion of body-mind events it's as if our minds have to ask themselves, what in my unconscious is this experience like?

Kruger and Merlevede describe emotion as "unspeakable deep level structure." 6 Given that we have many more emotional experiences than descriptions for them, we have little choice but to fish around in the depths of our unconscious for recognizable, speakable, isomorphic [alike-structure] constructs that already exist. Thus metaphor becomes the first language of feeling. A carrier of multiple messages from the otherwise unspeakably deep levels of our subjective experience.

Happy as a lark. Scared stiff. Down in the dumps . Expressions like these are not chosen arbitrarily. "We not only describe our feelings in metaphor," say Lawley and Tompkins in Metaphors in Mind , "we think and make sense of them through metaphor, and we behave in ways that are consistent with our metaphors."

A feeling of 'depression' may be very difficult for a client to discuss analytically or abstractly with a therapist. What happens if the therapist questions the client in a different kind of way?

And whereabouts is 'depression'?

Behind my forehead and about an inch in.

And 'depression' behind your forehead and about an inch in is like what?

It's like a great wave of blackness.

What kind of blackness?

The sort from a night sky at sea without stars. If I could find one star it would be less intense.

And can you find one star?

When I do I'll see light at the end of the tunnel.

What kind of light?

And so on. 7 Every feeling has a unique construct. It will have a location in the metaphor landscape that exists within and around each of us. It will be 'like' something. And both 'like' and location will be ways into communicating with it.

Even if we talk in shared metaphor, we are never walking in the same landscape. 'Light at the end of the tunnel' is a phrase I've heard countless clients use at one time or other, yet every client's 'tunnel', their every 'light', their every 'end', their every way of perceiving their tunnel/light/end, their every sense of time in their tunnel, and its size, configuration and location in space, were different to every other client's.

This particularity of subjective experience has clear inferences for the way we as therapists orchestrate the therapeutic relationship as a whole. If we can minimize our contagion of the client's experience with our personal associations, interpretations and instructions, I believe we can maximize the client's capacities for self-directed healing and growth.


I'm feeling down in the dumps.

And you are feeling down in the dumps. And when you are feeling down in the dumps, what kind of dumps is that dumps you are down in?

It's like a hole full of rubbish.

And a hole full of rubbish. And when a hole full of rubbish, where could that rubbish come from?

Other people throwing it in.

And other people throwing it in. And when other people throwing it in, what kind of other people?

People I'm scared of, and I let them dump their rubbish on me.

And people you're scared of, and you let them dump their rubbish on you. And when you let people you're scared of dump their rubbish on you, what happens next?

I know they're only dumping it on me because I just happen to be in the dump, so I realize I have to climb out.

And can you (etc) ...?

The Clean Language of the therapist does not address the client directly. It addresses client information as coded in the metaphor. This information will be released as the client begins to make sense of their construction of a unique and otherwise unspeakable feeling; and to find a (metaphorical and experiential) way out. 8


  1. Identify a number of your key emotions. Name them what you will.
  2. Separate as far as you can the original sensations from your subsequent constructions and appraisals.
  3. What other associations can you make to these same sensations?
  4. Imagine having the sensations without the associations. What would it be like to think, 'Oh, that's a heaviness in the gut, or a lightness in the heart...full stop'?

A blueprint for the Construction of Emotion will be drawn up in Part 3.

© 2002 Philip Harland

Thanks to those who talked about their feelings, and to Penny Tompkins and James Lawley who thought about them.


1 'Emotion' comes from the Latin emovere : to move, excite, stir up, agitate.

2 A feeling could also be defined as the 'emergent property' of the 5 inter-related parts of the structure working together.

3 A fuller lexicon of the principal terms - cognition, emotion, feeling , sensation, mood, state - is in Part 1. There is currently no consensus among neuro-scientists and philosophers about what emotions 'are'. Antonio Damasio (see References ) describes emotions as ' basic bio-regulatory reactions', a collection of chemical and neural responses that play a regulatory role in our neuro-physiology and constitute a substrate, or base, for feelings, which are our mental experience of the changes ensuing in body and brain. This may be a useful distinction for academics studying the phenomena at cellular or microcircuit level to make, but here the terms emotion and feeling are used in their colloquial sense - interchangeably.

4 See also Michael Hall on 'Meta-states', or states about states, where (1) is the sensation, (2) the feeling/cognition about the sensation, and (3) the feeling/cognition about the feeling/cognition.

5 Antonio Damasio, Descartes' Error. For a detailed appraisal of evolutionarily determined 'emotional processing' compared to 'cognitive processing' or 'mere thoughts' see Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. (References at end).

6 Framing Emotional Intelligence, Rapport 54, Winter 2001

7 More about Clean Language questioning in articles by Penny Tompkins, James Lawley, Philip Harland in previous editions of Rapport, or at, or in Lawley and Tompkins' Metaphors in Mind.

8 Part 2 of Resolving Problem Patterns (Rapport 50 Winter 2000, or, has an analysis of what happens - reassignment/ rearrangement/translation/transformation - when information in the metaphor is released.

References - see part 5.

 »  Home  »  Applications  »  Psychotherapy & Counselling  »  How the Brain Feels: Parts 1-5
 »  Home  »  Models and Theory  »  Theories of Change  »  How the Brain Feels: Parts 1-5
Article Options


Clean Language
Symbolic Modelling

James Lawley
Penny Tompkins

more info

view all featured events