(in the words of Al Green)

This posting is adapted from my contribution to a discussion on a life coaching forum – another coach was asking how best to help a client who was having trouble getting over the end of a relationship.

The coach wrote: ‘What I am wondering is whether any of you NLP experts out there in ‘Coachland’ can make any genuine claims at mending broken hearts speedily? Wouldn’t it be great if we could wave a magic wand and have those feelings of sadness just fade away?’

As dealing with ‘negative’ emotions is one of my specialist areas, I couldn’t resist responding – and before I knew it my morning had disappeared… So in case any of you are in the same situation, or have clients who are struggling with the weight of emotional baggage, I reproduce it here – slightly edited to remove references specific to the discussion it was part of:


Left to itself, crippling grief or sadness might fade away as we learn something from it – or it might stick around and reinforce itself, as we interpret everything that happens subsequently through the lens of sadness. As the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux says in his book The Emotional Brain, ‘strong emotions make us stupid’.

Assuming we do deepen our understanding, the learning process can be slow and painful, and not leave us much time or energy for anything else.

So what to do? There are various powerful interventions available, from NLP and elsewhere. Some of them do have downsides and are only appropriate in certain situations. I believe we can summarise the various methods that therapists have devised to try to deal with sadness under six headings:

1. Live through it and try to understand it

2. Let it out

3. Distance yourself from it

4. ‘Zap’ it

5. Scramble it

6. Learn what needs to be learned, at the unconscious level

Looking at these in more detail:

1. Live through it and try to understand it

This is the traditional ‘stoic’ route – ‘time is nature’s healer’ and so on. When we add in talking about the events and feelings in an attempt to understand them and gain insight, we have the basis of the psychodynamic approach.

Sometimes this might work – we have a moment of insight and we come to terms with the feelings, allowing the emotional charge to fade away. There are various potential downsides though; it’s hard for the therapist to know what has led to the breakthrough, or when, if ever, the breakthrough will come.

Also, _by its nature_, the process is long and hard. Talking about events that we feel sad about naturally tends to make us feel sad. The stronger the emotion is, the harder it is to put the events into perspective, as the functioning of the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain that is able to reframe things, make sense of them and put them into perspective) is impaired by the emotion and we revert to more primitive limbic processes. When we are hurting badly, we can’t think straight.

Even if we do gain an intellectual understanding, that doesn’t necessarily help us much. It’s possible to understand all the reasons why_ we feel cripplingly sad – but at the same time still feel cripplingly sad. If the understanding remains at the conscious level, it won’t touch emotional patterns at the unconscious level.

Plus, unless the therapist, counsellor or coach is skilful, the client can end up with more reasons and justifications for feeling sad, leaving them even more disempowered.

2. Let it out

‘Have a good cry’, the idea being that the emotion has built up like lava under a volcano and needs to be released. Another application of this idea would be ‘hitting a pillow’ for anger management (there’s a very funny parody of this idea in the movie ‘Analyze This’).

This is the now discredited ‘hydraulic theory of emotion’, stemming from Descartes’ idea that emotion is like a fluid that travels along the nerves. It’s similar to ‘catharsis’ (in Freud’s sense of the word, which apparently is quite different to how the ancient Greeks used it).

Sometimes catharsis might work – but for more serious sadness, all we are doing when we are weeping and wailing is training ourselves to weep and wail more. All we are doing when we hit a pillow is training ourselves to hit something when we feel angry.

Whether you repress an emotion or repress it, it may still be there. In fact, modern research suggests that bad memories tend to fade if we don’t think about them – a process known as ‘extinction’.

I haven’t turned up a good reference on the web for this, but Dylan Evan’s excellent little book Emotion: The Science of Sentiment contains a masterly demolition of the hydraulic theory.

3. Distance yourself from it

The idea here is that the sadness is a response to images you make in your mind, as you imagine or remember people or events. If you picture the image as smaller, further away, less colourful, or dimmer, the emotion will diminish.

This is one part of the NLP technique known as the ‘phobia cure’ or ‘rewind technique’, and it’s extremely effective for distancing yourself from unpleasant feelings. The downside would be that if there is something to learn from these past events, if you distance yourself too far you’re not going to learn it. Also, if your mind starts applying distance in the way you approach everything, you’re going to lose the valuable information that emotions can give you – for example, you might be less aware of how other people are feeling, or just not care about it.

Some people who (perhaps unconsciously) have distanced themselves too far in an effort to avoid painful issues can come across as arrogant, ruthless or insensitive.

Distancing yourself is useful to take the level of emotion down to a level where deeper work becomes possible. It’s not a solution in itself, although for ‘first-order’ problems (where there’s no secondary gain and no deeper message to be learned) it may be sufficient.

4. ‘Zap’ it

This can be done with the NLP technique known as ‘collapsing anchors’. If you invoke the sadness _at the same time_ as an incompatible feeling or combination of feelings (such as joy, excitement, humour) which is even stronger, the weaker feeling will be extinguished as if it is ‘blown out’ of the nervous system. Once gone, that’s it – it won’t usually come back, although Joseph LeDoux suggests that a ‘ghost’ of it remains which could be reactivated under extreme stress.

This process takes place at the level of the nervous system – there’s no understanding involved. So the client would miss out on the opportunity to learn whatever there was to learn from the emotion. Again, this would be fine for first-order problems but isn’t advisable for anything deeper.

5. Scramble it

This (I believe) is the basis of energy and meridian-based therapies such as TFT and EFT, and also EMDR and the ‘rewind’ component of the NLP phobia cure. When it works, it’s very quick and effective at getting rid of the emotion.

I haven’t looked into most of the meridian therapies, although when I did the Thought Field Therapy intro training I found that the explanations of why it worked – perturbations in the energy field and so on – didn’t really do it for me. So I’m not sure whether the client gets any deeper understanding or learning (in addition to getting rid of the emotion) or not. I suspect not, although perhaps someone who has trained more deeply in these therapies can enlighten me.

6. Learn what needs to be learned at the unconscious level, the learning of which allows you to let go of the emotion

This is the principle behind Time Line Therapy and its variants, which I have found to be the most effective and gentlest way of helping someone to let go of the emotional baggage of sadness and other ‘negative’ emotions.

The process works by temporarily allowing the conscious mind to dissociate from painful memories while the unconscious mind does the work of reframing and putting them in perspective. To the extent that there is a negative emotional charge to any issue or memory, that’s telling us that there is still something to learn from it. When we learn what we need to learn at the unconscious level, the emotion can disappear and the events become just another memory. This is like the poet Machado’s ‘golden bees making honey of our past failures’ (from ‘Last Night As I Was Sleeping’) – but much more quickly, because the ‘bees’ can work without the emotional baggage weighing them down.

When done properly, with empathy and rapport and paying attention to the client, this process is the one I would choose for helping someone to get over sadness (I would always clear anger first). It allows the client to get the learnings from what has happened to them as well as letting go of the emotion. It’s not quite as rapid as ‘waving a wand’, but you can definitely do something worthwhile in a single session.

I must confess in the version I used to teach to my NLP Practitioner students, I tweaked Tad James’ original very prescriptive wording in the ‘official’ version of Time Line Therapy™ to make it more user-friendly.

The result of the process, when done properly, is not to take away the ability to feel sad, because sadness, like other ‘negative’ emotions, should be a warning sign that something in our life needs attention. It just means that we respond appropriately to current events, rather than to the baggage of unresolved events in the past that current events remind us of.

In contrast to the views held by some therapists and coaches, I don’t believe that pain is our true nature, or that we all have a ‘dark side’ that we are in denial about. This just intuitively feels wrong to me. Rather, our natural state, or at least the one we can aspire to evolve towards, is calmness and joy. I can’t claim to have direct experience of this all the time, but (I believe) it’s our essential self and our birthright.

© Andy Smith and Coaching Leaders 2007


Emotional Intelligence Tip: How can you mend a broken heart?

Tagged on:                 

11 thoughts on “Emotional Intelligence Tip: How can you mend a broken heart?

  • A couple of comments about no 5. Scramble it. The ‘standard’ EFT explanation for this is that the tapping clears a disturbance in the client’s energy system. Like you I’m not a great fan of the energy explanation, a BSc in Chemistry has given me a rather sceptical attitude to ‘subtle energies’. However, a friend of mine passed on a newsletter from Steve Andreas where he speculates that part of the effect of EFT/TFT is due to the tapping disrupting the problem structure by adjusting (in some unspecified way) the submodalities around the troublesome emotion/memory/belief. This fits well with my experience. Clients will comment: “the problem seems further away/it’s not so clear/it’s a gone a bit hazy .. etc.

    As for a client getting deeper understanding of the situation, I’ve often found when the troublesome emotion is neutralised the original problem is often spontaneously reframed or other, previously blocked, perspectives become available. Gary Craig the founder of EFT calls these ‘cognitive shifts’

  • That makes sense – if strong emotions make us stupid, then neutralising a strong negative emotion would free up the cerebral cortex to get on with reframing the original problem

  • Thank you for a well-presented and well-balanced article. Because it is so well-balanced…insomuch that you presented the downsides as well as the beneficial aspects…it is difficult to draw a conclusion and to decide which approach/therapy is best. That's good though…it means we have to work at finding out which suits us best. I am rather drawn to the NLP 'tapping' and although I realise that there is no perfect way of destroying the negative emotions of the sufferer…I feel it can only lead to improvement (by distraction) That's if I am understanding it correctly. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the supportive comments Mr Export (I've just noticed that everyone who's commented on this thread so far is called Andy).

    If you're looking for a recommendation, I would go for the 'distancing' as a quick fix that you can do yourself, and one of the time line clearing approaches such as Time Line Therapy or Time Based Techniques if you want to find a therapist that you feel is trustworthy and competent.

    The 'tapping' is EFT rather than NLP though!

  • Hi Andy, thanks for a really good article with views from so many angles. This is helpfuls as practitioners should be flexible enough to use what will best work for this particular client in this particular circumstances. It is being well read that enables this flexibility and this article has added to my own repertoire. Personally I tend to study lots of techniques and look at why it works rather than a strict adherence to the “rules” or steps. I am currently working on a process that takes people from seeing “problems” and either accepting there is no answer so it needs reframing or that there is a solution and that is what to work on. This does give a “base” premise that can be used for almost any issue. Thanks again, Steven

  • Since I wrote the article a new approach called ‘Havening’ has been developed. From what little I know about it, it would probably be added to the list of ‘scrambling’ techniques under no. 5, with perhaps a bit of ‘zapping’ as well. But again, perhaps someone who uses it would care to enlighten us?

    1. Thanks for a great article Andy. I like all of the suggestions, but my question is ….why…..broken hearts heal on their own with time, and I’m wondering why we want to get in the way of the natural process…..I know it hurts, takes time, is uncomfortable, but the learning , even If unconscious, is life altering, and we grow by experiencing these things. My heart broke into a million
      pieces when I lost my brother a few years ago, but over time, healing happened, and learning changed me, and I honour that as part of his memory….. Having said that, I used various of your methods above to help me cope with the pain associated with the heart break, tapping helped the anxieties, rewind helped minimise the trauma of finding him and hypnotherapy (by myself and taught by you) helped me visualise healing and recovery from grief. Dunno if this is useful , but I think I,m suggesting that the technique could be useful to ease pain but shouldn’t stop the pain associated with loss, as it’s a natural process….talking as a nurse that is …… And finally…..love your last few sentences…..that’s what picks you out from the crowd…grace and sensitivity….for me….keys to aiding others recover X

      1. Remember though, the learning is the important thing, and if you can learn faster, why wouldn’t you? We can take the pain as a sign that there’s still something left to learn; when you’ve learned all you need to learn, the pain goes.

        I would say that we want the learning, we don’t want the pain. We can certainly have the pain without the learning, so why shouldn’t we have the learning without the pain? My advice would be not to confuse the two. Thanks Wendy for your supportive comments as ever.

    1. Yes, I’m a big fan! It’s one of my favourite methods for personal transformation and I would say it falls into the category of methods to help us learn what we need to learn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.