A Language You Didn’t Know You Spoke

How to use your mind’s unconscious coding system to influence the way you think, feel and act


A Language You Didn’t Know You Spoke

Think of something you really, really like. Something simple like cupcakes, or kittens, or organising a shelf of books so the spines form a perfect rainbow (just me?). Take a moment to consider your particular mental image of that thing (actually do this. I’ll wait).

Is that picture in colour or black and white? Where exactly on your internal screen of representation is it (left, right, top, bottom, dead centre…)? Is it big or small? Is it near or far? Moving or still? Light or dark?

Now think of something you really, really dislike. I’m talking cockroaches, spiders, or clumps of slimy hair in the plughole… Take a look at the image you have of that thing and ask yourself the same questions. The two images will appear differently to you in some way.

The subtle and automatic difference between those visual representations is largely responsible for the different ways in which you’d be likely to act when confronted with those things. This mental coding system is ever-present and immensely powerful, yet most of us have no idea it’s even going on until we’re asked to analyse our thoughts.

How We See Things Differently

Everything you experience and every thought you have is categorised and unconsciously tagged with a specific combination of sense properties like those you just came up with. Your mind does this so that you’ll remember how you should feel about that thing in the future. The example above looked at visual representations, but all your sense experiences can be broken down into sub-categories in a similar way.

It’s like a personalised symbolic language that you speak fluently and instantaneously. In Neuro-linguistic Programming, we call these properties submodalities (or SMd’s).

The modalities are the senses: visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), kinaesthetic (feeling), olfactory (smelling) and gustatory (tasting). In this article we’ll only really discuss the first three as they’re easily accessed and more commonly used to create change.

The word “submodalities” refers to the ways in which you can divide and categorise information from each of the sense modalities. In essence, SMd’s are the properties of your thoughts; the particular way in which you see the image, hear the sound, or feel the feeling.

The reason this information is so useful to elicit (either as a therapist or for yourself) is that you can manipulate SMd’s to help your mind feel differently about things. If, for example, I could start seeing my inner representation of cockroaches in my fluffy kitten SMd recipe, then I might be able to write this article without a little grimace appearing on my face every time I write the word “cockroaches”.

How all this determines the way we experience life

This doesn’t just apply to our internal imagery; it’s also being used unconsciously to filter and determine our experience of the external world. Submodality encoding is something that happens before information acquired through the senses reaches your conscious awareness.

This means that by the time you know you’re looking at a kitten, your unconscious has already decided to package the incoming information in your kitten SMd recipe. This, in turn, means that you don’t need to decide how you feel about a kitten afresh each time you see one. You instantly know what your pre-programmed feeling and response to kittens is, so unless something happens to interrupt your normal pattern of behaviour, you just go ahead and do it. The SMd system, in doing this, saves us a great deal of time and energy in assessing and then relating appropriately to the world around us.

In solving someone’s emotional or behavioural problem, SMd’s can be invaluable information. Our problems are patterns. They happen in a set order which repeats in exactly the same way each time we go through them.

It goes like this:

First there’s an environmental trigger, so something we see/hear/feel/smell/taste.

Then there’s a matching process where our mind decides what type of thing it is faced with based on our prior experience (“This is the same as that other thing that happened”, or “This little ball of fluff is the same as all those other adorable little kittens I’ve played with”).

This produces an emotion (a “gut instinct”) about the thing based on the match.

Finally, all this determines the behaviour we end up producing.

As an example, let’s imagine a problematic relationship with authority figures. Picture someone who finds himself anxious and unable to speak intelligently every time his boss asks him a direct question. It’s only afterwards, once he’s reached a safe distance from his boss, that he returns to his senses and kicks himself for acting like an inarticulate idiot (again).

This all happens because his unconscious is packaging the boss in a SMd combination that says “fear this” or “danger!”. It’s likely to be doing so because it’s matching the current environmental content (the boss) to a nasty memory from childhood; something like a particularly mean teacher at school or an angry parent. Although his boss is not exactly the same as that person, the unconscious mind is helpfully lumping them into the same category of things to steer clear of, just to be on the safe side.

Putting it to use

There are literally hundreds of different ways that one can utilise or manipulate their submodality recipes in order to create positive change. They form the basis of all thought, so the possibilities extend much further than simple likes and dislikes.

The SMd’s of bodily sensations can be adjusted to reduce the experience of unnecessary pain in people with chronic illness (or just with a stress headache). Belief systems can be influenced. Values shifted, so that a different level of importance is placed on things (this means you can find yourself doing things you previously avoided, or not doing the things you wished you didn’t).

Submodality manipulation is commonly used by those in the know to let go of negative emotions (such as anxiety or anger) in the moment. It’s a fantastic tool for performers and athletes (see this article on stage fright).

I think that understanding this coding system should be taught in primary schools. It’s so simple and so powerful, yet most of us are completely unaware that we can influence the way we feel about things as easily as we can.

How to manipulate your own thought processes:

In order to change your SMd recipes, you first need to identify and analyse the problem pattern you want to change, discern the modality(s) it presents itself within, and then elicit the submodalities of those thoughts in order to alter them.

“DON’T MESS THIS UP!!!” — Negative Self-Talk

This comes up time and time again in sessions with sportspeople. In many cases, just before an athlete makes an unforced error such as sending the golfball into the trees, playing a double fault in tennis or missing a penalty in football…

They might hear a voice in their mind saying something like: “you’re going to mess this up”, or perhaps: “this is really important so don’t mess it up!” (which, of course, usually brings about the same disastrous outcome).

I should be clear that we won’t all hear a voice before we screw things up, for some it’s just a feeling, for others it could be a mental image. Sometimes it’s a combination of all these things. If, however, an inner voice is a factor, then its SMd recipe will be partly to blame for the resultant behaviour (i.e. the cock up).

Example: a golfer’s anxiety at the tee

Just before she begins taking a shot at an important point in a competition, a golfer hears a voice in her mind saying “don’t mess this up”. When she hears the words, she gets a sinking feeling as though she knows what’s coming and then, invariably, the shot goes wrong.

Since problem patterns fire in a their own set order, interrupting that order — like introducing a circuit breaker — can stop the remainder of the pattern from firing. This means a different outcome becomes possible. An intentional SMd change is one of the options available to create this diversion.

The most obvious element to alter in the case of the golfer would be that voice (you could also look at the SMd’s of the sinking feeling, but as the voice comes first, by targeting that you’re killing two birds with one stone).

Step 1: elicit the voice’s SMd recipe by answering these questions.

Auditory SMd Variables:
~ Location: where does the sound (voice) come from (left, right, above, behind, below, in front)?
~ Do you hear it as coming from inside or outside your head?
~ Volume: loud or quiet?
~ Texture: soft or harsh?
~ Pitch: high or low?
~ Timbre: does it have any distinctive quality (such as squeaky like Micky Mouse)?
~ Duration: short or long?
~ Tempo: fast or slow?
~ Distance: near or far?

Once she has the combination of variables, she can try changing them, one at a time, to see which differences affect the feeling triggered by the voice. Typically, one or two of the submodalities will make a substantial difference, whereas the majority may make little to no difference at all. Those that change things dramatically are called “drivers”.

Location is a common driver. Let’s say our golfer notices a big shift when she chooses to move the source of the voice from the left- to the right-hand side of her head (location is a common driver). Typically, when you change a submodality driver of your negative self-talk, the first thing you’ll notice is that the voice seems to lose its power. It might seem inconsequential, or perhaps even silly in its new position.

You may find that other SMd’s change automatically when a driver is altered. For example, once on the right, our golfer might notice the voice also sounding more distant, or quieter. At the end of the day, all that really matters is that it feels different (specifically, that it feels better).

Armed with this information, the athlete can counter the old negative voice by taking a moment to move it to the right-hand side at any time when she hears it starting up. Had the driver been a variation in pitch, she could choose to hear it in a higher or lower tone to change the outcome; had it been tempo, she could speed it up or slow it down accordingly. There really are no rules, you can just keep trying different things until you notice a difference. Then you have your process.

What the SMd change does is temporarily suspend the self-doubt that was at the root of the problem. It opens up a window of freedom from old limitations which can be used to focus on something more beneficial like a visualisation of the ball going where it should (which, by the way, she could choose to see with an SMd recipe associated with success or ease, to really up her chances of doing well).

You can use this language to let go of a problematic feeling, a disturbing visual or a distracting sound. Sometimes making the change becomes a tool that you continually use, at others it’s something that only needs to be done a few times before your unconscious chooses to make the positive change more permanent and automatic.

Part of the potency of a process like this is that it gives you back a sense of control – or even mastery – of your emotions and automatic behaviours. We tend to feel as though we’re at the mercy of our feelings, so introducing a regular practice which proves the opposite can be enormously empowering.


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For an exploration of the psychology of self-sabotage (and how to take control), take a look at my book, Fight: Win Freedom From Self-sabotage.

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