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The Myth of Intelligent Emotions

We all know about emotions, whether we have been on an emotional intelligence course or not. We have them, we need to deal with them in ourselves and in people whose paths cross ours. Emotions are part and parcel of our everyday existence: The anger and fear when watching an aircraft flying into the WTC on the 11th of September; the soft hope when watching an exceptional sunset; the love when being touched by a very favourite person; the urgency of a deadline; the rush of success.

The Unspeakable Reality

From these random examples there are some things that come to mind about the emotions. We can't help but notice that emotions are of different kinds: Some you feel directly in your body, and some seem to be in your "head." Emotions are real since they not only demand attention, but become the energy for doing things. They can constitute a platform for decisions (1) (for example, experiencing a righteous anger in going after terrorists, or when to make love). It can be a struggle to replace one emotion with another (e.g. anger with forgiveness). The deliberation of how to express an emotion in a way that is more acceptable to one's own highest values. Some people pay more attention to their emotions ("they are more important to some" we say) and use them as important information when making decisions about things. For others, emotions can be an interference with their "thoughts", where "logic" rules supreme. For some people, emotions act like an early warning system and get called "intuition," an experience in which they frequently "sense" something long before they can "say" it.

Paying attention to our emotions as we experience them, we notice aspects about the emotions which normally we don't consider. For example, emotions are unspeakable (2). For the purpose of grasping this fact, try to say an emotion without making reference to why you are experiencing the emotion of the moment? One would say something about how it felt in one's body and maybe point to a "location," like in one's stomach, or in your heart, etc. Some might even use language to describe the make-up of the emotion: "It is like a ball in my stomach," "it can be likened to a red shape of something," etc. That is about as much as you can say without explaining about the emotion.

Experienced Meaning

Information about the emotion is needed to "make it complete" both for the person in the experience as well as sharing it with somebody else. For emotions to be understood, one has to understand the meaning of an emotion. Emotions stand for meanings, or as Jean-Paul Sartre has said, it is a state of mind. More specifically, "emotions are the embodiments of meaning." (3) Emotions reflect a meaning giving process that precedes our awareness of the emotion. Our awareness of the emotion is therefore to become aware that emotions point to a meaning, a judgement, or a frame-of-reference. Understanding emotions is understanding what they point to. Unless one follows the route where an emotion "comes from," emotions are not helpful information but merely part of one's awareness.

States are It

We are always in a state (of being). At any one moment a person is in the midst of experiencing a cluster of four components that make up one's state at any one time (4). The internal private events are one's thoughts clothed as maps of the world, or frames-of-reference, as well as the emotions that reflect one's evaluation in that experience at the moment. We interface with the world through our language and our external behavior, which flows from the internal thoughts. How we define the world/event we are experiencing at the moment, the importance of the meaning (the intensity) we give it, determine the options we allow our selves in what we do and say. One way we can think about living our life is that we create, live and express states.

And being intelligent about our emotions, how does one be it specifically?

Emotional Intelligence

Four minimum understandings will influence your "emotional intelligence." Firstly, understanding that the meaning one gives an event or experience determines the content of your thinking about the event or experience.

Secondly, the content of your thinking, (i.e., the meaning or the frame-of-reference that you apply to give meaning to the experience) is what determines the emotion or the feelings (the embodiment of meaning) that further makes up an experience. What you feel is one expression of what something means. Hall (5) states that the two royal roads to a state are your thoughts and your physiology.

Thirdly, emotions can refer to events in the world, or to our own internal experience. A useful way to think of feelings as different from emotions is to think of feelings as the very first response we have to something relevant to us in the world. Feelings are our very first awareness of a meaning that we have given in our experience. Emotions are more complex in that they flow from the human mind's ability to reflect on it and on it's own meaning-giving processes. In a sense we can second guess the first meaning we have given and change it from a different, but higher perspective. This upward spiral of meanings about meanings is called "meta-states" (states about states). Meanings about meanings are what minds do naturally, and keeps going "higher" until the highest meaning determines all the lower meanings. This meaning about meaning is an internal process in which the higher the mind goes, the more it is a reflection of what happens internally rather than a correlation with the world "out there." "The map is not the territory" becomes the expression to describe this internal awareness, which might, or might not, correspond to the world out there.

The higher up one goes in the levels of meaning, the more significant language becomes to verbalize the content of an emotion. At a feeling level (a primary or first response level) the message is clear, simple and one's reaction can even be at the "instinct" level: automatic and non-reflexive. At an emotional level the content is too complex and is highly dependent on the words that define the meaning. Unless people say the meaning, the risk is that one is guessing at or reading meaning into the person's experience which might be more true of the meaning-giver than it is of the person who is experiencing something at the moment.

Fourthly, states are brought to bear on states. For example, if one is angry and you are feeling angry about your anger, it intensifies the negative experience of one's anger. This bringing negative judgements to bear on negative emotions are the basic requirements to create "dragon states" (more in the next episode). Even though the content differs, the rules stay the same for positive experiences: one can intensify a positive state by enhancing it with another positive state, for example, loving one's partner and bringing to bear an appreciation of whom he or she is as a person. A negative state can be tempered by bringing to bear a positive state: having a calm anger; bringing a learning attitude to a disappointment (6) rather than catastrophizing; etc.

Summary: emotional intelligence starts with the ability to decode the meaning of a feeling or an emotion. Emotions and feelings change because they reflect change in the highest level of meaning. Emotional control is bringing states to bear and/or reflecting about states.

Next: Part 2: Playing with your Dragons, followed by Part 3: Managing States for Genius. Part 4: Emotional Games People Play.


1. Armand Kruger: Denominalizing Emotional Intelligence, part 1. Anchor Point, March 1999, p. 41

2. Armand Kruger and Patrick Merlevede: Emotional Intelligence and Perceptual Positions. NLP World, Vol.8, no.2, July 2001, p.25.

3. Jean-Paul Sartre: Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions. Methuen and Co. London, 1962 (translated by Philip Mairet).

4. For a more detailed description see Michael L Hall's books on "Dragon Slaying" (2nd edition 2001) or "Meta-states" (2nd edition, 2001) both available through

5. Hall, Michael L(2001): Dragon Slaying. Meta-Publications, Grand Junction, Colorado; p.17

6. See Armand Kruger and Bill Price: Resilience. Succeed Magazine, October/November 2001.