In common language, we often talk about concepts such as self-worth, self-care and self-awareness. Yet these concepts cannot exist in the real, physical world. This is often one of the most challenging concepts for students of NLP to get to grips with.

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First, a general concept of the relationship between language and experience. We can represent things and events in language which cannot exist in the 'real world'. If we try and represent some of the ideas in our heads in language, we create a stream of metaphors, which cannot be directly understood by a listener. The listener can therefore only interpret the language if we have enough shared life experience through which to translate the metaphors.

For example, if someone isn't listening to me and I say, "He's as deaf as a post" then a native English speaker will probably understand what that means. However a younger, non-native English speaker might interpret 'post' ambiguously. Their first thought might not be of a fence post, instead a social media post might seem more familiar. How can someone be as deaf as a Facebook post? And yet, in trying to interpret the concept of 'deaf' you are already thinking about how people on Facebook don't listen to each other, how their posts are broadcasts of their opinions, and so on. Through an attempt to understand each other, we have created a new metaphor.

Much of our spoken, and indeed our written language is ambiguous. I can say a word in one way, but spell it in multiple ways, and a word that is spelled in the same way can have multiple meanings. In the 'Milton Model' of NLP, we call these 'phonological ambiguities' and they are used to induce a trance state. Ambiguous words such as sea/see/si or weight/wait need context before they 'make sense'. Other words derive their context from the knowledge of the speaker, such as:

  • Cat (an animal)
  • Cat (a type of boat, catamaran)
  • Cat (a device that reduces vehicle emissions, catalytic converter)
  • Cat (a character in the TV series Red Dwarf)
  • Cat (a steel cable used to carry overhead electricity, catenary wire)

When a garage mechanic tells you that he's going to replace your cat, that's a very different meaning to the same words spoken by a vet.


Therefore, we make sense of such ambiguous metaphors by relating the sound or the written word to our expectations, which are a mixture of context and previous experience. This is how we are able to make sense of language which, when we look carefully at it, makes no sense at all.

I think you understand that it is not logically possible to carry yourself, because you have no point of leverage with which to pick your own body up off the floor. Therefore the phrase "he carries himself well" cannot be a description of a primary sensory experience, it must be a distortion, a judgement. It is a metaphor for how someone walks and acts. A child, hearing this for the first time, might be confused, and might ask what it means. Alternatively, the child may notice whatever seems salient at that point and attach that observation to the statement. Through this, we each learn what 'professionalism' means, and we each have our own unique interpretation. A manager in a company I once worked for would get very frustrated when sales people didn't show enough professionalism. Everyone interpreted the word differently. It turned out that, to him, it meant dark blue suit, white shirt, dark tie.

Let's assume that language follows a predictable and consistent structure of 'SVO' or 'Subject Verb Object'  or 'actor -> action -> thing acted upon', in English at least - many other languages are SOV, the subject always comes first.

Subject Verb Object

'The cat sat on the mat' has a very different meaning to 'the mat sat on the cat'. If we switch the subject and object around, you might think of this:


However, this arrangement cannot have taken place in the physical world? Why not? Because a mat is an inanimate object. It cannot sit. It can be placed by a person, but it cannot get up, walk across the room and sit on the cat. It has no free will, it cannot act, it cannot logically exist in the subject position unless someone put it there. It is more accurate to say, "Someone placed the mat on the cat", and by more accurate, I mean 'describing a set of real world events that comply with the laws of physics'.

Therefore, every statement relates to something with agency, another thing (a different thing), and a change over time observed taking place between them. According to Noam Chomsky and Stephen Pinker, every language in the world follows the same structure, so we might from that assume that every human being observes physical change in the world in the same way, and describes it in the same way, at least in terms of structure.

We might say that the subject always comes first, so the entity that has intention is the first thing that we comment on, and that is usually the speaker, "I". Some languages omit the opening "I", and if the subject is omitted, it is assumed to be the speaker. "Going to the shops" means "I am going to the shops", for example.

If we substitute a different subject/object in our carrying example, based on the above assumption, e.g. the suitcase carries itself, we can again observe that this action can't exist in the world. A suitcase cannot carry itself.

I can imagine a marketing agency coming up with some kind of suitcase with an electric motor and advertising it as 'the suitcase that carries itself' but that is obviously a distortion, the suitcase is not carrying itself, it is rolling on motorised wheels. Carrying is the human action being replaced by the wheels. The case is not carrying itself, but it is doing something as a substitute for being carried.

Now if we substitute 'action' for 'carry' based on the assumption that the above structure always applies, we get 'thing 1 action thing 2', e.g. the suitcase acts upon the suitcase. When you picture this abstract example, you see two different suitcases, yes? And you replace 'acts upon' with something that one suitcase is doing to another.

How about 'the person acts upon the person'?

Again, you see two different people, yes?

How about 'the person cares for the person'?

'I' and 'myself' or 'me' are self references that can occupy either the subject or object position, but not both in a single verb structure, simply because that would require the same person, at the same time, to be both the actor and the thing acted upon. 

"I carried the suitcase"

"The suitcase carried me"

Both examples can be described in the physical world. I carried myself cannot.

The laws of physics exist in the real world, yet in the subjective, distorted world of my internal reality, I make judgements and descriptions of events which cannot take place in reality, they can only take place in my imagination. Those laws don't change depending on what word we're using. The structure of experience for "I hit him" doesn't change when we change the word to "I hit me". We can change the word, we can distort the meaning to make it fit, to 'make sense' of it, but that doesn't change the laws of physics.

In computer programming, I can say "The document is sent by magical fairies to the printer" but that doesn't make it happen. The following piece of computer code would make something happen:

print "Hello";

Well, I said that, and my printer isn't printing. What the hell? It didn't work. I said print and my printer doesn't work. Nothing is happening. It's broken.

A programmer might say, "Well, that's not what print means, print means send to the standard output, if you mean print on your printer, that's more complicated you need to...." etc.

The key is reproduceability. Could we write a software program that will always work, will always do what it is asked to do? For example, add two numbers and display the result. Regardless of the numbers I feed in, will it always work? Or does it only work with some numbers, with the 'right' numbers? Does it sometimes not work at all, or display the wrong result? And does it then say, "Well, that's not what I meant".

No, if we write a program that allows the user to input two numbers, and the program then adds those numbers and displays the result, the function of the program would be consistent, reliable, and wouldn't change depending on what numbers the user entered.

Our goal with modelling in NLP is reproduceability. What are the conditions under which a person would always get the intended result, regardless of input?

Could we write a program to care for someone? Yes, if we very strictly define first what that means. If we know what 'print' means, we can get a predictable result. If we know what 'care' means then again, it's predictable. Could we therefore program a medical robot to provide care? To do everything that a human nurse could do? Probably, yes. But would the robot 'care' in the way that a human does? Would the robot experience caring? Let's assume 'no'. But then, why would we want the human nurse to 'care'? We want him or her to provide care, but I'm sure that many very good nurses, doctors and vets actually don't care about their patients, because that would make the job far too traumatic for them. We talking about the caring professions, but we need to focus on the actions of care, not the intentions.

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Let's try another example, "I made myself a cup of tea". If I observed you, I would see you 'making' a cup of tea. I would not see your intention. What if you made it with the intention of drinking it, then someone else drank it? An observer might say "He made tea for someone else" because that was the observable sequence of events. Intention is not visible to an observer. The phrase I often hear at home is, "I was going to do that" or "I was about to do that". I can only observe action, not intention. It would be more accurate to say, "I had a thought about doing that but didn't put that thought into action".

Your intention cannot be observed, and so only exists in the way you compare experiences to form judgements. Eating organic soup is 'self care', whereas eating chocolate is not, for example. On the other hand, eating anything at all, whatever it is, is surely 'self care'. Breathing is 'self care'.

So does care mean what I think it means? Or does it mean something else? Is care a way of saying "takes care of my physical and emotional needs as if I am valuable"? And if that is the case, can I say, "I care about I" or "Me cares about me"? I can say it, but does it means what I think it means? How about "I care about me".

If we're picky we could say that I and me are two different words and therefore different things. I can act. Me is passive. I sits in the subject position, with free will. Me sits in the object position, as the passive recipient of an action. We therefore need to split "I care for me" into its physical world sequence: "I care for x and x cares for me". Does that not describe a normal relationship? Because two people are now involved, both can care and be cared for at the same time. When we take away person x, when they are no longer available to care, and we try to replace that by looping the sequence internally, we loop the program back in on itself. In computers, that will usually cause a crash or a race condition. "A race condition is an undesirable situation that occurs when a device or system attempts to perform two or more operations at the same time, but because of the nature of the device or system, the operations must be done in the proper sequence to be done correctly."

Perhaps I and me are two different entities. Perhaps I is the intent, the actor, and me is the recipient, the sensor. But they are inseparable within us.


How about "I feed myself". We say it about babies, because as with the self-carrying suitcase, the baby learns to do something that the parent had previously done. For a few weeks after the baby first grabs the spoon, the proud parent says, "She's feeding herself now!" but as soon as the novelty wears off, that changes to, "She's having her breakfast". 

The baby is eating. The child is eating. The adult is going out for dinner. I can't imagine that you have your lunch at work and people say, "Aw, look, you're feeding yourself". Your first reaction on reading these words is to imagine it. After that comes the tension of being mocked, because that is one interpretation of the scenario, one explanation for why someone would say that, and finally comes the joke to break the tension and restore control, to put I back in the subject position.

The problem in all of this really arises when we take a higher level judgement, based on "when I felt cared for in the past, these are the kinds of things that someone did for me, and when someone doesn't do those things, they don't care about me" and we then directly translate that abstract, distracted commentary back into primary, concrete, sensory reality. You only have to spend 5 minutes on Facebook to see people arguing over such subjective distortions of reality. And to reiterate the point I made in the group, counsellors and therapists are trained to interrupt people from getting lost in their distortions and ground the client back into "What actually happened? What did you see and hear? How did you feel? What must your experience or expectation be for you to feel that way? Are there other ways to feel? Could it have meant something else?" and so on.

Where does all of this leave us with self-worth, self-care and self-awareness?

You cannot value yourself, because you cannot be both the valuer and the thing being valued at the same time. Every major religion in the world seems to advocate the same message; if you want to know your worth, do something valuable for others. If you want to feel loved, love others. If you want to feel cared for, care others. Charity, giving and helping seem wired into our basic social instincts.

How can you care for yourself? If you cared for yourself, you wouldn't need others to care for you. Perhaps self-care is a substitute for being cared for. Which would you prefer? A mutually supportive relationship is one in which I care for you and you care for me; we take care of each other. You physically cannot 'watch your own back', and every police, military and superhero movie has a theme of people being responsible for each other's safety.

The self-help industry (don't get me started on that one) promotes self-awareness. I put it to you that there can be no self-awareness, there can only be awareness of others. By being aware of others, and the impact that we have on others, we become more aware of our effect on the world.

The simple concept which I have attempted to explain here is that the physical world contains objects which interact, and as humans we perceive those interactions as taking place in time, and we describe those interactions using language. Language distorts what we have observed, but those distortions cannot change the physical world, even though we often pretend that they do. We think that ignoring a problem will make it go away. We think that hiding a mistake will correct it. We think that arguing over religion and politics actually changes anything.

We can, of course, change the world, but to do that, we have to be much more specific about what we actually intend to do, and then we have to do it.


 Learn more about the weird structure of language and how to understand what people are really saying in my amazing online training course 'Decoding Language for Coaches'.