Self-pondering using Clean Language

Overcoming my problems on my own
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

When I encountered Clean Language, I wondered whether I could use it on myself to overcome problems. I have had enough success to be quite hopeful, and I think it is becoming easier. Below are my understandings and some examples of applying them to myself.

My Understandings

Prior to experimenting, I had read the two books [Metaphors in Mind, by James Lawley & Penny Tompkins; and Clean Language, by Wendy Sullivan & Judy Rees], read a lot of the content on the website cleanlanguage.com and had three skype sessions with one of the authors.

I have trained in NeuroLinguistic Programing (NLP). From that I understood that all our thoughts are internally represented. The NLP “Swish” pattern helped me be aware that a persisting problem will have a persistent internal representation. (For me, I will most often notice an internal image, and less often just internal dialogue.)

The Swish technique replaces the old representation with a new, resourceful representation (consciously chosen by the client.) Once successfully completed, if the client begins to think about that problem, the new image (of the desired outcome) automatically and consistently appears instead of the old image of the problem. When this happens the client’s experience in the world is different.

In essence, the problem is linked with problem representation; permanent change of problem representation to “better” representation, results in “better” life experience. Similarly, Clean Language often results in spontaneous and permanent change in the symbols in the client’s metaphors, resulting in different experience in the world.

So when my self-pondering using Clean Language results in a permanent change in my symbols, I am pleased. It is my chief goal. It confirms that a “piece of work” has been completed. To use NLP parlance, it is a digital change, not analogue (i.e. the change in the picture does not transform gradually; it changes suddenly. Often it changes completely when all the aspects of the “issue” are dealt with. Sometimes however, there are 2 or 3 discrete changes, mirroring steps in my insight and related decisions I take.)

My Process

I sometimes think Sigmund Freud’s term, “free association”, partly explains what I do, since I allow myself to think freely. I censor little or nothing. However, I am guided by the clean questions and a general understanding of how clean processes work.

To begin, I set myself in a place where I can concentrate with minimal distraction. I have my folder and coloured pens to record the questions and answers I generate. I allow about 60 minutes each occasion. I find that I do this in bursts – I may have many sessions over a 3 week period (usually one to two a day), and then I have had enough and take several weeks off. I know when I am ready to do more.

I may begin by writing down a particularly vivid dream, or choose a problem. With the latter, I may talk into a mp3 recorder about the problem for 2-3 minutes, to capture any metaphors that spontaneously occur. With this or the dream I will write down the sentences, highlight the significant words or phrases, ask clean questions of them and write my answers.

Of my answers I will also highlight the most significant words and ask clean questions of those. Mostly I do not go more than 3 steps away from the original words, but there are always exceptions and it relies on trusting my intuition.

While doing this work, if I come to some point when I cannot continue (I may feel restless, or no meaningful answer comes to a question that needs answering), that signals I need to walk and think, or come back to it the next day. During the day, some pertinent thought may come to mind, which I note down to include when I next resume.

At the beginning  I mostly ask the same ‘developing’ questions of all the interesting words:

What kind of [X] is that [X]?

Is there anything else about [X]?

Where is [X]?         […. so I am locating it in or around me.]

and then I use other questions depending on my answers. I will always ask for the intention of each symbol:

What would [X] like to have happen / to do?

This is often interesting. I listen to my first answer and do not censor my internal talk.
Sometimes when one symbol changes, I find that spontaneously another symbol has changed. For example I had a “deep hurt” symbolised by a deep well. I worked on another symbol representing the memory of myself with the relevant person, to the point where flowers spontaneously grew around us. The next time I thought about the deep well, it had cobwebs over it. A later occasion still, after I had done some work around ‘courage’ and a symbol of a gorilla had emerged, the cobwebs had turned into a vine. This had the connotation that I could climb upwards.

It is heartening when the symbols change by themselves, further confirmation that the process is working.

At the end of doing this work, I will draw my symbols, or update any that have changed.


Not all symbols need to change. Some however contain an obvious message or draw my attention more powerfully:

  • in a dream a volcano erupted throwing a huge rock onto me, while I was atop a grand building. It killed me and demolished a large part of the building. (The dream occurred when I was at a stage of making some significant business plans, and signalled that a part of me objected.)
  • another dream had a dangerous shark in the water above me. It had a rope tightly pulling backwards against its jaws, preventing them from closing. (This related to my behaviour of clenching my teeth at night, and not speaking freely in some daytime contexts; if I freed myself and spoke [symbolised by there no longer being a rope] it would be dangerous.)

Unlike the NLP Swish where the client chooses a desired outcome picture, it is pointless to try to imagine the ‘correct’ or better final picture for a particular symbol. I cannot force a symbol to change. I can only focus my attention onto it by asking questions and examining my answers. I cannot deceive myself about an issue – the symbol will only change when I feel internally peaceful about the matter. Then the picture spontaneously changes, confirming that all is done.

It is important to remember that all responses to a clean question could be symbolically significant and to not dismiss them without considering their value. For instance, I had an occasion of following one noun to its related ideas and images, then to those related ideas, then to their ideas. I thought, “This could go on forever,” and felt a little giddy and despondent. Then I realised the giddy feeling happens because I have this fast, sweeping, curve, which I draw in my imagination, as if things are going around in circles. This circular arc, is like thin steel, shiny gray, 3 – 4 inches wide, located 2.5m in front and going around to the right.

When I stopped and identified its attributes, I was amazed to realise it does not go around in circles. It goes only one third of a circle, then stops. Then?  I just stare at it, and do nothing. (In a sense this parallels my real life, that is, stopping and not proceeding with good ideas.) The arc’s Intention?  To keep me from surpassing my father.

I have found the idea of tracing the origin of a problem – as articulated in David Grove’s Quadrant IV Intervention1 – powerful. When I ask the questions to “pull back”  time, I listen to my first answer and do not censor them. In this example I followed my answers back until I discovered the metaphor of lightning. After exploring it with a few developing questions I introduced the lightning to the circular arc. This made the arc complete itself, become a full circle, and continue circling like a generator.

Since completing this work, I have found it much easier to use this process on myself.


The following section illustrates how I have used the questions on myself. When I examine a word, lots of answers come together, and mostly I don’t need to record my questions which are obvious by virtue of the answers.

In this text I will use the abbreviations: 


  • ATE? …and is there AnyThing Else about [X]?
  • WKO? …and What Kind Of [X]?
  • Wh?….Where/Whereabouts?
  • LW?…That’s [X] like what?
  • Intention?…And what would [X] like to do / have happen?
  • Sh? …And does [X] have a size or shape?
  • Then? …And Then what happens?
  • B4?…And what happens just Before?
  • CF? ….And where could [X] come From?
  • WWiLTHH? …And what would I like to have happen?
  • In/Out? …And is [X] on the inside or the outside?

Answers in italics.

Problem – I’m aware that I have a link in my head, that if I get involved with a woman and form a relationship, that will lead to comfort; I will relax and not proceed with some very important goals.

Outcome – using Tompkins and Lawley’s PRO model2 I asked myself what I would like to have happen. I answered:

I’d like to understand my internal thinking about why I stay single. If there’s a way I can be in a relationship which allows me to continue with my goals, then I’d like to proceed to date.

Beginning – Using my problem statement, I underlined several words of interest. I asked about “link” but it took me nowhere useful; “head” did not feel very significant. The words that seemed important were “comfort,” “relax” and “not proceed.” Intuitively I knew I did not know a lot about “comfort” so I wanted to explore that. I wondered what was before “relax,” and there could be something between “relax” and “not proceed” worth finding.

Comfort, [WKO?] soft, gentle, sensuous – my thought about “sensuous” was, “distracting,” which I explored with, Then? I stayed with this and got a full answer, [which I abbreviate]:

Staying focused on that person, the touch, the sensations of pleasure etc, fun social activities with a partner, walking, shopping, cinema, restaurants, drives, meetings with friends … sharing life history, goals, values, purpose. Then? … encouraging and supporting each other to take steps, Then? …going ahead with support and interest from that person and extra ideas and resources.

Previously when I thought about dating, the words “comfort” and “distracting” came to mind. I thought that was a problem and did not explore further. Now, I realise it is not a problem, and is in accord with my outcome.

Relax, [WKO?, ATE?]:

deep muscle relaxation, pleasure, rest, enjoyment, sensation focused, thrill, loving the experience, bliss, High, Brilliant White, magical music. Then? … a calming of music and ordinary light, normal relaxation, recharged, fully rested, wanting to go out in the world with people. Then? … exercise, craving for activity, being with others, doing exciting things, fun things, sharing interesting ideas, using my therapeutic training, leads to contributing, appreciation, feedback, building a world I’d like to live in.

Again, by following this idea longer, “relax” was now no longer something that would derail my goals.

Between “Relax” and “Not Proceed”?

I’m content, I don’t need to go and do that tough stuff which they don’t appreciate, you don’t have to, permission not to, this feels good, enjoy, you haven’t had a good rest for years, take all the time you need and want, enjoy it, and when you think you have had enough wait a bit longer to be sure you have had enough, it’s not your responsibility.

Upon saying this, I felt a slightly painful sensation in my heart area, and had the words, “There’s a place in my heartwhich perturbs me.”  I consider physical experiences during this work to be relevant communications, not coincidences.  So I wanted to explore “place,” “heart” and “perturbs.”

Place, [Wh?, Sh?, ATE?, In/Out?]

left, front corner of my heart, on the surface, stuck on, black, folded and twisted like melted plastic; it does not belong to me! It’s other people’s pain.

[WW melted plastic LTHH?]

It would like to find a home that accepts it. Can It? It does not know where to go. What needs to happen for it to find a home? It needs to leave and start looking. Can it? Yes … My picture of the black melted plastic starts to peel away a little and stops. So I ask, Is there ATE that needs to happen? The heart also needs to be willing to let it go; it’s been used to having it. The plastic has partly shielded the heart, but also limited it. WW it LTHH? It’s time to live a full and proper life; and I agree. …The black plastic peels away a little more and stops.  So, Is there ATE that needs to happen? I need to decide to live grown up, accept all feelings and deal with them; and I agree.  …The plastic is now just hanging on.  So, Is there ATE? I have to accept there is no going back.

I do, and the plastic floats away, leaving a picture of a completely red heart.

– My intuition tells me I do not need to do more about “perturbs me,” and the original goal of understanding my thinking (how forming a relationship would be an obstacle to proceeding with my goals) has been accomplished. It is now different and no longer an obstacle to dating.

I estimate this example took between 2 – 4 hours during one day, in between other activities. I’m aware of another objection to dating that still needs attention. Previously I had worked on something which transformed well. [see Example 3 below]  Afterwards, I had the thought I had progressed and was now “half grown up,” with an image of myself divided down the centre. Being fully grown up seems desirable before seeking a relationship, so I feel this is another problem to target and I understand what relates to it.


Problem –  am slow to take the collective actions I have considered initiating.

Outcome – When I have a good idea which I like, I want to take action, effect change, and come together with others to share, celebrate and stimulate further ideas.

Beginning – As I thought about the outcome, I heard my internal voice say, “You don’t deserve to get what you want.”  This sentiment was connected to a previous symbol I had explored, named “U.P.” It had been partly transformed and now looked like an irregular, 2-dimensional shape, and inside was a circle containing another symbol called, “Soft & Kind.”

The symbol, U.P. had come from a childhood experience with a significant person. [Intention?]

The intention/desire of that person now, is that I have what I want.

As I got that answer, I was aware of a little breathe in. [ATE?] It will be tough.

[Intention of U.P.?]  To make it tough for me. I’ve come to realise that such a part, actually contain attributes which can be resources; in this case, it had the attributes of strength, determination, commitment, loyalty (to that significant person). In this case I was most drawn to explore “loyalty.”

Loyalty, [LW?] Like a dog, blue-heeler, tough, worker, committed to that person. [ATE?] If the dog was no longer going to thwart me, it would need something else to do.

Person, [WKO?, ATE?] Now more settled and understanding, kind. [Intention?] Person would now like dog to be loyal to me. As it agreed, it turned into a small dog I recognised as belonging to a friend. It is a dog that I do not actually like. It then was swallowed up by U.P. and was inside “Soft & Kind;” the dog looked bewildered … all signs that this was not a satisfactory solution.

I went back to the blue-heeler. I did not feel the friend’s dog was the right animal for me, and found myself thinking about a recent TV program on intelligent animals. There was a Chimpanzee which had demonstrated some amazing intellectual abilities. I liked that it was smart. And they are renowned for their strength, which I also liked. However, I was concerned that it might not be loyal – being strong and unpredictable was not good.  

I asked, “Would the Chimp like my intention?” I summarised the intention of my outcome statement as, “Doing varied and interesting activities,” and the Chimp was agreeable. I introduced “Soft & Kind” to the Chimp and he spontaneously jumped lovingly onto me, and I was reassured he was safe [David Grove emphasised the importance of a “point of contact” between two symbols]. The Chimp continues to look happy. And I experienced another change. I had always thought it was not right that “Soft & Kind” remained separate inside U.P.; I felt they should be integrated, since originally they were one. Following the change in the Chimp, U.P. and “Soft & Kind” changed form to become a poached egg, indicative of integration.

Most likely I have not achieved my outcome at this stage. I have only dealt with the objection that I did not deserve to get what I want. Another time I will need to explore “I, slow & collective action,” as originally intended.  This example took 90 – 120 minutes over a 4 hour period one evening. However, there is progress in that U.P. was transformed, and the Chimp is a likable symbol for me of power and intellect.


Part of the way through dealing with a fear, it had the form of a loose arrangement of energy particles (pictured as yellow dots, collectively in the shape of a liver.) It is in front to my left, 2.5m and can’t come closer than 1.3m – I keep it beyond that by keeping a barrier up, a force-field which has a shiny metal upper edge, which is curved. There are numerous underlined, interesting words I could explore. (Included below are only the explorations which made a difference.)

 WW fear LTHH?  Keep me at bay, so I don’t go ahead. Ahead to where?  To happiness, achievement, success, health.

WW “I” LTHH?  To go beyond fear to happiness.

Barrier / Force-field, [ATE?] I can’t pull it towards me; I stay away from it. And what would it LTHH?  It would like to let me through!  What needs to happen?  I need to want to go through the fear. I agree. And I need to get over the barrier.

WKO “I” was the “I” that was staying away from the barrier? It was 10 – 12 years old. And its Intention? To stay safe.  At this moment before the barrier, I saw an image of a bush or hedge that I was hiding behind. Then what happens? He rested.  Then?  He becomes curious … he came to the barrier … he looked beyond … he climbed amongst the yellow dots and felt them. At this point they turned into Cheezels (a party snack food). Then, he continued beyond them, grew to his present age. Then the image talked and dealt with people in a matter-of-fact way.

The next day I spontaneously had the internal dialogue and image that “I now feel half grown up.”


Clearly one can use the Clean Language on oneself. The changes in my symbols have lasted, in the same way as has happened in sessions with a facilitator, and I see changes in my life.  For example, when I now start this process I feel considerably more confident of successfully transforming the original problem – mentally I connect this to the image of the arc which became a full circle, and it continues to make a sound like a generator as it revolves.  And overall I have a sense of growing self-confidence. Perhaps example 3 where I feel half grown up has contributed here, or the Chimp symbol in example 2.

I had done some similar work on myself, applying NLP techniques, but I have found this easier. Clean Language certainly gives me more choices, such as introducing symbols to one another.

With the exception of example 2, I did the above work before any Clean Language training. I have done so in the last fortnight, and am now aware of more choices which I will apply with interest.


1 For the theory and an outline of Quadrant IV Interventions see David Grove’s Problem Domains And Non-Traumatic Resolution Through Metaphor Therapy and for a full-session example see Pauls Fear.

2 See Coaching for P.R.O.’s

Name withheld, submitted 12 June 2012.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
body * { color: inherit !important; }