Feeling and Trading


Van K. Tharp

Suddenly, there it was—that juicy signal that all traders experience only a few times each year.  And, this one was a gem!  My breathing started to quicken and deepen, almost to the point of hyperventilation.  I had to wipe my brow with my hand.  I then dried my hand on my shirt because my brow was already wet again.

The feeling I had was highly motivating.  I was ready to act.  But I also noticed a knot in my solar plexus.  It was like a heavy hand pressing against my chest.  I felt motivated and yet paralyzed at the same time.  “How could this happen so quickly?” I asked myself.  My vision seemed blurred, and my hands shook. 

I started to take action and my body began to sway, so I threw myself back into the chair.  Crying inside, I knew I couldn’t do it.  “Wait until I calm down,” I anguished, but the market started to move just as I knew it would.  Yet I was still frozen.  I felt ashamed and very much alone.

Old concepts about the nature of the mind and body are changing rapidly.  Most of you already understand how people create their own reality, including their mental states, through the beliefs they adopt.  However, our new beliefs do not necessarily have any more “reality” than old ones.  As a result, the most important criterion for such new beliefs is their utility—how useful those beliefs are to us.

One new belief that is very useful for understanding how people can deal with feelings is to assume that the mind is not just localized in the brain, but throughout the body.  And if your mind is located throughout your body, then so are your feelings.  Let’s look at the evidence for this belief.  First of all, your nervous system travels throughout your body.  You can move the muscles in your fingers and toes.  You have sensations throughout your body.

Second, scientists have discovered a set of chemicals in the brain and nervous system called neuropeptides.  Receptors to these chemicals occur in the nervous system, the endocrine system (which is responsible for secreting hormones that often have a major effect on moods and emotions), and the immune system.  The cells of these systems are located throughout the body.  Thus, your immune and endocrine systems are constantly eavesdropping in on the messages you give yourself.  Every thought, feeling, emotion, desire—every internal representation you make—is experienced throughout your body.

Third, if you pay attention to your feelings, you will notice they are located throughout your body.  Let’s try an exercise.

Think about a situation that made you emotional.  Bring back some of that internal feeling.  Notice where you feel it.  Although you may feel some sensations in your head, most of you probably experienced feelings in your body—especially along the midline in your chest and stomach.

My point is that your whole body feels.

Experience Is Organized Around Feelings

Feelings are important to the organization of your experience.  First of all, memories are strongly linked to feelings.  Evidence suggests that feelings are stored in the body in the form of Condensed Experiences or COEXs, for short.  The COEX was coined by Dr. Stanislov Grof to describe the phenomenon he observed in his research on how feelings were released under altered states of consciousness such as psychedelic drugs and, more recently, hyperventilation.1

For example, someone working on a fear issue might have an experience that includes: a painful rejection experience, a feeling of pressure in the chest, an image of a parent about to beat them with a strap, a certain body posture with its associated feeling, a harsh wounding voice yelling loudly, and an image of a group of boys ready to attack.

This entire complex of internal representations is a typical example of what Grof calls a COEX.  For example, there is lots of psychological evidence to suggest that when someone goes into any particular mental state, they will recall any event related to that state.  Thus, if someone imagines a situation in which they would become angry, they can easily recall the entire complex of memories related to being angry.

In addition, COEX might also include a number of beliefs.  Feelings, even if we are not conscious of them, underlie everything we know.  When we are cut off from our feelings, it becomes much more difficult to make mental connections.  Thus, feelings may be the organizers of the mind and of the personality.  Drs. Gray and LaViolette2 assume that consciousness is located in “the structure and relation between the feelings themselves.”  In other words, consciousness is transcendent.  The brain is simply a blender that allows feeling tones to feel and affect themselves and thereby to mix themselves into complex concoctions—namely, our thoughts.

Gray, interpreting from his feeling-tone model, argues that there are two basic forms of emotional/cognitive imbalance.  The first form amounts to being driven by emotions.  This might occur when emotions are locked into the body and continually strive to express themselves.  The second form of imbalance amounts to being cut off from one’s emotions.

Being Driven by Emotion: Knots in the Body

If you simply experienced each feeling as it occurred, you would have few problems with feelings.  You would just feel!  Unfortunately, what most people do is judge their feelings.  Our feelings about people and events are thought to be strictly personal.  Our inner emotional states are thought to be best kept separate from our actions.  Often, we are told that the intelligent way to make decisions is to keep your feelings out of it.  And it is practically an unwritten law for traders not to feel their feelings.  Yet it is very practical and useful for traders to be willing to feel their feelings.

People tend to judge some feelings to be good and acceptable.  They judge other feelings as being bad and to be avoided.  For example, if someone tells you a humorous story and you feel like laughing, that is judged to be “good,” and you are willing to laugh until the feeling is complete and out of your body.  On the other hand, if you feel angry or fearful or some other “undesirable” feeling, then you will probably attempt to suppress that feeling.  When you were angry as a child, one of your parents, who was probably having a problem dealing with anger, told you that your expression of anger was not appropriate.  As a result, you learned to suppress that feeling.

What happens when you suppress a feeling because you judge it to be undesirable?  The COEX associated with that feeling becomes tied into a knot of some sort.  The knot actually traps the feeling in your body.  Most of you have many such knots in your body.  These are COEXs, such as the one described above, plus any judgments we have about the feeling.

When you have such a knot in your body, it will be full of suppressed feeling striving to express itself.  It is like you have created a part whose positive intention for you is to avoid feeling the feeling that you have judged to be negative.  What happens, however, is that the part continually creates interpretations of environmental events to justify feeling those feelings.  Let’s look at an example of how this one might work.

Imagine that you are a teenager.  You notice a very attractive person of the opposite sex.  You approach that person with the intention of asking for a date.  However, this person wants nothing to do with you and says, “I would never go out with anyone like you.”  What happens?  You feel massive rejection inside of you.  You judge that feeling to be negative, and you suppress the feeling as much as you can.  Suddenly you decide, “I never want to feel this feeling again.”  As a result, you establish a part of you that has the positive intention to never be rejected again.  But what happens?  This part starts looking for environmental conditions that might produce rejections.  As a result, it begins to interpret external events in such a way to create rejection for you continually.  You may even begin to think of that part of you as some sort of devil within you.

Let’s see how this might work.  Suppose, a couple of days later, you see another attractive person you would like to meet.  You start to approach this person, but your new part starts to release some of that stored feeling of rejection, saying, “If you get too close, you might experience a rejection feeling like this.”  Chances are, you would avoid that person, suppress the feeling, and just make your “rejection” knot even tighter.

But, let’s assume that you keep approaching this person.  What happens?  As you get closer, the part starts releasing more and more of that rejection feeling.  By the time you get within conversation range, you feel worse than you felt when you were actually rejected—and this new attractive person has done nothing at all.  If you actually still have enough courage to talk, you would probably look down and in a very shy and undesirable tone of voice say, “You wouldn’t want to go out with me, would you?”  Such an invitation is almost certain to produce the response you expected—rejection.  As a result, the rejection knot within you becomes even stronger. 

Chances are you will have difficulty ever approaching anyone again.  In addition, you will be continually experiencing rejection in your life.  This part of you, in trying to avoid rejection, will continually interpret environmental situations as possible threats that might cause rejection.  In doing so, it will continually produce that feeling.

Now how does this apply to trading, you might ask?   Well, almost any emotion you have stored in your body can find some justification for expression through trading.   If you have anger, you can find lots of reason to be anger at the market or your broker or your computer or something.  And it’s never you.  It’s always "them" producing the feeling, even though it really comes form emotions stored in your body.

If you do not want to feel fear, then chances are you will have a knot in your body associated with fear.  And can you think of any better vehicle than the market about which to create fear?  Of course not!  In fact, your interpretation of what is going on in the market is an excellent way to justify any feeling. 

You can become “afraid” to pull the trigger.  You can become “afraid” of a position that goes against you even a tick.  You can become “afraid” of a position moving in your favor—it might turn around and you might lose your profits.  In other words, the part of you that does not want to experience fear can use the market to come up with any number of situations through which it can anticipate being fearful.  And, as it anticipates being fearful in each situation, you actually feel fear being released from the COEX.  Thus, the part that wants to avoid fear actually produces fear in the process of trying to avoid it.  

How do you know if you have trapped feelings?  Here are two sample exercises.

First, think about an experience that you judge to be negative.  When you think about that experience, do you still feel pain?  If so, then you still have trapped feelings in the COEX that includes that experience.

Second, do you have any particular negative emotions that come up frequently for you?  Have you noticed any particular pattern to these negative emotions?  If so, then this is a good indication that something needs to be released.

Although you can learn about the existence of your knots through these two exercises, this whole process of learning how you create your emotions and your reality is an ongoing exercise in awareness.  Most people have numerous emotional knots that they know very little about.  And when you release the trapped feelings in one knot, the process will probably bring other knots to the surface.

In summary, if you judge your feelings, which all of us do as human beings, you will find that you wish to avoid certain “negative” feelings.  Since you consider these negative feelings undesirable, you tend to suppress them in the body.  As a result, they become locked into the body as “knots.”  These so-called knots continually create the very emotions that the person is trying to avoid.

Alexithymia: “Not” Feeling Feelings

An equally serious problem—perhaps more so in terms of health—is the situation in which a person totally cuts off from their feelings.  This condition is known as alexithymia (meaning “without words for feelings”).  I call it the John Wayne syndrome because John Wayne helped develop the “image” that real men do not express their feelings.

During severe trauma, cutting off your feelings is useful.  For example, under severe psychological trauma, such as combat stress, people learn to totally cut themselves off from their emotions.  Combat veterans with alexithymia can clearly describe the incident that resulted in a conscious decision to suppress their experience of emotion.3 

Alexithymia also may result from a turbulent childhood, rigid family structures, or from families in which emotions are considered unimportant.  Indeed, the ability to stifle feelings in order to carry out a particular task is present in everyone.  However, when this condition persists, it can become a severe problem for any individual.

At one of our workshops there was an attendee who was clearly alexithymic.  Guess what he did for a living?  He was a skydiving instructor and he estimated that he’d done over 17,000 jumps.  My guess is that something traumatic had happened, but that without the alexithymia, he would have to give up his profession.

How does cutting yourself off from feelings affect trading?  Typically, my clients with this problem express symptoms such as not being able to pull the trigger, but they cannot understand these problems since they do not feel anything.  They complain of interpersonal conflicts that affect their trading or their business in the long run.  Or in some cases, they just complain of a general sense of malaise that seems to have a major impact upon their trading.  In each case, they notice what is happening, but they do not understand it.

These traders still feel emotions, but only at the extremes.  While the average trader might feel very stressed, the alexithymic trader will just feel a mild sense of discomfort.  Nevertheless, emotions for such a trader can build up like a volcano.  A trader with a mild sense of irritation over a period of time may suddenly find himself responding with full-blown anger.  Similarly, a trader who normally only experiences a mild sense of anxiety may suddenly find himself experiencing a full-blown state of panic.  Thus, the alexithymic trader will only experience a mild sense of discomfort or a full-blown volcanic eruption of emotion.  Emotions in the middle ranges are suppressed.

In addition, the suppressed feelings will probably manifest themselves in some manner other than emotions.  For example, there is a strong tendency for the emotions to manifest themselves as a dis-ease process.  Thus, the alexithymic trader may experience a mild illness, a mental breakdown, or even the build-up of a severe health problem such as the potential for bleeding ulcers, a heart attack, or cancer.

The alexithymic trader will only have limited effectiveness in his or her trading life.  This means he or she will show a lack of focus or sharpness in his or her trading.  Intuitive skills, which depend highly on inner awareness, will be lost.  Since intellectual skills, at least according to the Gray-LaViolette Feeling-Tone model, depend on subtle feelings, these skills will be much more dull in the trader who has suppressed his or her feelings.

Lastly, the alexithymic trader will have greatly-reduced or negligible interpersonal skills.  Dealing with other people involves handling emotions.  People who have suppressed their ability to even feel emotions will be severely handicapped in this area.  In fact, an alexithymic person would be hard-pressed to explain most positive emotions, such as love, except in very rational terms.  As a result, they lead more hollow lives.

How can you determine if you suffer from some form of alexithymia?  Recall a number of different stressful experiences you have undergone recently.  First, think about a recent interpersonal stress episode: a quarrel, a confrontation, a period of grief, the loss of a relationship, etc.  Next, think about a business stress episode:  a professional conflict, not trading well, or a period of overwork.  Third, think about a crisis situation: being the victim of a crime, having a very large market loss, or being involved in an accident.  Which was more true for you?  Did you just experience the situation with only a vague sense of discomfort?  Or were you very aware of intense feelings?  The first reaction is alexithymic.

If you had an alexithymic response to any of the episodes you recalled, then think about what happened later.  Was this reaction temporary or did it last a long time?  For example, did your emotions come to the surface as soon as the situation was resolved?  Did they come to the surface much later or did they never really surface?  The longer it takes for the emotions to surface, the more severe your alexithymic reaction.

Model for Change

Most forms of psychotherapy assume that major psychological problems are preceded by some Significant Emotional Experience (SEE)4 that is judged to be negative and that is very intense.  It is fully associated and highly charged.  The potential of a negative SEE to create mental or physical problems is based on the trapped emotions which remain stored in the body in the form of a knot as described above.  Most forms of psychotherapy attempt to undo the effects of the SEE by talking about it.

Another important term needed in our model for producing change is the First Event or the Root Cause of the emotion.  This root cause is the primary event, usually one that happened in the first five years of life, which sets the stage for the SEE to have a major effect.  For example, if you have a problem with rejection and can remember your fiancé telling you she didn’t want you, then that experience is a SEE for you. 

However, if you traced the emotion of “rejection” back in time, you might find out that while you were in your mother’s womb you experienced negative vibrations from your mother because one of your parents (perhaps both) did not want another child.  It is that First Event or Root Cause that sets you up so that rejection is a major issue in your life.

One of my clients was born around the start of World War II.  His father went off to war and did not return to the family.  Instead, he got a divorce and remarried.  His mother did her best to raise the two children, but eventually showed up on her ex-husband’s doorstep and said, “I cannot do it; they are yours.”  As a result, he remembered being raised by his father and step-mother.

His major SEE occurred when his step-mother led him around by the ear, saying he was no good, and that she did not want him.  As a result of this experience, he became alexithymic.  He felt a tremendous hatred for his step-mother, but all that emotion was contained in a bubble that he could not access.  It influenced all aspects of his life—including his trading.  He had worked with a number of therapists in an attempt to break through that bubble, including traditional psychotherapists and hypnotists.  Nothing worked!

His step-mother saying that she did not want him was a good example of a SEE.  The root cause was his mother giving him up in the first place.  Moreover, he had not placed a bubble around the incident with his mother.  As a result, when he had dealt with that, then the bubble around his step-mother just collapsed.

This brings us into more detail concerning the very effective procedures that have now been developed to deal with these trapped emotions.  Those trapped emotions, when properly used, are the very key to dealing with your suffering.

Dealing with Trapped Feelings

Dr. Stanislav Grof,5 believes that symptoms (or emotions) resulting from some trauma or crisis represent an immense opportunity for the individual.  Those emotions are not to be cut out, but experienced and celebrated.  They reflect the effort of the organism to free itself from old stresses and emotional knots.  If you are willing to experience these symptoms, in a process that Grof calls experiential psychotherapy, then you can convert knots in the body into a healthy flow of energy.

Grof advocates activation of the unconscious blocks through psychedelic drugs or, more recently, through the use of inducing an altered state of consciousness through hyperventilation.  

However, there are much more direct techniques of getting rid of emotional knots. In fact, you can use the conscious mind to directly access an undesirable and unconscious pattern of emotions quickly. Then, through a procedure of simply being willing to feel the feelings that come up, you can release knots in a much shorter, more direct method. The procedure has had startling results for people in our seminars. We teach this process in both the Peak Performance Home Study Course and in the Peak Performance 101 Workshop.

Here’s one person’s recollection of the experience.

The first time I went through the feeling process of just feeling my feelings, I was very apprehensive.  It seemed like letting my private self out to the world.  Your first demonstration seemed strange to me—that was not the way I express my overload of feelings.  And the second demonstration that was even stranger—laughter to the point of hysteria.  I could feel the tension being released in the laughter and the anger that was in the laughter.

I was very surprised at the different expressions of feelings, and even though I know myself pretty well, I was anxious about my own feeling release.  I had decided to work on the feeling of anger that I’m sure holds me back as a trader.  But I could not dream of entering this private part of my innermost myself without a strong feeling of trust for those around me.

As I started the exercise, different visualizations came into my head about past traumas.  A feeling started welling up inside of my chest.  It was like I was searching for the right feeling and rejecting others that did not fit.

What I did not understand at that moment was that the experience of the exercise had to come without my conscious control of it.  At the moment I realized that, I visualized a scenario that was very traumatic for me.  It was like a choking feeling in my throat and a shivering feeling throughout my body.  The story was not anything anymore...the feeling was the thing to go with.

When I started recognizing, naming, and giving sensorial descriptions to my feelings, they began to change.  It was different.  That process continued for three or four different sensations until I got this overwhelming need to laugh.  It was not the uncontrollable laughter that I had experienced in the demonstration, but a silly, giddy feeling about holding onto these feelings.  The laughter subsided into little gurgles and a sense of relief came over me like a cloud had floated overhead and just left.  I wasn’t sure what had happened, but there was a lightness and completeness about the experience.

Looking back on the experience, I no longer get angry at the market and my trading is better as a result.  I am less critical of others and of myself.  I found more love in my life that I could give to others and my anger just seems to be gone.  I doubt that I could have done it without the kind of support that you gave me in the background.  No, I think it would have been impossible.

We use this procedure in our workshops to help people make major breakthroughs in their trading.  Why keep pain and emotions suppressed—hidden in darkness?  A hurricane is just as destructive in the darkness of night as in the light of day.

When you have a pain, notice your reactions to it.  If you resist it, hate it, fight it, or try to escape from it with some frantic external activity, then you do not understand the whole process.  That is why you suffer over and over again.  Unresolved pain gradually increases.  If your computer breaks down and you pretend that there is nothing wrong, you will continue to have problems.  And you will also hate computers!  Why not just face the inner breakdown and correct it?

  1. The psychotherapeutic technique known as rebirthing came out of Stanislov Grof’s work with hyperventilation. See S. Grof, Adventures in Self-Discovery. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1988.

  2. W. Gray’s and P. LaViolette’s work is described in M. Ferguson’s PragMagic. New York: Pocket Books, 1990. Pp. 33-35.

  3. W. Alvarez and N. Noviello. Combat Stress. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics.

  4. These terms are borrowed from M. Massey. The People Puzzle.

  5. See note # 1. 



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Last revised: June 17, 2008