Struggling to manage your emotions? Try increasing your emotional granularity

Struggling to manage your emotions? Try increasing your emotional granularity

When it comes to managing our emotions, a good starting point is the old adage: “You’ve got to name it to tame it.”

Studies have shown, in fact, that those of us who excel at naming the exact emotions we’re feeling also tend to excel at regulating those emotions.  

It’s a concept known as emotional granularity, and it just might change your relationship with difficult emotions like anger, anxiety, and sadness for good.  

Why identifying emotions can be hard

Identifying our emotions isn’t always easy. This is especially true for people whose emotions were frequently minimized, mocked, or ignored during their childhoods. For those of us who had to endure threats and punishment for expressing emotions, identifying what we’re feeling can be even harder still.

Adverse experiences like these can lead to underdeveloped emotional awareness. The more you experience the pain of your emotions being invalidated, the more you learn to disconnect from your emotions—to “not have emotions,” or at the very least, not acknowledge them.

This can be an effective coping strategy for young children. When you’re a kid and repeatedly receiving the painful message from your parent that “your emotions don’t matter” or “I don’t like you when you show emotions,” having a way to conceal your emotions or even effectively shut them off is extremely beneficial.

Problem is, this adaptive coping strategy eventually outlives its usefulness. For starters, not being in tune with our emotions generally means we struggle to experience feelings of joy and happiness, which can make life feel depressing. But it also means we end up struggling to deal with our emotions and respond to them in an effective way.

How naming our emotions helps

Just because we’re not aware of our emotions, doesn’t mean they’re not happening—and effecting our overall sense of wellness. By developing our emotional awareness, we become better at managing our emotions in the moment, and generally end up feeling more alive.

But there’s another part to this, too. The work of becoming more “in tune” with your emotions is inherently therapeutic.

Think about it: each time you take a moment to check in with what you’re feeling, you’re correcting that harmful message you received as a child—that your emotions don’t matter. You’re letting that younger part of yourself know that his or her emotions are important—that they’re important to you. You’re sending the message to your child self that “it’s okay for you to feel what you feel.”  

Getting started with identifying emotions

So, how do you do this? How do you develop deeper emotional awareness and the ability to identify the emotion you’re feeling?

It begins with being curious about what you’re feeling as you go about your day. Because our emotions are tied to our physical bodies, sensations of physical distress, no matter how subtle, can serve as entryway into our inner emotional world. As you notice physical distress, just try to be curious about what may be causing these sensations.

Ask yourself: “What’s happening right now, in this immediate moment, that may be causing my body to respond this way?” You might also ask yourself: “What’s happening in my day, in my life, in my relationships?”

Our emotions occur in response to our environments and our experiences. So, coming to an understanding of what’s triggering our emotions in the first place is a critical part of managing our emotions effectively.

The emotional trigger could be a task you have been putting off or a worrying thought that someone in your life is upset with you.

After you identify the trigger—the thing that’s causing your physical reaction—turn your attention to your emotions.

Ask yourself: What am I feeling about this situation?

You might start out by trying to identify the emotion you’re feeling at a general level. Maybe it’s a feeling of anger or sadness. Or maybe you notice you’re just feeling anxious or fearful. Putting a specific feeling word to your emotional reaction is the important part here.

How to practice emotional granularity

Studies have shown that simply being able to identify how we’re feeling reduces the intensity of our emotions because it re-engages our rational mind.

There’s also research suggesting that identifying and naming the precise emotions we’re experiencing increases our ability to manage those emotions. This is the concept of emotional granularity.

According to recent research, upon experiencing intense distress, individuals who experience their emotions with more granularity are less likely to resort to maladaptive self-regulatory strategies such as binge drinking, aggression, and self-injurious behavior; show less neural reactivity to rejection; and experience less severe anxiety and depressive disorders.

Todd B. Cashdon, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Patrick E. McKnight

Once you land on a general feeling, like anger, sadness, or fear, see if you can be more specific. For example, maybe that sad feeling you noticed is truly a feeling of isolation, or maybe that angry feeling is more specifically a feeling of resentment. The more nuanced, or “granular,” you can be, the better.

Of course, part of being specific in this way means having a rich enough emotional vocabulary to be able to sense and verbalize the subtle differences in our emotions.

Feelings wheels, such as the one shown above, are a helpful resource when it comes to naming your emotions. If you sense your emotional vocabulary could use some expanding, consider getting in the habit of referencing a feelings wheel a few times a day.

A helpful exercise is to set a reminder on your phone to check in with your emotions at least three times a day. When you see the reminder, pull out your feelings wheel and write down whatever you notice.

For example: I feel bitter and disrespected because my boss just informed me that I need to stay late for a work meeting.

Need some additional support with managing difficult emotions? Our Charlotte counselors are here to help. Get in touch today to get the support you deserve.  

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