Figuring Out Our Emotions
Emotions are complicated. As we develop in life our emotional lexicon, or vocabulary of feeling, expands. We learn the subtle differences between sadness and despair, frustration and rage, embarrassment and shame. And yet, we can be terribly puzzled by emotions when we need to identify and communicate them the most. Under stress and internal tension, it is a blessed relief when another can accurately identify and empathize with our confusing feelings. As a continually evolving species it is vital for us to build upon our lexicon of feelings and mention them in ways that increase effective communication, accurate self-awareness and mood regulation.
Emotional granularity refers to the ability to language our feelings into words with precision and specificity. Most of us learn to language our feelings from our early caregivers when we become upset. In fact, this concept is utilized almost universally when parents tell their kids to “use your feelings” or when a parent looks at their fussy toddler and says “you look frustrated.” Under optimal circumstances, our emotional granularity blooms during childhood as new words for new feelings are introduced by parents, teachers, coaches, friends, babysitters, and mentors. In adolescence emotions often co-occur and can cause agony for teenagers who do not have a well-developed vocabulary to “signal for help” when their emotions are compounding on their well-being. Some researchers have linked this inability to label and differentiate emotions in adolescence to increased psychopathology and onset of mental illness in adolescence (Nook et al., 2018). If not helped adequately some adolescents may go on to develop a condition called alexithymia wherein marked difficulties occur in identifying and describing emotions in self and others, a key component of social connection. Decreased alexithymia is shown to be a predictor of life satisfaction in that improving a person’s ability to interpret and use emotional language is an effective way to gain psychological well-being (Zhang et al., 2021). Relatedly, the ability to accurately label positive emotional experiences with precision were associated with decreased distractibility, higher coping capacities, less reflexive responding, and a greater ability to think through action (Tugade et al., 2004). On the other hand, increased alexithymia correlates with chronic mental health diagnoses characterized by interpersonal turbulence, emotional dysregulation, and difficulties in self-concept (Derks et al., 2017).
There are many ways to help expand your emotional lexicon. One of the major focuses of any psychotherapy is to increase awareness and manageability of emotional states. In the context of a supportive and engaging therapy relationship, you can expand your language of feelings and access those emotional parts of your psyche that may have been repressed for years. If you would like help mentioning and managing your emotions you may benefit from using the feelings wheel below. Further, please consider consulting with the clinicians at Town Center Psychology. You are not alone!
Derks, Y. P. M. J., Westerhof, G. J., & Bohlmeijer, E. T. (2017). A meta-analysis on the association between emotional awareness and borderline personality pathology. Journal of Personality Disorders, 31(3), 362-384. http://dx.doi.org.portal.lib.fit.edu/101521pedi201630257Top of FormBottom of Form
Nook, E. C., Sasse, S. F., Lambert, H. K., McLaughlin, K. A., & Somerville, L. H. (2018). The nonlinear development of emotion differentiation: Granular emotional experience is low in adolescence. Psychological Science, 29(8), 1346-1357. http://dx.doi.org.portal.lib.fit.edu/10.1177/0956797618773357
Tugade, M. M., Fredrickson, B. L., & Barrett, L. F. (2004). Psychological resilience and positive emotional granularity: Examining the benefits of positive emotions on coping and health. Journal of Personality, 72(6), 1161-1190. http://dx.doi.org.portal.lib.fit.edu/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2004.00294.x
Zhang, Y., Dong, K., & Zhao, G. (2020). The mediating role of social connectedness in the effect of positive personality, alexithymia and emotional granularity on life satisfaction: Analysis based on a structural equation model. Personality and Individual Differences. http://dx.doi.org.portal.lib.fit.edu/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110473