Angry. Anxious. Sad. Stressed. Happy. Excited.
Whether we’re journaling, talking to someone, or trying to figure out an action to take, we typically use the above words to describe how we’re feeling. Sometimes, we might even be more broad: We feel crappy. Or we’re doing great or awesome! Or we’re upset or feeling down.
But what does crappy really mean? Are you lonely? Or are you irritated, frustrated, or furious? Do you mean that you’re heartbroken or helpless?
Pinpointing precisely how you feel moves you in the right direction to start resolving the situation and make a thoughtful decision, or it helps you to better understand what’s going on in your inner world—all of which are vital.
According to researcher and professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D, on TED.com, people who construct finer-grained emotional experiences are emotion experts who have higher “emotional granularity”: “They issue predictions and construct instances of emotion that are finely tailored to fit each specific situation.”
And research has found a variety of health benefits to doing this: Individuals with higher emotional granularity visit the doctor and use medication less frequently. When they are sick, they spend fewer days in the hospital. Other studies, Barrett writes, found that people who can distinguish among their unpleasant feelings “were 30 percent more flexible when regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed, and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.”
What does emotional granularity actually look like?
Instead of saying that you’re surprised or just worked up, you dig deeper and distinguish among astonished, amazed, startled, dumbfounded, and shocked, notes Barrett in another article. Instead of saying you’re sad, you search for a finer description, such as grief-stricken, disappointed, distraught, wistful, or hopeless.
Barrett, author of the book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, stresses the importance of expanding our emotional vocabulary by discovering the differences among emotion words, reading books outside our comfort zones, and learning emotional concepts from foreign languages (such as gezellig, which means togetherness in Dutch, or enohi, the Greek feeling of major guilt).
You can even dedicate a small notebook to listing all kinds of emotions—which can include inventing your own descriptions and concepts.
The next time you’re having an emotional experience, instead of naming the first feeling that comes to mind, pause and reflect on whether that feeling feels accurate. Does it really capture what’s going on for you?
Take out your chisel and chip away at the obvious emotion—anger, sadness, stress—and see what’s really lurking underneath.
If it helps, you might even switch perspectives, thinking of yourself as a fictional character (and using the pronouns “he,” “she,” or “they”), and journal the emotional description in that way.
So many of us ignore our emotions or dismiss them because we’re terrified of what we’ll discover, or because we’re simply not used to going within, or because we view emotions as inconvenient to our busy lives.
However, give yourself the gift of being seen and heard. Try to take a lighter, more inquisitive approach. You might even look at this as an adventure, as an opportunity to better understand yourself and learn new, interesting concepts.
We are essentially lifelong learners, students of all kinds of topics, and that includes of ourselves, too.