I’ve had the experience a few times now of driving my daughter home from school and engaging in a discussion about some challenging situation or another at school. While a lot may play into it, sometimes it feels the more emotionally complex the situation, the more she will end the conversation with “well, I don’t really care.”
I’m sure some of it is her being a teenager, and some of it may be that because I’m her mother and teenaged girls need to individuate from their mothers to develop their own identity, she doesn’t want to talk to me, or it could just be that I haven’t found the right way to engage her, but part of me wonders if what is at least partially at play here is our general lack of facility when it comes to negative emotions and coping.
In a survey of 70,000 people, one third said they judge themselves for having ‘bad’ emotions (sadness, anger, grief) or actively try to push aside those feelings.
Somehow negative emotions (sadness, anger, shame, or fear could be considered the 4 main spectra of negative emotions) have gotten a bad reputation. I mean, to start with, we call them “negative.” And if it is negative, doesn’t that mean “bad”, and shouldn’t we avoid it?
Well, let’s fix that first.
Let’s call them “vulnerable emotions” rather than negative emotions. Vulnerable because, they leave us exposed in some ways.
While I am deeply committed to the goal of well-being for all, I do not believe well-being means always being happy. First, if you are being authentic and honest, that is an impossibility. Second, it is unnatural. Not experiencing any vulnerable emotions are, and I am stealing this from Dr. Susan David, “dead people’s goals”. Furthermore, denying parts of ourselves, true and honest parts of ourselves, has only ever been detrimental to true well-being. What IS natural are emotions; ALL of them. We would not have evolved to feel all these emotions if they didn’t have their uses.
For example, anger, especially moral outrage, can activate someone to deal with very important but difficult situations. Sadness, and the accompanying tears, can evoke sympathy and care from others when we most need it. Fear can help us approach “dangerous” situations with a heightened sense of caution.
More importantly, while we take in information about the world from our sensory organs, it is our emotional response to that information that clues us into what it means and how we should react. Dr. David, an emotions researcher at Harvard University, describes our emotions as signposts which signal to us what we need, and what we value; we have emotional responses to things that matter to us.
Somehow, culturally, we have internalized the idea that a goal in life should be to always be positive and happy. What Dr. David terms “toxic positivity.” You lose your job, break up with a partner, people start trying immediately to cheer you up with arguments like “this was a blessing in disguise, something/someone better will come along.” We have so much to say about almost anything, but when someone experiences the greatest loss, a death of a loved one, we have no words. Joys tend to be celebrated with others, but sadness and loss are typically something we give each other “space” to deal with. And we know the kinds of posts that get the most attention on social media.
So why when vulnerable emotions are as natural as positive emotions, do we want to ignore or suppress them?
I can imagine 3 reasons.
One obvious answer is they make us feel uncomfortable!! Negative emotions hurt. Literally. When we are sad it manifests as physical pain, and we are always motivated to avoid pain. Fear ignites our autonomic nervous system, our flight fight response, which can feel overwhelming. Anger can trigger such a powerful response it can make us feel out of control. We are uncomfortable with the discomfort experienced in this spectrum of emotion, so we avoid them. Ironically, we are ok with the physical pain of exercise, what we need to strengthen our bodies, but not the pain of emotional vulnerability which is what we need to strengthen our capacity to cope.
Second, vulnerable emotions are seen as weak. With the advent of industrialization, emotions and intuition no longer had much value in the job market, and logic and rationality instead took over. Emotions like sadness and fear became gendered; they become associated with women and femininity, and were considered weaker emotions, while logic became associated with masculinity, leadership, and strength. But imagine a leader without compassion, the decisions they would make, the character of their relationships, and it becomes clear why a good leader would need to be able to feel sorrow and pain.
Finally, we don’t like feeling vulnerable, exposed or needing in any way. In a society that has become increasingly individualistic, self-reliance is a virtue; But it is also an illusion. We can never be totally self-reliant; As a species we need each other to survive. But when individualism is emphasized, we feel less like we can or should depend on others. So, we create silos around ourselves, emotional barriers between us and them. We don’t trust others and don’t let them in.
Why we need to develop our emotional literacy:
In our resistance to vulnerable emotions, we think by pushing them out of our awareness, or ignoring them, they will go away. But the opposite is more true; they get amplified and emerge in other dysfunctional ways to mess with our lives. If we do not face our emotions and process them, they will stay around and create havoc until we do.
According to David, suppressed emotions control you rather than the other way around. Pushing our emotions aside means we are no longer dealing with the world as it truly is. We are no longer dealing with our inner life as it truly is. And when we are unable to show up authentically to our grief and pain, when we limit our range of emotional response, we block our capacity for resilience and thriving. David explains, we build resilience through emotional agility (being able recognize our emotions before reacting and being able to respond in a way that aligns with our values and our best interest) and we build emotional agility by being able to accurately identify and experience our full range of emotions, without judgment. In addition, and to the point of this blog, dealing with our emotions begins with accurately labeling them.
There is a current movement towards the importance of emotional granularity; not just experiencing all our emotions but being able to be nuanced and specific in labelling them and really distinguish them from each other. David describes emotional granularity as “getting super-specific about what you’re feeling.” Multiple studies have supported a link between emotional granularity and emotion regulation.
According to Lebowitz (2016) Lisa Barret, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, conducted a study in which participants were asked to keep daily dairies about their “intense emotional experiences’. She found “participants who described their emotions using distinct adjectives, and in more detail, did a better job of regulating their negative emotions.” Adding to that Barrett (NYT) found,
“According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them…..People who achieve it are also likely to have longer, healthier lives. They go to the doctor and use medication less frequently, and spend fewer days hospitalized for illness. Cancer patients, for example, have lower levels of harmful inflammation when they more frequently categorize, label and understand their emotions.”
An impressive study (Brackett, Rivers, Reyes, & Salovey, 2012; cited in Kashden, 2015) found teaching school-aged children to broaden their knowledge and use of emotion words (20–30 minutes per week) actually improved their social behavior and academic performance in school.
Why does emotional granularity help?
Emotional responses are constructed by how our brain analyzes and appraises situations and events. Our emotions then signal to us what we need and value. Our emotions are a call to action of sorts. If our emotions are blurry, the response will be blurry. If our emotions are differentiated, clear and specific, our call to action will be specific.
For example, if we know we are feeling sad, it is unclear what we need. If we know what we are truly feeling is isolated and lonely we know we need and value connection. If instead we decide behind the sadness is a feeling of being uninspired, it could mean we are not aligned with our passion or our gifts.
According to David, emotions are data, they are like flashing lights pointing to things we care about and so they are important sources of information suggesting to us what steps we may want to take in life. Barrett adds emotional granularity gives your brain the tools to handle life’s challenges.
There are other benefits of increased emotional granularity and connecting with our more vulnerable emotions. Being able to better articulate what we are feeling can help improve our communication and understanding in relationships. Being attuned to the nuances of our own emotions can help us attune more deeply to the emotions of others. It can allow us to be more helpful and supportive. And perhaps most profoundly, we cannot experience to full joy of life without experiencing all life has to offer. As David said so beautifully “Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.” It is the entirety of it, thew wholeness of it, that brings beauty and meaning.
How do we develop emotional literacy:
Don’t run from your ‘yucky feels’.
Instead, open to the feelings, let them flow without judging them.
Explore your feelings, get curious about them.
Get more granular by asking yourself, “what are other options for describing how I feel?”
You may use an emotion wheel to increase your emotion vocabulary (see the Emotion Wheel by Geoffrey Roberts which includes 7 main emotions differentiated into 130 different feelings)
Explore deeper emotions; “What is the root concern underneath the emotion?”
Accept what you feel as a normal, valid part of life and be curious about what your emotions are trying to tell you. What are they signaling to you about what you need and value?