If you’ve ever known a young child, you’ve likely been there: it’s clear something is making them unhappy, but when you ask if they’re feeling sad, afraid or even angry, they either aren’t sure how to answer, or they give you an answer that – through a bit more investigation – turns out to be not quite accurate.
As we grow, we get better at identifying our feelings. We learn to say, with relative certainty, when we’re feeling cold or hungry, mad or sad, embarrassed, happy – even more vague emotions like “peaceful” or “filled with gratitude.”
And as it turns out, those of us who learn to identify those feelings with a high level of specificity experience a number of benefits the rest of us don’t – benefits that carry us through the normal times well and pay off exponentially in fraught, uncertain times like the one we’re currently in.
What is emotional granularity?
Emotional granularity, also known as emotional differentiation, is the ability to pinpoint exactly how we’re feeling – using words that are more specific than the usual “happy,” “sad,” “angry” or “excited,” for example.
The words themselves are a critical piece of the concept: assigning very specific labels to your emotions means you’re identifying them clearly.
This helps you react more appropriately to the situations sparking those feelings to begin with.
What does emotional granularity look like?
A low level of emotional granularity means you’re using the same handful of words, over and over again, to identify and talk about your feelings. For example, you might stick to words like “angry,” “sad” or “afraid” to describe your negative emotions and things like “excited,” “happy” or “calm” for the positive ones.1
A lesser ability to differentiate between negative emotions has been observed in both people with major depressive disorder,2 and those with social anxiety disorder show a low emotional granularity, as well.3
Those with high emotional granularity, however, seem to fare better overall. They tend to be less reactive to rejection and failures, experience fewer bouts of anxiety and depression and are generally less prone to self-sabotaging coping strategies like excessive drinking and incidents of violence or aggression.4
Even phobias seem to improve with emotional granularity techniques: those struggling with arachnophobia who learned to describe their feelings when faced with spiders experienced less anxiety than people who were coached to either think positively about the spider or ignore it entirely. They were even more comfortable with physically approaching the spiders.5
The benefits of high emotional granularity
Maybe you don’t find yourself drinking excessively or feeling aggressive; maybe you don’t struggle with anxiety, major depression or even an overwhelming aversion to spiders.
But a high level of emotional granularity is something you may still want to pursue – for a number of very good reasons.
We’re faced with frustrating situations every day, and it’s rare that something goes exactly to plan. High emotional granularity leaves us less likely to feel overwhelmed in challenging or stressful situations – because when we can identify specifically how we’re feeling, we can respond to that emotion specifically and even reframe it to better serve us in the moment.
For example, if we can recognize our annoyance with a coworker as, instead, a feeling of being let down, can we then channel it into a better understanding of how to work with that person in the future?
Are we really frustrated with our child for not cleaning their bedroom, or are we feeling ashamed to think about others seeing our home in a less-than-perfect state?
Identifying our emotions accurately and precisely gives us the ability to act appropriately and effectively.
Train your brain for future challenges
Assigning appropriate and specific labels to your emotions communicates to your brain more clearly about how you’re perceiving a situation. Instead of ignoring your instincts because you’ve simply painted over them with a brush that says “angry,” you can key into those instincts closely. In turn, you can identify more accurately the courses of action you have available to you and which might be the most effective.
These moments ultimately affect your behavior and impact your future responses to challenging situations, as well.
Relate better to others
When we work to expand our ability to differentiate between emotions with specificity, we familiarize ourselves with the wide range of emotions that exist. This helps us not only to correctly identify our own feelings but the feelings and motivations of others, too. And when we understand those around us, we can empathize with them, communicate more clearly and effectively and strengthen our relationships.
Employing emotional granularity in times of crisis
It’s clear that the events of 2020 have been significant for many across the country and across the globe. Lives once packed with meetings and practices, performances and events have slowed considerably, leaving many in a scramble to adjust daily routines, care for loved ones and countless other tasks.
Often, in times of crisis, we are so focused on figuring out how to keep getting things done that we forget to check in with our own emotions. And as much as we – especially high-performing people – tend to push our own feelings aside, the reality is simple and clear: our emotions impact our ability to concentrate, perceive what’s happening around us and make important decisions.
Our health, our creativity, our overall daily performance are all affected by the way we feel.6 So as we navigate through a pandemic and other challenges, it’s more critical than ever to pay special attention to the specific emotions we’re experiencing throughout the day.
Specific words for emotions
So if we’re moving away from using those standard words for emotions – angry, happy, sad, mad, excited, calm – then what are we using in their place?
Well, it turns out that there are countless options to choose from. Here are just a few:
As a bonus, don’t forget: other languages have words for emotions that English doesn’t quite identify. For example, the concept of “hygge” – or the Danish word that means a feeling of coziness and contentment – has become popular amongst English-speakers seeking warmth and comfort during the cold winter months.
Maybe you’re familiar with “schadenfreude,” or the German word for the satisfaction we sometimes feel when observing the chaos of others.
Or “awumbuk,” what the Baining people of Papua New Guinea use to describe the heavy feeling you experience when treasured guests leave after a visit.
Specificity is key
Getting to the reality of emotions frees you from the need to justify them. Maybe instead of having to explain – even to yourself – why you’re feeling annoyed with your spouse, you’ll recognize that you’re simply wiped out from a long day and a poor night’s sleep.
Having a negative emotional response to something isn’t inherently bad, and the more granular or specific you can be when identifying how you’re feeling, the better.
You’ll have an improved chance of acting constructively in the face of challenges and stressors, and you’ll take that learning forward with you as you go.