Have you ever been so overwhelmed by something that you really weren’t quite sure what you were feeling? Most of us have. The reality is that we also experience this same phenomenon with much more common everyday things and just aren’t aware of it because it’s less intense. If we are honest, our emotions control us more often than we like instead of the other way around.
Emotions are a form of energy that needs to be expressed, and you can’t express or change what you don’t notice. Denying or avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away, nor does it lessen their impact on you and others, even if it’s unconscious. It’s been said there are over 3000 words in the English language related to emotions. However, most people use less than 12 words to describe their emotions, and some far fewer.
Personally, I used to get angry with certain people more than I liked (family, friends and colleagues) . As I began to use the “emotional mastery” process described below, what I realized is that I wasn’t actually angry with these people at all. Instead, I was feeling frustrated. That meant I needed to change my own expectations and way I was approaching things, not address them about their supposed violation. Since then I’ve learned to put a specific name on my emotions and the results have been remarkable. And putting a name on what we’re feeling in the moment is the first step to gaining control in what we experience and ultimately do.
The reality is that with a limited emotional vocabulary and understanding, you’re largely confined to perceiving sensations instead of fully experiencing your emotions. Being specific in naming your emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create. Psychologist Dan Siegel refers to this practice as “name it to tame it.” To do this you have to expand your emotional vocabulary as well as be able to apply it in “the moment”. But how?
While there are other emotional heuristics and frameworks, I like the TalentSmart adapted from Julia West because it is very practical, nimble and functional. I don’t have to know each of the 100 different emotions listed on the table below, just the 5 basic ones. I then think about the intensity level in order to then be more specific about the emotion I’m really experiencing. With a little practice it’s amazing how your emotional vocabulary and agility grow.
Here is how. First review the table, memorize the 5 basic emotions, then practice:
1. Recognize- For the next few days, be self-aware. When you feel a strong emotion (could be positive as well, but the negative ones are where we usually have an issue).
- Put a label on it (which of the 5 basic categories does it fall under?)
- Gauge the intensity level (ie. “I don’t like this”…..category is Anger, actual emotion is Frustration (or Agitation, etc.)
- Look for your patterns so you know where your getting stuck.
2. Identify- The activating event or person that stimulated that emotion (ie. “that guy/gal showed up late for the 3rd time this week!!!”), acknowledge the emotion, and then own it. Emotions aren’t good or bad, they all have their place and some are more pleasant than others.
3. Clarify- The belief, reason or thinking on your part that generated the emotion (ie. “they’re disrespectful of my time, they aren’t thoughtful, they are prioritizing other things, they’re making excuses” OR….now I’m behind and won’t get my notes done before lunch, I now have to cut my time short I carved out for something else, etc.”) and what it really means to you.
4. Accept- Pay attention and fully experience what your feeling. What signal are you getting? Again, emotions may be pleasant or unpleasant as well as not fully understood, but none of them are bad. Emotions are signals that we need to take action on something. The tough part is getting clarity on just what that something is.
5. Challenge- Your belief, reason or thinking by questioning yourself (what could be another reason for this? Am I missing something that might shed light on how I should think about this? What is important that this emotion is alerting me to?) and reframing (under what circumstances would I think differently about what triggered my emotion? How would I feel then?).
6. Act- Decide what you need to do based on the clarity you now have. We can’t just conjure up how we want to feel, but we CAN take action in our thoughts and deeds that will generate the feelings and emotions we desire. How?
- Determine how you want an need to feel instead.
- Get confident by recalling a time you successfully handled this emotion before.
- Use your personal core values to expand your choices and still stay on course. Our thoughts flow constantly and our emotional weather changes all the time, but our core values are constant like the north star.
It may seem slo-mo at first but trust me, once you practice this it gets more and more automatic and you’ll soon find your self in a much better place over time with a lot of things that used to set you off. Noticing and naming emotions gives you the chance to take a step back, more accurately identify what you’re experiencing and then make a choices of what to do about it. It also serves as a safety brake of sorts when the occasional issues arise that before this practice, would have ended up with you in a melt-down.
How are you doing with you emotions? Is what you’re doing with them serving your best interests as well as others? A growth mindset always seeks to improve, so think about about what you need to do with this. And if you already have a specific tool or process that you’ve found works well for you, please leave a comment and share the wealth.