Identifying our feelings and naming them as accurately as we can is a way of gaining self-knowledge and a means of controlling and managing our emotional life.
Being able to understand and express feelings is one of the markers of emotional intelligence, a quality that is becoming in increasing demand in the workplace. But there can be a mismatch between our feelings and how we express them. Here’s how to build up your emotional literacy.
Emotional intelligence is now thought to be an essential component of good leadership. It enhances all our relationships, in our personal and professional lives.
Communication has never been easier or quicker. With all the means available to us, we can exchange more messages in a day than our ancestors did in a lifetime (more or less).
Apart from the advances in technology, we have a greater number of words available to us. Shakespeare’s vocabulary has been estimated at between 17,000-20,000 words, while we use on average between 35,000 –and 70,000 words. That’s just a small number of those available to us, which a dictionary count shows to be 171,476, possibly rising to three quarters of a million. Poor old Mr William S, having to make do with such paltry raw material, and lucky us, with so many more ways to express ourselves!
However, when it comes to feelings and emotions, it seems as if we are backing away from using words.
In writing, we use abbreviated text language, messages of 140 characters and tiny, weird ideograms and symbols, chosen from provided sets, to convey even complex emotions (yes, emojis, we’re talking about you).
When we talk, we use catch-all phrases like ‘gutted’ and ‘gobsmacked’. We love everything and everyone ‘to bits’. When we can’t find a word, we say things like, ‘I felt, sort of, you know…’ Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of communicative shorthand.
Recognise your response
Take a moment to tune in to how you respond to events.
Recognise what happens to your mind and your body when you think about, for example, a social event or a work meeting that is coming up.
You might notice a flutter of excitement or a sinking in your stomach. Your heart might race a little. You might find that you smile in anticipation, or that your mouth goes dry and your muscles clench.
What about when someone tells you a bit of good news about themselves? They’re getting married, or their child has just got top grades in all their exams.
You might spontaneously beam and feel an internal warmth, or you might feel a strain in your muscles as you force yourself to smile, and find it hard to speak normally.
Quite often your instinctive physical reaction is a guide to how you feel.
Name what you are feeling
Time to step up to the plate. Nail that feeling with a word or a phrase, no matter how uncomfortable it is to do so.
That funny feeling you had when your best mate got the job you have always dreamed of? Yes, it’s envy. And it’s OK. That reaction inside you when someone made a joke at your expense? Yup, you felt humiliated. That’s OK too.
Emotions are neither right nor wrong, they just are.
By finding the right word and slapping it on the emotion, you gain power over it. You know what you are dealing with, for better or worse. You don’t have to surrender to it, if you don’t want to. But by giving it a name, you take the first step in dealing with it.
Putting negative feelings into words diminishes their impact on you and enables you to deal calmly with other people.
Describe the intensity of your emotion
Once you’ve got the word, you’re in the right ballpark. You could play around with it a little and identify just how strongly you feel this emotion.
For example, if you’re feeling angry, you could be absolutely furious, or just a bit annoyed. If you’re resentful, it could be slight indignation, or seething bitterness. You might feel uncomfortably embarrassed about something, or just a little bit awkward.
Try rating your feeling on a 1-10 scale, then look for a word or phrase to express it more accurately.
Work out where the emotion comes from
Ask yourself, ‘Where is this coming from? Why am I feeling so angry/let down/excited/nervous?’
Your emotional reaction is alerting you to what is going on in your life, something which is wrong, or something which is welcome. If you are unexpectedly enthusiastic about an idea, your response is indicating an interest or a possible direction of which you were unaware. If you feel threatened by a person or situation, think about what you are scared of losing.
You might find that your anger stems not from the present situation, but has been triggered by something which happened earlier.
- If you are buzzing and elated about something, that feeling might be carried over into other aspects of your experience.
- Being tired or hungry could account for your reaction to events.
Decide how to manage the emotion
You can accept it and live with it.
If your emotional state is uncomfortable, make it more manageable by:
- Changing the way you think about the situation
- Finding something positive about every situation
- Finding some practical ways of dealing with it — for example, avoid the trigger, do something about your own situation, use physical and mental relaxation exercises for calm and distraction.
Use your emotional literacy to help others
Listening to other people and reflecting back what you hear is a surefire way to develop good relationships. Not only do you show that you understand, but your use of words gives the other person tools which they can use. You can help your Young People, for example, by giving them the words to express their (unfathomable) emotions:
- It sounds as if you might be jealous of Charlotte.
- That must have been very frustrating for you.
Find the words
It’s a good idea to build up an emotional vocabulary.
People used to say ‘Swallowed a dictionary?’ to anyone who used unfamiliar words. Well, it would be good if we could. Dictionaries are great. Webster’s Dictionary features in Johnny Mercer’s wonderful witty song ‘Too Marvellous For Words’ (see the incomparable Frank Sinatra’s version on YouTube). The song expresses in words the impossibility of finding the words to express feelings (hashtag irony). Beats 144 pixels per symbol or 140 characters per tweet any day.