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Why Is Emotional Granularity Important?

Have you ever brought your anger or frustration from work home with you? (I have 🙋‍♀️.)

Suddenly you find yourself snapping at your partner or losing patience with your kids or maybe grabbing that bag of chips and working your way to the bottom before you realize you’re eating your frustration. I think we’ve all experienced times when our emotions from one area of our lives bleed into others. 

So why do we do this? Why can’t we just let go and move on?

As one of my favourite researchers, Marc Brackett at ​​the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence says, this happens because our emotions guide our decision-making and behaviours. So when we don’t recognize, accept, and deal with our anger and frustration we end up grumpy, snappy, and, well, full of chips.

When we cultivate greater emotional awareness (aka when we can name and describe what we’re experiencing) it becomes information/data we can use. We can begin to understand how we’re responding to the situation in front of us and choose our behaviours a little more mindfully.

Marc did an interesting study. He took two groups of teachers and asked them to mark the same papers. The first group was told positive stories before they sat down and started grading. The second group of teachers was told negative stories before they sat down to grade papers. On average, the positive story group marked the exact same papers two grades higher! 🤯

How we’re feeling directly impacts our decisions.

It’s one of those statements that feels obvious AND stops us in our tracks.

When we can recognize and name how we’re feeling we can choose different behaviours. For example, maybe we recognize that when we’re angry we make impulsive decisions. Then, the next time we feel angry we can pause, and take a breath (or a day) before we decide what to do next so we have an opportunity to make the best decision, not the first one that comes to mind.

Brené Brown takes it one step further. She says, “Being able to recognize, name, and understand our feelings affects everything from learning, decision-making, and creativity to relationships, health, and performance.”

The first step then is expanding our emotional vocabulary.

Brené’s latest book, “Atlas of the Heart” is a fantastic read and it keeps coming up in conversations with clients as I hear myself talk about “emotional granularity”.

Atlas of the Heart is all about naming and defining the emotions that colour our lives. And emotional granularity is our ability to get specific about how we’re feeling (ex. I’m not angry, I’m livid). And it’s vital to our well-being. Because, as Brené explains, “Research shows that the more granular (nuanced) we are about our ability to name what we’re experiencing the better we can manage it, regulate it, and move through it. Emotional granularity is highly correlated with very positive living outcomes.” And who doesn’t want more “positive living outcomes”, amiright?

So are you tired, stressed, overwhelmed, or burnt out? Each one is a little different.

Are you content, happy, satisfied, or overjoyed?

Are you disappointed, bitter, resentful, or betrayed?

If we want to expand our emotional vocabulary we can use tools like the Feelings Wheel or the Mood Meter App to cultivate more nuanced language. And Atlas of the Heart also gives us research-informed definitions for 87 emotions.

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  Ludwig Wittgenstein

Once we have the language, we need to understand what those emotions FEEL like for us.

Our body is sending us signals all the time AND we’re excellent at ignoring them. But if we slow down enough to notice it can help increase our emotional awareness.

Maybe for you…

Worry is a knot in your stomach

Anxiety is sweaty palms

Fear is a racing heart

Maybe for you…

Happiness is achy ribs and sore cheeks from laughing and smiling

Content feels quieter like a deep exhale because everything is just good, you know?

Joy is expansive and opens your chest at the same time it gives you an inexplicable sense that you’re connected to everything.

It’s about connecting the words to the sensations in our bodies because emotions are a physiological experience.

Finally, start to get curious about the story behind the emotion.

Let’s say you had an unpleasant encounter with a colleague at work and it left a bad taste in your mouth (sensation) you know that means you’re feeling bitter (emotion) about the exchange. So you ask yourself, when have I felt bitter before?

And it reminds you of the time you put in all the extra hours at the pool in order to make your high school swim team only to find out that the spot was given to someone who always showed up 10 min late to every practice.

It was about acknowledging your hard work and appreciating your commitment and feeling like you earned the spot.

And you realize that what you really wanted from your colleague today was acknowledgement and appreciation for your hard work (the story behind the emotion).

Now you have the information you need to resolve your bitterness. Maybe you decide to have a vulnerable conversation with your colleague and communicate how important it is for you to feel your contribution to the team is appreciated (decision-making + behaviour).

See how it works?


Sensation (bad taste)

Identify emotion (bitterness)

Understanding the story (I don’t feel my hard work is appreciated)

Choosing behaviour (courage over comfort – having a difficult conversation with your colleague).

Without this kind of awareness, we might be quick to write off our colleague as a “jerk” and let that bitterness fester or even start looking for a new job.

“Language shows us that naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives US the power of understanding and meaning.” Brené Brown

We have to name it before we can heal it. The more specific and nuanced we can be with our language the more likely we’ll be able to resolve and express our emotions, make decisions in line with our values and communicate clearly in our relationships without resorting to blame or letting things simmer in silence.

Here’s a recap of the resources I mentioned:

Feelings Wheel

Mood Meter App

Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown

Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett or sign up for his fabulous emails here.

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