How are you REALLY feeling?

How are you? If you’re feeling anything like I am, lately that is a tough question to answer! And, what’s your “go-to” strategy when you’ve been at your toughest points the last few weeks? Binging on NetFlix? A date with Ben and Jerry? Stocking enough wine to last until the apocalypse? How’s that working out for you?Most of the time when someone asks, “hey, how are you?” The expected response is “good”  or “okay.” When was the last time you responded with something like, "I’m feeling a combination of exhausted and disheartened with a slight tinge of sullen"?  We just don’t talk that way.

Why? Partially because we have been trained to mask our feelings. Especially when we feel fear  or shame. But another reason is that we are typically really bad at identifying our emotions.  We teach kids but we don’t really revisit that as adults. When was the last time you really identified your feelings, named them and understood them in a way to manage them instead of letting them manage you?  

If you have kids, then maybe you’re familiar with the movie, Inside Out. (I highly recommend seeing if, BTW.) But our emotions are much more complicated than that.  For a long time, it was largely accepted that there were six primary emotions that encompassed the human experience.  But recent research suggests that the range of human emotions is much broader than that.

In fact, recent study out of the University of California, Berkeley found 27 distinct categories of emotions bridged by continuous gradients by showing subjects more than 2,000 very short videos (5 to 10 seconds) and then plotting the different emotional clusters of these combination of feelings on an interactive mood map. What they found was that our emotional states are not as simple as experiencing a single feeling and there are various gradients of emotions.

Another study involved detailed interviews with 118 stock investors and their managers to understand how emotions affected performance in a fast paced environment where rapid decision-making is at a premium. Contrary to the popular belief that feelings are generally bad for decision making, researchers found that individuals who experienced more intense feelings achieved higher decision-making performance. Moreover, individuals who were better able to identify and distinguish among their current feelings achieved higher decision-making performance via their enhanced ability to control the possible biases induced by those feelings.

As we learn more about how our feelings influence cognition, decision-making, relationships and our physical and emotional health, better understanding how to more accurately identify them and manage them is vital.

Dr. Marc Brackett, the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the author of Permission to Feel, adapted a gradient approach to identifying emotions in the development of his app, the Mood Meter.  The horizontal axis measures pleasantness: our subjective, private mental experience. It represents how pleasant or unpleasant we feel, from -5, the most unpleasant we have ever felt, to neutral in the middle, all the way to +5, the most pleasant we have ever felt. The y-axis is energy: how much physical energy is running through our bodies.

The two axes cross to form four quadrants, and each has a color. The red quadrant is for unpleasant, high energy emotions, feelings like anxiety, rage, and fear. The blue quadrant is for unpleasant, low energy feelings like disappointment, sadness, and loneliness. The green quadrant is for pleasant, low energy feelings like calm, serenity, and balance. The yellow quadrant is for pleasant, high energy feelings like joy, excitement, and elation.

The idea is to be intentional about identifying specific feelings, causes for those feelings, and rewards and/or consequences of those feelings. The bottom line is that those of us who can accurately identify and express emotions are better able to manage them. As an added bonus, being able to talk honestly about your feelings lowers our blood pressure, improves mood, reduces stress, and boost our immune system.

So, how are you feeling….  Really?  Maybe today is the day to understand how to better answer that question.

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