Something EXTREMELY important (and reasonably simple) you can do to improve your psychological health and coping abilities is to improve your ability to correctly identify your negative emotions.
Identifying what specific emotions you’re feeling is a psychological skill that people often don’t learn how to do very well in the normal course of growing up.
For many of the clients who I work with, learning how to do this helps them become much more effective in dealing with their problems. For most people, its essential to them making progress with their goals.
When people experience negative emotions, they’re usually feeling multiple different emotions are the same time. When people don’t even realize they’re having some of these emotions, it tends to lead to ineffective coping.
The Four Types Model
The model of negative emotions I use with clients is that there are 4 basic categories
1. Anxiety (e.g. nervous, worries, fearful, overwhelmed, panicked)
2. Anger (e.g. irritated, annoyed, furious)
4. Shame/guilt/embarrassment (and other emotions related to a negative thoughts about yourself e.g. a sense of defectiveness or failure, self-blame)
Most negative emotions fit into one of the four categories above.
The easiest way to improve your ability to correctly identify your emotions is, when you’re feeling negative emotions or having difficult thoughts, run through a check list of the four categories of negative emotions, and ask yourself to what extent you’re experience each kind, on a scale of 0-10.
0 = not having that category of emotions at all
10 = having that category of emotions as strongly as you can imagine ever feeling those emotions
Here’s an example to demonstrate how to figure out which emotions you’re having.
Sarah starts a new job. It’s her first day. Everything is new. Her new boss and coworkers have an unreasonable expectation of her ability to understand their computer system. She thinks to herself “I feel overwhelmed. I don’t know if I can do this.”.
Sarah feels anxiety (About whether she can learn the computer, do the job. About whether her boss and co-workers will think she’s stupid or incompetent. About whether her new workplace will be a happy place to work).
She feels angry at her boss and colleagues for not having more empathy and for not being more supportive and helpful.
She feels lonely. In her old job, she had supportive relationships – people she could ask for help, who had confidence in her abilities and liked her.
She also feels a degree of shame, embarrassment, and self-doubt. She thinks “Maybe I’m not as smart or as capable as I thought I was? Maybe I gave the impression in the interview that I’m more skilled at using computers than I am in reality? Maybe I’m not as instantly likable as I thought?”.
How knowing which emotions she’s having might be helpful to Sarah.
1. When you know what you’re feeling it can help you identify
what thoughts you’re having. “If I’m feeling… what am I likely to be thinking that would give rise to those feelings?” This is useful because it can be hard to catch the negative thoughts you’re having. Once you know the specific thought you’re having, you can evaluate it logically.
For example, in response to her “I’m not smart” thoughts, Sarah could remind herself of all the objective evidence that she is smart.
She could then replace her dysfunctional, anxiety- and shame- driven thought, with a more balanced, reality-driven thought.
An example of a balanced thought might be – “My confidence in my smartness has been knocked because the tasks I need to do are new and difficult, but there are lots of times in the past when I’ve figured out how to do really difficult tasks, and have quickly become good at them”.
2. Knowing what specific emotions you’re feeling can help you choose the most relevant coping strategies.
For example, if Sarah knows she’s feeling lonely, she can problem solve this. She might make extra effort to spend time with supportive friends until she settles in at her job.
If she knows she’s feeling defectiveness-related emotions she might make extra effort to spend time outside work doing things she’s great at, and that remind her of her competence.
The emotional coping strategy you choose should target the specific emotions you want to reduce.
3. Picking up on the emotions you’re having can help you recognize when you’re in a high risk situation for unwanted coping.
For example, Sarah might know that anxiety is a key trigger for her overeating, but sometimes ends up overeating before she has realized that she was feeling anxious.
4. Knowing what emotion you’re having is essential to being able to communicate it clearly. And communicating your emotions accurately is often key to getting the right kind of support, and most importantly to BEING ABLE TO HAVE TRULY CLOSE RELATIONSHIPS WITH YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHERS.
People who have difficulty expressing anxiety, shame, sadness, loneliness etc, in healthy ways often have a hard time achieving or maintaining deep closeness in relationships.
5. Understanding your own specific emotions helps you understand other people’s specific emotions.
When you’re trying to understand other people it helps to think in terms of what specific emotions the person might be feeling, or seeking to feel.
Having these kind of emotions skills will help you be likable and interpersonally effective.
Some General Tips for Identifying Your Emotions.
1. When you having problem negative emotions, you’re probably experiencing emotions in 3 or even all 4 of the emotion categories to some degree.
e.g. You might be feeling anxious 6/10, angry 8/10, shame 4/10 and lonely 6/10, all at the same time.
If you know this, it can help you understand “Well no wonder I’m feeling so crappy right now if I’m feeling all of those!”
2. In my clinical experience, anxiety is the emotion that most people have the hardness time identifying. Most times people are experiencing significant negative emotions, they are experiencing elements of anxiety. Often it takes people awhile for to start seeing this.
3. Shame-related emotions are a close second in terms of the emotions people have the hardest time identifying in themselves.
4. Shame/defectiveness/failure related emotions are some of the easiest to reduce through logically evaluating the validity of the corresponding thoughts (see No 1 under the last ).
5. Its particularly important to be able to identify when you’re feeling anxiety because when people feel anxious they often do “avoidant coping” – try to avoid or squish difficult thoughts or emotions, or avoid situations or behaviours that trigger difficult thoughts and emotions.
Avoidant coping might help relieve negative emotions temporarily but every time you use avoidant coping it tends to increase your anxiety about whatever you’re avoiding (e.g. if you avoid having a difficult conversation with someone, your anxiety about having the conversation is likely to increase).
The other problem with avoidant coping is that lots of types of avoidant coping e.g. overeating, withdrawing from your partner or other people, have their own negative consequences.
(People use avoidant coping to try to squish or avoid other emotions being triggered too e.g. shame)