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Accurately identifying the specific emotions you are feeling is the foundation of all other emotion regulation skills.
Here are three ways to improve your identification of emotions (including a fun one!)
1. Bingo of emotions.
Create yourself a bingo card with as many emotion words as you can think of, for example, angry, sad, disappointed, bored, excited, joy or admiration.
Include many synonyms that express different degrees and types of emotion, such as furious and bored.
You can google emotion lists to get started, but I recommend using them to create your own custom bingo card.
Be sure to cover all the major emotions in some way. Include a good mix of “positive” and “negative” emotions.
How to use: When you notice that you are feeling a particular emotion, cross it off your bingo card until it is gone.
This game will help you learn to accurately notice and label your less dominant and more nuanced emotions. It will also help you know what emotions you feel most often.
2. Make a habit of identifying at least two emotions whenever you feel strong emotions.
When we feel strong emotions, we usually feel more than one emotion.
Each time you identify your emotions, identify at least two different emotions you are feeling, such as “I feel nervous and excited.” Seek to identify qualitatively different emotions rather than just variations on the same emotion. Variations or degrees of the same basic emotion would be, for example, irritated and annoyed.
Like bingo, identifying at least two emotions you are feeling will help you notice a fuller range of less dominant emotions. One emotion often underlies another, such as when you feel angry about something that makes you anxious.
If self-compassion is hard for you, just doing it is a good shortcut. The widely accepted definition of self-compassion includes “mindfulness,” which in the context of self-compassion refers to becoming aware of how you feel.
Research shows that simply identifying your emotions helps defuse them. This will help you immediately, and you can layer the other aspects of self-compassion onto your emotional granularity skills once you improve them.
3. Teach your children to identify emotions.
Teaching is a great way to improve any skill. For parents of young children, your children can be your captive audience on this! Ideas on how to do this:
- What emotions do the characters in a story feel?
- I have conversations with my six-year-old like, “What kind of situation would both scare and excite someone?” It surprised me that she could answer this type of open-ended question at her level of development.
Have conversations about emotions that help you identify where your child is developmentally and note what they are currently good at and not so good at, so you can fill in the gaps. Often the emotional development of children is prickly – they will surprise you by being both more competent and less competent than expected, in different ways.
- Play “rose, thorn, seed” as a family. It refers to sharing a high point of the day, a low point, and something they are looking forward to. This information can lead to exploring the specific emotions they felt about their experiences. It also encourages an open conversation about pleasant and unpleasant emotions.
If your kids don’t like it, let them watch you and your partner do it, and they’ll learn by hearing the two of you. If you do this, be careful not to expose them to anything too adult. Keep it linked to them. For example, you might let them hear you talk about a weak point of doing a work project with someone who only wanted to do it their way (since that’s an experience both adults and children have when they work as a team). But, you wouldn’t talk about weak points that would make them potentially anxious about adult topics.
Keep your conversations about emotions low-key. Assess your child’s interest and approach it in the way that interests him most. My partner and I are homeschooling and dealing with learning about emotions as part of the school day, as part of teaching science (eg, the evolutionary basis of emotions) and stories (understanding and creative writing). There is no one-size-fits-all approach. You must know and guide your child according to his needs and interests.
Investing in your ability to identify your full range of human emotions can be very beneficial for your psychological health, your relationships, and your productivity (since it will help you stay committed to your goals, even when you are feeling strong emotions). Try it using whichever method appeals to you the most.