word count: 1,830
you might like to read this if: you struggle to know what you’re feeling, you want to get better at knowing what you’re feeling, you’re curious about what i’ve been up to for the past year
i am bad at emotional awareness. over the past year, i’ve gotten much better. here are some things that have helped.
instead of asking myself “how do i feel?”, i ask myself “what do i feel?”. when i hear “how do you feel?”, i tend to indicate some point on a linear spectrum from “good” to “bad”. it’s like, “how do you like ice cream?” “oh, i love ice cream!”. i might end up answering “pretty good”. not a lot of info.
but when i hear “what do you feel?”, it’s more like “what ice cream do you like?”. answering it feels like strolling along beside the counter at Baskin-Robbins, sampling flavors to decide what to buy. “rocky road? orange sherbert? ooo, triple chocolate fudge, yes that.” “what do i feel” might get me an answer like “frustrated, excited, happy, anxious, and annoyed”. for most contexts where my emotions matter, that’s way more valuable than “pretty good”.
i spent a week practicing “emotional inventory”. i set an alarm for every two hours between 8:00 and 10:00. on the first day, whenever it was inventory time, i wrote down at least one thing i was feeling. on the second day, i wrote down two things. after that, i wrote down at least three things each time. (it might be possible to feel fewer than three emotions, but i’ve never run into that so far.)
it was really hard at first, and it took forever. i remember timing myself, and finding that it took fifteen minutes to report five emotions, some of which were clearly caused by the search process itself.
but it’s gotten way easier over time. my current inventory is [sleepy, eager, happy, relieved, focused, distracted, calm, hopeful, engaged], and that took me about thirty seconds.
i guess. sometimes when i ask myself “what do i feel?” the only answer i get is “i have no idea”. so i start naming emotions randomly, and checking whether i feel them. “am i happy? maybe. am i angry? no. am i tired? yes, super tired.” early on, i kept a list of emotion words in my pocket (well, on my phone) so i could just go through them and pick out the ones that felt relevant.
i consider emotional quadrants. if i assume emotions can be graphed as measures of arousal and valence, then i can find the rough location of what i’m feeling by checking whether it’s more like happy, sad, excited, or scared.
the downside of this is that it points me to a single answer, as though i’m only experiencing one emotion at a time, which i never am. but usually it helps me get my bearings by nudging introspection toward emotional identification.
i look for more than one thing. if i assume that i’m only feeling one emotion at a time, i’m super confused, trying to infer a single coherent shape from a collection of apparently unrelated sensations. if i seem to be feeling multiple things, then i probably am.
contrasting emotions can happen simultaneously. “sad” and “happy” are not mutually exclusive in the space of a human mind. emotions are independent, like “sweet” and “bitter”.
this is an update, not a technique, but i’ve had to remind myself of it often. when i add sugar to my coffee, i get a drink that’s both sweet and bitter. there’s nothing weird about that, even though “sweet” and “bitter” seem kind of like opposite ends of a single spectrum. emotions are like that. i’m frequently happy and sad at the same time.
i progress from easy introspection to difficult introspection. being reflectively aware of emotions is a lot harder for me than being reflectively aware of most other things. it’s easier for me to know what i’m thinking about, or what my body is doing, or what i’m hearing.
so i have a little meditation i go through sometimes, which feels like gaining control of my mind’s eye, and then turning it inward. first, i name something i see, something i hear, and something i feel with touch: blue shoes, the sound of rain, the texture of my socks. then i name three things i feel in my body: itchy arm, chest moving as i breathe, back muscles holding me upright. then i start asking myself what my emotions are. it’s sort of a warm-up, and seems to help.
i look to my body for hints. emotions are often correlated with specific bodily sensations or movements. if my throat is tight, for example, it’s strong evidence that i’m either sad or afraid. so if i do a body scan and find that my throat is tight, i know to ask myself “am i sad?” and “am i scared?”. if i find that my knee is bouncing, then i might be restless, eager, or anxious. if i find a headache and painfully tight shoulder and neck muscles, i’m probably stressed.
i learned about writing fictional characters. one of the most common pieces of (good!) writing advice in fiction is “show, don’t tell”. in general, it’s a suggestion to move away from “abstract” and toward “concrete”. but a central instance is communicating a character’s emotions to the reader.
i could “tell” you that John was feeling scared. or, i could show his knuckles going white as he grips the flashlight like a talisman, his breath coming in ragged gasps that the intruder can surely hear through the closet door, a ball of ice in the pit of his stomach that freezes his limbs in place, obsessive visualizations of faceless monsters playing on repeat through his mind, the disorganization of his thoughts as he struggles to form a plan of attack, or time seeming to stretch so far it might shatter.
setting aside the details of how, when, and why to use this sort of thing in writing, it’s clearly worth storing in my writing toolbox. but how can i actually do it? how can i show the reader my character’s fear if i don’t recognize signs of fear myself?
it helped to study depictions of emotion in other people’s fiction. it also helped to study the whole of my experience carefully when i noticed i was feeling an especially strong emotion.
but most of all, it helped to find a wonderful book by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression.
The Emotion Thesaurus is just a long list of emotions - “adoration”, “agitation”, and “amazement”, through “unease”, “wariness”, and “worry” - with several ways of depicting each. the longest sublist, usually taking up a whole page, is “physical signals”. on the opposite page are lists of “internal sensations”, “mental responses”, “cues of acute or long-term [emotion]”, and “cues of suppressed [emotion]”. for example,“disappointment”’s “physical signals” list has thirty-nine items, and begins with “lowering one’s head”, “lips pressing tight”, and “shoulders dropping or slumping”.
referring to these lists as i wrote was super handy not just for writing, but for building associations between emotions and other parts of my experience. but i do think the “actually trying to write characters” part was essential. this wouldn’t have worked if i’d just read the book.
i learned how to to figure out what i want. i will talk at greater length about this one in a separate post, but briefly: it is useful to suppose that for every emotion, there is a corresponding desire, and for every desire, a corresponding emotion. if i find myself wanting to sprint up a mountainside, for example, there’s a very good chance that i’m feeling restless.
if i happen to have an easier time identifying my desires, which sometimes i do, i can use them as a map to my emotions.
i made trigger-action plans. it would do little good to learn emotional awareness techniques if i never used them. although i have, at this point, developed a nearly constant, low-level awareness of my emotional state, there are still times when it’s especially important i snap my attention to what i’m feeling.
the most obvious triggers for emotional awareness are things like “someone asks me how i feel about something”, or “i’m trying to do a CFAR exercise that requires i know how i feel”. turns out creating TAPs for these was actually necessary, since i otherwise go back to abstractly inferring the answer from a deliberate model of myself, or whatever it is that happens when i don’t actually check.
but the most important trigger for emotional awareness is “something’s wrong”.
this trigger is a vague sensation of “feeling bad”, “tension”, or “ickiness”. it’s the sort of thing i might experience right before my mother looks at me and says, “what’s wrong???”. it reminds me a lot of the “confusion” sensation, but it has more to do with me and my relationship to the world than with the world itself.
“feeling bad” indicates that some concoction of unpleasant emotions is brewing. before i began learning emotional navigation, my default response to this was basically “ignore it”. which makes sense, i think. if your emotions seem unintelligible, and you wouldn’t know what to do with them anyway, then focusing on the bad feels will just make them worse.
but over the past year, i’ve made my way out of that powerless position. i’ve learned that unpleasant emotions usually correspond to desires to change my behavior or context, and that they happen at critical intervention points. this is most of why emotional awareness is worth gaining.
there are also subtler things it took me longer to learn, things that somehow feel part-way between “physiological correlate” and “subjective emotional component”. i think this is what people are usually talking about when they say “what does it feel like in your body?”.
for example, joy and excitement are so strongly associated with a kinesthetic sensation of upward motion in my torso that the perceived movement feels like part of the emotion. it’s such a close tie that learning to recognize the motion as a sensation in itself took some work. but now that i can do it, it’s sometimes easier to spot that upward-motion sensation before i’ve identified feelings of “joy” or “excitement”.
awareness of my desires proved about as important as awareness of my emotions. in my next post, i plan to talk about “figuring out what i want”, and after that i’ll explain how i’ve come to use awareness of these two things to be more effective in general.
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