#6 A Writing Exercise: Figure Out What You Actually Do Feel
Sometimes the first step of emotion management is the most easily neglected, and that is to figure out what we actually feel.We tend to walk around in an emotionally vague or ambiguous state, and writing readily brings feelings front and center, with crystal-clear focus.
Most people tend to only notice emotions above a certain threshold, which varies from person to person and over time.The emotional processing part of the brain, the limbic system, is always active, but probably coordinates with the rest of the brain differently for different people.Some people have more temperamental emotional fluidity, and are consciously processing emotional states a lot of the time, and others donít notice how they feel until it practically bowls them over.But at any given time, we could probably learn something from examining the complexity of our ambient emotional state.
Even once we are focused on our emotions, defining them can be difficult.Emotions are complicated, usually blended, and most people are not well trained in interpreting their own emotional cues.Unless a person is raised in an emotionally focused family, is deeply introspective or has spent time in psychotherapy, it is rare to actually learn much about emotional discrimination.Itís not on the curriculum of most schools, although recent research on programs training children in emotional skills has shown not only decreases in depression but better functioning and grades for children who are taught basic steps of emotional coping (see the PATHS Project, University of Washington in Seattle; The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning; and the Penn Resiliency Program, briefly described in Monitor on Psychology, October 2009).
In fact, many people are taught mis-labeling of emotions or active avoidance of identifying feelings.Family systems often operate in simplistic identified emotional patterns, even if the underlying feelings are very complex.So we tend to bury feelings or over-use certain labels whenever emotions run strong, like families that get focused on watching the episodes of one explosive member and interpret everything in terms of how close that person is to getting mad.Probably because emotions are so complex, we tend to package them into familiar patterns and just think something like, ďIím depressed again,Ē instead of examining the nuance of what is happening in the moment, which might help move the moment into something different.
A journal is an ideal place to take a stand for emotional clarity in any given moment.Even if emotions arenít running strong or getting in the way, the following two exercises can help you clarify the mix of feelings that are currently influencing you.The two exercises have very different styles, so one or the other may appeal to you more and taken together, they will really give you a broad approach to the problem of emotional definition.
1.Describe an event that has been significant to you lately.It could be a news event, a memory, or something youíve experienced recently.Spend about ten minutes describing it in detail.Try to write loosely and not to worry about the narrative, but to include every smalll observation you notice.Also try to finish this part of the exercise before reading further instructionsÖ..
Now look over your writing and circle every word that is vaguely emotional and write them down in a list.Be sure to look at verbs too, such as ďenjoyedĒ or ďamazed.ĒWhen you look at your list, it could be representative of your internal state, as well as of your reaction to the event.Examine the list, trying to distinguish your current feelings from reactions to the event.When we label something as significant, it is usually because of emotional intensity.This list will show how many feeling variations and spinoffs might go into the recipe of your reaction.
2.For this exercise, consider your emotional state directly and write a list of every feeling that you could possibly be feeling right now when you think of your very immediate situation.Think about what you are doing, whatís been going on recently, where you are, who is nearby, even what youíre wearing and how you are physically.Just start a list of reactions to these immediate variables and donít worry if youíre making sense.
Now try to consider how much you are feeling each of these emotions.Give each feeling a percentage of the variance, meaning try to proportion the percents so they add up to 100%.For instance, itís quiet and peaceful here where Iím working, so peaceful, satisfied feelings are getting a big percent, probably about 65%.But Iím adding in a good chunk, maybe 15%, for worry about what I have to do next and Iím giving 10% each for discomforts related to physical states and sad recent events.Thatís the rough composition right now.As mathematical as this exercise is, donít think you need to find a correct answer.Itís just meant to help you look at your emotional state in a novel way, and to think about the emotional background that is just out of awareness, but may be affecting you.
Defining feelings can be more than just picking a word to sum up a reaction.The richness of our experience is composed of a complicated blend of internal emotional states.We donít need to process them all the time, but writing can help when we want to take a closer look at the kaleidoscopic world of our emotional lives.