One piece of work I do regularly with my clients is help them better understand the nuance of their feelings/emotions. Often someone will come in and tell me they feel “bad” or “pissed off” – perfectly legit ways to feel – but a little further digging into the context of the feelings often reveals that what they are actually experiencing is disappointment, frustration, hurt, sadness, etc or some combination of any of these. What my client often lacks in these moments is a vocabulary to describe their emotions. Further than just lacking a vocabulary, they often lack a sensitivity to the nuance of these emotions, which is needed even before you can begin to attach a vocabulary to them…
In the list of negative emotions above, they all feel “bad”, but each emotion really carries a particular quality, character, or flavor, of “bad”. Getting in touch with the nuance of your emotions is helpful in many ways – it helps you be more in touch with what you are experiencing and why; it gives you a language with which to communicate what you’re experiencing, and it helps you make choices about how to understand and express these emotions.
We might make an analogy here to wine – a lot of us (myself included) can barely tell the difference between red and white wine, much less good and bad wine, we just know it’s wine and for most people, it’s perfectly fine to stop right there. Whereas there are those out there who create entire industries and professions detecting the particular notes and tannins and whatnot of wines. We could say, they have a more sophisticated, nuanced experience with wine than the average wine-enjoyer, because they can better detect the subtleties of the flavors, scents, etc. This comes, of course, after years of practice, tasting, and training, which is required of any skill, including understanding the nuance of emotion.
While it’s not imperative to get to know wine better (unless it’s something you enjoy!) it is important to get to know your emotions better. Having a general sense of feeling “bad” can cause us to act out in confusing ways and feel frustrated and stuck when we try to explain ourselves to others. Understanding the nuance of your emotions can ground you in your experience. For example, when I go up to play my set at an open mic, am I nervous? Excited? Dreading it? All three? Once you understand what you’re feeling, you can then choose more intentional action towards what you want to express or achieve.
For the record – we don’t want to limit the nuance of emotions to just the negative ones – there are plenty of positive emotions that can benefit from their own distinction as well! Happy vs joy vs excited vs exhilarated vs beaming etc are all subtly different from one another and are worthy of their own recognition.
So how can you practice getting better at learning the nuance of your emotions? Feelings charts are excellent ways to trigger helpful words to attach to what you’re experiencing. Practicing awareness or mindfulness in the moment of an emotion – meaning, paying attention to what the emotion feels like physically as it moves through your body – can greatly help you differentiate between different types of emotions. Talking about your feelings and what is going on with you with a support person, such as a friend or family member, can help you explore what you are feeling. Finally, a counselor can guide you in exploring your feelings, learning how to label them, and better understand them.