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Why You Need to Be Good at Reading Your Emotions

New research shows the importance of emotional clarity for your well-being.

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When you think about your current emotional state, can you honestly identify with certainty the way you’re feeling? Think about whether you’re in a truly good mood right now, or whether perhaps something is bothering you, even though you can’t say what it is. As you look to the day ahead, are you anticipating it with joy, or do you dread the daily grind you’re about to face? While you're with the people you care about the most, is it easy for you to laugh and chat pleasantly, or do you tend to hold back, for reasons you don’t completely understand? According to new research by the University of Pittsburgh’s Vera Vine and Loyola Marymount’s (Los Angeles) Brett Marroquin (2018), these are situations reflecting “emotional clarity,” an ability that plays a key role in mental health.

As the term implies, your emotional clarity involves your ability to identify the way you’re feeling. More formally, the Pittsburgh-LA researchers define this quality as the “subjective perception of being able to identify which emotions one feels with relative ease." This is, it’s true, a “subjective” ability, meaning that there is no objective reference point for naming your emotions. Because there can be no accurate outside indicator, then, it’s important to focus on the idea that you can identify your emotional state without undue difficulty. Emotions are also relative qualities, meaning that happiness to you might mean something different than happiness does to someone else. The question is whether you know without having to think too hard that, at least for you, the primary emotion you’re feeling is a positive one.

Vine and Marroquin propose that the way emotional clarity affects mental health is through its role in predisposing people to depression. One possible pathway for this relationship involves emotional regulation, which is your ability to modulate or control the type of emotion you’re feeling, how long you feel that emotion, how strong it is, and whether you can turn it from negative to positive. If you’re good at emotional regulation, in other words, you’ll readily turn a bad mood to a good mood in reasonably short order by changing your perspective on the situation. You might be sad, because your partner forgot to run an important errand for you, believing that this reflects a lack of true caring. However, if you’re good at emotion regulation, you’ll get over those feelings relatively quickly, and you won’t let them overwhelm you in the first place.

People who are prone to depression not only are poorer at emotion regulation, according to Vine and Marroquin, but also tend to ruminate over situations that bother them. Your partner’s oversight in running that errand for you becomes, in rumination, a thought that you go over and over in your head as you ponder its meaning and importance. Being unable to identify clearly the emotion you’re feeling could contribute, the authors suggest, to the tendency to ruminate. In this situation, you're not sure whether you're sad or just plain angry. Perhaps because you’re not sure how you feel, you invest undue energy in trying to sort out your emotions. Furthermore, as the authors suggest, the more intensely you feel your negative emotions and yet are unable to identify them clearly, the more likely you will experience depressive symptoms.

To test their proposals regarding the role of emotional clarity and the intensity of negative affect in depression, Vine and Marroquin first asked an undergraduate sample of participants to complete questionnaires assessing emotional clarity, negative affect intensity, and symptoms of depression. The emotional clarity items included self-rating statements, such as: “I am rarely confused about how I feel,” and “I can’t make sense of my feelings” (reverse-coded). Participants indicated their levels of negative affect intensity by completing items such as “My emotions tend to be more intense than those of other people,” and “My friends might say I’m emotional.”

As predicted, people receiving a higher intensity of negative affect who were low in emotional clarity had higher scores on the depressive symptoms index. Moving on to a clinical sample, the authors next tested a model that allowed them to compare the effects of rumination with other possible routes linking low emotional clarity and negative affect intensity to depression symptoms. Rumination once again proved to play a key role in the findings, affecting all participants with low emotional clarity, regardless of the intensity of their negative affect.

Just having negative feelings isn’t enough to lead to depressive symptoms, then. You also have to be unable to put a name to your feeling state, and then dwell on trying to identify it, in order to be at risk for the experience of depression. The authors in this study tested other models to see if various coping strategies associated with depression rather than rumination could be involved. For example, not thinking about your sad feelings could be one such coping strategy (avoidance), as could trying to put a positive spin on the situation (positive reappraisal). Neither of these were strong predictors of depression symptoms across all levels of emotional intensity. As the authors point out, though, because the majority of participants in the clinical sample also had an anxiety disorder, it’s possible that at least some of what people with low emotional clarity must deal with in handling their negative affect involves fear, worry, or dread.

Apart from these diagnostic issues, the Vine and Marroquin study highlights the importance of being able to come up with an explanation for what you’re feeling in order to be able to overcome those feelings. Some people may just have a tendency to experience emotions intensely, but this factor is an independent contributor to feelings of depression.

How can you use this study’s findings to your own benefit? The clear implication is that it’s worth, without ruminating, trying to come up with a label for the way you’re feeling at any given moment. Perhaps a boss or in-law has made you furious by treating you in an uncivil manner. You’re feeling stirred up, but instead of recognizing your feelings as anger, you tell yourself you’re “frustrated.” You may in fact be frustrated, but this isn’t at the root of your reaction. If you can’t label your feelings as anger, you may continue to mull this over and over, and in the process, fail to come up with an appropriate strategy for dealing with the situation. If you admit to being angry, you may not decide to go ahead and tell the person involved how you’re feeling, but at least you’ll know it’s anger, not frustration, that’s causing you to be distressed. You can move on, relying on methods that have proved successful in the past to lower your levels of anger. This might be a good time for you to go to a kickboxing class, for example, if that's what helps you find an outlet for your feelings.

To sum up, it is important to be able to read the emotions of other people in order to be able to respond appropriately to them. Knowing your own emotions, though, is just as important for maintaining your mental health.

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Vine, V., & Marroquín, B. (2018). Affect intensity moderates the association of emotional clarity with emotion regulation and depressive symptoms in unselected and treatment-seeking samples. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 42(1), 1-15. doi:10.1007/s10608-017-9870-9