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What's Your Emotional Style?

Knowing your dominant emotional style can help you self-regulate.

Key points

  • Many of us have a dominant emotion, such as anxiety.
  • If you experience one emotion a lot, it can wear you out.
  • Listening to your non-dominant emotions can help you make better life decisions.
Source: Tengyart/Unsplash

Emotions all have a purpose. In fact, they all have useful purposes. However, each of us has our own emotional style. We're predisposed to feel some emotions more strongly and more easily than others. Many of us have one single emotion that's dominant. It's the emotion we jump to feeling when situations are difficult. When you understand how your emotions work, you can manipulate them. This can be useful when you're feeling burnt out from one particular emotion.

How to diagnose your dominant emotion

Let me explain how to identify your emotional style, with my own example.

My dominant emotion is anxiety. In situations in which other emotions (like grief or anger) seem more logical, I still mostly feel anxiety.

Your dominant emotion and how you interpret situations are related. In particular, when things go wrong: do you tend to blame yourself or others?

I usually blame myself. For example:

  • If someone forgets something, it must be because I didn't remind them enough.
  • If someone doesn't treat me well, it must be because I was too demanding or not socially skilled enough.
  • If I found instructions confusing, it must be because I'm "dumb" or slow.

Your dominant emotion might not be anxiety like mine is. Yours could be anger, resentment, frustration, or hopelessness.

Feeling one emotion too much can leave you feeling burnt out and exhausted

If you need a breather from your dominant emotion, you can approach it in two ways.

First option: Explore and entertain other interpretations of situations. For example, if I don't blame myself when I'm not treated well. I feel more anger but less anxiety.

Second option: You can allow yourself to feel your smaller emotions in your body more.

I usually feel some sadness and anger, but my anxiety is so big, I barely detect those other emotions. If I tune into my smaller emotions, they rise to the surface more. When I do this, I feel more sadness and anger but less anxiety.

One practical technique is simply to say a non-dominant emotion word, like sadness, a few times and see where you feel that in your body. Right now, if I say the word sadness, I can feel it in my eyes, like that slightly prickly feeling when you could cry but don't. I can feel it slightly in my jaw too, a slight heaviness.

Let yourself just sit with your non-dominant emotions for a few seconds or a few minutes. Where you feel them in your body will probably dart around a bit during that time. Let them exist without pushing or pulling them, and without analyzing them.

What works for me for reducing anxiety is to let those other emotions, like grief and sadness, surface more. The more I allow myself to feel those feelings, the more I get a "break" from feeling anxious.

Why is this helpful?

Remember, I said that all emotions have a purpose.

  • The purpose of anxiety is to keep us in a state of being on edge, to always be on the lookout for what could go wrong, and to keep us in hustle mode. When I'm feeling anxious, I'm always thinking, "Just try harder. Just be more on top of everything. Don't let any mistakes creep in. Keep going."
  • The purpose of sadness and grief is to prompt us to take a step back, reassess, look for meaning, try to make meaning from a tough situation, and perhaps change direction.
  • One purpose of anger is to encourage us to stand up to injustice and act assertively rather than cowering.

When I allow myself to feel emotions other than anxiety, it gives me a break from feeling like I always need to keep going, keep trying.

The counterpart to this is that those other emotions are beneficial. Stepping back and cocooning in response to sadness often leads to useful insights. It encourages me to try a new direction rather than to keep trying to achieve my goals in identical ways. Pausing allows me to consider alternative ways forward, which I don't do when I'm in "just keep going" mode.

Too much of one emotion isn't helpful.

One dominant emotion isn't better than another. But too much of any particular emotion isn't useful. Partly, this is because a dominant emotion crowds out other emotions that are actually useful. Your less dominant emotions might be painful to feel, but they're also helpful. Or, at least they can be if you channel them correctly.

If you always see the world through the lens of your dominant emotion, you'll make incorrect and incomplete interpretations of situations. Your decision-making will be worse. For example, it's not good to always see yourself as the one to blame or to always see others as to blame. Clearly, that's not accurate. It's also not wise to always keep plugging away endlessly. Always keeping going isn't the best move in every circumstance.

How to know if the strategy outlined here is working for you.

  • Do you feel a sense of relief when your dominant emotion is dialed down?
  • Do you feel more creative when you feel your non-dominant emotions? Do you become open to new ideas? Do you see things (opportunities, yourself, or other people) in new ways? Do you consider new paths? Do you see new meanings in events that have happened to you?
  • When you feel your non-dominant emotions, do you try forms of self-care you're usually dismissive of? Do different behaviors appeal to you? For example, you suddenly feel like reading a fiction book, when you don't usually? You might have the urge to rest if you're usually very proactive, or the urge to fight if you're usually passive.
  • It's okay if feeling your non-dominant emotions leaves you feeling unsettled and perhaps a little at sea. You can feel unsettled and still also benefit in the above ways.

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, this approach is likely benefiting you. You can add this method to your toolkit to cope with stress and difficult situations.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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